Due to inclement weather, the 9 a.m. service for Sunday, Jan. 20 has been cancelled. We will have one morning service at 10:45 a.m. as road conditions improve.

Witnessing: The Gospel According to Stephen

by Jeremy Shaffer

Twenty-two years ago, when my wife and I were traveling to our honeymoon destination, we managed to get stuck in traffic. When we found ourselves stuck in traffic, I told her to reach under the seat, pull out the atlas, and find a route around this traffic. Little did she know that I have this “condition” (and you might have it too) wherein I will do anything to avoid sitting in traffic. If it means I can keep moving, I may take a questionable route occasionally. I share this story to say that if you are ever reading through the book of Acts, I suggest you find a biblical atlas to help navigate the landscape. Acts is a highly geographical book, demonstrating to the reader the physical progress of the Gospel as it travels from Jesus in Jerusalem to the Gentile in Rome – nearly 2,500 miles! In fact, Luke cohesively structures the book of Acts with seven progress reports that form a solid outline of the book (2:47; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:30-31). These seven progress reports detail the progress of the Gospel into new areas. However, for the Gospel to infiltrate these new areas, people must take it there. How the Gospel message gets from Jerusalem to Rome is not the only concern of the book of Acts, the “who” that takes it there is also essential.  

In the book of Acts, the “who” are called witnesses, and outside of the Apostles themselves, Stephen is one of the most significant ones we find in the book. Like the Apostles, Stephen was not a fan-favorite of the religious establishment, and his famous speech in Acts 7 (the longest one in the book of Acts) literally cost him his life. Stephen’s martyrdom begins the widespread persecution of the early church, but that is a good thing. Persecution? A good thing?  That equation might not make sense to you. Still, God’s math always seems to be different from ours: blessed are the persecuted (Mt.5:10). Here is the math: the widespread persecution of the early church forced the church to move outside of Jerusalem, and in doing so, the Gospel reached other parts of the world. Christ predicted what would happen in His conversation with His Apostles back in Acts 1:8. He told them they were to be His “witnesses” in Jerusalem first, then Judea and Samaria, and then to the rest of the world – and that order is exactly how it happens in the book of Acts.  

Stephen’s ministry in the book of Acts demonstrates what it means to be a “witness;” while we live in a different time and culture, the lessons from his short ministry are universal. According to Stephen, five basic qualities describe a good witness. They will be: enamored with the person of Christ, energized by the power of the Spirit, expecting persecution to come, able to explain the plan of God, and eager to pray for their enemies.      


Being enamored with the person to whom they witness is a must for a good witness. Earlier, we noted the importance of Acts 1:8 for the Apostles but look closer and notice that small pronoun: “and you will be my witnesses.” Jesus must always be the center of your witnessing! When we accept Christ’s death on the cross as payment for our sins, we automatically become part of God’s family.  We absorb all we can about Jesus and His Word, and we start following our leader to the best of our abilities. We attempt to follow the examples that He set for us while He walked the earth. Unfortunately, time comes along, and through any number of life events or circumstances, we can become disenchanted with the process of following Jesus and forget that we are actually following a Person.  

However, Stephen took following Jesus to a new level; he was so enamored with the Person of Christ that this incident in his life (Acts 6-7) is very similar to Christ’s. Both Stephen and Christ were: put on trial before the Sanhedrin (6:16; Mt.26:59); accused by false witnesses (6:13; Mk.14:56); and accused of being against the temple (6:14; Mt.26:61). Both of them referenced a temple made with hands (7:48; Mk.14:58); and the phrase “Son of Man” in reference to Jesus (7:56; Lk.21:27); they were: charged with blasphemy (6:11; Mt.26:65); and questioned by the High Priest (7:1; Jn.18:19); they both: committed their spirit at death (7:59; Lk.23:46); cried out with a loud shout at death (7:60; Mt.27:50); and intercede for their enemies (7:60; Lk.23:34). Our goal as witnesses is that we follow Jesus with a captivating spirit so that the world sees Him when they look squarely at us (Mt.5:14).    


When Jesus gave the Apostles the task of being His witnesses, He did not leave them empty-handed. He left them and us with the power of the Holy Spirit. How hard it must have been for the Apostles to set their eyes upon the risen Christ yet be forbidden to tell anyone! Thankfully, they did not have to wait long; just ten days later, the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, and Jesus’ witnesses began filling the air with the glorious sound of the Gospel message in a multitude of languages. The point is that the witnessing of the Apostles would have been ineffective and powerless without the power of the Spirit energizing their proclamation. Do we honestly expect to be effective and successful witnesses without asking the Spirit for help? Even though the Holy Spirit indwells each child of God, we must allow Him to control us each day – Paul tells us to be controlled (filled) with the Spirit (Eph.5:18).

The New Testament is filled with metaphors of what it looks like when a believer is filled with the Spirit, and when we apply those to Stephen, we might describe him as someone who was clothed in the full armor of God (Eph.6), or we could describe Stephen as someone who had presented his body to God as his spiritual worship (Rom.12), or we could describe Stephen as someone who denied himself and took up his cross and followed Christ (Matt.16), or we could also describe Stephen as having the character and behavior of an officer in the church (1 Tim.3). Stephen would fit the bill for all those descriptions. However, Luke abbreviates his maturity to the very minimum, “he was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” When we meet Jesus face to face, many believers anticipate the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” but what about the here and now? Are you a witness others call “full of faith and the Holy Spirit?”    


Christ was careful to warn His followers that witnessing for Him would not be without difficulty; He said to expect it. Jesus said, “They will lay hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for my name’s sake. But it will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony…for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; they will put some of you to death” (Lk.21:14).  

Let’s remember that persecution is not simply physical, as it was in Stephen’s case, but it can have many faces. Persecution can be social. The book of Hebrews tells us about some new believers in Christ who were ostracized by their communities, family, and friends; no one would do business with them; they were treated differently. Today, we might call this behavior discrimination, which comes in many forms. Sometimes persecution can come in the way of slander; in the case of Stephen, the leaders of the synagogue were attempting to better him in debate, and when they could not, is the very moment that slander fell from their lips. They twisted his words and brought false accusations against him, with witnesses lined up to falsely accuse him. By the way, did you know that this is the first time in the book of Acts that the people inside the church are incited against one of their own? A good witness expects persecution to come in all its forms; he anticipates it, and he understands that its part of the job description.        


A good witness must be ready to give an explanation, as Peter reminds us to “…always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…” (1 Pt.3:15), and Stephen was ready! He is brought before the Sanhedrin to answer for the false charges brought against him. However, instead of answering those charges per se, he decides to preach a sermon to his captive audience – and this sermon is hot! (Maybe in a future article, I will have the time to lay out his sermon with some of its implications, but for now, we must stay on the main point). Stephen’s main point is that these religious leaders cannot accept the change that Jesus’ death on the cross has brought; they are blind to the current transition in God’s plan of redemption. We must understand that a fundamental belief for the religious leader is that God is intricately attached to the physical Promised Land. We might hear them say, “There is only one way that God can work through the Jewish people, and it’s through the land of Israel and the temple.” Knowing this, Stephen cites the examples of Abraham, Moses, and Joseph: God appeared to Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia; God came to Moses while he was in the desert in Midian; God was with Joseph while he was in Egypt. These three men obediently accepted the changes God brought in their lifetimes, but these religious leaders will not budge.

As Stephen drops the indictment, the situation escalates quickly: Your tradition has become a god. These religious leaders are so blinded (Jesus said this very thing in Matthew 23) by their traditions that they cannot even think for themselves. God’s presence cannot be localized; He is wherever His people are, even those who live outside the land of Israel. Stephen further says they are so content with keeping their traditions that they will dispose of anyone in their way. Thankfully, Stephen had an excellent grasp of God’s plan. He knew his Old Testament well, and He was aware of the significant changes that were going on in God’s plan of redemption. So, what is our excuse today? We have the completed Word of God; we can read the New Testament authors and see how they connect the dots for us back to the Old Testament. For instance, the Jesus that came to die on the cross in the New Testament is the same Jesus that the Old Testament prophesied would come. Furthermore, when Jesus returns, both Testaments prophesy about those future events. Therefore, we have no excuse for not knowing and not being able to clearly articulate the Gospel message to anyone who asks us. If you are nervous, and we all can be, ask the Holy Spirit to give you the words to say.    


The religious leaders did not want Stephen’s words getting out into the ears of the crowd any longer. They rushed to take him outside the city and stoned him on the spot, all without a trial. As Stephen was nearing death from stoning, He prayed for his enemies – something only Jesus would do. Even though the story of Stephen ends rather abruptly with his death, we can still see God’s hand in all the chaos. Stephen’s witness is the catalyst for a new explosion of growth in the early church, and I believe that Stephen’s speech began to reach the heart of the Apostle Paul, who was an eyewitness of this entire narrative. The faithful witness of Stephen indirectly leads to the salvation of Paul, a man who would light the world on fire with the Gospel message.

The one part of Stephen’s speech that is crucial for us to comprehend is that the church is God’s idea. It has always been part of God’s plan. Have you ever stopped to consider how witnessing is intrinsically tied to the church? Sunday is the day that believers all over the globe come to church; it is the day the Person that we are witnesses for rose again from the grave, and we are enamored with Him. The church could not start witnessing to the world until the Holy Spirit had descended at Pentecost; the church then (and today) needed the energizing power of the Holy Spirit to be effective witnesses. Before we leave the church and head out into the world to be faithful witnesses, we are reminded to expect persecution. As we listen to the Word of God preached in church, we are equipped, encouraged, and taught how to explain God’s redemptive plan. We spend time in corporate prayer during church services, praying even for our enemies. Lord, may we be eager to pray for those who oppose us! Our witnessing should show others how much we value Jesus and His church.
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