It has often been said that one type of person that is rare to find in today’s world, and also even in the church, is a hero. Often we discover people are heroes when it is too late. So how do we recognise a person who can be a hero? Three criteria are (1) who he is, (2) what he says, and (3) what he is prepared to die for. I want us to consider Stephen from these three viewpoints to see if he is indeed a hero to admire and imitate. We will consider the first today and the others in coming days.
The biblical details about Stephen do not take up a great deal of space, yet they reveal a person who was one of God’s giants. He first is mentioned as one of the seven men who formed the committee that sorted out the problem in the church in Jerusalem concerning provision for Hellenistic widows. Clearly the congregation had a high estimation of Stephen’s Christian character, otherwise they would not have chosen him. They regarded him as possessing the three qualification identified by the apostles for this role: good reputation, under the control of the Spirit and marked by wisdom. Yet we should also note that Stephen was willing to be a member of this committee that dealt with a rather mundane problem. This would suggest to me that Stephen was marked by humility (seen in his willingness to serve) and brotherly love (seen in his willingness to help fellow Christians). These are two basic features of his character, of the type of man he was.
Further, Stephen possessed great spiritual gifts as Luke describes in 6:8: ‘And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.’ Luke gives a beautiful description of Stephen in saying that he was gracious as well as effective in what he said and did. There was a sweetness about Stephen that was very attractive. He was not only empowered by the Spirit, he was also being transformed into the likeness of Christ by the Spirit. Luke does not specify what the signs were that Stephen did. While they were important, it was also the case that how he performed them was noteworthy.
This method of serving Christ informs us that Stephen took seriously his possession of apostolic gifts. I don’t mean that he was an apostle but that he had some of the gifts that are normally confined to apostles. In having them, he had been highly favoured by God, and Stephen knew it. He realised that his character had to be in line with his spiritual gifts. This combination is a challenge to us to how what we reveal about ourselves when we display our gifts. Is there a sweetness about us or a sourness which repels people, no matter how many talents we have?
In addition, Stephen had great courage. This attitude is revealed in the way that he was ready to witness to opponents as to the person and work of Jesus Christ in their synagogues. Yet his courage was not mere bravado. Instead it was marked by wisdom and the leading of the Spirit. The same features that commended Stephen to the church when they chose him as a committee member also were noticed by his opponents. They regarded him as a dangerous man, but he was a daring man under the control of the Spirit of God.
The last detail to note about Stephen the man is his appearance. When he was brought before the Sanhedrin, ‘the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.’ I don’t know what an angel’s face looks like, but I think it would reflect calmness, holiness and contentment. Have you ever met individuals whom you suspected were Christians by the looks on their faces? I have met a few. Of course, our situations can make a big difference to how we look. Where was Stephen when he looked like an angel? He was about to go on trial for his life. Yet such was the strength of his spirituality that he was easily the most outstanding person in the room.
What kind of man was Stephen? He was marked by humility and brotherly love, by sweetness when he ministered his spiritual gifts on behalf of Christ, by courage that was strengthened by wisdom as the Spirit guided him what to say, and by a depth of spirituality that even transformed his physical appearance. Truly he was a remarkable man and he easily meets the first requirement in our criteria of a hero.