Today we’re continuing our message series “Church Without Walls.” In this series we’re learning principles from the early church in the book of Acts. The early church did not meet in dedicated church buildings, but in homes and in public areas. The first dedicated church building is believed to have been a remodeled house constructed in 240 AD in Syria. So this early church grew as a church without walls for hundreds of years. The church is not a building, but a group of believers following Jesus together. While buildings are certainly helpful and important, they are not essential for churches to function or to grow. We are learning how to function as a church without walls during our current crisis.
Today, our message is entitled “Facing Opposition.” As believers, we face opposition of all kinds in our lives. Opposition is something or someone that opposes your following God’s plan for your life. There is an evil entity behind all opposition that we face named Satan.
1 Peter 5:8 (ESV) Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
Satan wants to resist or oppose you, but he also wants to devour or destroy you. He wants to make you ineffective in building God’s kingdom. Or even better, he would like to cause your faith to fail or grow weak.
John 10:10 (ESV) The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
The thief that Jesus is talking about here is Satan who wants to keep unbelievers from believing and to steal, kill or destroy believers in any way possible. But the good news, is that when we follow Jesus, He keeps us safe and gives us an abundant life, which is the exact opposite of what Satan seeks to do to us.
How specifically does Satan oppose believers? The first way is through persecution by people or governments. Persecution of Christians is going on around the world with 260 million Christians living under high levels of persecution in the past year. Over 3000 Christians have been killed or martyred for their faith and 9500 churches attacked in the past year.
In the United States, persecution is so mild, I will refer to it as opposition. We face opposition of many kinds from unbelievers, inspired by Satan. We all face temptation from Satan, seeking to tempt us to sin in various ways.
Finally, I believe that Satan is trying to use the COVID-19 crisis to weaken both believers and churches. But God wants to use this crisis to help us learn to face opposition with faith, courage and perseverance. As we learn to face opposition with God’s help, we will be prepared should we have to face persecution in the future.
Today, we’re going to learn some lessons in facing opposition of all kinds from the life of Stephen, recorded in Acts 6-7. Let’s learn how to …
Our story begins in Acts 6 with the church growing rapidly. In those days, it was almost impossible for widows to support themselves, so the church helped provide food for them. The Gentiles were complaining that their widows were being overlooked in the food distribution in favor of the Hebrew widows. The twelve apostles gave instructions …
Acts 6:3 (ESV) 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.
The men to be chosen to resolve the dispute had to meet three requirements. First of all, they had to gave a good reputation in the church family. Secondly, they needed to be Spirit-filled and thirdly, they had to be known for wisdom. These attributes were nothing something that could be gained quickly, but were attained by followed God faithfully.
Acts 6:5-6 (ESV) And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, … These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
Today, we’re going to focus on Stephen, who is also noted to be full of faith. The seven men chosen, all Gentiles, were then commissioned to work on the feeding of the widows and to resolve the dispute in the growing church. The church continued to grow as the widow issue was dealt with. Then we see that Stephen as being used by God in another way.
Acts 6:8 (ESV) And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.
We have already seen that Stephen was full of the Spirit, wisdom, faith and now the Scripture says that he was full of grace and power. We are seeing that Stephen was continuing to grow in his faith in remarkable ways. Stephen was not an apostle, but this is the first recorded instance in Acts of a non-apostle going great wonders and signs. These wonders and signs undoubtedly referred to the healing of the sick and the deliverance of demon-possessed people.
Stephen has grown as a new believer in following Jesus and then was chosen to be a leader in the feeding of the widows. Now, he was being used by God to do great miracles which were leading many people to be saved. Let’s learn from Stephen some lessons that will help us be empowered to serve as well.
God is prepared you today for His plans for you tomorrow. God is preparing us as a church today for His plans for us tomorrow. Just as Stephen, we need to be filled with the Spirit and with wisdom. Our lives have been disrupted by this crisis in unexpected ways. There are lessons for each of us to learn. Even when we can’t meet together, we still need to be connected with one another.
For all those listening to this message, you’re connecting with God’s Word with the rest of us at Life Church. Get involved in meeting with other believers for Bible study and prayer in our interactive Zoom meetings. They are all listed on our website at lifechurchstlouis.org. Getting together with others is one way to encourage and help others, even as you are being encouraged and helped. Be empowered to serve. Next we can learn to …
Acts 6:9-10 (ESV) Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue … rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.
Things seemed to have gone very well for Stephen up to this point. The church was growing rapidly. He was progressing as a church leader and seeing great miracles. But with this prominence came organized opposition from the unbelieving Jews. They began to argue with Stephen concerning the message that he was preaching. Yet, Stephen was so full of wisdom and the Spirit that they were not able to win any arguments with him. So, if direct opposition was not successful, they then resorted to false accusations.
Acts 6:11-12 (ESV) Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council,
Why did the opponents chose to accuse Stephen of blasphemy? Because blasphemy was a sin or crime that was punishable by death. It was the crime that the Jews had accused Jesus of, blasphemy, claiming to be God. This charge against Stephen was false, but a mob was stirred up and Stephen was arrested and brought before the Jewish council. The frameup of lies continued …
Acts 6:13, 15 (ESV) and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law … And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
The accusations continued, intended to stir up the Jews by saying that Stephen had insulted their religion by teaching about Jesus. Stephen did not respond in anger. His face shone with the glory of God, indicating that the Holy Spirit was upon him in a special way. Stephen had been prepared by God to face this unexpected opposition to his ministry.
Although we do not face persecution in our country as many others do around the world, opposition to Christianity is increasing. In America, we are seeing more anger, more hostility towards believers and churches than ever before. The level of sin and glorification of particularly abhorrent sin is increasing. I believe that Satan’s attacks on Christians are also growing in intensity as we get closer to the return of Christ.
As Satan’s methods never change, we will also see false accusations directed against believers and churches in the future. As believers, we must be prepared to not respond to evil with evil, but with good. To respond to lies with the truth. To show love in response to hatred. To not be filled with anger, worry or fear, but with the peace of God. Not only will God help us be prepared to face persecution, but He will also strengthen us to face the stress of the current crisis.
Whatever you’re facing in your life and situation, put your trust in God and He will see you through. He will help us …
Back to our story. Stephen was allowed to present his defense before the court. In Acts 7, we read of Stephen’s defense. We learn that Stephen, even though a Gentile, had an in-depth knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures. He used the accounts of Abraham, Moses and David to show how God continued to work among the Israelites even though the kept turning away from Him. Stephen’s point was that the people of Israel had a long history of resisting God and His ways. He concludes his defense in …
Acts 7:51-52 (ESV) “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered,
The Jews that Stephen was speaking to had not acknowledged Jesus as their Messiah. Instead, they had delivered Him over to be crucified. Stephen was confronting them with their sin so that they would have an opportunity to repent. However, that is not what happened.
Acts 7:54-55 (ESV) Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
The contrast between the crowd and Stephen is striking. The crowd was full of murderous anger, similar to the crowd that chanted crucify Him to Jesus. Stephen on the other hand was full of the Holy Spirit. Rather then being concerned with the crowd, he was looking toward heaven. The Spirit allowed Him to see into heaven where He saw God’s glory and Jesus Himself. Most of Scripture says that Jesus is seated at God’s right hand. But at this time, Jesus was standing at God’s right hand, knowing full well what was going on with Stephen on earth. Jesus was standing with Stephen in this crucial moment.
Acts 7:57-58a (ESV) But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.
The crowd did not want to hear anything more from Stephen, so they shut their ears and stoned him to death for what they considered the sin of blasphemy. In so doing, they broke Roman law by which only the Romans could execute someone. Scripture records Stephen’s last words in …
Acts 7:59-60 (ESV) And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Stephen’s last words echo the last words of Jesus on the cross. He gave up his spirit into Jesus’ hands and asked the Lord to forgive those who were killing him. Present at his stoning was Saul who had given his approval. As we’ll see in next Sunday’s message, entitled Transformation, God answered Stephen’s prayer and saved Saul in a most remarkable way. Then Stephen died as the first martyr recorded in the New Testament, being faithful until death.
Each one of us will face our appointment with death, unless Jesus returns first. We don’t know what conditions in America will be like in ten, twenty or thirty years. Perhaps some of us may face martyrdom somewhere down the road. Biblical prophesy seems to indicate that the number of martyrs will increase as the return of Jesus gets closer. But we must all prepare to be faithful to the Lord throughout our lives, whether they be long or shorter. We must ask God for the strength to run the race of life for Him and to finish well.
All around us, we see people falling away from the faith. May each of us be faithful until death, as Stephen was. Jesus is there with us throughout our lives to guide us. God numbers our days and guides us in His plans for our lives. May we use each of our days for Him and seeking His kingdom first. So that we can be faithful to the Lord throughout our lives.
The story of Stephen is not a story of a life cut short, but a story of victory. A story of a young man running God’s race for his life and finishing well. We learn from his story that we too must be empowered by the Spirit to serve God with our lives. We must be prepared to encounter opposition and trust in the Lord to see us through. Finally, God calls us to be faithful to Him in life until we meet Him in death.
The most important thing is not our physical lives, but in having eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.