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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Running the Race Marked Out, with Perseverance & Power


“Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however…."

Acts 6:8-9

Previously, we looked at the first part of Acts 6, where a challenge to the united existence of the early church had arisen from within. The Lord was really gracious. In that moment he gifted the church leaders the wisdom to lead effectively and propose a solution. You may have heard a saying made famous by US President Abraham Lincoln. – ‘You can please all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time.’ In Acts 6, the ‘proposal (of the apostles) pleased the whole group’. Everyone was happy and there was a reason for that. The solution was spiritual, simple and sufficient. And to continue the theme of words beginning with ‘s’, it involved the selection of seven servants! These were spiritually and practically minded men who would step in and perform the administrative task that was needed in that moment.

Two of these seven feature again in the book of Acts. We don’t have to go far. Philip is found in two chapters on, in Acts 8. What is Philip doing? What we did yesterday. A man, travelling from Ethiopia, had heard the gospel message and put his faith in Jesus. He was driving down the road and Philip was sat beside him, quite obviously explaining church practice to him. They arrive at a body of water; maybe a pond, or a river – it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is the stunningly simple conclusion that this man reaches. He excitedly says to Philip, ‘Look, here is water’. In effect, he is saying to Philip, ‘If what you have been telling me is true then we have to do something here.’ The man, even with his fledging education in the things of Jesus, had come up with the correct answer to one of the Bible’s simple sums - faith plus water equals baptism. It’s that simple. The church has often got this wrong. With our first baptisms in Riverside’s history, yesterday, we have to confess (I hold my hands up), we have been slow to put the correct answer on the whiteboard. The Ethiopian man asks this, ‘What can stand in the way of my being baptised?’ (Acts 8:36). The answer is so stark-staringly obvious that the Bible doesn’t even bother to record Philip’s answer - just that the car screeches to a halt and Philip immediately immerses the man, who then rose from the water and ‘went on his way rejoicing’.

For baptism, just two things are needed. One is faith. You cannot have believer’s baptism without belief - belief in the Saving Son of God. You cannot perform it without water. But let’s face it, 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with the stuff - that should be the easy one!

So, we don’t have to go far to find Philip (even though, if you read Acts 8:39, he wasn’t always the easiest man to find, particularly after baptisms. Unlike us, Philip didn’t hang around for coffee and cake!) But, after that first part of Acts 6, you hardly have to move to find Stephen. His story continues in the very next verse, Acts 6:8, and it continues to the end of Acts 7, which is not just the end of a chapter of a book, but the end of Stephen’s life of earth. Stephen is about to become the first, early-church martyr, forced to choose between his life and his faith. Stephen faithfully chose to give up his life because he would not renounce his faith in Jesus Christ. Stephen chose to remain aligned to Jesus in life and so faced the same opposition that Jesus had.

Acts 10:38-39, says this - ‘God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and… he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.’ Acts 6:8-9 has similar things in the life of Stephen. Likewise, he was ‘full of God’s grace and power’. Likewise, he ‘performed great wonders and signs among the people’. So, when Jesus ‘went around doing good’, what was the result? Opposition, that was eventually deadly - ‘They killed him by hanging him on a cross’. What happened when Stephen ‘performed great wonders’? Verse 9 tells us - ‘Opposition arose’.

Why this reaction? Why is it that ‘doing good’ is so objectionable? Surely, everyone wants to see good being done? Generally, this may be so. But is that really what is happening here? We find the answer in the words of Jesus. He deals with two opposites – love and hate. Within his church body, we must love each other. But we must also be aware that there will be those outside of the church who will despise us, and our claims of relationship with Jesus.

In John 13:34, Jesus spoke to his followers about a ‘new command’ which they must follow. ‘A new command I give you: love one another.’ That isn’t always easy in church life, such are the inclinations of our hearts. But Jesus set the bar really high. He clarified what he expected of them when he said, ‘as I have loved you, so you must love one another’.

Last time in Acts 6, we looked at the challenge that faced the early church. At the root of the problem was distinction – people groups were starting to feel divided within the local church body. Believers should be one – a united group within the local church body, without the distinctions that human society makes, and be, as mentioned in Galatians 3:28, ‘all one in Christ Jesus’. Regardless of background; regardless of what level society might consider us to be at; regardless of where we each are on our Christian journey currently; we must strive (and it is a really high standard) to ensure that we do everything we can to avoid the creation of ‘them and us’ divisions – where people feel they are outsiders. This will require deliberate intent.

I drink black coffee. That’s how I like it. Many others drink it ‘white’. I’ve noticed that when I make white coffee, I can judge whether I have got the component parts about right by the resulting colour of the beverage. If the drink is darker than usual then I have used too many coffee granules, or too little milk. If it is lighter then I know that I have put extra milk in, or that I need to add more coffee to make it right. The local church body should be like a cup of coffee. And I don’t mean that the more of church that you consume, the less likely you are to sleep at night! No. Rather, that it should be reflective of the mix of its component parts. In coffee terms, it’s a bit like this. If I chose to serve coffee today in the way that I like it then you would all get black coffee. I would be happy but few others would. Most people would not like the taste - it would be too bitter. In the first part of Acts 6, the church had an issue, because the colour of the church, in one particular aspect of the way that it operated, didn’t properly reflect all of its components – its members. It was serving some members more than others, and those others were left with a bitter taste that they did not like. It’s an easy mistake to make - to think that because something works well in a certain way for us, everyone else will be just as content with it. I don’t make that mistake with coffee. I try to make it as people have asked for it, even if it seems a little strange. The question I should ask is whether I have the same deliberate intent when it comes to serving up church. Because, though coffee is really important – church is more so. Am I prepared to adapt my personal taste; to love myself a little less, and love others a little more, in order to get this right? Jesus has set the standard – ‘as I have loved you, so you must love one another’.

That wasn’t the only time that Jesus had spoken to his disciples about this subject of love. It was the underlying theme of more or less everything he said. He reinforces his instruction from John 13 in John 15 17, ‘this is my command: love each other’. He then continues with love’s opposite - ‘If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.’

In Acts 6, when Stephen faithfully carried the truth and ‘power’ of Jesus’ resurrection message, into the world, Stephen no longer belonged. Despite the fact that Stephen was ‘performing wonders’ and doing good things, he was an outsider and, consequently, he faced opposition.

Jesus continued, in John 15:18-25, saying ‘remember what I told you, “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.’ Generally, did people receive the teaching of Jesus and follow him in obedience? No. Were there many that, likewise, rejected the same message when Stephen brought it? Yes. But what is the reason? Jesus quoted the Old Testament (see Psalm 69:4), in anticipation of this question being asked, ‘this is to fulfil what is written in their Law: “They hated me without reason.”’ Yes, people do have their reasons for rejecting the message of Jesus, but none of them are valid. People do it because they see it having no value for them and their lives when, actually, it is a message of infinite value for anyone and everyone who receives it and believes it.

One more thing that Jesus says, in John 15, is this. ‘They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me.’ ‘My name’ – it’s all because of Jesus. Essentially, people don’t object to Christ’s people doing good. But they do object to Christ’s people ‘doing Jesus’. Oh that we could have the same response that we find in the apostles in Acts 5:41, ‘rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name’. We cannot do this on our own. But Stephen did not do this on his own either.

In verse 8, we see that Stephen has received something. Stephen has been filled with something. That something is grace and power. It wasn’t something that he had within his own character, which just came to the fore when push came to shove. It didn’t come from inside him. It came from inside God. God filled Stephen. So well was he filled that we read that he was ‘a man full of God’s grace and power’. Acts has so much to say about this gift of power, which is given through God’s Spirit, promised by Jesus.

In the great commission which Jesus gave his followers in Acts 1:8. They were told to go into the world and bring others to follow Jesus. There he promised them, ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you’. Here, in Acts 6, we find this promise being fulfilled, not in the life of one of the apostles, but in the life of an ordinary believer, called Stephen. And we see it in action – not just in theory but in practice. It actually enabled Stephen to do something that he wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. And, once again, it was exactly as Jesus had promised. This principle, of an outside ‘power’ giving special abilities, is not a concept confined to these records from the past. It is a concept that is within our own modern culture. We even find it in video games. Have you played a video game and received a ‘power-up’? What happened? Did you perform worse or better?

One of the best known video game characters is Super Mario. He first appeared in a game called Donkey Kong in July 1981. In July 1981, I was nine years old – that’s how long ago it was! Some of you will have played a game called ‘Mario Kart’, where Mario races other characters around various circuits. This is a game which features ‘power-ups’. What are they? Well, ‘mariowiki’ tells us – ‘power-ups are items that give special abilities to characters that use them. Most of their effects make defeating enemies… easier.’ They give an advantage to the character that receives them. In some of the Mario games, there is a power-up called the ‘Super-Star’. This ‘temporarily transforms Mario into Invincible Mario, granting him invincibility and allowing him to defeat most enemies by touching them.’ So characters that would usually defeat Mario, are themselves defeated, because of this ‘power-up’. Swap ‘Mario’ for ‘Stephen’ and that is Acts 6:10!

Once again, we have the now familiar sight of opposition to the gospel message. Stephen is opposed by lots of people; members of a Jewish Synagogue. What chance did he stand, on his own, against so many? No chance – but he wasn’t on his own. Their arguments were defeated by this one man. They had to resort to underhand methods to try to shut him up. Why? Was it because he was clever, or articulate, or loud and proud as he spoke, or because he had wisdom within himself that made him able to deal with anything? No, none of those things. What his opponents couldn’t ‘stand against’ was his ‘power-up’ – ‘they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke’. I love that – ‘as he spoke’.

Jesus promised that it would be so for his followers. Jesus said (Luke 12:11) ‘When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.’ We have considered this before in our study of Acts. It is a recurring theme in this book. Why? Because, the promises of God hold fast.

Stephen’s opponents resort to sneakiness to overcome the defeat that they had suffered through Stephen’s wise words, which ‘the Spirit gave him as he spoke’. These men claimed to be on a quest to retain truth; to protect the truth of the Old Testament scriptures. But they weren’t. They act secretly; they manipulate; they ally themselves with people that they would normally disagree with, because it fits with their motive that day, and then they lie the most dangerous type of lies – those that contain some truth (Acts 6:11-14). This is often what happens and it is so hard to defend against. Statements are made that are, more or less, accurate, but the whole truth is left out and, further to that, an extrapolation is made that leads to a place that is simply untrue.

The ‘false witnesses’ speak similar things to those that Jesus was charged with (see Mark 14:58). The thrust of their claim is that Jesus, and his follower Stephen, are undermining God’s servant Moses, and the Jewish temple worship that God had given to Israel. They want people to believe that following Jesus is to move away from Moses and the temple and, ultimately, God himself. Stephen will soon defend himself with an earth-shattering argument. It will cost him his life. His claim is that following Jesus is the opposite of what has been claimed by his opponents. Believing in Jesus does not undermine the system of Law; the rules for life that God gave to Moses. One of the later Old Testament prophets, called Isaiah, would predict what Jesus would do, when he arrived on the scene, some seven hundred years later. Isaiah 42:21 (AV) says, ‘he will magnify the law, and make ithonourable.’ Our lives encourage us to shrink the Law, because we know that we will always be adrift of what God requires of us. Jesus magnified it – he put it under the microscope and brought even the smallest details of God’s demands into the sharpest focus, and then he matched the details of his own life to it and, like ‘in the beginning’ when God created the world, ‘God saw that it was good’ (see Genesis 1). And then Jesus gave ‘his life… for many’ (Mark 10:45). Jesus had not come to destroy the law. He had come and fulfilled it (see Matthew 5:17-20). He hadn’t undermined it. He had completed it.

Jesus didn’t undermine the Old Testament in what he said about the Jerusalem Temple either. Jesus did say some powerful stuff, but it confirmed the Old Testament rather than contradicting it. Stephen will call upon the long-dead King Solomon as one of his defence witnesses in the next chapter. It was Solomon who was given the awesome privilege of building the most magnificent version of the temple that Israel ever had. Yet, Solomon, at the dedication service, where that building was devoted to the Lord, asked a question and then gave the answer. ‘But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens cannot contain you. How much less this temple that I have built.’

Jesus himself, was in full agreement with that Old Testament witness, when he spoke to that Samaritan Woman by the well in John 4. Jesus told her of a fast approaching time when God would no longer be worshipped in the temple in Jerusalem and then said, ‘a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth. In the book of Acts, that ‘time’ is now. As Solomon and Jesus agreed, God cannot be contained in a building. God cannot be truly worshipped just by being in a special place. God can only be worshipped in a person. That person is Jesus Christ the Lord.

Do we desire to come and worship God truly. Then look no further. We can come. That time is still now. Jesus said this (John 6:37), and it is the essence of Good News truth that is faithfully carried into a world of opposition by the followers of God’s Son and Saviour – ‘whoever comes to me I will never drive away’.


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