Saul and Stephen Down the Road

June 22, 2014

It would appear that he had everything
going for him. He was one of the leaders of the early church. He was a person
of influence and integrity and he had the respect and honour of his colleagues
and peers.  Think about it, how would you
like to be described as “a person full of faith and the Holy Spirit?”  That’s how this man was described.
It would appear that he had
everything going for him.  There was just
one small problem.  He was dead. He had
been murdered, cut down in his prime, killed by the very things that made him
who he was, his integrity and his Godliness.
His name was Stephen and he was
first introduced to us in the book of Acts as the early church faced one of its
first challenges.  The story begins in
Acts chapter 6, with the church going through unprecedented growth.  Literally thousands of new believers were
being added to the church and the apostles were struggling with how to handle
the influx.  Miracles are happening,
people are getting saved, society is being influenced and then we read Acts 6:1
But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent.
Boy you gotta hate that.  So what were the grumblings about? Obviously
in such a spiritual group, who lived so close to the resurrection and the Day
of Pentecost it must have been something that involved spiritual issues, maybe
arguments over doctrine or theology. 
Nope nothing so grand and compelling, if we continue to read we
discover:  The Greek-speaking believers
complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were
being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food.
Remember at this point Christ
followers considered themselves Jews and as such they felt an obligation to
taking care of their own, especially the widows in the group.  In a society that was as male oriented as
Palestine and most of the world was 2000 years ago a woman’s existence really
depended on her husband.  He was the
bread winner and the shelter provider and in many cases his wife didn’t have the
ability or opportunity to provide for herself and so if she lost her husband
her community had to step up to the plate to support her.  And the early church embraced that, in James
1:27 Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for
orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.

The problem was while the church at this stage was
comprised of Jews, they weren’t all the same Jews.  Hundreds of years previous the country of
Israel had been conquered by Assyria and Babylon and as part of that many of
their people were taken captive.  During
that time they were assimilated into the culture of their captors and
eventually lost their original language. 
Fast forward a few hundred years and the Greeks under Alexander the
Great captured most of the known world. 
Instead of taking people captive the Greeks took their culture captive
by simply insisting that they take on the Grecian culture and language and so Greek
became the common language of the area. However the Jews in Palestine resisted
and while most of them spoke Greek they still considered Hebrew their primary
language and anyone who didn’t speak Hebrew was considered less of a Jew. 

Still with me?  You
see, the Jews who returned to Israel at various times had lost their Hebrew and
simply spoke the language of the market place and there was the problem.

While that shouldn’t have mattered in a perfect world it
seemed to matter in an imperfect world. 
The result was that the widows who spoke Greek complained that they
weren’t receiving the same care as the widows who spoke Hebrew, kind of
Star-Belly Sneetches and Sneetches without. Now we don’t know for sure that
there was any actual discrimination but there was the presumption. 

The Apostles realized that they
were getting more and more things on their plate and were unable to do
everything well so they appointed seven men to help out, it’s interesting to
note that all seven had Greek names not Hebrew names.  One of these men was Stephen.  And this is what the scriptures say about
him, Acts 6:5 . . . and they chose the following: Stephen (a man full of faith
and the Holy Spirit. . .
and then later Acts 6:8 Stephen,
a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among
the people.
And so at that point it would
appear that he had everything going for him, a sterling character and a
leadership position in a dynamic growing church but then the wheels came off
the wagon.  Stephen had been telling people
about Jesus and the change that had happened in his life and he was accused of
blasphemy and dragged before the council of high priests where he was asked to
defend himself, which he did.  He
preached the longest sermon recorded in the book of Acts and took the high
priests on a whirlwind tour of the Old Testament.  He seemed to be on a roll and when you are
learning to preach they always tell you to end strong and that may have been
Stephen’s mistake.  Acts 7:51-53 “You
stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you
forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you!
Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who
predicted the coming of the Righteous One—the Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered.
You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the
hands of angels.”
Ouch, William Barclay the
Author of the Daily Study Bible stated, “A speech like that could only have one
end; Stephen courted death and death came.”  
And the story continues Acts 7:57-58 Then they put their hands over
their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him and dragged him out of the
city and began to stone him.

And Stephen went from being one of the churches first
leaders to becoming the churches’ first martyr. 
You understand that this was not a trial and execution, the high priest
had no power to execute anyone, that is why they insisted that Pilate issue the
order for the death of Christ.  This was
a lynch mob, pure and simple.

So what do we learn from this story?

1) Bad Stuff Can Happen to Good
People   This is the dark secret that
some churches don’t want you to know. Let’s try that again in case you missed
it the first time; “Bad Stuff Can Happen to Good People!”   According
to the theology of some groups Stephen should have had everything that he
wanted.  After all he was a committed Christ
follower, a man of prayer who loved Jesus. So Stephen should have only
experienced the very best that this life had to offer, he should have been healthy,
wealthy and wise, lived to a ripe old age and died peacefully in his sleep.
He should have claimed the
victory and he would have had it.  There’s
only one problem with that theology, it’s wrong.   And it has caused feelings of guilt and
discouragement in the lives of believers.
I truly believe that becoming a
Christian, a serious Christian sold out to God and committed to serving him
will often cause a person’s lot in life to improve.  You notice that I said often and not always,
and that’s because I am convinced that all generalizations are wrong.
Godly men and women who have
faithfully served God have suffered. 
Have suffered at the hands of others and have suffered at the hands of
fate they have suffered at the hands of illness and financial reversal.  And in many cases it’s not their fault, there
is no hidden sin in their lives, there is no lack of faith they still love God
and pray to him but listen up people they suffer because. . . you ready? Stuff
happens.  And that’s why God never promises
that we won’t go through trouble but he does promise that we won’t go through
it alone.    Deuteronomy 31:6 So be strong and courageous!
Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the LORD your God will
personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you.”
And in the New Testament we
read Hebrews 13:5 For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never
abandon you.”

And scattered in between a half a dozen times the thought
is repeated.  Read it with me.  Hebrews 13:5 For God has said, “I will never
fail you. I will never abandon you.”

I wish I could stand up here
and wave a magic wand and put some kind of protective dome over you that would
keep you from all trouble and illness and heartache, but I can’t.  And if I stood up here and promised that all
you had to do was believe in God and be faithful and live a holy life and you’d
never have any troubles I would be lying to you.  Jesus said in Matthew 5:11 “God blesses you
when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of
evil things against you because you are my followers.

Not if you are mocked and persecuted but when you are
mocked and persecuted. 

2) Good Things Can Come of Bad
Things  There are a couple of verses in
the story of the stoning of Stephen that we would be negligent if we didn’t
look at. There is one of those bizarre little details recorded in Acts 7:58 and
dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their
coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Interesting, only two people
are named in this account.  We don’t know
the names of the witness who lied about Stephen, the names of the high priests
aren’t recorded.  We know Stephen’s name
and we know the name of the young man who watched over the cloaks of those who
stoned Stephen, a young man by the name of Saul.  The last verse of chapter 7 records the death
of Stephen, it says Acts 7:60 He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge
them with this sin!” And with that, he died.
And if we skip down to the
first line of chapter 8 we read Acts 8:1 Saul was one of the witnesses, and he
agreed completely with the killing of Stephen.
There’s Saul again.  You may or may not be aware that the young
man who watched over the coats that day would later come face to face with
Jesus Christ and become a Christ follower. 
You might not know him as Saul but you would know him by the Greek
version of his name which was Paul.  He
wrote the majority of the New Testament and spread the gospel across Asia and
into Europe.  Augustine said “The church
owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen.”  This
was the same Paul who wrote Romans 8:28 And we know that God causes everything
to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to
his purpose for them.

I wonder if when Paul was writing those words if he was
thinking back to the day that he witnessed what the grace of God could do in
the life and death of a young believer named Stephen.  It was John Wesley who said The world can say
what it likes about us Methodist, but they have to admit: we die well.  I don’t believe for a minute that God set
Stephen up to die so that Paul would become a Christian, but He used it.  Perhaps he gave young Saul a nudge toward
that particular event on that day and the Holy Spirit reminded him about what
happened from time to time.

Seven years ago I sat with 30
pastors from the Wesleyan Church in Sierra Leone and they shared the horrors of
what happened during the ten year civil war. 
I tell people that I have not looked into the face of evil but I have
looked into the face of those who have. 
They had their buildings burnt, they were terrorized and forced to live
in the jungles surrounding their villages and towns.  They would gather together wherever they
could to worship during that time.  And
when the war was over and they returned to their villages and their churches
they discovered that the church had grown and become stronger during the
war.  Bizarre.  By the way I am planning a return trip to
Sierra Leone and will be taking a medical team along for the trip. 
If you are interested in going or
helping us go please talk to me.  This
commercial break was brought to you by Sierra Leone 2015. 
So to reiterate, Bad things
happen to Good People and Good Things Can Come of Bad Things. 
3)  That Doesn’t Always Make it Easy  I’m not sure if Stephen was married, if he
had kids, if his folks were still alive, but I’m pretty confident there were
those he left behind who missed him. 
I’m not sure that if they had of
known the final outcome if they would have voted in favour of the stoning.  Let’s see we will lose our loved one and in
exchange a man who didn’t have the guts to step in and help Stephen will get saved.
. . hmmmm.
One of the Pastor’s we spoke to in Sierra Leone was a lady
named Bindy and she lost a child during the war because they could not get
medical care.  Not sure if she was
convinced that it was worth it.
Bad things can happen to good
people, and good things can come of bad things, but that doesn’t make it any
easier.  And you telling people that it
should probably doesn’t help.  Illness,
tragedy, death, financial problem still hurt when we are going through them,
but the promise of God is still there Hebrews 13:5 For God has said, “I will
never fail you. I will never abandon you.”
4) We Won’t Always Know The End
Result.  Stephen died not knowing what
would happen with the church he had embraced. 
He knew he had been faithful and he died with the peace of knowing he
had done the right thing, even if it had cost him his life.  He knew the church was spreading through
Jerusalem and having an incredible impact in that area but he probably never
envisioned a movement that would affect more than Israel.  But let’s listen to how the next chapter
opens  Acts 8:1 Saul was one of the
witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen.  A great wave of persecution began that day,
sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the
apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria.
Up to that point the church was
confined to Palestine, if the apostles had even given thought of the last words
they heard Jesus speak they weren’t doing anything about it.  Remember what Jesus had told them Acts 1:8 But
you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my
witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea,
in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”   But they didn’t, they were stuck in
Jerusalem. 
Now remember the last part of Acts
8:1 . . .A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in
Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the
regions of Judea and Samaria.

It took Stephen’s death to move the church out of their
comfort zone and to begin doing what they were supposed to do.   In a very real sense we are here today
because Stephen was stoned two thousand years ago.  When you get to heaven be sure to thank him.

I don’t know what you are going through in your life right
now, maybe you’re on a mountain top or maybe you are in the valley or perhaps
you are somewhere in between.  But
remember Hebrews 13:5 For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never
abandon you.”

And you might be thinking, sure but what’s with all the
suit cases and trunks?

Well today was the beginning of our summer series, which
seems fitting because yesterday summer arrived and today is the first full day
of summer. 

We often focus on the Gospels and over the past few summers
we have very specifically focused on the words of Christ and the directions of
Christ.  But if the story had of ended
with the Gospels, even with the resurrection and the empty tomb it is doubtful
that it would have impacted the world the way it has.   

Sometimes you will hear people talking about how amazing it
is that a movement that began with a group of uneducated fisherman in a small
town in a small country in the Middle East could impact that world the way that
Christianity did.

But the reality is that if the movement had of stayed in
the hands of a group of uneducated fisherman it would have remained in the
small country in the Middle East. 

While the gospel story may have started with Jesus calling
Peter and Andrew, James and John to put down their nets, that wasn’t how it was
spread.  It was spread when a classically
educated man by the name of Saul of Tarsus met Jesus and became the Apostle
Paul.

And so this summer we are going to take a trip “Down the
Road” and we will join Paul and his various companions as they plant churches,
preach the Gospel and get into trouble. 
We will follow Paul as he leaves the Middle East and travels to what is
now modern day Turkey and then we’ll join him as he ventures even further and
lands in what we now call Europe and we will finish our story in a prison cell
as Paul writes letters to encourage the baby churches he had left behind. 

And through the journey we will be reminded with Paul of
the truth of Hebrews 13:5 For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will
never abandon you.”  Do you believe
that?  Can you claim it as your own
promise today?