Dr. John Hartmann

Proclaiming the Whole Counsel of God

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The Ministry of Stephen – Part 1

August 7th, 2011 · No Comments

Luke-Acts are really one volume in two parts. The commission at the end Luke’s gospel (Lk 24:45-50) and at the beginning of Acts (Acts 1:1-11) are much alike, emphasizing a gospel that is to be preached in all nations, and that the witnesses must be clothed with power from on high for the execution of their God-ordained mission. Acts 1:8 is programmatic in two ways: 1) it lays out the geographic scope of how the gospel will spread in the ensuing narrative, and 2) how the work will be carried on by the witnesses Jesus has appointed, namely, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit comes upon the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13). The witness of Peter (2:14-40) on that day results in the formation of a community of 3000 disciples (2:41), who continue steadfastly in the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (2:42), with everyone feeling a sense of awe as signs and wonders take place through the hands of the apostles (2:43; cf. 4:33). The early community of Jesus’ disciples is marked by generosity and unity (Acts 2:44-47; 4:32-37).

The narrative in Acts 3-5 records how the gospel spread in Jerusalem in the first two years after Jesus’ resurrection. We here find the following pattern:

  1. The apostles, in their preaching, indict the Jewish leaders for the unjust condemnation of Jesus, through which God, however, was executing His fore-ordained and fore-announced plan to redeem His people from their sins through His suffering Servant (Isa 52:13-53:12). They also bear witness that God had raised this crucified Jesus from the dead, thus reversing the Council’s verdict and establishing Jesus as the Lord and Messiah of Israel.
  2. The Lord bears witness to the message by granting that signs and wonders follow the apostle’s testimony, miracles wrought through their hands in the Name of Jesus.
  3. The apostolic witness is opposed by the Jewish Council. The apostles are brought to trial before the same men who, just months before, had rejected Jesus and demanded His crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. As the apostles bear witness they “turn the tables” on the members of the Council, indicting them for the murder of Jesus, and calling them to repent and believe so that they too may find in salvation in this crucified and risen Jesus, Whom God had made to be Lord and Messiah, a Savior for Israel.
  4. The Council rejects this witness and persecutes the apostles, first threatening them to speak no more in the Name of Jesus (Acts 4), and then flogging them when they refuse to comply (Acts 5).The apostles state their intention to go on bearing witness of what they had seen and heard.
  5. The apostles pray, and are freshly filled with the Spirit, after which they continue to bear witness of Jesus with great boldness, as God continues to confirm their testimony by granting more and more signs and wonders to be wrought through their hands in His Name.

Acts 6:1-8:4 marks a great turning point in the narrative, as the work of the gospel will now spread out beyond Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria, and ultimately “the farthest ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The instrument God uses to begin this work of expansion is Stephen, one of the Seven chosen by the congregation and ordained by the Apostles to carry on the work among the Greek-speaking Jewish community in Jerusalem. The ordination of the Seven would allow the apostle’s to continue in their calling of prayer and ministry of the Word (6:4). The result is stated in 6:7:

  1. The Word of God kept on spreading
  2. The exponential multiplication of disciples
  3. The conversion of many of the priests

Stephen stands at the head of the list of the Seven, and is described as man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (6:5). Full of grace and power, he was performing great signs and wonders among the people as he preached the gospel of salvation in Jesus in the Greek-speaking synagogues of Jerusalem. (6:8), and carried on debates with Diaspora Jews, among whom may have been the man Sha’ul of Tarsus (6:9). These men could not refute the arguments presented by Stephen, who spoke with supernatural wisdom that came from the Spirit of God.
Stephen’s ministry is summed up in Acts 6:8-10:

  1. Working Signs and Wonders among the people
  2. Debating in the Greek-speaking synagogues with Diaspora Jews
  3. Drawing out the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the ongoing place of the Temple and the Law in God’s plan for His people

Stephen’s ministry, on another level, may be summed up as follows:

  1. He does the work of an evangelist who proclaims the good news concerning Jesus, and works signs and wonders in His Name.
  2. He does the work of a reflective and insightful teacher, who draws out the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection in relation to abiding validity of the Temple and the Law.
  3. He does the work of a prophet, who indicts and prosecutes the people of Israel, and, more particularly, the Jewish Council, for the murder of Jesus, calling these hard-hearted men to repent and to believe in this One Whom God had sent to be Israel’s Messianic King.

We should not underestimate Stephen’s significance, for he is, arguably, the Lord’s instrument for setting in motion the beginning of the mission to the Gentiles, which will, of course, come to the fore in the later ministry of the Apostle Paul. This thought will be continued in next week’s study, the ministry of Stephen, part two.

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