(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

Sadly, this passage illustrates Christ's warning: "Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also." John15v20. Jesus went around doing good but this did not save him from ultimate rejection and crucifixion. Stephen was a splendid man but neither did this prevent his martyrdom. It is unlikely that our reasonable service to Christ will be rewarded in this life.

(B) Stephen was a wonderful witness

(a) He was full of God's grace. v8. This means he gave to others in the same way that God had given to him. He graciously poured himself out on behalf of his fellow Jews. Stephen preached the gospel earnestly, passionately and winsomely.

I have not known many Christians whom I would describe as being full of God's grace. I always felt it was true of Mr E. Oliver who preached at our little chapel twice a year. He and his wife were pioneering missionaries in Nepal. Mr Oliver's priority and passion was to make Christ known oversees - in Asia, Africa and South America. So many other things - our careers, family, sports and hobbies distract most of us, including myself.

(b) He was full of God's power. Stephen did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. v8. The apostles were not the only ones who were equipped by the Holy Spirit to perform miracles. Amazing things happened whenever Stephen was about. Would to God we had a few men like Stephen in the church today.

(c) He was fantastic teacher and Christian apologist. Luke records that hard line Jewish opponents of Christianity who attended the Synagogue of the Freedmen argued with Stephen but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. v10. Stephen's ability to defeat the enemies of the Way in argument must have raised the morale of the new church.

This country has produced one great champion of the Christian faith in my lifetime - C.S.Lewis. He was able to more than hold his own with opponents of orthodox Christian belief. I read all his books when I was a young man and they increased my confidence in a way that no amount of fundamentalist bluster ever did. I shall always be grateful to C.S.Lewis for contributing to my knowledge of the truth. He opened my eyes!

(C) The opposition to Stephen.

There are three questions to ask about the opposition:

    (a) Who opposed him?
    Stephen was opposed by his own people. As a Greek speaking Jew from the provinces he was drawn to the Synagogue of the Freedmen. Here many former Jewish slaves from N. Africa and Asia worshipped. Steven was concerned for his own and so preached the gospel in his local synagogue.

    Stephen, like so many others, shared the experience of Jesus who was rejected by the people of Nazareth and said, "Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour." If this was true for Jesus and Stephen we must expect it to be true for us. However, I think it was peculiarly hurtful to both Jesus and Stephen to be so profoundly rejected by their own folk.

    It is very difficult for a lone individual without a significant power base to change an organisation from within. Martin Luther was rejected by Roman Catholicism and John Wesley by Anglicanism. A Presbyterian who tried to convince his fellow Presbyterians of the truth of believer's baptism would be told to leave and join the Baptists. I have proposed a small change in policy to my own Association of Grace Baptist Churches and been advised to join another denomination.

    (b) Why was Stephen opposed so vehemently.
    Stephen was hated because he advocated change. He, as a Grecian Jew, was much more radical than the Palestinian Jewish Christians. The attitude of the conservative element in the church is summed up in the words of James and the elders to Paul in Acts21v20: "You see brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs." The Hebraic Jewish Christians did not antagonise the orthodox Jews to the same extent as radical Christians like Stephen and later, Paul. Yet it was men like Stephen and Paul that ensured Christianity brought Judaism to completion rather than remained a sect within Judaism. Judaism remains in Christianity a bit like a brush remains in a Hoover.

    We get some idea what Stephen was saying by the false accusation made against him: "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us." Stephen may have said that eventually there would be no need of a temple. Nor would there - if Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice. That final, all sufficient, sacrifice for sin means no further sacrifice is needed and the priesthood is redundant. Stephen may also have anticipated the suspension of the dietary regulations and the washings to ensure ceremonial cleanliness. If we become a holy people by adoption into God's family there is no necessity to depend upon rules and ritual to make us special.

    It is little wonder so many Jews found it difficult to change. I have every sympathy with them. Christians find it hard to modify their beliefs. It requires great humility to accept that we are wrong. I was in my local shop today behind an old man who was trying to exchange some vouchers for a newspaper. Unfortunately he had brought the wrong ones. When I left the shop he button holed me to explain! He was so embarrassed by the mistake he made. He explained that he couldn't see very well because he had just had a cataract operation. What was worse, he had fallen over the day before and hit his head on a concrete path - about the worst thing he could do after an operation for a cataract. I was treated to this lengthy explanation - all because he made a simple mistake! I said to him, "I shouldn't be embarrassed - you haven't done anything wrong - just made a small mistake." Now if we hate admitting to a silly mistake how much harder to accept that we have for years been in error.

    It takes courage to change. We have to overcome the fear that if we have been wrong in one thing we might have been wrong in everything. There are not many like Apollos who listened to Priscilla and Aquila as they explained to him the way of God more adequately. Acts18v26.

    It may be costly to change. There are those who love the old ways. I was talking to a local preacher only last Sunday and he said, "I don't get on too well in my church - I am too old fashioned. The old paths are best. I like the Authorised Version and the familiar hymns." (Jer6v16: Thus saith the LORD, Stand in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk in it, and ye shall find rest for your souls. AV.) I am sure, having attended a christening, that many Anglicans would be very distressed to lose such a happy, optimistic, moving and pretty ceremony. Insofar that they have corrupted baptism they should! I would not like to lose the autonomy we enjoy as a church that ultimately derives from the members making the important decisions. It would be costly to change but I think we might benefit from a higher leadership such as the apostles gave the early church. There are huge risks involved in each local church being a law unto itself.

    It requires energy to change. The easiest place to be is right where you are. The Geography syllabus I taught changed many times during my career. It always required an effort to tackled a new syllabus. In the last two or three years before retirement I couldn't face any more changes.

    Many Christians when confronted by something different such as an unusual interpretation of Scripture are too idle to think the matter through. It is easiest to say, "The old paths are best."

    It is interesting to consider the circumstances conducive to change. Very rarely will someone change their point of view after an argument or in debate. This may involve too much loss of face. It happens more often when a person is listening carefully in the pew or reading quietly at home. I have watched hundreds of children listen raptly to an assembly who would be very uncomfortable if I said the same thing to them face to face.

    I changed my mind radically one evening listening to an old chicken farmer preach at Brockley chapel. He said something to this effect: "The fact that God knows in advance what is going to happen does not mean that God causes it to happen." This simple truth undermined my belief in the Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional election. I was never the same again - to the intense regret of my fellow Grace Baptists. The books of John Bunyan, Martyn Lloyd Jones and C.S.Lewis have all shaped my thinking.

    We frequently change our outlook and behaviour through the influence of someone we love or admire. My friend Ian Brown began speaking in tongues after one of his lovely daughters married an evangelist from the charismatic wing of the church. Several Grace Baptist ministers of my acquaintance became a lot more sympathetic to the Church of England after their sons became Anglican clergymen. Our new, young, personable and enthusiastic pastor managed to persuade several old Christians to be baptised who had held out against it for many years.

    (c) What were the results of opposition?
    (1) Stephen won the argument in the Synagogue of the Freedmen without changing his opponent's hearts. He won the argument so comprehensively that his critics were humiliated and hated him all the more. It is relatively easy in a church meeting to humiliate those who are not quick witted, used to public speaking or well informed. Such folk will not love you for it and neither will they be persuaded to change. I can remember telling our church members, fairly belligerently, that the graveyard was not a 'sacred acre' and that it was wrong to care more about the dead than the living. No-one publicly challenged this view but most kept believing the graveyard was holy ground.

    (2) Stephen's enemies lost the argument and like the opponents of Jesus abandoned reason. They exaggerated what Stephen said: "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law." v13. They also misrepresented his views. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, "We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God." v11.

    It is so easy to misrepresent what a person says if you do not happen to agree with him or her. For example, a fundamentalist might not like me pointing out that there is a measure of disagreement between Stephen's claim in Acts7v4 that: After the death of his father, God sent him (Abraham) to this land where you are now living; and the Genesis version of the same event. In Gen11v26 we read: After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. So he must have been at least 70 years old when Abraham was born. We further read that: Abraham was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. Gen12v4. By this time Terah was at most 145 years old. He lived till 205: see Gen11v32. So by this reckoning Abraham left Haran 60 years before Terah died. I might conclude from this that although God inspired the Bible it contains minor errors and inconsistencies because it was men that wrote it. A die-hard fundamentalist who believes in the inerrancy of Scripture might misrepresent what I have written by saying to others, "Of course that Johnny Reed doesn't believe the Bible is true." He would be stirring up trouble just as the members of the Synagogue of Freedmen stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. v12.

(D) Conclusion.

The Sanhedrin did not intimidate Stephen. He wasn't trembling with fear, dry mouthed or pale faced. Instead he was calm, serene, confident - even radiant. All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. v15.

Angel faces shine because they come from the presence of God and reflect something of his glory. After Moses and Jesus had been in God's presence their faces shone.

In some small way this happens to us when we are in the presence of someone we love or are honoured by a person we greatly admire. Our faces glow.

Stephen's face shone because he lived so close to God and he was so full of the Holy Spirit. Stephen knew he was treading in his master's footsteps. Perhaps, he had a premonition that he was going to be the first Christian martyr and a mighty witness to Jesus.

If we live close to God then irrespective of our circumstances we shall not lack confidence, courage or good cheer. A shining countenance in adversity is one of supreme testimonies to the transforming power of God.