What lessons can we learn from one of the Bible's most tenacious examples?
As anyone who has been around a small child can attest, the example of others can be a powerful teaching tool for a young person. Whether the example is positive or negative, children, like dry sponges dropped in water, readily soak in the habits and attitudes of those around them.
God knows the vital role examples can play in teaching His children today. Various accounts in the Bible show how God preserved the lives of many people. While some of the stories portray the events of wicked individuals, many characters highlighted in the Bible were devout, obedient followers of God. Their stories have been maintained to provide Christians with examples to study. One of the most vivid and important examples God included is that of the deacon Stephen—the first martyr for God mentioned by name in the book of Acts.
Stephen, counted among those who were "of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom," possessed certain qualities that God Himself desires to see in all His children (Acts:6:3).
A Student of the Word
One of the most important aspects of Stephen's character was the fact that he knew God's Word. At his trial Stephen, from memory, traced the history of God's chosen people from the time of Abraham down through the age of Solomon. In fact, several times Stephen was able to quote directly from the Old Testament (Acts:7:32, 40, etc.).
This close familiarity with God's instructions is an expectation for all Christians. Christians should follow Paul's urging to Timothy, "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy:2:15). Today, we have the added benefit of the New Testament that shows us the example of Jesus and His disciples living the new teachings Jesus gave. Stephen's example should stir us to delve into the Bible.
Not only was Stephen well-versed in Scripture, but he had also learned to heed the examples and guidance found in the Sacred Text. The Pharisees and Sadducees who surrounded Stephen had continually quoted from the Old Testament trying to confuse or trap Christ and the early apostles. They, too, studied the Old Testament as well as their own traditions; however, they were blinded and their pride and hypocrisy kept them from being corrected and instructed by the Word of God (Matthew:23:2-7, 13; Romans:11:8).
The apostle Paul would later point out, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy:3:16-17). Stephen had learned this critical lesson.
Our Father corrects and instructs His children (Hebrews:12:5-7). God often uses the examples He provides in His Word to help Christians learn important lessons. It is often the examples found in Scripture that serve as the greatest teaching tools (1 Corinthians:10:1-6). Stephen, as a servant of God, had learned this valuable lesson.
In his defense, he recounted the many times God had intervened to help Israel, and yet, the children of Israel repeatedly turned from God. Stephen sternly rebuked the leaders, "You stiff-necked and 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 foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it" (Acts:7:51-53).
They refused to learn and be corrected by God's Word. On the contrary, Stephen set a powerful example of willingly submitting to God's direction.
Learning from those who had deserted God in the past, Stephen never turned from his devotion to God and His truth. When tested, Stephen, led by the Spirit, readily responded with wisdom, leaving those arguing with him with only false accusations (Acts:6:10-14).
A Man of Faith
In addition to his love of God's Word, Stephen was also a man of great faith. He was described as "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit" (Acts:6:5). So great was his faith, it is revealed that Stephen, "full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people" (verse 8). The brief passages about Stephen's life reveal a man of tremendous, courageous faith.
As the fledgling Church was growing rapidly and the apostles' preaching grew ever bolder, Stephen was falsely accused of blaspheming God. He was brought before the Sanhedrin to answer these charges. It could easily have been both humiliating and frightening. Undoubtedly, this turn of events stretched and tested Stephen's faith. He knew well what happened to Christ—the beatings and horrible death that awaited those drawing the ire of the mob. Those thoughts could easily have been on his mind.
Yet Stephen's faith was unwavering. Recognizing his own mortality, the faithful deacon recounted how Abraham had died without having received the promised inheritance, knowing that God would resurrect him later (Acts:7:5). Stephen's faith in God's promises of redemption, resurrection and eternal life never wavered despite the severity of his trial.
As a student of the Bible, Stephen knew how Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego had answered King Nebuchadnezzar when asked to compromise with God's law (Daniel:3:16-18). Stephen knew God could protect him. He never questioned God's power; instead, he lived by faith.
Stephen's example of faith should rouse all Christians to draw near to God through faith. Our Creator desires that His people live by faith as Stephen did. Stephen's power did not rest in himself. Rather, by living in complete faith Stephen was able to access God's power through the Holy Spirit. As Christ taught, it is through believing prayer—by faith—that all things may be accomplished (Matthew:21:22). Stephen learned and applied this wonderful truth in his life, leaving a tangible example for all peoples.
A Servant at Heart
Perhaps the most important aspect of Stephen's character was his willingness to submit to God and serve His people. Stephen understood the fundamental principle of a service. Following Christ's instruction to have a servant's heart, Stephen developed an intense willingness to be humble and to serve his brethren (Matthew:20:27-28).
As the Church grew, there arose a need for men and women to fulfill the physical needs of the work (Acts:6:1-2). Stephen was among the seven original deacons chosen to serve in this capacity. He did not react by saying, "Me, wait on tables? You've got to be joking." Instead, Stephen joyfully served the brethren. He expressed a willingness to attend to the widows' daily needs. These were not glamorous duties in the eyes of men. However, God saw in Stephen the serving, obedient attitude He desires to see in all His children.
Stephen fulfilled all the requirements of a deacon (1 Timothy:3:8-12). As a result of his faithful obedience and service to the Church, Stephen will undoubtedly receive a great reward in the Kingdom. "For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus" (verse 13). This example of a faithful saint willing to serve God and the Church provides a benchmark for Christians today.
A Martyr for God
The conclusion of Stephen's story recapitulates these three vital characteristics. "Then they"—Stephen's accusers and would-be murderers—"cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city…And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not charge them with this sin.' And when he had said this, he fell asleep" (Acts:7:57-60).
Even as death approached, Stephen recalled the familiar promises listed in God's Word. Having complete faith in God, Stephen willingly submitted to God's will and died. Even in death, he served the brethren by providing a riveting example of how to learn from God's Word, live by faith and serve the Creator. UN