The Liberated Man
Read Acts 6:5-15 and Acts 7:51-60.
Stephen had finished serving the tables with the other deacons, and his heart was burdened to witness for Christ. He wanted to tell his fellow Jews that he had found the Messiah—Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There were 480 synagogues in Jerusalem at that time, and Stephen headed for the “Synagogue of the Freedmen.” This synagogue was built by the descendants of the Jews who had been slaves in Rome and had been set free. They were proud of their freedom—and yet they themselves were really slaves. Stephen was the freeman—he was the truly “liberated man.” And this is the message he wanted to share with them.
But they didn’t want the message. Instead of admitting their spiritual bondage, and trusting in Christ, the Jewish leaders arrested Stephen, tried him unjustly, and then stoned him to death. But to the very end, it was Stephen who was the better man. His face shone like the face of an angel. His eyes were lifted to heaven where he saw the glorified Christ. His heart was filled with pity for his murderers, and on his lips were gracious words of forgiveness. Stephen died as he had lived—to the glory of God.
There is something harder than dying for Christ. It is living for Christ. Stephen endured a few minutes of pain and death, and then he was ushered into glory. I know people who are stoned by their enemies all the day long. I know innocent people who have to suffer injustices and lies and remain in situations that are almost a living death. How is it possible for a man like Stephen to live as he lived and die as he died? What was the secret of his glowing face and his growing power? The secret is found in one word that is repeated four times in the Scripture passage here. It is the word full. “Full of faith and of the Holy Ghost…” (Acts 6:5). “Full of grace and power…” (Acts 6:8, where the best manuscripts read graceand not faith). “Full of the Holy Ghost…” (Acts 7:55). Stephen was a full man, and because he was a full man he was a free man! And if you and I will only draw upon, and depend upon, the same spiritual resources that Stephen trusted, we will also be full and free.
What are the spiritual resources God has provided for us?
The Holy Spirit
Three times we are told that Stephen was “full of the Holy Ghost.” This was the first secret of his liberty, because “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). The people to whom he was witnessing were in the worst kind of bondage: they were in bondage to religious legalism, to tradition, to the past. And because Stephen dared to tell them that God was making some changes, they killed him!
Stephen, like any believer, received the Holy Spirit at his conversion. “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God” (Romans 8:16). But at some point in his life, Stephen yielded himself to Christ that he might be filled with the Spirit. The Spirit’s fullness is not a luxury for the Christian; it is a necessity. As you read the Book of Acts, you discover that the Holy Spirit supplied the energy that the Christians needed for their walk, their witness, and their work.
To be “filled with the Spirit” has nothing to do with measurement or quantity. The word “filled” in the Bible carries the meaning of “controlled by.” A man who is filled with anger is controlled by anger; a man filled with love is controlled by love. Stephen was controlled by the Holy Spirit. He was not depending on his own feeble strength but on the power of the Spirit of God. No wonder the Word commands us, “Be filled with the Spirit!” (Ephesians 5:18). The Spirit is to the inner man what breath is to the outer man. Imagine what would happen to you if you stopped breathing! How important it is for us to be constantly yielding to the indwelling Spirit and drawing upon His infinite power.
I was flying to Chicago from upper New York, and the pilot announced that we would have to remain in our holding pattern over Kennedy Airport for at least an hour. I immediately committed the schedule to the Lord and reached for a book out of my briefcase. But the man across the aisle began to curse, and he called to the stewardess, “Bring out the booze!” The only resource that poor man had in an hour of crisis was alcohol. Paul said, “Be not drunk with wine…but be filled with the Spirit!”
The Word of God
Stephen was not only “full of the Spirit,” but he was also “full of wisdom” (Acts 6:3). If you want to know how much Stephen knew about the Word of God, read his magnificent sermon in Acts 7. The people who arrested and then killed Stephen were ignorant of the Word of God. All they knew were the religious traditions of men, and because of this ignorance, they were in bondage. Stephen knew and trusted the Word of God, and this made him a liberated man. “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
Nothing binds the human mind and heart like a lie. Satan is the liar and the deceiver, and if he can get us to believe a lie, then he can control our lives. The men in the synagogue could not answer Stephen’s wisdom, so they resorted to lies and threats. The empty man always stoops to lies to accomplish his foul deeds; but the Christian rests on the truth of God’s Word.
Ephesians 5:18 tells us that it is important for us to be filled with the Spirit of God; but Colossians 3:16 commands us to be filled with the Word of God! The two go together, because the Holy Spirit does not work in a vacuum: He works through the medium of the inspired Word of God. Stephen was a man who knew the Bible; he read it, studied it, meditated on it, memorized it, and tried to apply it in his daily life. If you and I will only follow his example, we, too, will experience the fullness of God in our lives.
Faith in God
Stephen was “a man full of faith…” (Acts 6:5). No doubt this faith was the result of his study of the Word of God, because “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). As Stephen reviewed the history of his people in his sermon, he pointed out that the great Jewish leaders of the past had all been men of faith. Abraham stepped out by faith, not knowing where he was going. Moses and Joshua and David and the prophets were all men of faith, and God honored their faith.
The trouble with the nation of Israel in Stephen’s day was that they wanted to walk by sight, not by faith. They wanted a temple they could see, even through Stephen pointed out that God does not live in man-made buildings. They wanted to hold onto the past instead of marching by faith into the future. How like them are some Christians today! Their first question is, “Where will this lead?” Abraham didn’t ask that question! “He went out not knowing whither he went” (Hebrews 11:8). By faith Moses forsook Egypt and led the nation through the Red Sea. Impossible! Of course it was—but faith always does the impossible!
Faith releases the power of God in our lives. Faith lays hold of the promises of God. Faith brings glory to God! The nation wanted to remain in their secure little nest, when God wanted to thrust them out into an exciting ministry to the whole world! Stephen walked by faith, even though it meant an early death. But rather to live by faith and die young than to live a long empty life that is death itself!
The best manuscripts read “And Stephen, full of grace and power…” (Acts 6:8). His accusers lived by law; Stephen lived by grace. They were hemmed in by their customs and traditions; but Stephen was liberated by the abundant grace of God. Law means that I must do something to please God; grace means that God provided all I need to glorify Him and serve Him. “And of His fullness have all we received, and grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Grace is another source of liberty. “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).
What a liberating experience it is for the believer to rely wholly on the grace of God. We are saved by grace, and we must live by grace. If we depend on our own resources, or on the resources of others, then eventually we will fail. But if we draw upon God’s limitless recourses in Christ, then we cannot help but succeed. “He giveth more grace” (James 4:6). His throne is the “throne of grace,” and His Word is “the Word of His grace.” The Christian life is grace from beginning to end!
Stephen was “full of faith and power…” (Acts 6:8). The power of God worked in his life and through his life. Stephen performed miracles! You and I may not receive the power to heal the sick or raise the dead, but we will receive the power to glorify God in the difficulties of life. The Jewish council was made up of powerless people, empty people; and this is why they resorted to lies and violence to silence Stephen. Powerless people always depend on force; full people depend on the power of God.
Faith and power go together. “According to your faith, be it unto you.” “All things are possible to him that believeth!” God gave Stephen the power to witness for Christ. He gave him the power to yield to his persecutors and not fight back. He gave Stephen the power to witness to them, a witness that eventually led to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul the Apostle. He gave him the power to forgive his enemies when they were murdering him! Stephen’s behavior under pressure was as great a miracle as any he had performed on the sick of the city!
What does Stephen say to us today? Simply this: that God can take any Christian and make him adequate for the stresses and demands of life. God has provided the resources we need for our witness and our walk: The Holy Spirit, the Word of God, faith, grace, and power. We do not need to manufacture these resources: they are ours for the asking—providing that we want our lives to be used to witness for Christ and to glorify God.
The great enemy of success is emptiness.The empty man is the weak man, the ignorant man, the defeated man, the enslaved man. But the full man is the free man—the victorious man—the man with the shining face! Open your life to God’s fullness. Men will persecute you and lie about you, and even try to silence you; but God will make you adequate and use you to glorify His name.