The Spirit is Working – 7/05/2023
55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.
We have been celebrating the really good news of Easter. And even in what has been a tough vintage, we have been trying to enjoy our Vintage Festival and Thanksgiving celebrations.
But now, without warning, we are confronted with this violent episode of the Stephen, the first person killed for faith in Jesus.
The same anti-Jesus and anti-Jesus’ community forces were still in play for the new community of faith that had sprung up in the city.
How did it get to here?
The first gospel community in Jerusalem was made up of two groups of people: Greek speaking (Hellenists) and Hebrew/Aramaic speaking (Jewish) people.
Luke tells us that a dispute arose. In that immediate generosity that broke out in this fledgling community, a system of allocating food to the more vulnerable people in the new community took shape. A fair percentage of the vulnerable people were women who had lost their husbands. They had no rights and very few options. Therefore, they often had to live on almost nothing.
The dispute was about seeming favouritism in this daily distribution system.
The Greek speaking people complained to the Jewish speaking people about their widows being overlooked in this daily distribution.
Wisely, ‘The Twelve’ took quick action to settle this dispute. They appoint overseers of this welfare ministry who would make sure the whole thing was done fairly.
One of those seven people appointed was Stephen.
Luke tells us that all seven were “full of both the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3). But Stephen seems to be recognised in the community as being very gifted. Stephen is the first one named in the group, and the only one to receive specific praise as one “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5) and “full of grace and power,” doing signs and wonders among the people” (6:8).
Just like John the Baptist and Jesus before him, and Paul who would come after him, Stephen was most annoying to those who hold all the power in the city synagogue community because he boldly speaks of faith and God And bible and life in a way that his detractors find impossible to dispute (6:10).
Of course, Jesus said this would be so. In Luke 21:15 as Jesus speaks with The Twelve before they became ‘The Twelve’, he says;
15 … I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.
It does not take long before Stephen finds himself dragged into the ruling council – the Sanhedrin. And when given the opportunity to speak, he is no shrinking violet!!
He speaks long. This is no ‘Twitter’ length response like those of Jesus before his accusers. This is longer than the first ever gospel sermon Peter’s spoke that Pentecost Day.
Stephen recounts all the big movement in their own history back to them saying one thing … Nothing has changed with you. You are resistant to the grace of God at work – always have been and are now.
Like 5 wrong calls by the umpire during the last quarter that eventually gift the other team the win (in your opinion), the tension must have slowly built with every new line.
- Father Abraham received the promise of God to make a great nation of blessing out of his children and grandchildren, but never himself saw it fulfilled (like you have not seen this promise of the Messiah Jesus fulfilled).
- Joseph carried the promise to Egypt but only got hostility and betrayal (like you treated Jesus).
- Moses, the great Prophet, Priest and King who ‘talked with the Lord, face to face’ only got resistance from his own people (like we are now).
- The prophets only ever got resistance from God’s own people.
- Even the those announced the promised Saviour got resistance.
And right at the end in verse 52 …The Sprit,
… And now you have betrayed and murdered him (the Saviour)!
Can you feel their anger burn? The Sanhedrin
… covered their ears and yell at the top of their voices,
Like a protest mob storming the building, it gets way out of hand …
… they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him’.
It feels like a wild mob without any form of control or structure. But it is a little more than that.
Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Besides this being the first mention of Saul who of course become Paul the great Apostle to the Greek and Roman world, this shows there is some order to this execution.
The witnesses are part of the Jewish law around execution. Apparently the first witness pushed the accused person down from a place of execution that was about 3+ metres high. If that did not kill the accused, a second witness then would drop a very large boulder on the accused chest – thereby crushing his chest.
Luke is echoing Jesus as he tells us about this.
Like Jesus and all the prophets and messengers and leaders of God’s people, Stephen comes up against the same old human obstinate heart that resist the presence and promises of God.
Just like for Jesus;
- There is a secret plot to arrest each of them (Luke 22:2; Acts 6:11)
- The religious elite “seize” him (Luke 22:54; Acts 6:12)
- Stephen is brought to the council authorities (Luke 22:54, 66; Acts 6:12)
- the people are “stirred up” against him (Luke 23:5; Acts 6:12)
- the charge is blasphemy (Luke 22:71; Acts 6:11) and destroyer of the traditions.
But Stephen is like Jesus in one more way – in how and why he does.
Having seen the heavens opened, and knowing that the Son of Man will judge his innocence, Stephen forgives his tormentors:
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
And in trust,
he commends his spirit to the risen Jesus (7:59).
Is this just a sad story of tragic and unjust loss of life? No.
Surely Luke is showing us that even this wrong treatment, this stubborn human heart, this need for power, this way we are so set in our ways cannot and will not stop the risen Jesus accomplishing his mission among us and through us.
Remember, Jesus telling them as he ascended that they were to go baptising and teaching everything thing he said and did first to this city, then to the surrounding region, even to neighbouring Samaria and then wherever else – even ‘the ends of the earth’?
The Book of Acts is Luke telling us how that actually happened; how the gospel got from a small provincial region (Judea)on the edge of the known world to the very centre of the world; Rome, from where it could and did spread across the world.
I am inspired for several reasons:
1, The Holy Spirit can overcome my stubborn heart, unstop my unlistening ears, shut my shouting mouth and get me where he wants me to go in his mission. He did for Stephen. He did it for Saul who would be known as Paul. He did for Luke, the one writing this account for us. He does it for you today.
- This gospel community still lives, despite the ups and down, the failures, the change of culture, the shifts in beliefs, the anger of those who oppose and threaten. The Risen Lord that stills calls you and me, gathers us enlightens even blind, shouting, unlistening angry me and you.
- Even in such hard things, like violence and fury and injustice, the promise wins. As a result of this first persecution, more came. The little church is the city was scattered far and wide and the rest of the Book of Acts tells us where they went and what happened and how it is all the Holy Spirit’s working that created and sustains us.
I am hearing some things for you to be inspired by today:
- Whoever is against you, the Spirit is working.
- However hard your heart is or can get, the Spirit is working.
- No matter how much you don’t understand or don’t want to know, the Spirit is working.
- In all the angry words you have spoken and can still speak, the Spirit is working.
- For the vision you just can’t see, the Spirit is working.
- For the efforts to put in and the heart=ache you sometime carry for church and family and yourself, the Spirit is working.
- For the worry about our church and its future and its difference of opinions and its much lesser place in the community, the Spirit is working.
As he did for this fledgling church, through means different than you and would employ or even want (like persecution) he is still calling us, gathering us and lighting us up for his ongoing work in his community.
Yes, into your hands we commend our spirit’s today, Holy Spirit of Jesus.