God’s Upside Down Kingdom

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      God’s work often involves sacrifice.  There is a cost to be a disciple of Christ. The words of Christ in Matthew sum this up well and are extremely relevant in today’s passage.

           “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. 26 What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will reward each according to what he has done. 28 I assure you: There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” Matthew 16:24-28 HCSB

            Jesus words were basically come follow me and suffer. He didn’t promise life as a disciple would be easy, he promised it would be hard. He also didn’t ask his disciples to do anything he wasn’t willing to do. He didn’t say here’s the mission go struggle for my sake. He said come follow me. He led by example and as we travel the path of obedience we do so in his presence. He commanded his disciples and us to do the impossible, then empowered his followers for the mission by indwelling them with the Holy Spirit.

            As we saw last week struggles lead to opportunities to serve. Now we see that serving leads to opportunities to grow in spiritual maturity and increased ministry opportunities. Prior to this the only people who exhibited power or performing signs were the apostles. Here we see the power is spreading to other believers as they mature in their faith and use their gifting.

            Today we will be studying in Acts 6:8-8:3. In this text we will be focusing on the person and ministry of Stephen. The three main topics of today are:

1 Who was Stephen – what does a godly leader look like?

2 What did he have to say? This was his only recorded sermon, what was the theological contribution to the Bible?

3 How did God use Stephen in His redemptive plan?

Who was Stephen and what led to his sermon?

Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some from what is called the Freedmen’s Synagogue, composed of both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking. Acts 6:8-10 HCSB

Attributes of Stephen 

            There were five attributes given of Stephen

– full of faith 6:5 “As David Williams points out, “His faith was not different in kind from the faith that all Christians have, but exceptional in the extent to which he was willing to trust Christ, to take him at his word and to risk all for Christ’s sake.” This was a key requirement for one who blazed new trails for the gospel. Many opposed him. Probably even people within the church would have preferred for him to take a more cautious approach. But Stephen saw certain implications in what the Bible taught and what Christ did, and he was willing to risk all for the truth of those implications.

– full of Holy Spirit 6:5 This was an attribute given when listing the seven chosen. It should not have been of note given that all believers were filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s possible Stephen like others such as Barnabas were so filled with the spirit that others observed it and made note of it. 11:24

– full of Gods grace 6:8 The word used here was the Greek word Charis. Which in this case would best be explained as grace, spiritual charm, or winsomeness. His relationship to God had impacted him so deeply that he exuded the grace of God while relating to others.

– wisdom & spirit (preaching) “15 for I will give you such words and a wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” Luke 21:15 HCSB

            How can we acquire inspired wisdom like Stephen? I will offer 5 requirements to this. “(1) We must know the Scriptures. (2) We must know the people to whom we minister and the way they think. (3) We must be able to let the Scriptures speak penetratingly to the issues our audience faces. This comes through careful reflection, as we look for ways to make the connection between the world of the Bible and the world of our audience. (4) We must ensure that there is no hindrance to the infilling of the Spirit in our lives. We must be vessels fit for the Master’s use, purified of ignoble things and prepared to do any good work (2 Tim. 2:20–21). (5) We must, through prayer, make sure that we are in tune with the mind of the Spirit.

Frustration of those who oppose God 

            Now in this section of the text it is noteworthy where specifically these men are from. Cilicia was the area in which Tarsus was located which was where Saul had come from. Its possible then that Saul had encountered Stephen, especially since Saul took place in Stephen’s execution.

            These men were frustrated by Stephens powerful and wise preaching rather than touched by it. There have been multiple sermons thus far in Acts during the growth of the new church and each time there was powerful teaching two things happened; people were attracted to the gospel and people were repelled by it. We just learned last week that many priests were converted to the new faith, but we also have encountered members of the Sanhedrin and now the Freedmen’s synagogue who were being actively hardened by the continued teaching in the name of Jesus.

            In their in ability to stand up to his teaching and refute it they turned to trying to discredit him in order to disperse the church. This is normative even today for how people interact with Christianity. Our faith is only acceptable if we keep it to ourselves, and proclaim it in silence and private places. However when we share the gospel explicitly and publicly we will face opposition and the strategy of the world is to discredit and disperse.

            In the case of Stephen they couldn’t find any junk on him so they had to make it up and twist his words. “11 Then they 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, dragged him off, and took him to the Sanhedrin. 13 They also presented false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop speaking blasphemous words against this holy place and the law. 14 For we heard him say that Jesus, this Nazarene, 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.” Acts 6:11-15 HCSB

            It strikes me that in the midst of all of this mess the Sanhedrin is staring at Stephen and remarking at how he resembles an Angel. As they have all been being stirred up and angry Stephen has remained constant, and even his countenance is resembling that of his adoptive father. There is a great point here on our adoption into the family of God. As God’s adoptive spiritual children unlike physical adoptive children our DNA is changed to resemble our new Father. Stephen by the work of the Holy Spirit was being made to resemble Christ, in his words, wisdom, works, and now even his face.

            David Williams points out that Luke has given a “description of one whose communion with God was such that something of the divine glory was reflected in him.” He reminds us that “oddly, the same had been said of Moses (Exod. 34: 29ff.; cf. 2 Cor. 3:12–18).” Both “bore the mark of having been with God. And yet Stephen was accused of ‘speaking against Moses and against God.’ ”[3]

            It’s amazing that Stephen was constant even when outside factors were not. The world was blowing up around him, he had been taken in to the same court where Jesus had been sentenced to death, and the apostles had been taken to multiple times now and beaten and ordered not to speak in the name of Jesus. Yet his description is angelic, dudes calm and as we will see in the beginning of his sermon he even remains respectful. However lets also remember angelic doesn’t mean wimpy, in fact most times angels appear in scripture the first thing out of their mouth was don’t be afraid. Stephen angelic face and all was about to launch into a bold and articulate theologically rich sermon in the audience of the Sanhedrin. These uneducated Christians keep being dragged before the religious leaders for teaching things they don’t agree with and their response is always to boldly give a sermon

Stephen’s  sermon 

Jesus is the key to interpreting the bible, Stephen offered a Biblical Theology to understanding scripture.  

Read acts 7:1-53

3 points: 

1 the activity of God is not confined to Israel

            God interacted with His chosen people throughout Mesopotamia, Haran, Egypt, Sinai, the Red Sea and the desert. All before coming to Israel. The implications later would be that just as God’s work did not start there it should not end there.

 2 proper worship of God is not confined to the temple

            Previous to the temple God had spoke from a burning bush, on a mountain top, in the tabernacle, and in the wilderness. In fact “Stephen is implying that “to announce the suppression or destruction of the temple was not to commit blasphemy or sacrilege against God, because God was independent of any temple.”In Jesus death the temple curtain had been ripped, giving all access to God, and at Pentecost His spirit had been poured out on all believers.

3 Jews have constantly rejected Gods chosen representatives 

            They had rejected Joseph, and Moses.  Joseph’s brothers had planned to kill him then sold him off into slavery.  Moses people had rejected him, and he fled into the desert for forty years only to return after encountering God in a burning bush.

Moses was type of Christ.  Moses saved the people, gave them the law to live by and made them a nation.

   Jesus provided full atonement, wrote the new law in their heart, and created the church.

 Stephens application

            He pointed out that they didn’t love God 6Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.” Deut 30:6 NASB and didn’t keep His laws. He also pointed out that their linage had persecuted the prophets who foretold the coming of Jesus, and they indeed had murdered Him.

The First Christian Martyr

            The result of his sermon was that they were enraged and his response only spurred on their anger. Stephen again remained calm then saw a vision of Jesus in heaven at the right hand of God the Father, then he proclaimed it using Jesus nickname the son of Man. In the moment just before his death he offers the very words of Jesus, offering his life as a sacrifice and interceding on behalf of those who were persecuting him. Stephen’s life shows us how to maintain winsomeness is a hostile world. He was “a man full of God’s grace” (6:8). Whatever people may do to us, however severe their sins against us may be, we must be able to affirm the supremacy of grace—that God’s grace “superabounds” (lit. trans. of hyperperisseuo in Rom. 5:20 and hyperpleonazo in 1 Tim. 1:14) over all sins and situations.[5]

Saul the Persecutor

            Just to be clear Saul was opposed to God, as we have clear in the text. Saul agreed with the execution, and that very day Saul was leading others in ravaging the church and dragging people off to jail. Stephen however was being mourned and buried.

 Applications

Stephen’s death resembled Jesus’

Stephen was radical in his Christian walk. He boldly proclaimed the truth especially in the presence of opposition. He stood up to opposition and did not water down his message in order to not offend, in fact he made accusations against his persecutors, all while being gracious and kind. This is what a warrior of God looks like.  Stephen also knew his audience well and contextualized his message for them. He knew the Old Testament scriptures and used them in his explanation of the gospel showing Jesus was the fulfillment and the promise.

How do the scriptures make us radicals?

            1 We can rediscover truths that have been hidden from us because of theological, cultural, historical, or other blinds.

            2 We can see implications in what the Bible says, which will open the door to radical ideas.

            3 The Bible can become a radical book when we try to apply it in a thoroughgoing manner.

            4 We can be radical in the form in which we express Christianity.

            In God’s upside down kingdom winning looks like loosing, being a Christian is costly, but that cost is never in vain. In the view of the world Stephen lost. He paid the ultimate price and died. Had he just toned it down a little or not had been so radical he could have taught more ppl right? Maybe reached more? Truth is Stephen made a much larger impact by being obedient until death. Though his death was tragic it resulted in both the church spreading from Jerusalem to the world.

            A modern day example of this could be the Christians in the middle east. The 21 executed last year could have been more quiet about their faith, kept it a secret but they didn’t and they paid the ultimate price for it.

– we think God will save us from suffering, truth is God saves us from ourselves, but the cost of following God is often to face more suffering. We’re saved from our own depravity and saved to being part of Gods kingdom and mission.  

– the result of their suffering was The church scattered and the Gospel spread through the world.  

– the author and perfecter of our faith had to die 

– becoming a believer requires death!  Baptism symbolizes this, the death of our worldly deprived self, and rebirth with Christ Galatians 4:20

  • even though suffering is for a purpose we still need to mourn, we don’t discount the price paid by our brethren, we respect their lives.

 

  1. Obedience to God can be costly, and the obligations to obedience don’t vanish even when there is a cost.
  2. If we belong to God in Christ, he will care for us, and all things will work together for our good. We must choose the path of obedience, trusting his care for them. Sometimes our good is painful; sometimes our good is being brought home to be with our father.