Of the seven godly men selected by the Jerusalem church to serve tables, we find Stephen listed right at the top (Acts 6:5). Stephen was the first choice made by a church of a few thousand people. What attracted people to him was not his gifts or abilities, but his character — so much so that Luke dedicates two whole chapters to talk about this man and his ministry.
Before we take a look at the ministry of Stephen, let us first get a glimpse of the man Stephen. One word that pops up repeatedly in Luke’s description of this deacon is the word ‘fullness’ (Acts 6:3, 5, 8).
Our understanding of the word ‘fullness’ is often in terms of measurements. The Greek understanding of the word has to do with dominion or total control. For instance, full of sorrow or anger meant being totally dominated by those emotions.
The vital aspect of Stephen’s character was this — he was a man controlled by the Spirit of God (Acts 6:10). This is indispensable in ministry. Ministry is not ours. We should not manipulate the Spirit of God to fulfil what we want to do. Instead, He needs to control us. Today, our greatest need is for leaders who are Spirit-controlled. When this aspect is overlooked, the results are catastrophic. Take a look around: who are the men heading our churches and organisations? It is sad to say that some have been elevated or elected to their leadership positions, not because they were found to be Spirit-controlled but because they had the right connections, abilities and resources.
But consider the early church. When there was a crisis (see Acts 6:3), the disciples saw the need to appoint people to handle it. This is what they said: “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” There are two important lessons here.
Firstly, the apostles set clear guidelines — they were to choose men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom. They were concerned about the spiritual qualities of these future leaders. Nothing whatsoever is mentioned about worldly credentials such as age, race, educational qualification, financial background or other abilities. Although the ministry was to wait on tables, the apostles did not consider it lightly. Everything else can be compromised, but not spiritual credentials. Paul talks about this aspect too in his pastoral epistle (1 Timothy 3:1-10).
Although the ministry was to wait on tables, the apostles did not consider it lightly. Everything else can be compromised, but not spiritual credentials
Secondly, the apostles asked the congregation to select seven men from among themselves to be ministers (deacons) to serve the tables. This shows the confidence they had in the church. Out of a few thousands of mixed people (Grecian, Hebrew and Aramaic-speaking Jews), the congregation was able to unanimously select seven men. They had one mind and spirit. The apostles approved and appointed the men officially into service (Acts 6:6). What unity! A church filled with godly people will, no doubt, be able to produce godly leadership. In one sense, our leaders are only a reflection of our churches and its spiritual health. John Calvin said, “When God wants to judge a nation, He gives them wicked rulers.” I think it is applicable even to Christian communities. When God wants to punish a movement (for its spiritual lethargy and disobedience), He gives them leaders who are autocrats, parochial, divisive, political, deceitful and dishonest.
Stephen’s life was controlled by his faith in God — a trait that is evident from his sermon. He understood that the Lord who controls history is the One who controlled his life too. Even at death’s door, he wasn’t fearful; instead, he calmly surrendered his spirit into the hands of the sovereign God who controls all things (Acts 7:59).
Stephen’s life was full of grace. He dealt with others in love and kindness. Perhaps, that’s why he was appointed to care for the widows which needed a man who had compassion for others. His countenance in the midst of severe accusation speaks to this character trait (Acts 6:15). The greatest exhibition of grace in his ministry, however, is seen towards the end in Acts 7:60, when he cried out to God to forgive his persecutors.
Being gracious does not mean one has to sacrifice the truth or always maintain a smiling demeanour — Stephen did neither (Acts 7:51-53). He was straightforward. He reflected Jesus in that he was full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Paul too emphasised this in Colossians 4:6 and Ephesians 4:32. How gracious are we to each other? In a church where gracious men are missing, expect strife and fights over ministry.
Being gracious does not mean one has to sacrifice the truth. Stephen reflected Jesus in that he was full of grace and truth
Stephen had a powerful ministry during his time — the Lord performed wonders and signs through him. Except the apostles, only three others are recorded as having done such things (Philip, Barnabas and Stephen). Likewise, nobody could stop Stephen from speaking about Jesus. That’s a display of power. However, the greatest exhibition of fullness of power can be seen in the way he endured persecution. God gave him the might he needed to face death and become the first martyr of the church. In ministry, we all need this power to sustain (Colossians 1:11-12).
The first ministry that was entrusted to Stephen was an ordinary one by worldly standards – to supervise the distribution of food among the widows in the church. Although Stephen certainly had other gifts — preaching, teaching and even performing miracles (Acts 6: 8, 10) — he was willing to take up the first task the Lord provided him. For Stephen, ministry was an opportunity to fulfil a need in God’s kingdom, rather than a position or status. It called for willingness to do whatever the Lord wanted him to do.
I believe Stephen had a high view of what he was called to do by God. How long he served as a deacon we do not know, but the Lord widened his influence and sphere of service. For a time in the book of Acts, the attention is not even on the apostles but on Stephen — the fiery preacher and miracle worker in Jerusalem (Acts 6:13-14). There too, he faithfully fulfilled his part. That’s the Scriptural principle (see Luke 16:10; Matthew 25:23; 1 Timothy 3:13). When the Lord finds someone faithful in the given task, He divinely orchestrates circumstances to elevate that person into wider ministry.
Stephen was faithful till the end. They falsely accused him (Acts 6:11-14). When he was given a chance to defend himself (Acts 7:1), he could have mellowed down his stand and escaped their wrath. Instead, he went on the offensive, which sealed his fate (Acts 7:54). In his dying moments, he looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God (Acts 7:55). What blessedness! Thirteen times, the Bible notes Jesus Christ as seated at the right hand of God. Here, Stephen declares that he saw Jesus standing — the only such mention in Scripture. Perhaps, as Stephen was standing for his Lord in the worldly court before men, his Lord was standing before the heavenly court before the Father on behalf of Stephen (Matthew 10:32).
Another thing to be noted here is: Stephen’s preaching ministry at the outset does not seem to be a successful one. The Bible does not talk about conversions that happened as a result of his powerful preaching — it only resulted in his death. He did not live to see the fruitfulness of his ministry. However, later history gives us a glimpse of the fruits of his work. We can say at least two things. The persecution starting with Stephen’s death led to the spread of the gospel outside the boundaries of Jerusalem as the disciples moved out (Acts 8:1). Also, perhaps, Paul’s life was, in some way, touched by the courageous preaching and death of Stephen, which produced fruit a little later. As long as we are faithful, we don’t have to worry about results. God sovereignly uses our life and work to achieve His plan and purpose. In eternity, we will see its fruits and rejoice.
Stephen’s life was short. He lived like his Master and died like his Master. One day, he will receive his crown — and it will be a victor’s crown.
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