Thank you Will. Just as a reminder, our Raintree 101 class starts next Sunday. 3 weeks long, 9:30am on Sundays. If you’d like to sign up, you can email me, even if you’re planning being out one of those Sundays, you can still sign up and attend. This is not just for guests, but for anyone who’d like to jump in that hasn’t taken this class. Even if you’re a member, we’d love to have you. The elders lead it, and it’s a great time for us to get to know you, and for you to really know what we’re all about. You won’t be put on the spot; we’re not going to ask you random questions, or anything like that. If you’d like to attend or have questions, email me this week. Again, it’s 3 weeks long, 9:30am starting next Sunday.
We are continuing in the book of Acts; we’re going to be here for about 2-3 more weeks, then we’ll be having a New Year’s challenge on Dec. 27th, and start a new series in Colossians on Jan. 3rd, or at least that’s the general plan.
But for today, we’re looking at one of the best examples of faithfulness in the book of Acts. Stephen was the first martyr of Christianity, and I know at times we see examples like Stephen or other missionaries overseas who do incredible things for God. They risk everything, and sometimes lose everything. Sometimes, we think that that kind of radical obedience and risk-taking doesn’t really relate to me. I live in Lee’s Summit, MO. Or Raymore, Belton, Greenwood, Grandview, Blue Springs, Kansas City. It doesn’t feel like I can live out the type of radical obedience that Stephen lived out. We’re just in a different world, right?
But, Stephen, in Acts 6 and 7, gives us the perfect example of someone who was truly focused on faithfulness in the radical things, yes, like being stoned to death, but also in the ordinary things. Stephen was obedient in both ordinary ways, and in pretty extreme circumstances as well. That’s why I made up a new word for today’s message, and it’s “Radinary.” It’s putting together radical and ordinary. I guess that’s the height of my creativity, kind-of sad. It’s better than what Andrew came up with: he said “Ordinadical Obedience.” I think I win that one. But, back to the point: Can we, like Stephen, glorify God in very ordinary, normal, mundane, unglamorous circumstances? You better believe it. And can we, if the situation arises, like Stephen, glorify God in extreme circumstances? Ordinary and Radical obedience, let’s look at Stephen.
Acts chapter 6. Now we’re going to read all of chap. 6 and the end of chapter 7, and I’ll explain a little here and there as we go along.
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews[a] among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
Stephen was chosen to help sort out the daily distribution of food, if you remember this from last week. He was over this task, which is a quite a big task. With thousands and thousands of people who are part of the church in Jerusalem now, taken care of this daily distribution was a big deal. And yet, it’s also not what we may consider the most glamorous job, right? Stephen wasn’t a famous apostle; he wasn’t going on speaking tours sharing the Gospel. Instead, he was in charge of distributing food, along with six others. But, he was faithful to God in the midst of these ordinary tasks. Let’s read on.
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
So Stephen was faithful, full of God’s grace and power. He faced opposition from Jews who used to be slaves, that’s what “Synagogue of the Freedmen” refers to, they started arguing with him, but couldn’t stand up to the wisdom that the Spirit gave him as he spoke!
Again, this is just one of the men over the distribution of food, and yet he knew the Scriptures, he trusted the Spirit, and the Spirit used him! In the most seemingly ordinary of circumstances, he was obedient; he was faithful! People didn’t like this, though, so they brought up false accusations, and stared intently right at him probably to try and intimidate him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. Now the whole “face of an angel” thing is an expression; they didn’t know what the face of an angel looked like. It doesn’t mean he was particularly good-looking, he wasn’t the Hugh Jackman of the early church, or something like that. This is probably meaning that he was particularly peaceful and heavenly-looking.
But what he does next is espeially noteworthy. In the longest speech in Acts, which we’re not going to read today (I encourage you to read this later), Stephen goes through a selective history of sorts through the Old Testament. He spends the majority of his time on Moses, because he’s been accused of changing the customs of Moses, but then he really takes a turn and starts talking about Israel not following Yahweh, and then applying that disobedience to his accusers! He accuses the Sanhedrin face-to-face, starting in chapter 7 vs. 51 to the end of the chapter.
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
Unbelievable. Stephen was obedient in the ordinary things, and then, even in extreme circumstances, he was radically obedient. From his example, I want us to see 3 myths about the nature of obedience that Stephen dispels. Each of these three myths will also come with it a truth. Myth #1:
Myth #1 God is more pleased with extraordinary, or radical, obedience.
Truth #1: All Obedience brings God glory, even ordinary obedience.
Now I’m not talking about average obedience, in the sense that sometimes you obey and sometimes you don’t. Obviously, God wants us to obey him all the time. I’m talking about ordinary obedience, as in everyday, even in the mundane, obedience.
There’s a myth out there, we may not really say it or talk about it, but the myth is that God is more pleased with those that go for changing the world in some mass or grand sense. Let’s be honest for a moment.
Changing the world is something that God has done and is doing. Jesus has had more impact on the world than any other person in history. He and 12 disciples truly changed the world. Sometimes we read the New Testament and think, “God can use me to change the world.” And that’s true, isn’t it? Yes, it is. God can use us to change the world on a grand scale.
Let me ask you a question, though: what if God decides not to use you, individually, to change the world? Can it be that God may not want to use you on such a grand scale so as to change many lives? God will make all things right, and God will restore creation and establish the new heavens and the new earth. But my question is this: What if your part in changing the world doesn’t really involve you changing the whole world? Is this somehow less obedient? Does this somehow please God less?
It seems that some are in danger of making “changing the world” into an idol, and yes, I do think this is possible. There’s nothing wrong with having a desire to do great things for God, but is that desire greater than our simple desire to obey God? Was Stephen looking to do great things for God? I don’t think so. It seems like he was just being faithful wherever he was and with whatever he was doing. Are we ok with the idea that God may use other people to change the world on a grand scale, and not use us in the same way? Perhaps you’ve heard writers or pastors say things like, “You have no idea how many people you can reach if you live radically enough. If you are just SOLD OUT radical– on fire for Christ– you can change the entire world!”
While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that desire, should our motivation for what we do be to change the world, or to obey and follow our great God, whether that means changing the world or not? We can make an idol out of usefulness. Do you want to be used by God in great ways more than you simply want to be faithful? God never commands us to be used in great ways. Instead, he wants to be faithful with whatever he gives us. When we put usefulness above faithfulness, we risk being somewhere God doesn’t want us, just so we can contrive some sort of hype or excitement about doing what we consider to be “great” things. When we define “great things” using our understanding of greatness, we end up having our ambitions in mind more than God’s ambitions.
As a pastor, the perfect test to know whether I have my ambitions in mind or God’s ambitions in mind is to ask this question: If I’m praying for revival and it breaks out in a church across town, how do I feel about that? You, as Raintree people, how do you feel about that? I’m talking about real revival, not just hype or excitement about getting lots of people together, maybe a bunch of church transfers. But if real, supernatural revival, involving many coming to repentance and faith, on a big scale, am I overwhelmed with joy that God is moving, or am I more concerned with why God didn’t use me in that way? “Aw man, why didn’t God use me?” Again, do we have our ambitions in mind, or GOD’S ambitions and HIS kingdom? James and John and their mother comes to mind in Matthew 20, when his mother asks to grant that one son be on his left and the other on his right in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus says, “This is not for me to give. Those are for my Father to give.” Are we too worried about our place in the kingdom as it compares to others, instead of simply being overwhelmed with God’s mercy in letting us have ANY part in His Kingdom?
I think sometimes we mix up what the main calling of Christianity by trying a little too hard to fit it into our culture. “Change the world! Leave your mark!” This is what our culture says, NOT what God says. If anything, God’s saying, “DON’T leave your mark! Your mark is destructive and corrupt. Instead, be faithful, and I’LL leave MY mark using all of you.”
Stephen wasn’t trying to change the world. He wasn’t trying to push the envelope. He wasn’t driven by some vague calling to be the best you you can be and change the world! He was simply faithful, obedient, trusting the Spirit, in the midst of the ordinary, everyday stuff, and also in the midst of extreme and radical circumstances. My encouragement for us this morning: Stop trying to change the world, and instead find satisfaction and joy being faithful with what God gives you and where he puts you.
God has already done the greatest thing possible in sending his Son. Why not bask in and spread that greatness, instead of worrying too much about creating our own? All obedience brings God glory. So when you’re at home, changing a diaper, you’re bringing God glory because you’re being obedient in taking care of your family. When you’re at work, doing perhaps monotonous tasks that you do every day, submitting to a boss that’s a jerk, you’re bringing God glory, because you’re being obedient to God in obeying your boss.
Stephen was studying the Scriptures, trusting the Spirit, and in the midst of his everyday activities of distributing food, he imparted wisdom and proclaimed truth. His life glorified God in the ordinary, and his life glorified God in being martyred. The second myth that is dispelled by Stephen:
Myth #2 God doesn’t want me to suffer
Truth #2 Obedience will bring suffering.
One of the most damaging and misleading ideologies alive today is the prosperity gospel. If you have enough faith in God, God will deliver to you prosperity and security. In a sense, God does give us indescribable joy, and spiritual security, but he does not promise that we will not suffer.
Some pastors and Christian leaders mislead people by saying that you are suffering because you don’t have enough faith. Even faith itself is relegated to this idea that Christianity is all about being the best you you can be! That’s not Christianity. Biblical Christianity is all about the truth that God himself suffered and died and rose again, saving those who repent and believe from the wrath of God!
Stephen’s story flies directly in the face of any lie that says that when you become a Christian, and there’s no more suffering. Surely no one would say, if Stephen just had more faith, he wouldn’t have died.
God, in fact, promises for his followers that they will suffer:
- John 16:33- “In the world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
- 1:29- “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”
Now of course there is also incredible joy in knowing that, as Romans 8:28 says, that God is, “in all things working for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
So how do we put these two truths together? That suffering seems to be promised for the follower of Christ, but that we’re also promised joy and comfort and fellowship with the Holy Spirit. We put them together by saying that we find our satisfaction and joy in Christ, and not in our life’s circumstances. We will still grieve, we will still suffer and go through pain, but our identity is in Jesus Christ Himself, in God our Father who’s working all things out, ultimately, for our good!
To reiterate, how can we not lose control in the midst of suffering? How can we not be enraged in the midst of persecution, or just simply in the midst of so many injustices in this world! Look around: racism, parents and guardians neglecting children, an 18 year old disabled woman found weighing 68 pounds because her guardians completely ignored her. ISIS putting out horrifying videos, doing things that no human being should be able to do. How was Stephen faithful in the midst of injustice? How did he LOVE his enemies in the midst of being stoned by them? You remember, he said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” How was he so faithful? The same way Jesus was faithful:
1 Peter 2:23- “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” God is the Great Vindicator. He will vindicate his children; he will make all things new. Don’t put your hope in Congress, or US Law, but in God. This doesn’t mean you can’t work for justice, or change laws, but your ultimate hope cannot be in the courts; it must be in God. He is the Great Vindicator.
Obedience brings suffering. But we entrust ourselves to God. The third myth that Stephen dispels:
Myth #3 If faced with suffering, I won’t be able to stand strong.
Truth #3 The Holy Spirit can give you the strength to obey in all things.
- Verse 5 of chapter 6: “they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Spirit.”
- Verse 8: “full of grace and power” (from the Holy Spirit).
- Verse 10: “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.”
- Chapter 7, Verse 55: “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
Stephen may have been a man of great faith, and a man of great wisdom, who knew the Scriptures, but do you think he would have been able to be faithful in the midst of this kind of suffering if it wasn’t for the Holy Spirit? I don’t think so.
God can and will provide you the strength to stand. The Holy Spirit can teach us to be so gripped with God’s glory, His beauty, that suffering is seen in perspective. That’s what happened with Stephen. The Holy Spirit gave him an actual vision of the glory of God with Jesus standing at His right hand. What happened when he saw God’s glory? God’s glory, His majesty, and grandeur became more immediately relevant and defining for Stephen than the very stones being thrown at him.
God wants us to be faithful with whatever he gives us. He wants us to see him as he is and be gripped by his glory that we see and learn from the Scriptures, so much so that we will be obedient in the most ordinary things that we do, and find great meaning in the most ordinary things that we do, and also in the most radical things that we do.
Don’t seek some flashy big thing to do for God that also happens to bring you lots of attention, and instead find satisfaction and joy being faithful with what God gives you and where he puts you. Maybe he’ll use you in a way that he’s using no one else on earth. Maybe he’ll use you in a way that he’s also using millions of other people. Either way, God is glorified in your faithfulness. And God will use the combined faithfulness of all his children to change the world in His own timing and with His own power. THAT is greatness. THAT is what God wants. That is what will truly change the world. Let’s pray.