In church yesterday I was thinking about Acts 7 and the genius of Stephen’s sermon.
In Acts 6:13-14 the Jewish religious leaders accuse Stephen of speaking blasphemous words about the temple, the Mosaic law, Moses, and Jesus. Stephen preaches a sermon in Acts 7 that is a response to that accusation. The sermon is inductive (moving from specifics out to the general), tracing the history of Israel until it converges on a main point. That main point is that the leaders of Israel were resisting the Spirit of God, just as they had throughout history (Acts 7:51). The sermon was not obviously not received well: The religious leaders responded with pride and rage and stoned Stephen to death.
A couple things are remarkable. First, that Stephen let the Biblical story be a story in his sermon. He didn’t break up the story unnaturally or try to insert artificial morals before the story was over. Rather, Stephen drew a moral after the story was complete.
Sometimes its tempting for preachers (myself definitely included) to take every text of the Bible and analyze it and break it down into three points and three sub-points, even if the text isn’t meant to be broken into that form. Sometimes we preachers preach boring sermons over narrative passages. There is no sense of progression or suspense.
But Stephen doesn’t preach that way. He leads his listeners on a trajectory they do not know the ending to. And then at the end of the story he makes his point, and it resounds in his listener’s ears. Incredible example of handling a narrative passage of the Bible!
Another remarkable (and encouraging thing) from this passage. Stephen’s sermon may have been genius, but he never gets to the gospel, strictly speaking. He starts talking about Jesus, the “Righteous One,” and then gets taken out. Stephen didn’t get to tell how Jesus could take away sin and death. And yet we know that some of the religious leaders standing there ended up becoming Christians (Acts 8-9). Paul was one of those who was at the execution of Stephen but who ended up being a relentless believer in Jesus.
This serves to show that there really is an agricultural progression to how people come to Jesus.
Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor. (Jesus in John 4:36-38)
Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:7-9)
Some people might simply cultivate the soil and break up a few clods. Some people might throw a couple gospel seeds on the ground but never see them sprout. Some people might water and see a plant come up in strength.
Seems like Stephen just broke up some clods and planted a few seeds before he was martyred in a way that showed Jesus to the people around him. So was Stephen’s witness a failure? Far from it! Stephen’s sacrifice was an integral part of God’s initiative in bringing the Apostle Paul and others to faith. Stephen’s death must have reverberated through Paul’s consciousness several times after Paul heard the message of Jesus (Acts 26:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17). Stephen’s sermon and death gave the news about Jesus some real validity to Paul.
Maybe we’re called to be a Stephen. Maybe we will die (or even be martyred) without seeing the fruit of the gospel. Maybe we will cultivate and water and plant, and yet we will never see any seedling spring up. But does that really mean we have failed?
Lets be faithful in our garden. Lets plow and cultivate and plant and water. And lets leave the results to God, the Master Gardener. He can use preachers, dead or alive.