Being a Faithful Witness

Text: Acts 6:7–15, Acts 7:1–2a, 51–60, and Acts 8:1–4 ESV

I want to take a moment this morning to recall where we’ve been so far in the book of Acts. Today is week 4 of our sermon series, and our passage this morning continues a major theme that we have seen throughout the book of Acts so far—the increase of the Word of God, the spreading of the Gospel, and the growing number of disciples. The gospel was on the move.

We saw this in message one when Jesus forecasted to the twelve (Acts 1:8) that they would be his witnesses not only in Jerusalem but in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. This required spreading. We saw this in message two when the Spirit fell on the disciples; Peter preached a sermon calling for repentance and faith in Jesus, and 3000 souls were added to the church (Acts 2:41). We saw this in message three when the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:47) and that the disciples were increasing in number as they lived out their calling as Christ’s converted community.

The sentence we’ve been using to summarize the book of Acts, and this series in particular is: The Holy Spirit empowers his people to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to all people with all boldness and without hinderance.

 Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit in His people, is building His church. Between chapters 1–6, Jesus is building His church in Jerusalem, and He is strengthening it despite many obstacles. The most prominent of these obstacles are angry, jealous religious leaders. We see public slander, beatings, imprisonments, and more in the effort to silence the movement that was threatening the religious leaders’ own sense of powerful prominence among the Jews. They were jealous for human glory and influence and would do whatever they needed to get it. But despite the jealous rage of the religious leaders and the persecution that arose, the disciples continued to proclaim the gospel, and by the power of the Spirit, broke through the obstacles in their way. And the church continued to grow.

But now here in Acts 6–8 the persecution of this growing church escalates into the death of Stephen, who is often called the first martyr. This is a big deal. One of the clear leaders of the growing church, a man full of the Spirit and wisdom, gets killed by their enemies, and when something like this happens, it can cause anyone to pause and regroup. As Acts 8:2 says, “devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.”

And maybe you can imagine the conversation among certain believers after Stephen’s death. “Is this worth it? What if this sort of thing happens to more of our leaders? What if it happens to me? What if we’re too weak to accomplish the mission Jesus gave us? What if our faith is too small? What if our enemies are too great? How is our church supposed to continue with the same boldness as it did before this? And you want to talk about Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth? Look what’s happening in Jerusalem alone! At least we have strength in numbers here. If we spread, we spread ourselves thin, and then we’re a moving target to those who hate us!”

So this moment is a turning point in the book of Acts because the church in Jerusalem needed to count the cost and reaffirm their willingness to obey Jesus and spread His good news despite the opposition that was so clearly in front of them. And they needed to remember that the Spirit would be with them all the way. That Jesus would not let them fail. See, Acts 1:8 was not only a commission to obey; it was a promise to believe and place their trust. Jesus didn’t simply command, “Go be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth.” He says to them, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem” and not only there but “in Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” You’re going to get there; I will make sure of it. I will give you what you need if you follow me. So the choice the church continually had to ask by faith was, “Will we follow Jesus no matter the cost?”

The gospel advances through spirit-filled followers of Jesus, in other words men and women who, depending on the Spirit’s help, are willing to engage in Jesus’s mission to the lost, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus even when the circumstances are challenging.

Stephen’s death typically begs a question for all of us. “Could we do that? Would we be willing to die for our commitment to Jesus?” One pastor, when contemplating this question, said, “Honestly, I don’t think about dying for being a follower of Jesus a whole lot, and when I do, it’s so theoretical I don’t feel like I can actually answer the question with honesty.”[1] This is most likely true for most, if not all of us, in this room, who do not live in a place with constant threats of death for following Jesus or making Him known. But what we often forget is that the occasion for Stephen’s death would not have happened if he wasn’t first willing to live for Jesus, obeying his call to go and make disciples. Are we willing to live for Jesus?   

Stephen was just being consistent. He died because he wasn’t willing to stop living for Jesus when violent men opposed him. When the hostility against Jesus came head-to-head with Stephen’s commitment to Jesus, his commitment to Jesus stood firm, and his faithful witness became a catalyst for the church rather than a defeat, even though he died. Jesus used the persecution that arose because of Stephen (11:19) to scatter his disciples out to the places he called them to, and the same Spirit that made Stephen bold with the gospel helped those scattered to Judea and Samaria to continue preaching themselves.

So our text this morning is going to have four main parts as we look at the faithful witness of Stephen: 

1.     Stephen’s Help

2.     Stephen’s Hope

3.     Stephen’s Judge

4.     Stephen’s Motive

Stephen’s Help: The Holy Spirit

"And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:7–8 ESV)

One note, wherever you see the word power, think Holy Spirit.

So in Jerusalem, the word of God is increasing, and it’s having a fertilizing effect. The Spirit is taking that Word, planting it in many different hearts in Jerusalem, and it is resulting in a great multiplication of disciples. Even a great many of the priests became obedient (this is something we’ll return to later). But Stephen is part of this fertilization process. So he’s out bearing witness about Jesus—not only serving widows, mind you—and he’s doing signs and wonders among the people. What happens next?

"Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen.” (Acts 6:9 ESV)

 So this dispute is happening in response to the word spreading and Stephen’s wonders and signs among the people. These groups do not like what they see; they’re not a fan of this Jesus, and so they’re ready to attack Stephen. Now, whatever it was that they challenged Stephen with specifically (we’re not told), they are utterly unable to make any headway. Why?

Because of the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” (Acts 6:10 ESV)

Luke, the author of Acts, really doesn’t want us to miss that Stephen’s success here is because of the help of the Holy Spirit. Because of the Spirit’s help, the longer these groups disputed with Stephen, the more foolish they looked. And since they could not withstand him, they took more drastic measures. “If we can’t outsmart him, we’ll just have to find a little dirt on him to try to sway the crowd.”

 But before we go there, I just want to remind us directly: Church, we need the Spirit’s help to be an effective witness for Jesus.

Now in Stephen’s case, the Spirit comes to his aid in a time of public debate where these groups of people are seeking to discredit Jesus. No doubt they are trying to trap him into making his faith sound foolish. But the Spirit gives him the words he needs in the moment to stand firm against his opponents and lift Jesus high.

For us, we may or may not find ourselves in a heated public debate needing help from the Spirit to faithfully respond. Some of you are thinking, “Thank heavens, I wasn’t built for public speaking,” but let’s not be fooled into thinking that’s the only type of venue where we really need the Spirit.

We need the Spirit when we’re talking with a close family member, a friend from school, a co-worker, our own kids. It doesn’t matter how familiar and comfortable we are with the person we’re witnessing to. We need help to be both faithful and effective. And the Spirit will do this work in the long-term and short-term. He will use your times with Jesus in prayer and in his word over time to prepare you for being a faithful witness (long-term), and he will provide in-the-moment wisdom you need that you didn’t have before (short-term). Remember that if anyone’s heart is truly changed when you talk about Jesus with them, it will not be because of how clever you are. It will be because the Spirit helped you and helped them. So ask the Spirit for help. Believe Jesus when he says, “But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment.” You won’t convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment, the Spirit will (John 16:7–8).

Stephen’s Hope: Jesus as High Priest and Ultimate Sacrifice

So these groups are taking more drastic measures after failed disputes with Stephen.

“Then they secretly instigated men who said, “we have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:11–15 ESV)

 So what’s going on here? Now it’s difficult to see at first glance, but these false witnesses are actually calling the foundation of Stephen’s hope into question.

The false witnesses were not lying about what Stephen said; they were using his words to spin a false narrative. It may help to look at it backwards. So start at verse 14 to see what Stephen said. “we heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place (the temple) and will change the customs Moses delivered to us.” This would have been perfectly consistent with Jesus’s teaching.

if you’re familiar with the gospels, you might remember Jesus saying the same things about the temple and the law. In John chapter 2, after Jesus cleanses the temple by overturning money tables and driving out those who were using the temple for selfish gain, the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’  Now Jesus doesn’t say anything else, but John inserts some explanation. He says, “But he was speaking about the temple of his body.”

And in Matthew 27, when Jesus was on the cross, it says,

“And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!’” (Matthew 27:39 ESV)

Jesus also said things about the law like, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.

Jesus said these things to make a point that the work he was about to do was going to make the physical temple obsolete and that the law of Moses would be reinterpreted through the lens of His redemptive work—the new covenant of His own blood, shed for sinners.

In the old covenant, one of the most important jobs of the priests was to repeatedly offer animal sacrifices for their own sins and the sins of the people. God set up this system for his people not because animal blood could actually take away their sins but as a placeholder that pointed to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who would one day come to take away the sins of the world forever. That day had come.

Hebrews chapter 10 says it most clearly—

“For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins…And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified…therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened to us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” (Hebrews 10:4, 10:11–14, 10:19–22. ESV)

 So while Stephen was going about the city preaching about the hope that the temple and law had always pointed toward—that Jesus would come and be the true and eternal mediator between God and man—these men were accusing Stephen of blaspheming against the temple and the law, a false accusation they made against Jesus as well. Stephen wasn’t speaking against the temple and the law, he was clarifying their purpose.

 So what is Stephen going to say? This is huge. Stephen knows that if he says the wrong thing, he dies. We have the synagogue of the Freedmen, the Cyrenians, the Alexandrians, those from Cilicia and Asia, all of whom stirred up a mob of people, elders, and scribes who seized him and dragged him before the council, the body of religious leaders who had immediate authority to execute Stephen for blasphemy, and all were waiting to see how Stephen would address the accusations. This would be a perfect time to backpedal. But he doesn’t. Why? Because being faithful to Jesus was more valuable to Stephen than protecting himself against violent men.

So Stephen decides to use the occasion not just to answer confidently but to preach a sermon, and his sermon is the furthest from backpedaling. We don’t have time to look at the sermon (about 50 verses long) but suffice it to say that Stephen walks through some of the major points of Israel’s history with the main objective of showing the religious leaders that by rejecting Jesus they displayed a misshaped view of their people’s entire history and missed the whole point of the temple and the law. Stephen ends by rebuking the crowd for resisting the Holy Spirit and killing Jesus, the Son of God.

 A key application for us here is to remember to proclaim to the world that Jesus’ sacrifice for sinners will always be absolutely central to our hope. The other day, Andrea, my wife, was walking out of the main office of our apartment complex at the same time as another woman, and they struck up a quick conversation. The woman eventually shared that she used to be Christian but then left the Christian church. She explained that the church she goes to now basically teaches morals or moral stories without Jesus. On Easter, they talk about resurrection stories but not Jesus’s resurrection. And this is actually very similar in some ways to Stephen’s situation. The teachers of the law are trying to get the goodness of religion without Jesus, but it will kill them. Jesus alone will save a world who has separated themselves from God because of their sin.

Stephen’s Judge: Jesus, Not the Council

 After Stephen rebukes the crowd they get more than antsy.  

”Now when they heard these things, they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:54–56 ESV)

 What an encouraging gift Stephen was given through the Holy Spirit. Stephen sees Jesus reigning as judge. Psalm 110, the psalm most often quoted in the New Testament, says “and my Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” In other words, this is where Jesus will be as he gets ready to judge his enemies and vindicate those who are his. Even though Stephen was before the council about to be judged by either them, the angry mob, or both, Stephen gets validation that Jesus, the righteous judge, will vindicate him. Jesus will get the last word in the end.

Now what can we take from this? Remember, Table Rock, that when you make a defense for the hope that is in you, you are not responsible for the type of response you get. Only be faithful to proclaim Jesus as he truly is, and you can be confident that Jesus will stand by you no matter what. Peter ended his sermon in Acts in a similar way to Stephen, making a point to call out the people for their guilty role in crucifying Jesus, but the Spirit brought three thousand or more to repentance. In Acts 2 it says, “Now when they heard these things they were cut to the heart and asked, ‘brothers, what shall we do?’“ But when Stephen finished his sermon, it says, “Now when they heard these things they were enraged and they ground their teeth at him. Clearly they continued to resist the Holy Spirit. Peter was not ultimately responsible for the repentance of the three thousand, and Stephen was not ultimately responsible for the crowd’s resistance. This perspective will keep us from using the response of our hearers as evidence for our faithfulness to the message. Both Peter and Stephen faithfully proclaimed the truth. And that is all we are called to do.

Stephen’s Motive: The Good of the Crowd

Lastly, you might think based on Stephen’s firm rebuke at the end of his sermon—and the crowd’s efforts to kill him—that Stephen doesn’t care too much for the crowd. He’s simply sick of their evil behavior and telling of lies and was glad to simply tell them off. But look what happens.

But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.’ ” (Acts 7:57–60 ESV)

 Just as Jesus extended forgiveness to his murders from the cross (with the same words, actually), Stephen forgives his murderers. The crowd “cried out with a loud voice” to crush him; Stephen cried out with a loud voice to forgive them.

The application for us is clear. It doesn’t matter how violent or prideful or slanderous your hearers are; always hope for their forgiveness in Jesus. Pray for those who respond to you poorly and want nothing to do with Jesus. Ask the Lord if he might have you seek them out another time. Maybe the Spirit will work through you to bring them to repentance after a second or third time following a discouraging response. Romans 5 reminds us that Christ died for us while we were still his enemies; be willing to love others with the gospel even if they’ve been hostile in the past.

Conclusion

So Table Rock, remember that the help you need to be a faithful witness is found in the Holy Spirit. He will help you bear witness to Jesus effectively. Remember to proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection. His sacrifice for sins and resurrection from the dead is our only hope for salvation and that is true for everyone you witness to. Remember that Jesus is your judge. As you seek to be faithful witnesses to him, you will not be ultimately responsible for how they respond to the gospel. He will stand with you if you are ridiculed for your faith and will judge them perfectly so you don’t have to. And finally, remember to always hope that those around you will find forgiveness in Jesus, no matter how they’ve responded to you in the past. Let the Spirit fill you with compassion, and be willing to keep pursuing them if the Lord leads you.

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[1] Beau Hughes