8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Jacob Silverman has written an article for the website www.howstuffoworks.com entitled, “Why do old couples look alike?” It is a fascinating piece exploring the commonly held belief that the longer people are married the more they actually look alike. Silverman cites some interesting studies showing that there may just be something to this notion.
A study published in the March 2006 issue of “Personality and Individual Differences” may have the answer. Twenty-two people, divided equally between male and female, participated in the study. They were asked to judge the looks, personalities and ages of 160 married couples. The participants viewed photographs of men and women separately and were not told who was married to whom. The subjects consistently judged people who were married as being similar in appearance and personality. The researchers also found that couples who had been together longer appeared more similar.
The article then goes on to offer some reasons why couples who are married a long time begin to look alike. They note that “life experiences can end up being reflected physically,” so, for instance, a happy couple that smiles a lot “will develop the facial muscles and wrinkles related to smiling.” Thus, “years of experience of an old couple’s marriage, happy or otherwise, would then be reflected in their faces.”
Furthermore, studies suggest that people tend to be drawn toward people who are genetically similar. Silverman points to “a researcher at the University of Western Ontario [who] determined that when considering friends or romantic partners, a similar genetic profile made up about a third of the selection criteria.” Not too similar, mind you, but similar nonetheless. Genetically similar people appear to have healthier, happier, longer marriages.
There is also the dynamic of girls who tend to marry men who remind them in some ways of their fathers. Silverman explains:
A study involving researchers from several universities showed that women prefer men who look like their fathers. Even women who were adopted seem to share the same predilection. Tamas Bereczkei, a researcher at Hungary’s University of Pecs who was involved in the study, called the process sexual imprinting. Women use their fathers as models by which they judge their prospective mates.
The study also found that a close father-daughter relationship more often resulted in a woman marrying someone who looked like her father. Again, the notion of imprinting arises as these fathers, by forming close emotional bonds with their daughters, seemed to provide a model of what a husband should be.
That is really all quite fascinating, and there is no doubt something to it. People who are married a long time really do start looking alike. But if the evidence in the article is true, that phenomenon is really attributable to the fact that people who are predisposed genetically to look a certain way are drawn to one another in the first place.
But what about people who are not predisposed to look alike? Our passage tells us about a relationship in which two people started looking alike who were not predisposed to do so. In fact, one person was predisposed to look like the exact opposite of the Other, but, eventually, he came to look more and more like the Other. This was not, like the relationships in the article, a romantic relationship or an earthly marriage. Instead, it was a unique relationship built on a love that could only come from God.
I am talking about Stephen and Jesus. I truly mean that. When one reads the story of Stephen in the book of Acts, one cannot help but be struck by how much Stephen, by nature a rebel against God, came to look and sound more and more like Jesus the longer they knew each other. This is especially evident in the events leading up to Stephen’s martyrdom, and it is to this series of events that we now turn our attention.
As we begin our introduction of Stephen, I would like us to consider him as a champion for Christ. Truly he was. His boldness, his courage, and his commitment all marked him as such. This is why the Church still honors him today, two thousand years after the events about which we are about to read.
How was Stephen a champion for Christ? What does a champion for Christ look like?
A Champion for Christ is One Whose Life Attracts the Attention of the Devil
Stephen was a man yielded to God who did great things.
8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen.
The “then” at the beginning of verse 9 is a most telling “then.” It connects the thoughts of verses 8 and 9. Stephen is being used mightily by God, then… Stephen is full of grace and power, then…
Then what? Then opposition comes. Then persecution comes. From whom? From “some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia.” These who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedman were Jews who had earlier been deported and enslaved, most likely by the Romans, and later freed. Thus, they were Freedman. You will also notice that the synagogue or synagogues mentioned (it is unclear if there was only one actual synagogue for all the groups mentioned or if each group had a synagogue) were Hellenistic synagogues. This means that Stephen, a Hellenist Jew, was being opposed by other Hellenist Jews.
In mentioning the synagogue for those from Cilicia, F.F. Bruce interestingly points out “the possibility that this was the synagogue attended by Saul, otherwise called Paul, whose native Tarsus was the principle city of Cilicia.” He admits we cannot know if this is so because Paul, “‘a Hebrews born of Hebrews’…might have preferred to attend a synagogue where the service was conducted in Hebrew.”
That is a most intriguing thought, and we know that Paul presided over Stephen’s stoning. Regardless of whether or not there was a Cilician synagogue in which Paul was a member, a band of opponents rise up against Stephen.
There is an obvious point here, and a crucial one: a life lived for Christ is a life that attracts the attention of the devil. Follow Jesus and you will have your own “then,” just like Stephen did.
Be a bold witness for Christ, then the devil will try to silence you.
Be an example of Christian obedience, then the devil will try to lure you into sin.
Be a student of the Bible, then the devil will try to distract you.
Be willing to stand against the culture, then the devil will seek to get you to conform.’
A champion for Christ is one whose life attracts the attention of the devil.
A Champion for Christ is One Who Clearly Advances the Gospel With Sound and Irrefutable Words
Men rise up against Stephen and, the scriptures tell us, they “disputed” with him. That is, they tried to argue Stephen down.
10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.
Stephen, as we will see when we look at his amazing sermon in Acts 7, knew the scriptures well and was more than capable of standing against this crowd. To anybody watching this scene, this looked like many against one. But it was not. Stephen stood with the Lord. Stephen stood with the truth. He could not be so easily defeated.
Furthermore, Stephen went on the offensive. He proclaimed the truth against the lies of his opponents, and “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” He did not speak his words. He spoke the words of the Spirit. He was bold, a man mighty in the scriptures, a man who know the truth well.
One cannot help but wonder how many of us today could stand against an angry man and proclaim Christ in such a way that out enemies were confounded? I will remind you that Stephen was not a seminary graduate. He did not have a PhD. He was not even an Apostle. Who was he? He was a man whose mind and heart and tongue had been touched with holy fire. He was a student of the Bible and of divine truth. He was a follower of Jesus, a passionate follower.
One of the great tragedies in our day is the number of men who are not so mighty in the scriptures, who are not so passionate in their discipleship, who do not so resolutely yield to their King. One wonders at the phenomenon of men who can name every player on the Arkansas Razorback’s roster but cannot name the books of the Bible in order. One wonders at the phenomenon of men who profess to be followers of Jesus who are so lax in their devotion, so distracted in their discipleship, so tepid in their witness, and so waning in their courage that they could not even begin to repeat what Stephen has done here.
If you were challenged like this, what would you do? Call the preacher? Stephen did not call a preacher. Ask for more time? Stephen did not ask for more time. Hem and haw and mumble your way through a half-hearted confession of faith along the lines of, “Well, this is just what I believe”? Stephen would not have dreamed of doing such a thing.
No! Stephen was a man of God and he would not be bullied by the devil or his minions. So Stephen stood like a lion surrounded by wolves and he spoke! And as he spoke in the power of the Spirit his critics were dumfounded and frustrated. William Larkin insightfully says of this, “Stephen has conquered their minds. But God has not chosen through this witness to also conquer his opponents’ wills and lead them to repentance and conversion.”
That is true. They do not repent. Far from it. But they do hear and know that here is a champion of God whose words were irrefutable.
A Champion for Christ is One Against Whom the Devil Must Hatch Schemes and Plot Lies
Unable to thwart Stephen in a frontal assault, the devil had to resort to subterfuge.
11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”
Is this not just like the devil? He is resolute in his desire to steal, kill, and destroy. So he leads these men to lie about Stephen in an effort to discredit him. “Thwarted in open debate,” writes John Stott, “Stephen’s opponents started a smear campaign against him, for when arguments fail, mud has often seemed an excellent substitute.”
A champion of Christ is one about whom the devil must hatch schemes and plot lies. This is a compliment to Stephen. Too often, though, this is shameful for us. Why? Because too often we are so easily refuted that the devil does not even have to resort to “plan B” to get us to stumble! We make it so easy for the devil that he does not even have to get creative with us!
They lie about Stephen. There is a kernel of truth in their lies. This is how lies often work. Stephen, of course, did not blaspheme, but he did indeed proclaim that Christ had fulfilled the Law. He did indeed repeat Christ’s words about the temple being torn down, but these were words about the resurrection of Christ, not armed revolt as Stephen’s enemies made them sound. He was repeating Jesus’ words from John 2.
18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
Stephen simply preached Christ, and the angry mob twisted his words, making them sound sinister and ungodly. The irony is that in so doing they were the ones who were blaspheming. They were the ones who were lying.
Regardless, they had to get creative. They could not best Stephen in an open conflict. They could not best Stephen man-to-man. They had to lie about him to the Sanhedrin in an effort to have him silenced.
I am reminded of an episode from the life of Billy Graham. Billy Graham has never fallen in moral scandal. He is not a perfect man, but he has stayed true to his wife and true to his calling. As a result, those who would like to silence Billy Graham have had to become creative over the years. Once, when Billy Graham was preaching to a crowd on an outdoor platform, one of his critics hired a scantily clad showgirl to hop up on the stage and wrap her arms around Billy. Then, a photographer who was planted in the audience was ready to take the picture and use it to discredit him. However, when Billy saw the showgirl coming, he quickly stopped his sermon, lept from the stage, and ran as fast as he could away from the scene!
Even here the devil could not destroy his ministry! But he tried. He got creative. He had to create false impressions since he could not best Billy in the usual ways.
Live in such a way that the devil has to get creative in his efforts to destroy you.
A Champion for Christ is One Who Reflects the Glory of God
A champion for Christ is also one who reflects the Glory of God. We have mentioned how Stephen looked more and more like Jesus. Here is one of the episodes where we see this clearly.
15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
They looked at Stephen, and they saw the glory of God reflected in his face. “His face was like the face of an angel.” Stephen was acting in an angelic way in his faithfulness as a messenger. Now his countenance began to reflect that fact.
R.C. Sproul has referenced some interesting words from Jean-Paul Sartre about the nature of staring at people.
The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described the destructive effects of becoming the object of people’s stares. In polite society, there is only so long we can maintain eye contact with someone before making him or her uncomfortable. When we see someone walking down the street and our eyes meet briefly, we say hello and then look away. People stare at paintings in art museums or at animals in zoos, but if we stare too long at a human being, we are likely to get a hostile reaction because, Sartre said, staring at others reduces them to the status of objects.
Is this not true? A belligerent stare can start a fracas. An overly long stare can lead to sin. An intense stare can create great discomfort. That is so true. There is an etiquette to staring in polite society, an unspoken rule about how long we may do so and what the nature of a stare should be.
The Sanhedrin offered warlike stares, but what they saw in return must have been disconcerting. They did not see a wallflower shrinking in insecurity. They did not see eyes of hatred returning evil for evil. They did not see a look of fear cowering and trembling. Instead, they saw the face of an angel looking back with that godly confidence that only one at peace with his Maker can have.
But there is something else here. Do you remember when they accused Stephen of blaspheming against Moses and against God? That is telling, when we read this passage about Stephen’s face. Why? Because in Exodus 34 we read this about Moses:
29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.
And in Matthew 17 we read this about Jesus:
1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.
How amazing! How beautiful! Stephen is not blaspheming against Moses and against God. Rather, he is at peace with both. Moses’ face shone with the glory of God. Jesus’ face shone with the glory of the Father. And now Stephen’s face looks like the face of an angel!
Stephen has become so like his Savior that he is given the honor of reflecting the glory in his very face, just as Moses did! Stephen is a champion for Christ, a hero in the Kingdom of God! May we see his example and be encouraged.
There are no ordinary followers of Jesus.
We can all be champions for our King!
 Bruce, F.F. (1988-06-30). The Book of Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament) (p. 124). Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.
 William J. Larkin, Jr. Acts. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Vol.5. Grant R. Osborne, ser.ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), p.103.
 Stott, John (2014-04-02). The Message of Acts (The Bible Speaks Today Series) (Kindle Locations 2188). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
 Sproul, R.C. Acts (St. Andrews Expositional Commentary) (Location 1917). Crossway Books. Kindle Edition.