April 7, 2019
Pastor Jeff Struecker
Is it well with your soul today? I have a very close family member who it is not well with her soul, and she doesn’t know it. No matter how hard I try to convince her it’s not well with her soul, she can’t hear it because she’s a really, really good woman. I mean, she’s the kind of person that goes out of her way to help people. She does incredible things in her community, and she gives of herself a lot. She goes to church all of the time. The church that she goes to teaches this religion where if you just do good things and you’re a good person, then we’re going to let you go to Heaven. She’s got just enough religion that she’s been inoculated against a relationship with Jesus Christ. So, when I try to tell her it’s not right with her soul, she can’t hear it. All she can hear is I’m a pretty good person and I’m on my way to Heaven. What I want to do with her is figure out how to rock the boat and stir the waters a little bit. How do I help her understand the “religion” that she’s being given the religion that she’s hearing on Sunday morning is a lie that will send her straight to Hell? Just sitting down and doing what you’re supposed to do and not doing what you’re not supposed to do cannot get you into Heaven. No matter how hard I try she doesn’t hear those words. She just thinks I’m a pretty good person so certainly I’m on my way to Heaven.
The truth is, we live in a community full of people that have either bought into this lie that religion teaches. Or worse, they’ve just kind of jettisoned it altogether and said, “You know what? Don’t know, don’t care, doesn’t matter to me anymore.” The truth is, we live in a community that’s kind of stagnant. People get up, brush their teeth, go to work, and do it all over again until they die. If someone or something doesn’t disturb the waters a little bit, they will spend an eternity without Christ in Hell.
About a year ago, if you were in our church, we preached a sermon series called Weird. This sermon series said if you and I were to live our lives out in front of people that don’t know Jesus, don’t read the Bible, don’t spend time trying to follow him like we follow him, when they figure out what we do with our time, our money, and our bodies, they would say, “You people are weird!” It’s just natural that we would seem a little bit weird to them. Today I want to take the very idea of being weird people in the midst of people that don’t know Jesus, don’t go to church, and I want to pull it forward just a little bit to apply what this would look like in the midst of people that are really religious but don’t really know Jesus Christ at all.
Today from the book of Acts, you’re going to see this epic difference between religious leaders who were doing everything that they think they’re supposed to do to be right with God and a man by the name of Stephen. It can’t be any more obvious by the time we get to the end of Acts chapter six today just how different these two people are, those religious leaders that are following the rules and trying to follow a religion in order to please God and then a man by the name of Stephen, who’s just simply following in the footsteps of Jesus and trying to be full of the Holy Spirit.
Here’s what I want you to see from Stephen’s life today. If you and I go to work with people, in college, in high school with people, or live in a neighborhood full of people that are religious, but don’t follow Jesus or worse, don’t go to church at all. I’m not sure which of those two are worse, to be honest with you. If you and I don’t rock the boat a little bit and nothing changes, stagnant water eventually leads to destruction, it leads to death. So sometimes, like Stephen today, you have to rock the boat a little bit, if you’re going to move stagnant water. You see a holy troublemaker from the Bible today. You see a boat rocker who is not afraid to hold anything back when confronted by these religious leaders.
I. Let the Holy Spirit direct your words
If we are going to follow the example of Stephen and live like Stephen lived, the first thing that we’re going to have to do is let the Holy Spirit start to work in us and through us to the point that our words now start to become no longer ours but God through his Holy Spirit speaking through us. We become God’s mouth piece. That’s what the Bible says when it describes Stephen. If you were with us last week, we learned a little bit about this guy, but not a whole lot. We don’t know much about Stephen at all other than he was one of seven Greek men selected by the church to go handle a problem with the Greek people in the church. We’re going to pick this story up today in Acts chapter six starting in verse eight and listen to what the Bible says about Stephen today.
Acts 6:8-10 (CSB)
Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from some members of the Freedmen’s Synagogue, composed of both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, and they began to argue with Stephen. 10 But they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking.
Let me give you a little bit of explanation here. If you’re reading the book of Acts just in one chapter alone Stephen is mentioned three times. In chapter six of the book of Acts, we learn in verse three that Stephen is a man who is full of the Spirit and wisdom. In verse five, he is full of faith and the Holy Spirit. Verse six tells us that Stephen is a man that is full of the Holy Spirit. Verse eight tells us that he’s full of grace and power. Verse ten, I believe, is telling us where his power comes from, where his wisdom comes from, where his grace comes from because obviously it’s not Stephen doing the work. It’s not even Stephen’s words. It’s the Holy Spirit that is speaking through this man, Stephen.
Let me paint for you the scenario today. There’s a Greek group of people who have come to Jerusalem. They’re from modern day North Africa and Turkey. They’re Greek speaking Jews. They brought some of their own problems with them. They’re being introduced to Jesus. They’re becoming part of the church, and the church now has a problem. The church leaders have to decide, “Are we going to spend all of our time trying to solve this one problem with this one group of people? Or are we going to focus on reaching people with the word and on making an impact on the whole community?” So, the church selected seven Greek men to go minister to this Greek problem. Stephen is one of those seven men.
The religious leaders of the land are now starting to get unhappy about how much Christianity is spreading. In fact, if you listen to the Freedmen synagogue, it’s really a synagogue full of Greek speaking Jews that are coming from the other parts of the world. Christianity is spreading so much in Jerusalem that even the priests are starting to become Christians now. Every day Stephen and the church leader’s power starts to grow. Every day that their power starts to grow, the power of the religious leaders starts to shrink. So now it’s a war of words in Jerusalem. The religious leaders decide to call Stephen on the carpet. They’re basically doing whatever they’ve got to do at this point, to stop Stephen and the rest of the followers of Jesus from influencing the crowds.
Here’s what I think is fascinating. As hard as these highly educated religious leaders tried, they can’t shut Stephen down. The Bible describes it at the end of verse ten so that you can’t miss it. Do you see the word spirit? It’s capitalized. It’s telling us that Stephen is not the one doing the talking. Now it’s actually the Holy Spirit that starts to answer the arguments. The Holy Spirit is putting his words into Stephen, and Stephen is just repeating those words to the crowd. In other words, God has got so much of Stephen that now God is not only in him but he’s working through him, which is exactly what it’s supposed to happen for every one of us in this church. First God gets ahold of you and he starts the work in you. Then he starts to work through you as you minister to other people.
I don’t want you to miss the significance of what you’re hearing from Acts chapter six today. Stephen is exactly like you. What I mean is Stephen is almost certainly not a guy who’s ever met Jesus face to face. He was introduced to Jesus by one of the disciples. He learned who Jesus was and became a follower of Jesus very much like you did. Then he just took what he learned and started to teach it to other people. He started to reach other people with it, and he started to make an impact.
In the day of Stephen’s culture, these religious leaders were just simply teaching a set of rules. This is the exact same thing that’s happening in churches all over the Chattahoochee Valley today. There are pastors or priests that are standing up and they’re teaching a set of rules. They were saying, “Hey, you know that that lie that you told? You’re a bad person because you told a lie. We need to get that out of you and make sure that you don’t tell lies anymore. You’re really not reading your Bible enough. You’re a bad person because you’re not reading your Bible enough. We need to make sure that you’re reading your Bible a little bit more.” Then they pull out the hidden sin that you don’t want anybody else in the world to know about. They say, “You know that sin that you’re hanging on to that you don’t want anybody else in the world to know about? We need to get rid of that sin too.” Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with any of these things except that it just left you totally empty.
Three times in one chapter the Bible is telling us that Stephen is full of it, but here’s what he’s full of. He’s full of power. He’s full of grace. He’s full of the words of the Holy Spirit. Stephen is a man that is full of the Holy Spirit. Listen, what Jesus came to do is not just to empty you out. He came to fill you up and Stephen is a vivid example of this today. Jesus came so that you would be full of his Spirit and that you, because you’re full of his Spirit, would be able to minister to other people. Your words, your actions would minister to other people.
I really, really feel like some of you in this room today needed to hear this because you’ve been trying to follow the rules and it’s just left you empty. What God wants today is to fill you up and for you to experience the same presence of his Holy Spirit that Stephen experienced. Stephen was just like you, just like me. God used this man in incredible ways because he was full of the Spirit. Now the Spirit is speaking through Stephen. He’s not just speaking through Stephen, though. The Spirit is at work in Stephen’s life, literally to the point today that Stephen starts to look like an angel. God is working so much in this man’s life that the people see it, recognize it and notice something is different.
II. Let your witness reflect Jesus
Now if you’re reading through the book of Acts for the first time in your life, and you started at chapter one by the time you get to chapter six, you’re going to notice a theme that’s repeating here. In fact, the words that we’re going to read next from the Bible sound very, very familiar. Because Jesus was a man full of the Holy Spirit, he ministered to the people. The religious leaders hated him for it, and they killed him. Peter and John because they’re full of the Holy Spirit start to minister to people around them, and the religious leaders called them on the carpet for it. The apostles try to minister to people because they’re full of the Holy Spirit, and God is working through them as well as in them. The religious leaders flog them for it. Then Stephen stands up and starts to minister to people, and the exact same script plays out all over again.
Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; so they came, seized him, and took him to the Sanhedrin. 13 They also presented false witnesses who said, “This man never stops speaking against this holy place and the law. 14 For we heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” 15 And all who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Doesn’t this script sound pretty familiar? They’re doing the exact thing with Stephen right now that they did with Jesus. In fact, they’re bringing the exact same charges against Stephen that they brought against Jesus. They’re using Jesus as the precedence for this trial. These religious leaders don’t care what it takes in order to stop this guy. If they have to break the Ten Commandments and cause people to lie against Stephen to get him executed, they’ll do whatever they have to do to stop this man because they can’t win an argument against him. They’re going to use the same approach that they used with Jesus. In fact, they’re going to bring the same charges against Stephen that they brought against Jesus. The charge is blasphemy. Which, spoiler alert, next week is a capital offense. Now we’re going to see how this thing plays out with Stephen against this entire community of the most powerful religious people of the day.
I want you to notice something. When the Sanhedrin meet and confer against somebody the way that that trial usually went, according to Simon Kistemaker who wrote a commentary on the book of Acts, was seventy men would take their place in a semi-circle. They were always elevated above the accused. The seventy men would look down on the accused and pass judgment on the accused. That’s what’s happening right now with Stephen. When they looked down to criticize and critique Stephen something happened in front of their midst and Stephen looked different. A divine light from Heaven shone down on Stephen when they’re making this accusation. They’re critiquing or criticizing, “This guy’s doing exactly what Jesus did. We better put a stop to him like we put a stop to Jesus.” Duh. Jesus’s followers are supposed to do exactly what Jesus did. We’re walking in the footsteps of the Master. That’s what we’re supposed to do.
Here’s what some Bible scholars have pointed out. The guy who wrote this passage for us today was Luke. Luke wasn’t there at this trial, but Luke got this information from a firsthand account. You see, it’s almost certain that one of the Sanhedrin in that day remembers what this face looked like and will carry it with him for the rest of his life. It was a Pharisee by the name of Saul, who in just a few weeks will be radically totally transformed by Jesus and become the great apostle Paul. Saul the Pharisee will probably for the rest of his life, never forget what Stephen’s face looked like. In fact, it probably burned such an impression on Paul that he tells his protege, “Luke, write this down. Let me tell you what I remember when I saw Stephen standing in front of the Sanhedrin when we were passing our judgment on this guy for this criminal offense.” Jesus is working in this man so much, the Bible says today he starts to look a little bit like Jesus in front of these religious leaders.
I was doing a little bit of research about this. I found lots and lots of examples of this on the Internet. I’m going to give you an example. Maybe you’ll recognize these folks. Something happened to these folks and they don’t look anything like who they used to be. First picture is Kim Kardashian. Now listen, it wasn’t a teenage girl who grew up, and she just matured a little bit. If you go back and do the research, she looks very different today than she did a few years ago. Something impacted this girl. Or how about this person? This is Barry Bonds. A couple of you ball players in this room will recognize Barry Bonds. I want you to look at Barry Bonds early in his baseball career and then look at Barry Bonds late in his baseball career. You will see there’s something very different about this guy. He has been impacted by something. I was doing a little bit of research online, and I was just looking for pictures of people that went through plastic surgery where they don’t look the same today, that they used to look like. Or ballplayers like Barry Bonds who on one side of the screen doesn’t even look like the same guy on the other side of the screen.
I’m convinced Paul, later on in life, is sitting down, having a conversation with Luke and saying, “Luke, let me tell you what I saw with my own two eyes. That man transformed right in front of me and he started looking like Jesus because he was so full of the Holy Spirit. There was so much Jesus in him that I started to see Jesus when I was watching this guy.”
Stephen was a holy troublemaker. He was a boat rocker who was not afraid to back down and not willing to be silent. He was going to stand up and speak out, no matter what the consequences. I’m just going to remind you, church, when the apostles were willing to stand up to speak out it got a lot of people angry. When Stephen was going to stand up and speak out, or James and John and Andrew and Peter were, they got in trouble. When the Apostles and Jesus and all of the followers stood up and spoke out the book of Acts is just one example after another that it was costly. It cost them something. It’s sad to say, but even today, in 2019 in America, when you are willing to stand up and you’re willing to speak out, it may cost you a little bit. You should be willing to pay that price.
I want to challenge you about your willingness to rock the boat a little bit this week. Maybe you go to work with some people that don’t know Christ. They don’t go to church. They don’t seem to care anything about Christianity. Can I give you an example of what rocking the boat at work may look like? Tomorrow tell the folks that you go to work with, “Hey, I’m going to start a Bible study. I’m going to look at Acts chapter six. I have a couple of questions for you and a little prayer at the end.” Maybe that will just start to move the water enough that it gets ahold of somebody’s heart and starts to impact their soul.
Or, perhaps you go to college and you’re in biology class right now. You have a college professor that likes to criticize Christians and tends to run people down saying, “What kind of idiot could possibly believe in creation? Everybody who has any kind of intelligence believes in an evolution.” All of the other Christians that are in that biology class with you are just sinking down in their chair. Maybe God is poking you in the chest and saying, “Hey, I need you to stand up and to say, “You’re really not telling the whole story. You’re not representing the whole truth.” If you don’t even feel equipped or trained to do that, we’re having a conference at the end of this month called the Origin Summit for that very purpose. It will give you some things to think about where human life began, how the universe began.
Here’s one that I think all of us can do. Go knock on your neighbor’s door, take this card, hand it to them, and say, “Hey, you know, Easter’s coming up. Are you going to church anywhere?” Almost anybody in town will gladly answer that question for you. This may be the perfect opportunity to invite somebody to come to Easter at Calvary, but that’s not really the purpose of this card. The purpose of this card is so that you can ask them the next question, “I’ve never really had a chance to talk to you enough to get to know you. Can you tell me a little bit about your faith?” I can almost promise you, if they don’t know Jesus personally, they’re going to give you an answer something like this, “I’m on my way to Heaven because I’m a pretty good person.” This little card may be the difference between somebody spending an eternity in Hell without Jesus and learning for the first time you really can’t be good enough to earn your way into Heaven. This will be enough rocking the boat that it starts to stir the water up and causes your next-door neighbor to start to think about a question they’ve never been asked before. Or start to think about something that they’ve just never had to think about before.
• I have been religious but never truly surrendered to Jesus. Today, I turn to him for the first time.
– I have let fear hold me back from speaking about Jesus. Pray for me to have the courage of Stephen this week.
+ I want people to hear the Holy Spirit when I speak to them about faith.
- What is your definition of a religious/holy person?
- How does the world define this person compared to how the Bible defines him or her?
- Do you know someone who is “full of grace”? What makes this person stand out in a crowd?
- Read 1 Kings 21:1-24: What is similar between this passage and Acts 6? Why was God’s judgment so severe on Ahab for something his wife did? What personality traits do Naboth and Stephen share in common?
- Do you practice any “customs” or “traditions” that have no biblical basis? If so, name a few. Why do you practice them? Do they impact your witness?
- How do you respond when people challenge you about your faith? Consider Ephesians 4:11-16 and 2 Corinthians 3:3.
- Praise God that our journey in Christ is never alone, and pray for the courage to rock the boat this week.