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  • Writer's picturePastor Brett

Stephen the First Deacon

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Former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been quoted as saying, “People who end up as ‘first’ don’t actually set out to be first. They set out to do something they love.” Ms. Rice knows something about this. In the George W. Bush administration, she was the first African-American woman to attain this position, which was, at the time, the highest office to which an African-American woman had served.

Following her advice, we choose to do what we love and pursue it whole-heartedly, we will achieve more than we will with a half-hearted effort. Today and next Sunday we will study the example of a man of great faith, Stephen. He was first in a couple ways. As we will see today, Stephen was the first deacon to be selected for service in the First Church. Next Sunday, we will see how he was also selected to be the first person to give his life in service to Jesus, the first martyr. My prayer is that his example will serve to inspire us to serve Jesus whole-heartedly.

Stephen was a man of great faith, and he experienced great opposition.

1. Acts 6:1-7 = Stephen was part of the solution to the first church controversy.

The problem was two-sided; the ministry to widows was allegedly being unfairly administrated and was taking time from the apostles. (1-2) The rapid growth of the church created this problem.

The first problem exacerbated divisions that were extant in Jewish culture of that time. The GREEK-SPEAKING believers were probably Jews who were born and raised in different parts of the ancient world, so they spoke Greek. The HEBREW-SPEAKING people probably grew up locally; they may have known some Greek, but their first language was Hebrew.

These groups had a common faith, but not necessarily a common language. In Jewish society prior to the Church, there were separate synagogues, sometimes based on a need to worship in one’s own language. Each synagogue had its own system of welfare for its needy members.

This is understandable. It is, after all, the nature of human beings to divide from one another. And it would be natural enough for familiar faces to get served first. However, it’s worth noting that this is a complaint; the text does not verify whether the complaints were justified or not.

The Apostles identified a different problem. Their concern was that the size of the program had become a drain on their time. It was taking time away from their ministries of prayer and preaching. They were not saying their ministry of preaching and prayer were more important than the service ministry, only that serving tables was not THEIR ministry.

The solution was to appoint others to run the food program and thereby solve both problems. (3-6) The administrators were called “deacons.” Stephen is the first name listed and the most complimented, so I call him the “first deacon.”

The Apostles set forth three qualifications for appointees.

- WELL RESPECTED means they have already earned the trust of the members.

- FULL OF THE SPIRIT requires them to be spiritually mature and demonstrate in their daily living the influence of the Holy Spirit.

- FULL OF WISDOM in this instance may mean “social savvy,” they demonstrated sensitivity and gentleness in handling people. This would be especially important with the controversy already surrounding this situation.

As we will see in a moment, Stephen met and exceeded these qualifications.

Note verse six; the seven were PRESENTED to the Apostles, who ordained them for this service by the laying on of hands. Moses transferred his leadership to Joshua in Numbers 27:18-23. This would become a practice in ordination councils.

Verse eight and chapter eight show that the office of deacon was bigger than just waiting on tables. Both Stephen and Philip did amazing things equal to the Apostles. Luke used similar language to refer to the Apostles in 2:43; 4:33; 5:12.

The solution was blessed by God. We see four blessings:

- Verse five = EVERYONE LIKED THIS IDEA. Getting church folk to agree unanimously is an act of God!

- Verse seven describes three more blessings.

One, with their time freed from waiting tables, the Apostles had more time to SPREAD the MESSAGE. And as a result, …

More people joined the Church. Numbers are a sign of health, but not the only sign or the greatest sign. Among them…

Even some JEWISH PRIESTS decided to follow Jesus. It’s a sincere testimonial when your competitors join your side!

2. Acts 6:8-15 = Stephen was a problem for the Jewish religious authorities.

Verses 8, 10 + 15 elaborate on Stephen’s spiritual life and conversely, why he was singled out for arrest.

- He was FULL OF GOD’S GRACE AND POWER, which enabled him to perform AMAZING MIRACLES AND SIGNS. (8) These MIRACLES authenticated the word being preached.

- He was given WISDOM by the Holy Spirit; his teaching could not be disputed. (10) Like Jesus, Stephen evaded being captured or compromised by the empty rhetoric of His opponents.

- God’s glory was reflected on his face, which shone like an ANGEL’S. (15) This reminds us of Moses (Exodus 34:29, 35) and Jesus (Luke 9:29), who were in such close communion that the glory of God was physically reflected in their faces.

Unable to find any way to dispute Stephen or disparage his character, the religious authorities resorted to lies (9. 11-14), just as they did with Jesus. The Apostles were doing the same things Stephen was doing – why was he arrested? Peter and John were arrested and interrogated by these same people in ch. 4, which went nowhere.

All the Apostles were arrested in ch. 5, but that only resulted in a flogging before their release, and they were back in the temple the next day! Perhaps the members of the Sanhedrin had a change of strategy and attempted to intimidate the lay leaders of the church. They would continue this strategy in ch. 8.

Their lying met with some success, as v. 12 reports, THE PEOPLE, ELDERS, AND TEACHERS OF RELIGIOUS LAW were ROUSED to act against Stephen, leading to his arrest. This led to more false charges being brought against Stephen, exaggerations and misquotes of Jesus’ teaching.

The falsehood of testimony compromises the justice the Sanhedrin claimed to represent. Their verdict of death is even more unjust when one weighs the evidence of Stephen’s physical appearance in v. 15 and his inspired rebuttal in ch. 7.

Stephen was a man of great faith, and he experienced great opposition.

Being the first to do something isn’t easy, but it is sometimes accidental. On October 8, 1945, Raytheon engineer Percy Spencer was the first to cook with microwaves. He was working with them in the lab and accidentally melted a candy bar in his pocket. The first food cooked on purpose was popcorn! That cooked up wonderfully. He followed up with an egg, which exploded in his face.

The first selfie was taken by Robert Cornelius in 1839. His family owned a photography business, and he was messing around with the camera. I’ve seen the picture and he did NOT have “duck lips!” The first text message would not be sent for another 160 years, however. On December 3, 1992, Neil Papworth sent the first text message. What did he send? “Merry Christmas!”

Today we aspire to more important things. We aspire to follow Stephen’s example and be first in service to our Lord Jesus Christ.


RESOURCES:

Condoleezza Rice quote found at https://www.ellevatenetwork.com/articles/7604-quotes-about-being-a-pioneer, retrieved on 9 June 23.

Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol. 12, Acts, 2006, William J. Larkin.

First person anecdotes found on https://www.rd.com/list/historic-firsts/, retrieved on 9 June 23.

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