GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY, PROVIDENCE, AND COMMANDMENTS ARE THE GROUNDS FOR CHRISTIAN FAITH, COURAGE, AND OBEDIENCE
8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 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. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 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, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 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.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. 1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” 2 And Stephen said: “Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3 and said to him, Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ 4 Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. 5 Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot's length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. 6 And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. 7 ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ 8 And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs. 9 “And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him 10 and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11 Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. 13 And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph's family became known to Pharaoh. 14 And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. 15 And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, 16 and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. 17 “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt 18 until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. 19 He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. 20 At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God's sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father's house, 21 and when he was exposed, Pharaoh's daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds. 23 “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ 27 But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons. 30 “Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32 I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. 33 Then the Lord said to him, Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’ 35 “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ 38 This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. 39 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 43 You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’ 44 “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. 45 Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 46 who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, 49 “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?’ 51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” 54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 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. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 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. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 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. 1 And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. Philip Proclaims Christ in Samaria 4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
— Acts 6:7-8:4, ESV
This is a sermon with a wide title covering a long text with a deep meaning. It tells a story you can see, the bold witness and brief life of one of the first church deacons, Stephen. It tells a story you cannot see, the unseen hand of God in every detail. And, it tells a story you will see, the story of your life as it unfolds going forward.
Stephen’s Faith, Courage, and Obedience
Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew, part of the first wave of Christianity that came to shore on the sands of Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. He found himself stuck there with the other early Christians as they awaited the push needed to send them with the gospel onward to Judea, Samara, and the uttermost parts of the earth. As Simon Peter is claimed to be the first among equals with the Apostles, it could be said that Stephen was the first among equals in the first Deacon body of the church.
Stephen was a man of sterling faith. Cut him open with the sword of the Spirit, the word of God, and look inside. He is “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3). He is “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5). He is “full of grace and power” (6:7).
The Holy Spirit had regenerated Stephen’s heart, by grace through faith in the wisdom of the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, most likely at the time of Peter’s Pentecostal sermon. Stephen powerfully proclaimed his faith, with eloquence akin to the author of Hebrews. Jesus is more than Abraham, Issac, Jacob, and the twelve patriarchs. Stephen preached that Jesus is more than Moses and Joshua. Jesus is more than David and Solomon. Jesus is more than the Temple, and this is the point that his enemies pointed out. Jesus is “the Righteous One,” according to Stephen, promised Messiah, sovereign Lord, almighty God and Savior.
Stephen was a man of exemplary courage. It takes faith to preach Jesus to the church. It takes a courageous faith to preach Jesus in hostile territory, like Stephen did among the Jerusalem Jews. He matched wits with them in the Old Testament and exceeded their grasp by pointing out the superiority of the New Testament.
Very soon Stephen was called in to face the same high priest, Caiaphas, who led the execution of Jesus, and a new hostile face, a Pharisee from Tarsus in Cilicia named Saul. He spoke truth to power, even called them “stiff-necked,” traitors, and murderers, for they were. He had to know such faith and courage, such Christ-like behavior, could get him, like Christ, killed. Yet Stephen persevered in faith and persisted in courage, even at the expense of his own life.
Stephen was a man of complete obedience. This is what you get when you combine genuine Christian faith with obvious spiritual courage, you get what pleases God the most, obedience. Stephen’s favorite Bible verse must have been 1 Samuel 15:22, “And Samuel said, ‘Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.’”
When God said repent and believe, Stephen faithfully, courageously, obeyed. When God said serve My church, Stephen faithfully, courageously, obeyed. When God said witness the gospel, Stephen faithfully, courageously, obeyed. When God said forgive your enemies, Stephen faithfully, courageously, obeyed. When God said lay down you life for “the Righteous One” who laid down His life for you, Stephen faithfully, courageously, obeyed.
Stephen found life in Jerusalem, yet did not leave Jerusalem alive. Yet he lives, still, with God and the saints and the angels, and in the living pages of the word of God. He shows us the quintessential Christian ingredients of faith, courage, and obedience, and helps us see the unseen hand of God, from whence they come.
God’s Sovereignty, Providence, and Commandments
Saul and the Sanhedrin had the authority to stone Stephen, insomuch as Stephen had been indicted and convicted of threatening to destroy the Temple. He did no such thing, of course, only preach that the Temple and the Old Testament ceremonial laws were no longer needed due to the finished work of Jesus the Messiah.
They had tried to get Jesus on the same charge earlier, but failed when their witnesses did not agree. For this reason, they had to involve the Roman governor, indict and convict Jesus on treason, for He claimed to be a King higher than Caesar. Roman conviction meant Roman punishment, death on a cross.
Let’s take a moment and do the math. Jesus never did anything wrong, and was executed in His early thirties. Stephen did everything right, faith and courage and obedience, and was executed at the same age, if not younger. Jesus plus Stephen equals a God who is not fair.
God is not fair, at least as we humans reckon fairness. God is much more. God is sovereign. God has decreed, designed, and is directing a master plan to redeem certain persons, known to Him as the elect, save them from their sins, grant them everlasting life, and spend eternity with them in a yet to be realized new heaven and earth. Everything that happens on earth, every life, every death, every joy, every sorrow, or as Dylan wrote, “Every Grain of Sand,” is part of God’s sovereign plan of salvation.
God’s sovereign plan can be traced through the Old Testament, as Stephen did in his marvelous sermon. Essentially God made a covenant, a promise to Abraham, that one of his descendants, an Israelite, would be “the Righteous One,” the Messiah, the Savior of a people gathered from all over the planet.
God’s sovereign plan came to fruition in the New Testament, with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the birth of His church. Christ died for sinners all over the world, and He told the church to go tell everyone, beginning in Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.
God’s sovereignty invents the plan. God’s providence involves the people. This wide, long, deep text features one person and introduces another. It begins with, “And Stephen …” (ref. 6:8) and ends with “And Saul” (ref. 8:1). It required Stephen’s life, and death, to move the church out of Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria. It required Saul’s conversion, into the Apostle Paul, to take the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth. God’s sovereign plan is carried out by God’s powerful providence over the lives, circumstances, and even the deaths of God’s people.
The proof that you are part of God’s plan and a benefactor of God’s providence is God’s commandments. With your free and willing choices, do you keep them, or not? Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, Jesus, and Stephen, did. Only Jesus did so perfectly, and when the others failed they always asked for, and received, forgiveness. God’s people keep God’s commandments because they know God, love Jesus, are led by the Spirit, and count the gospel as greater treasure than anything this world has to offer.
This would be a good time to read another wide, long, and deep text, Romans 8:28-37, and look closely at the part about the sheep. God’s salvation is in accordance with His sovereign plan, His divine providence over every aspect of our lives, and such salvation by grace through faith is proven by obedience to His commandments, even at the cost of our own lives, just like Jesus Christ, who died for the church, and just like Deacon Stephen, who died to move the church out into the world.
A Christian’s Grounds for Assurance of Salvation
God’s sovereignty, providence, and commandments are the grounds of Christian faith, courage, and obedience. Stephen proved he was on good grounds with God by his sincere faith in Jesus Christ, his spiritual courage in living and preaching the gospel, and his obedient faith, even unto his death by stoning. At the end, he even caught a glimpse of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, smiling with approval and assurance of Stephen’s eternal salvation. What will the Lord see in you, when you see the Lord?
Make sure your faith is as remarkable as Stephen’s. Your life and death may not be, but your faith must be. It must not be in religion, as was the case of the ruling Jews in Jerusalem. It must not be in yourself, or self-righteousness, and be warned that salvation by works is the dead monument of every religion in the world except for biblical Christianity. Christian faith is based on Christ, the Christ preached by Stephen and Peter and every preacher and parent who stresses salvation is not about what we do for God, but what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Only the Holy Spirit can convict and convince a person of the gospel. And if grace has given you faith, the same Holy Spirit who delivered the gift now abides in you. You have the Spirit; therefore, have spiritual courage. Know that your days are numbered by God and nothing can stop you from fulfilling God’s calling and accomplishing God’s purpose in your life. Live with courage of the great pioneer missionary William Carey and “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.”
Then faithfully and courageously obey God’s general and specific commandments given in His word and by His Spirit. Learn the word, obey the book, listen to the Spirit, ignore the cost. What is the worst thing the world can do to you for living a fully faithful, courageous, obedience Christian life? Kill you? Look to the face of Stephen, as he looked into the face of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We know, from the Scriptures, where Stephen stands before God today. Will you stand with Stephen? Will you stand with the Lord Jesus Christ? Will you stand with God, today, and trust His sovereignty, providence, and commandments to give you faith, courage, and obedience?