No Greater than Our Master
May we begin by reminding ourselves of the words of Jesus when He said:
“A slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”
“18 If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.”
We open with Jesus’ words in John’s gospel account because as we look at this text, we can very easily see the truth in them. Truly, as Paul said to the Philippians:
“For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”
As he said to young Timothy:
“Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
With this in mind, there are a couple of things we will consider when looking at this portion of Scripture:
- The character, conviction, and conduct of a man named Stephen who engages the world with the truth of Christ.
- The world’s disposition and response not only to the truth of Christ itself, but also to all who adhere to it by both their profession and practice.
As believers in the Person and work of Jesus Christ who are to be striving to live to the praise of His glory, these are critical matters for us to consider given that we have not been translated out of this world but reside in it. What then should we expect from it, and how should we carry ourselves within it? The life and ministry of Stephen provides us with the answers.
A Man Named Stephen
Our account begins with this man named Stephen. Given the context, we understand him to be one of the Seven appointed by the church to carry out the task of caring for the needy among it. In other words, he was one of the first deacons of the church.
There is good reason to believe that he was a Hellenistic Jew. First, his name, along with the other six men appointed to the task, is Greek not Hebrew. We should understand Stephen to indeed be a Jew that had absorbed the Greek way of life and not a gentile that had adopted Judaism, because Luke takes the time to distinguish Jews from gentiles when he listed the Seven. He says:
“They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch.”
Notice that Luke focuses on Nicolas and refers to him as a proselyte, which is a gentile that had converted to Judaism. The fact that Luke makes this distinction tells us that the other six were Jews by birth, but not according to language and culture.
The second reason we should understand Stephen to be a Hellenized Jew, as well as Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, and Parmenas, is by simply considering the task they were appointed to carry out. They were tasked with caring for the Hellenistic widows among the church. The crisis among the body arose because they were being neglected in the daily distribution of charities, so the Apostles summoned the congregation of believers and had them personally select the men for the job. The church chose Seven Hellenists which would certainly silence the complaint that had arisen, and the Apostles agreed with their selection.
The Character of Stephen
Of the Seven, Luke makes a special remark about Stephen’s character that we want to consider. By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke described him as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. Now, we should not take Luke’s focus on Stephen’s character as an implication that the other men either lacked such qualities or were inferior in them. We should not take it as this since such characteristics were prerequisite for all of them to hold office. I believe the reason for the limelight to be upon Stephen is because Luke is preparing to recount his ministry and martyrdom. He is drawing our attention to a man whose sole satisfaction in life was Christ.
Ironically, Stephen understood what Paul would later learn when his circumstances turned out for the greater progress of the gospel. It was Paul that said:
“I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
I say ironically, because it was a young man named Saul that witnessed the boldness of Stephen, and saw Jesus Christ being exalted in his body by death, and he was the very one that was in hearty agreement with putting him to it. There is no doubt that the Apostle Paul was greatly impacted by the life and ministry of Stephen. The very man he was instrumental in putting to death for his faith. Paul’s final memory of Stephen was him being bludgeoned to death by a mob of madmen as he gazed intently into heaven and seeing the glory of God and Jesus standing at His right hand, calling upon Him to receive his spirit and to not count their sin against them. Was it not Paul that would later write:
“If we live, we live to the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”
It was John MacArthur who said of Stephen:
“He was proof that the impact of a man’s life and ministry has nothing necessarily to do with length. His ministry, though brief, was essential to God’s plan for world evangelism. He showed that the efforts of one courageous person, though of short duration, can have far reaching effects.”
Again, Luke describes Stephen as a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. The word “full” conveys the idea of Stephen being a hollow vessel that is covered in every part with faith in Christ and His Spirit. What is essentially being described here is a person who has yielded themselves entirely to Christ through His Word and the sanctifying power of the Spirit:
- They allow the Word of Christ to richly dwell within them and renew them into the image of the One who made them.
- They realize that they have been bought with a price, and that their chief end in life is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever with every fiber of their being.
- They know that they are a product of His grace, and that such grace instructs them to deny ungodliness and worldly desire and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age.
- Their greatest desire is to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which they have been called by laying aside the old self and through a renewed mind putting on the new self “which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.”
- They want to be holy as He is holy.
- They strive to present themselves as living sacrifices to God by not being conformed to this world, but by being transformed by the renewing of their mind that they might prove what the will of God is, that which is good, acceptable, and perfect.
A person full of faith and the Spirit is someone who is being sanctified into the image of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. They progressively love what He loves, and hate what He hates. The very soul of Stephen was thoroughly permeated with faith and the Spirit. He was a godly man.
In our account, Luke also describes Stephen as a man full of grace. It is only natural that a person whose soul is thoroughly permeated with the message of Christ, that their character would be one that is full of grace. Is this not the driving thought of 1 John 4:7-11 when John says:
“7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
He sums up this entire thought in verse 19, “We love, because He first loved us.” We are to be full of grace because Christ was rich yet for our sake became poor so that we through His poverty might become rich in life.
The word here for “grace” is the Greek word charis, which conveys the spiritual condition of one who is governed by divine grace. Obviously, the result of one being dominated by divine grace is a gracious disposition toward others in conduct and speech. Stephen was full of grace, because of God’s grace towards him. He was a man controlled by the love of Christ knowing, as the Scripture teaches, that:
“He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.”
This was the character of Stephen, and this is what each and every one of us should desire to see being perfected in us.
The Conviction of Stephen
Apart from being full of faith and grace, Stephen was also full of power and was performing great wonders and signs among the people. This is the first time in the book of Acts where someone who is not an Apostle is seen performing great wonders and signs. This causes some to wrongly conclude that wonders and signs is to be a normative thing in the life of the church throughout all generations, and that it is an indication of being filled with the Spirit.
It is important for us to remember that the book of Acts is a historical narrative, which means it is a descriptive text and not necessarily prescriptive one. In Acts, Luke is meticulously describing for us the history of Christ’s church and is not necessarily prescribing for us something that we should be doing in the hear and now. In other words, the account of Stephen’s ability to perform great wonders and signs among the people does not mean it is for you and me today, rather it is an account of what happened in the Apostolic age when these giftings were operational among the church, especially with the Apostles.
Do not forget that the ability to perform signs and wonders were the marks of an Apostle. We see this clearly when Paul defends his apostolic authority to the church in Corinth by referring to himself saying:
“The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles.”
Stephen, however, was not an Apostle, so how could he do such things? I believe the answer is found when we consider that the only people in the Scripture that are described as performing signs and wonders were the Apostles, as well as several men that were closely associated with them. You have Stephen and Philip who were both tightly knit with the Apostles by virtue of their being appointed as deacons to compliment their ministry, and you have Barnabas who was connected with the Apostle Paul. There is no other mention of people doing such things, nor is there a command anywhere in the Scripture for anyone to seek such things. Only the Apostles and a few men closely associated with them were endowed with the ability to perform great wonders and signs.
Realize that up until the rise of Pentecostalism in the 20th Century, it was commonly understood that such power was bestowed upon the Apostles and performed by only three other men in the entirety of the church. And when they all died, so did the gifting. It ceased never to arise again. It served its purpose. What was the purpose of these wondrous works? It was to validate the wonderful words of the gospel. The author of Hebrews makes this evident when they say:
“3 How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.”
The fact that this power was being displayed by Stephen tells us that he was teaching the Word of the Living God, and that God was validating His Word through Him with signs. Just as Jesus’ miraculous works confirmed His claims of being the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the Apostles words concerning the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin and the hope of eternal life for all who turn from themselves in repentance and cling to Him through faith were confirmed by the living Christ working through them and performing the same wonders He had performed during His earthly ministry.
In other words, Jesus was vindicating Himself through them. He was testifying to His vitality. He was showing that He was not rotting away in some tomb, but that He conquered death and lives never to die again, and that He is, therefore, able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.
We call this the book of Acts, but the Acts of who? The Apostles? No, not necessarily. This is the account of The Acts of the Living Lord Jesus through His People by the Holy Spirit for the Accomplishment of the Father’s Purpose. Do not lose sight of what is being conveyed when we read of Stephen having great power. Luke did not write this for you to crave it like Simon Magus did. He wants his audience to know that Jesus lives and reigns from His throne.
The display of power is the proof of Stephen’s conviction. Since miraculous works were the means through which Jesus Christ validated the truth being spoken, and Stephen was performing wonderous works, he was, therefore, speaking wonderful words of truth. Stephen was a man full of faith, which means he was a man of complete conviction in the truth of the gospel. Such conviction not only brought about a changed life, but it compelled him to speak and to contend for the faith no matter the cost. From a worldly perspective it will cost him everything, but from an eternal one it will cost him nothing, for “If we live, we live to the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” “For to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
The Wiles of the World
Let us begin to turn our attention the world’s disposition and response not only to the truth of Christ itself, but also to all who adhere to it by both their profession and practice. There are several things revealed about the unbelieving world in this text through the actions of some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia.
Synagogues were established around the Babylonian captivity and functioned as houses of worship where people gathered to read and meditate over the Scriptures.
The Freedmen was a Jewish community comprised of the descendants of Jewish slaves that had been captured and taken to Rome by Pompey in 63 B.C. and eventually granted their freedom at a later date. According to Thayer’s lexicon, though they had homes in Rome, they built their own synagogue in Jerusalem at their own expense. These men rose up and argued with Stephen as he preached Christ, crucified, and risen again. They engaged in debate with him over these matters.
Back when we looked at Peter and John standing trial before the Sanhedrin the first time, we considered the following things about the world:
- The world, to various degrees, will neither tolerate noncompliance to its standards nor worldviews which counter its thoughts and teachings.
The world will only tolerate that which conforms to it, which proves to be very problematic for the people whom God has called out of the world to Himself, and set apart as holy and distinct from it, and commanded not to conform to it. We see this here with these men.
- The world is unmoved by evidence.
Evidence is insufficient in generating belief. Unless someone experiences the regenerating work of the Spirit in their heart, no amount of evidence will persuade them of the truth and prompt them to turn from themselves in repentance and to cling to Christ through faith. These men demonstrate that evidence is insufficient in producing life when they are fully aware of the wondrous works being wrought through Stephen, yet they still reject his words.
Understand that you can give to the non-believer natural evidence, after natural evidence, after natural evidence of the existence of God and they will remain in their unbelief unless God works in their heart. You can engage with a non-believer and argue for the existence of God with all the various arguments for it, or labor with a person night and day over the historicity of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, or the reliability of the Scripture through the science of Textual Criticism. You can provide proof, upon proof, upon proof, but unless the Spirit breathes life into their dry bones, and takes out their heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh, they will remain as they are. The world is unmoved by evidence.
We certainly see all of this at play with the account Stephen, but there are several other things we can note in this portion of Scripture regarding the world:
- The world will not sit idly by and allow the truth to flourish.
Just as these men rose up and argued with Stephen, so the world will always rise to the occasion and engage in combat with truth to resist it. It loves darkness and it hates the light. We are the light of the world. We are the salt of the earth. Our very qualities thrust us into combat with that which is dark and that which is putrefying under sin.
The world will strive to snuff out the light. It will seek to sap salt of its preserving properties and render it ineffective. This is why we must be diligent to study the Scriptures to show ourselves approved of God as workers who need not be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. We must be good stewards of the gospel and contend for it. We must be prepared to engage with the world, because it will not wait until you are ready to fight.
Stephen was ready. He was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and he stood his ground. As John Calvin said when considering this portion of Acts:
“We are admonished by the Holy Spirit to strengthen ourselves if we are intent on maintaining the teaching of the gospel because there will always be rebellion in the world and because men are so malicious, we must always be struggling against them.”
Again, the world will not sit idly by and allow the truth to flourish. It will attack it and attempt to ravage whoever proclaims it.
- The world is incapable of countering the truth.
Luke points out that as much as they contended with Stephen:
“They were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.”
Their argumentation could not hold up against the intelligence and fervor for the truth with which Stephen spoke. “Spirit” here speaks more of the zeal in which he was speaking then it does the Spirit as a Person. No doubt that such understanding and fervency was a product of the Spirit’s influence in His life. It was Jesus that said to His disciples in Luke 21:12-15:
“They will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake. 13 It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; 15 for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute.”
- The world wants to intimidate whoever contradicts it.
Luke tells us that these men:
“12 Stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came up to him and dragged him away and brought him before the Council.”
As I have said before, the world thinks more highly of itself than it ought to. Do not be intimidated by such people. As Peter says:
“13 Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, 15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; 16 and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.”
This is exactly what Stephen did.
- The world distorts the truth.
According to Romans, the world seeks to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Luke records for us that when these men were unable to cope with the wisdom and Spirit in which Stephen was speaking:
“11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God”…13 They put forward false witnesses who said, “This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.”
Remember what Jesus said, “A slave is not greater than his master.” We should not be surprised to see this, because this is exactly how men treated Jesus. Matthew 26:59-61:
“59 Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, so that they might put Him to death. 60 They did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward, 61 and said, “This man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.’”
Since this is how our Master was treated, do not be surprised when they treat you the exact same way. The world will aim to manipulate matters to achieve its purpose.
The Face of an Angel
If this is what we should expect from the world, how should we carry ourselves in it? How should we conduct ourselves when we are subjected to such treatment? We should conduct ourselves as Stephen did. Luke says:
“15 And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel.”
There is certainly an aspect of calmness and serenity being conveyed here in Stephen’s countenance. He was unmoved by the hostility, because he knew his God, and those who know their God display strength and take Christ like action. Though His attackers paint him as this wicked villain, he continues to give honor to whom honor is due, and he does not return evil for evil. Stephen epitomizes Paul’s words to Timothy:
“24 The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”
Why do we endure? Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:12 that “we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ.” He said to Timothy:
“10 For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.”
Throughout this world Jesus Christ has lost who must hear His voice and come into His fold. For their sake we endure all things. We strive, as Paul says, to give:
“3 No cause for offense in anything, so that the ministry will not be discredited, 4 but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, 5 in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, 6 in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, 7 in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left, 8 by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; 9 as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, 10 as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.”
Stephen’s calm and gentle demeanor is seen all throughout his interaction with these men. Even when they are in the act of murdering him.
There is, however, another aspect of Stephen possessing the face of an angel that should be considered, which is that Stephen’s face literally shone as he stood before the council. Just as Moses’ did after he came down the mountain from speaking with God, so did Stephen’s.
This is an interesting thought to consider, especially given the fact that they are charging Stephen with altering the customs which Moses handed down to them. The question is, how did Israel know that Moses spoke the very breathe of God as He relayed the Old Covenant? His face radiated the glory of God.
God causing Stephen’s face to shine with His glory was a testament to these men that his teaching was not an altering of the customs handed down by Moses, but a fulfillment of them. It was a sign of His approval of the New Covenant which was ratified, not by the blood of bulls and goats, but by the blood of His only Son, whom He loves.
Christ our Example
As was said in the beginning, Stephen’s life and ministry instructs us on how to carry ourselves in this world. Let us end by asking this simple question: Why should we strive to replicate Stephen’s character, conviction, courage, and conduct? The answer is simply that his was modeled after Christ’s! As Peter says:
“19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, 22 who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; 23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”
Our Lord and Savior said this:
“In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”
Suffering for Christ is par for the course in this life for the believer, but that should not cause us to be dismayed for our lives are Christ’s. We have died, and our lives are hidden with Him in God. There is nothing that can separate us from what the Scripture refers to as His incorruptible love. If God is for us, who can stand against us? Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? Man can take nothing from you if Christ is everything to you.
Do what Stephen did, and sanctify Christ as Lord in your heart, and always be ready to give a clear and reasonable defense for the hope that is within you with great gentleness and reverence for others. When you face suffering for living godly in Christ Jesus, do what He did, and keep entrusting yourself to Him who judges righteously knowing that vengeance is His and He will repay. As the Scripture says:
“12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; 16 but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.”
 John 15:20
 John 15:18-19
 Philippians 1:29
 2 Timothy 3:12
 Acts 6:5
 Acts 6:5
 Philippians 1:20-21
 Acts 8:1
 Acts 7:54-60
 Romans 14:8
 The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 1-12, John MacArthur; Page 188
 Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance; NT Number: G4134
 Colossians 3:10,16
 1 Corinthians 6:20
 Titus 2:10-12
 Ephesians 4:1,22-24
 1 Peter 1:14-16
 Romans 12:1-2
 2 Corinthians 8:9
 2 Corinthians 2:14-15
 2 Corinthians 12:12
 Acts 6:8; 8:6; 15:12
 Hebrews 2:3-4
 Hebrews 7:25
 2 Timothy 2:15
 John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles; Page 347
 1 Peter 3:13-18
 2 Timothy 2:24-26
 2 Timothy 2:10
 John 10:
 2 Corinthians 6:3-10
 Exodus 34:27-35
 1 Peter 2:19-24
 John 16:33
 1 Peter 4:12-16