Recently in reading the book of Acts, I was struck again by Stephen’s commanding and stirring address in chapter 7. Of the twelve messages in Acts (of which we probably do not have a complete account in any instance), none is in the context of a worshipping community. All but Paul’s address to the Ephesians elders (Acts 20) are evangelistic in nature. Stephen’s speech would be under the category “occasional addresses,” but packs some very striking surprises.
1) Stephen of the Greek-speaking Jews was not one of the apostles giving special attention to “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (6:4). He was among the proto-diaconate appointed to wait on tables. Yet he is at the forefront of an aggressive dialogue with the religious hierarchy. Neither John Calvin nor D.L. Moody was ordained, but despite ecclesiastical irregularity, each of these and many others like them led out in critical proclamation. God’s lines are not always ours. Stephen most unexpectedly stepped into the lead role. Wasn’t this a bit too bold? What was Stephen thinking?
2) Stephen addressed the critical theological issue of the hour and was accused of blaspheming Moses and God and speaking against the Temple and the law (in an argument very similar to that of Jeremiah in his “Temple of the Lord” sermon (Jeremiah 7) and the Book of Hebrews. Didn’t Stephen realize that doctrine and theology are really marginal in importance? This must have been part of his “Greekness.” Couldn’t he have anticipated Kant’s insistence on denying reason to make room for faith? Or Barth’s exclusion of any apologetic? What was Stephen thinking?
3) Stephen, one of God’s irregulars, moved with skill and aplomb in his message-beginning with God and his glory, moving confidently through Holy Scripture, building his argument, supplying rich insights and gems of truth (such as Moses being “powerful in speech and action,” cf Ex. 4:10). His relentless theme is the stubborn resistance of Israel over the ages. His message was not calculated to be “seeker friendly.” He is so direct in his frontal assault on his hearers (7:51). Aren’t we learning from the Emergent Church and “feel-good theology” to be more careful and chary about address to sin, if we should do it at all? How could Stephen make such a blunder? What was Stephen thinking?
4) Stephen seems so negative. Wouldn’t he have been more effective (and possibly saved his life) by citing some positive instances? It sounds like he has listened to J. Gresham Machen: “It is when men have felt compelled to face error that they have risen to the really great heights in the celebration of truth.” Why couldn’t Stephen understand this? What was Stephen thinking?
But in fact, Stephen was “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3), “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5) and “full of God’s grace and power” (6:8). Is it not possible that Stephen was thinking soundly and the results he would leave with God? He was not part of the “I must first make them like me” school. What are we thinking?
David L. Larsen is Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School