Close your eyes. Envision yourself late at night on a long road trip. Very dark, remote area. You’re tired, you’re hungry, you still got quite a ways to go, and your car starts giving you trouble. Eventually you lose power, pull over to the side of the road, and it’s dark. And you’re hoping, anticipating that someone’s going to drive by, pick you up, take you to the next town a few miles down the road. You wait what seems like a very long time. The car won’t turn over, you’re getting cold, a little frustrated, impatient. You decide, “I’ll throw my coat on and walk the few miles into town.”
You start walking. Pretty soon you can’t see your car behind you; you can’t see anything in front of you. You’re walking along the shoulder of the road trying to stay close to the white line. And then you hear this: [wolf howling]. [Congregation laughs.]
OK, open your eyes. OK, you laughed because you’re not there, but hypothetically, you’re there. What do you do? “Run,” says the dead person in the third row. Because what did we just hear? A wolf. A wolf.
What do you do when a wolf comes? What do you do when a pack of wolves comes? What do you do when a howl is responded to with a series of howls, and they’re around you? What direction do you go? I’m not suggesting you watch it. It’s got a deplorable view of God, but did you see the movie, The Grey? The guy’s plane crashes, and the wolves encircle them and, one by one, devour them.
One of the story lines of the Bible is that God is a Good Shepherd. Jesus says he’s the Good Shepherd. The church is a flock of sheep. You all are like sheep.
Some of you say, “I’m tough.” For a sheep, maybe you’re tough. But if I change the story to, you’re walking alone late at night and you see a flock of sheep, you would pet them. They’re not terrifying.
God is good a shepherd, Christians are like sheep, and the church is like a pen where we have some protection together. Pastors and other leaders are supposed to be shepherds.
Conversely, there are wolves, they run in packs, they devour flocks, and they attack shepherds. It’s in the Old Testament, the teachings of Jesus, and the New Testament.
We’re in the book of Acts. We started this book a few years ago and we take a chunk every year after Easter, and we go through the book in the order that the Holy Spirit chose for it to be written.
Today, in God’s providence, we find ourselves in Acts 6:8 through Acts 8:3. Empowered by the Spirit to face wolves. What’s happened is that the Lord Jesus has come for his flock as the Good Shepherd. As he promised, he laid down his life as the Good Shepherd for his flock. The wolves surrounded him, they attacked him, they crucified him, and he laid down his life for the sheep. After his resurrection, he commissioned his leaders to be shepherds, to care for his people. He ascended back into heaven, and we saw Christianity early in the book of Acts exploding and expanding, and lots of people became the people of God. So the flock is growing, the church is growing, the number of shepherds is increasing. One of them who is appointed is named Stephen.
Now today, we see that the wolves are coming, that they are fast approaching, that they are planning and plotting, that they soon will be attacking. So we pick up the story in Acts 6:8–15, and herein, we meet the wolves. “And Stephen”—this man who was just appointed to leadership earlier in the chapter—“full of grace and power”—that’s Luke’s language for the Holy Spirit. The third member of the Trinity who empowered the life of Jesus empowers the life of Jesus’ people.
DISCREDIT THE MINISTER, DESTROY THE MINISTRY
So here, the Holy Spirit works in and through Stephen in a supernatural way. He’s a natural man with a supernatural enablement. He’s like you, and he’s like me. He’s just a regular guy until the Holy Spirit fills him, and he yields and submits himself to the person, the presence, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Great wonders and signs are done, people are healed, the Bible is taught, people become Christians, demons are cast out—some of the things that I’ve seen in my tenure here at Mars Hill Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Then some of those who belong to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)”— these are people who were slaves and then freed, and they apparently had made their own synagogue. What you’re going to see here are a bunch of packs. Here come the wolves. Each pack has its alpha. It has its male leader, the strong one, who in every way leads the pack. And now all of the alphas are leading all of the packs to encircle Stephen, the shepherd, and they’re going to attack him.
“Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)”—there’s a pack—“and of the Cyrenians”—another pack—“and of the Alexandrians”—another pack—“and of those from Cilicia”—another pack—“and Asia”—more packs—“rose up”—with their alphas—“and disputed with Stephen.” The alphas are going after the shepherd. “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he was speaking.” That’s the Holy Spirit.
“Then they secretly instigated men who said, ‘We have heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes.” More packs, more alphas, more packs, more alphas. “And they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council.” They’re attacking him. “And they set up false witnesses.” You’re not supposed to bear false witness. Here, they’re violating one of the Ten Commandments. “They set up false witnesses who said, quote, ‘This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place’”—the temple—“‘and the law’”—the Bible—“‘for we have heard him say’”—they never heard this. Not like this. “‘That this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.’” “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
The goal is very simple. Discredit the minister, and destroy this ministry. That’s it. This is always Satan’s plot and plan. And here, those idyllic early days of the early church, the good old days when all we did was eat meals together, study the Bible, and baptize the new believers, are in the rearview mirror. And now the opposition, the ostracism has come. The packs have found their way to the door of the church, and the alphas have devised their plan to take down the shepherd.
Oftentimes, Christianity is presented as just a self-help scheme for you. Today, I want you to care about the whole church. Not just our church, every church that loves Jesus and believes the Bible—every flock that is under our Good Shepherd.
THE FIRST AND LAST SERMON OF STEPHEN
Here come the packs, here come the alphas, here come the wolves, and they start by seeking to discredit Stephen. They bring charges against him that don’t hold up. They argue with him but they can’t win the argument because he’s filled with the Holy Spirit and he speaks words of truth and wisdom. They lose their public relations attempt to cause him to be discredited. He defends himself, and he holds his ground. So, they’re not done.
They then turn to false witnesses and false charges. They make things up that he didn’t say, or they take things that he said and they say them in ways that he didn’t intend. They’re doing the same thing to Stephen that they did to the Lord Jesus. These are the same kinds of people. The alphas surrounded the Lord Jesus. Their packs came to attack him. It started by arguing with him. When they lost the arguments, then it was instigating him. And when they couldn’t win the fight, then it was false accusations against him by false witnesses.
In the middle of it all, Stephen, like the Lord Jesus, is maintaining his integrity. He’s serving for God’s glory, and it says that his face was like the face of an angel. He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t vengeful, he wasn’t defensive, he wasn’t accusatory or derogatory. And they’re not done. And this organized attack continues. The bloodthirst of the wolves will not be satiated.
I’ve wrestled preparing for this section of Acts wondering, “Lord, should I take it all at once since it’s a unit of thought, or should I break it down because it’s so incredibly long?” I’ve chosen to deal with the entire narrative so that we could see it all in context.
This may be Stephen’s first sermon. It is assuredly his last sermon. He has just officially entered into a leadership position in the church, and he is now going to preach his own funeral. He’s going to preach his own funeral.
One thing that I’ve asked the Lord is, “Let me preach Grace’s funeral and my funeral. Let me take care of my best friend all the days of her life and when my run is done, I hope in many years, let me preach my own funeral.” I tend to do that on video. I’ll just tell you that right now. And I will make sure that there is a gospel invitation at my funeral. I will make sure of that.
Stephen gets the great dignity and honor in the sight of God to preach his own funeral, and it’s a long sermon. Oftentimes when we get a sermon in the Bible, it’s a snippet or a summary. This is actually an extended, maybe an exhaustive transcript of what he had to say. So, since these are Stephen’s final words, this is his funeral sermon, out of honor and respect for him, I’m going to ask you to stand. All of you. And we’re going to read his sermon together. I will read it to you. If you’ve got your Bible, feel free to follow along. Paul says to a young pastor, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture,” so we’ll do that now because faith comes by hearing the word of God.
Here’s Stephen, surrounded by alphas and wolves. “And the high priest said, ‘Are these things so?’ And Stephen said—” Here’s his sermon: “Brothers and fathers”—he’s respectful—“hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham”—he starts with Abraham—“when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go to the land ‘that I will show you.’ Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child.”
And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring “would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, and would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.”
He’s deep into Genesis. “And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph”—he’s at the end of Genesis—“sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household.”
“Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, and our fathers, and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph.” Now he’s in to Exodus.
“He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.” Same as Stephen. The Holy Spirit was upon him as well.
“When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.”
“Now when forty years had passed, an angel”—perhaps even Jesus, I would add—“appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’ This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’” That was a prophecy of Jesus’ coming.
“This is the one who was in the congregation”—or the church—“in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: ‘Did you not bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’”
The prefiguring of the temple is next. “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon”—David and Solomon are next. “But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet say.” Regarding the temple, God goes on to say, “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’” You may be seated.
KNOW JESUS, KNOW THE BIBLE
Here’s what Stephen does, and let me say this: You never know when you’re going to need to know your Bible. You never know when you’re going to need to know your Bible. There’s no indication that Stephen was given advanced warning that this moment was coming. He knew the Scriptures, and as a result, when the time came for him to speak, he was prepared and ready.
Peter says something similar: “Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is within you.” Always be prepared to explain who Jesus is and what he’s done. You never know when the time will come, so you prepare that you’re ready all the time. Stephen is ready, and when the moment comes, he respectfully—calling them brothers and fathers—walks them through the Old Testament. And he is leading everything to the person and work of Jesus. They would have known these biblical stories, they would have studied them as children, but their problem was they had missed Jesus.
Let me be very clear. You can know the Bible, but if you don’t know Jesus, you don’t know the Bible. You can know the Bible, but if you don’t know Jesus, you don’t know the Bible. Jesus himself said that he came to fulfill all Scripture. He said that the Scripture was about him in John 5:38–39. “You diligently study the Scriptures thinking that in them you’ll find eternal life. You fail to recognize these are the Scriptures that testify about me.” Jesus himself taught a Bible study after he rose from death—two, in fact—at the end of the Gospel of Luke, showing how the whole Old Testament was about him.
The whole pie, now, the whole Bible is Jesus. It’s all about Jesus. And they knew the Bible, but they didn’t know the Bible because they didn’t know Jesus, and the whole Bible is about Jesus. And so what Stephen is doing is take the Bible that they know and leading them to the Jesus that they do not know.
ABRAHAM & HIS SON
He starts with Abraham, whom they would have called their father. And he reminds them that Abraham was a pagan. He did not start as a Jew. He circumcised himself and became the father of the Jewish people. But he was a pagan, just like you and me, living apart from the Lord, coming from a godless family, and God chose him. Before Abraham ever chose God, God chose him, elected him. God showed up and spoke to him. Before Abraham ever called out to the Lord, the Lord called out to him.
The Lord made a promise to Abraham: “You’re going to become a father.” He and his wife were barren and elderly. They had no children and no capacity to have children. “And through your line will come a nation of sons, the nation of Israel, and through that nation will come a particular Son.”
I’m summarizing a ton of Scripture here. But it was a promise that this promised Son of miraculous birth would be a blessing to the nations of the earth. Ultimately, the Lord Jesus Christ comes. He is the son of Abraham, and he is the Son of God. He is fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. God gave Abraham the son Isaac. His name means “laughter” because God always gets the last laugh. And then through Isaac came the Patriarchs, whom he has just mentioned. Through them came the nation of Israel. It started as a family of around sevety at the end of Genesis. By the beginning of Exodus he says it’s a nation of a few million.
Through these people comes one person. God becomes a man, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the descendant of Abraham. He is the promised Son also born of a supernatural miraculous intervention and birth by God. And he is not just any man’s son—he is the Son of God. And Jesus is the fulfillment of the blessing that was promised to the nations of the earth through Abraham.
JOSEPH & THE GREATER JOSEPH
First he proceeds to Joseph. And he says of Joseph that Joseph was hated, and despised, and betrayed by his brothers. He ultimately was thrown in a hole and left for dead. Joseph got out of that hole and rose up from poverty to luxury and went from a place of obscurity to a place of great leadership and prominence. And as a result, Joseph used his position as a mighty ruler with lots of resources to feed, care for, love, and ultimately save people. Not only that, he forgave his brothers, and his great reconciliation with them, if memory serves me correct, is in Genesis 50:20, where he looks at them and he says, “What you intended for evil God used for good and the saving of many lives.”
Jesus is the greater Joseph. Similarly, Jesus was betrayed by his own brothers. Jesus was thrown into a hole and left for dead. Jesus maintained a love for his Father, and his Father maintained a love for him, as was the case with Joseph. Jesus got out of that hole and he rose to a leadership position at the right hand of the king, much like the Lord Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. And he used what was intended for evil, the murder of God on the cross, for good and the saving of many lives including our own, and he reconciles with us, and he makes us brothers. He looks us in the eye with love and says, “You murdered me, but what you intended for evil has been used for good and the saving of many lives.”
MOSES & THE GREATER MOSES
He moves from Abraham, to Joseph, and then he tells the story of Moses. In that day, God’s people lived in Egypt. They were pilgrims and sojourners, and they were far from home. And God’s people were under oppression, and there was a man who was the Pharaoh, and he ruled over them as a cruel taskmaster. He had no grace, he had no love, he had no mercy for God’s people.
So God raised up this man Moses, put the Holy Spirit in him and on him, and empowered him for preaching and for miraculous works, signs, wonders, and deeds. And Moses as a prophet of God rebuked the Pharaoh, calling him and the nation of Egypt to repentance. And the more he preached, the harder their hearts became. The result was that ultimately God, through a series of miraculous supernatural events, delivered his people from slavery and bondage to freedom and worship.
Jesus comes as the greater Moses. Jesus comes as the prophet that was promised to come through the line of Moses. Jesus comes to face our pharaoh, Satan. Jesus comes to free us from slavery to sin that we might be free to live new lives as his joyful people, worshiping him.
This is his sermon, and it’s all about Jesus. Abraham is about Jesus, Israel’s about Jesus, the patriarchs are about Jesus, the Exodus is about Jesus, Moses is about Jesus, Joseph is about Jesus, David is about Jesus, Solomon is about Jesus, the temple is about Jesus, the priesthood is about Jesus, kingship is about Jesus. It’s all about Jesus. Even the shepherd boy David pointed to Jesus, our Good Shepherd. It’s all about Jesus.
YOUR FIGHT IS ULTIMATELY WITH HIM
True or false, he did a good job? The wolves have come. Stephen, by the power of the Holy Spirit, he’s a good shepherd and he’s preaching his funeral to the wolves and their packs. And then who joins this momentous occasion? None other than the chief Shepherd.
Here are the final words of Stephen. Acts 7:51–60, “You stiff-necked people.” The alphas and the packs are the audience for the sermon. “You stiff-necked people.” Praise God. I praise God, and we want to publicly honor Stephen today. He didn’t become a wolf; he stayed a shepherd. It would have been very tempting for him, looking at his fast approaching murder, in an effort to make his life simpler, to transition from shepherd to wolf and become an alpha. The Holy Spirit warns of this in Acts 20, where, speaking to the Ephesians elders, it is said, “Men will rise from your own number, distort the truth, and lead many astray.” The ESVsays, “Some of you elders are going to become wolves and ravage the flock.” Stephen here is still a shepherd, his flock is watching, the pack is approaching, and he preaches the truth.
Can you imagine how difficult this was? He is brand-new to ministry. This is his rookie season. “You stiff-necked people.” You ever try to walk a dog with a stiff neck? You realize the dog’s trying to walk you. You ever try and ride a horse with a stiff neck? Can’t make it go where you want. God says that his people are often, or at least sometimes, like that, just stiff-necked. “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in your heart and ears.” Now, the men were all circumcised, but not in their heart and not in their ears. They weren’t listening, and they weren’t loving. You can go through a lot of religious ritual, but if it’s only external and not internal, all you are is a religious hypocrite with a stiff neck.
Here’s the bottom line: “You always resist the Holy Spirit.” He’s convicted you, he’s taught you, he’s led you. “You know what you’re supposed to do; you know what you’re not supposed to do. And your fight is ultimately,” Stephen is saying, “not with me, it’s with him.” And your fathers, and your grandfathers, and your great-grandfathers, they’ve been warring against him for thousands of years. “And it’s ultimately,” Stephen is saying, “not a battle with me. It’s a battle with God.”
“As your fathers did, so do you.” He’s insulting their dad because their dads and their granddads were kindling for the fires of hell. Circumcised, Sabbath-keeping, rule-abiding kindling. “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” Stephen is saying, “I’m like Elijah. I’m like Jeremiah. I’m preaching and you’re persecuting.” If you read the book, when the shepherd gets attacked, whoever’s attacking is the wolf.
“And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One”—that’s Jesus—“whom you have now betrayed and murdered.” You murdered God. “You who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” The angels brought you the Old Testament and you murdered Jesus, the entire point of the entire Scriptures.
“Now when they heard these things they were”—what? “Enraged.” Maybe if he would have said it differently, they would have responded differently. Maybe Stephen just wasn’t very winsome. “Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.” You ever seen a dog—hair up, teeth out, what do you know? You’re in danger. It’s an involuntary response of a dog who is preparing to bite, devour, and attack. These men now, demonically inspired, are like animals. They are wolves, and their teeth are showing.
“But he, full of the Holy Spirit.” Stephen was a great man because he submitted to a great God. Apart from submitting to a great God, there is no such thing as a great man. He is now going to be like Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit as Jesus was empowered. “But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears.” They would listen no more. “And they rushed together at him.” All the dogs off the leash. “Then they cast him out of the city and they stoned him.
“And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” There’s the alpha. Only one alpha name from all the packs. That’s the alpha of the alphas. His name is Saul. “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’” He’s saying the same thing as Jesus, isn’t he? “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”—the Lord Jesus said from the cross—“And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”
That’s the Bible’s language for a believer who dies. When a believer dies, they fall asleep. Their body lays in the ground until the resurrection of the dead. When a believer and an unbeliever dies, for the believer it is death, physical and spiritual. For the believer, it is physical death but spiritual life. They fall in a sleep and one day that dead body will rise with Jesus.
These are Stephen’s final words. He is on his knees because the men have encircled him. The wolves have come for him, and they’re going to stone him. You need to know that there is no indication that this was legal. This is illegal. They had challenged him and failed in their argument. They had brought charges against him that did not stick. They brought false charges against him that did not remove him from ministry.
So now they’re going to murder him, and they don’t seemingly have any legal right to do so, and there is no trial. This is mob violence. This is exactly what was done to the Lord Jesus. Argue with him, can’t win. Accuse him, nothing sticks. Falsely accuse him, does not discredit him. Therefore to silence him, we must kill him. And Stephen is on his knees and rocks are flying at him.
The men who threw the rocks were like pitchers coming out of a bullpen. The first thing you do is take your coat off so you can make sure to throw as hard and fast as you can. They take their outer garments off. They lay them at the feet of Saul. He’s the leader; he’s the alpha. This is all—this is all for Saul’s glory. Saul’s going to win! Saul’s going to be victorious! Saul’s name will be exalted! All the alphas will bow down to him! All the packs will sing his praises! Lay all the glory at his feet!
And there’s Stephen with the face of an angel, filled with the Holy Spirit, praying for his enemies to be forgiven, just like Jesus. “Father, forgive them.” That’s what Jesus says from the cross.
If you want the face of an angel, you’ve got to forgive your enemies to the degree that you pray for them to be saved. If you want the face of an angel, you need to pray for enemies to the degree that you want them to be saved. Those who are bitter cannot have the face of an angel. Those who by the power of the Holy Spirit forgive their enemies are granted the face of an angel.
Who lost? If you’re looking at it, who lost? Stephen. Who won? Saul. The alpha murdered the shepherd. Don’t be lied to. “If you love Jesus, you’re a winner!” At the end, you are. In the middle, you may not be.
JESUS IS YOUR JUDGE
Here we see the wolves. Here we see the alpha. Here we see the shepherd doing two things: preaching and praying. That’s what a good shepherd does. Preaching and praying. He teaching about Jesus and praying that people would meet Jesus. And who shows up? The Good Shepherd. First Peter 5, Peter calls Jesus the “chief Shepherd.” Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. I lay down my life for the sheep.” Jesus is saying, “When Satan and demons show up to ravage and devour the flock, I put myself in the middle, and I am ravaged and devoured for them.” That’s what happened on the cross.
How does Stephen see Jesus? It says that he sees Jesus in glory. I need you to see Jesus in glory, especially when you’re suffering. Oftentimes, we don’t look up until it really hurts. We’re so busy down here.
He looks up, sees Jesus in glory, calls him the “Son of Man.” Do you have a nickname? We tend to give nicknames to those we love and those we hate the most. Jesus took for himself a nickname, Son of Man. It got him in a lot of trouble. If memory serves me correct, it appears about eighty times. It comes out of the book of Daniel. It’s a staggering claim. The Son of Man is God as a man, riding down on the clouds of heaven into human history to judge and to bring a kingdom.
It’s the way that he’s revealed in Isaiah 6. Hundreds of years before Jesus entered into human history, he says, “The heavens opened. I saw the Lord high and exalted. And the angels cried out, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.’ Heaven and earth are full of his glory. I saw him in glory.” John 12, he says, “I saw”—Isaiah saw Jesus and spoke of his glory. In Revelation, John gets a picture like that. He saw Jesus high and exalted in glory. How do you see Jesus? Don’t see him just in humility, a humble, marginalized, Galilean peasant. That was a short few years of his eternal, unending existence as Creator God.
Today, the Lord Jesus is as Stephen saw him, in glory not humility, being worshiped by angels, being adored by departed saints. And Stephen has clarity because he saw Jesus. There is no clarity down here unless we see him up there. Unless you know that Jesus is alive, that Jesus is God, that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is ruling, that Jesus is reigning, that Jesus is in glory, that Jesus sees all, knows all, judges all perfectly, until you have that kind of clarity, nothing here is clear.
Stephen had that clarity. And he is the only man in the New Testament other than Jesus to refer to Jesus as the Son of Man, because he saw him like no one else saw him.
Some of you who are suffering, you know that you see Jesus in a way that no one else sees him. And it was customary in that day that in court the judge would sit, hear the case, and render the verdict. The witnesses would stand to testify. Here, the Lord Jesus is standing. He’s gotten off of his throne for Stephen, to honor Stephen and to serve as a witness saying, “I’ve seen it all. I know it all. I will judge all.”
JESUS IS YOUR WITNESS
You need to know that not only is Jesus your judge, he’s your witness. He sees and knows all—all that you do, and all that has been done to you. He sees the evil that you and I have done, and he sees the evil that others have done to us. He’s not only the judge; he’s the witness. And either he died in our place for our sins, or we die in our place for our sins, but there is justice for all. And it says the Lord Jesus got off of his throne from being seated at the right hand of the Father, and he looked down at Stephen, telling him, “I am witnessing all of this, and I will welcome you.”
His arms are out to welcome Stephen home. And Stephen closed his eyes in death, and he opened his eyes to see the Lord Jesus face to face, to feel his embrace, and to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into your rest.” Saul was living for his own glory, and Stephen was living for God’s glory. The wolves, the shepherd, the Chief Shepherd, and the alpha.
It does not say, “And it got all better.” It does not say, “And they lived happily ever after.” It does not say, “And 3,000 were added to their number and baptized.”
THE ALPHA OF THE PACK
Acts 8:1–3, here comes the alpha. “And Saul.” Saul, we know his name. All these groups, all these packs, all these men, but we only know the name of one. He’s the alpha. “Approved of his execution.” This was his strategic plan. He had organized this. He had brought all these angry men together to attack the minister and the ministry.
“And there arose on that day a great”—what? “Persecution against the church.” They’re attacking the church. The wolves have gone after the shepherd, and now the wolves are going after the sheep. “Against the church in Jerusalem.” This was very strategic. Jesus already told them early in Acts, “You’ll be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, ends of the earth.” The gospel won’t go forward until the church is destroyed in Jerusalem.
“And they were all scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria.” People stopped going to church. They stopped walking with Jesus. They fled, they ran, they scattered. Do you know how vulnerable one lone sheep is?
“Except the apostles,” the leaders, the shepherds. You know who the shepherds are because when the wolves come, the Bible says, the hired hand runs and the shepherd stays. Oftentimes, you don’t know who’s a hired hand or who’s a shepherd until the wolves show up.
Let’s say I’m sitting at your house for dinner, and there are two other men there, a woman, and children, and I don’t know which one is the father because I just met you. And I hear gunshots and a banging on the door, and one man runs. That’s not the husband, that’s not the father. The dad runs to the door; the other man runs for his life. You don’t know who the shepherds are sometimes until the wolves show up. And the hired men run, and the shepherds hold their posts.
That’s what happens. They know they’re going to get treated like Stephen, and they stay. They know that their reputations are going to be destroyed. They might be arrested and maybe even murdered like Stephen, and they stay because they love the sheep and because the Holy Spirit has given them the heart of the Good Shepherd.
“Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.” Funeral. “But Saul was”—what? “Ravaging the church.” This is, in the original Greek—I don’t do this to you a lot, but that’s the language for what happens when a wolf gets in a sheep pen. It’s ravaging, it’s bloodthirsty, it’s ugly, it’s death. “Saul was ravaging the church and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
Now he’s making his way through the Community Groups. How many of you are going to go to Community Group this week, and you’re advertising it so that people can come, and if a terrorist showed up, that would be the last day of your Community Group?
There are three things I want you to see here. This wolf attack on the flock, it’s relentless, it’s religious, and it’s ravaging. It’s relentless, it’s religious, and it’s ravaging. It’s interesting, we don’t deal with wolves a lot in our day, but in some places they do.
THE WOLF’S SINGULAR PURPOSE
Let me share this with you. It’s from the BBC World Service Podcast. The announcer asks, “What’s it like when you stare into the eyes of a wolf?” Caroline Burda knows the feeling all too well. She’s a sheep farmer in the French Alps. And in the last couple of years, she’s been on the front lines of a battle with the beasts. The wolf was hunted to almost extinction in France in the 1930s, but after being labeled an endangered species it has made a surprising comeback, with wolves now killing six thousand sheep a year and the government allowing some wolves to be shot.
Can’t we domesticate them? No. “The wolves are clever,” she says. “They spend long hours watching, watching, learning the flock’s movements. They wait and attack. When they attack a flock, especially when they get inside an enclosure that’s supposed to protect the flock”—this is the language of the church in the New Testament. She says—this is insightful—“They go berserk. Once they get in where the sheep are, they go berserk. They won’t stop killing as long is there is a sheep or a lamb still moving.” It’s not about the food; it’s about the death. “In general, we have one ewe eaten and several others that they’ve killed just for the sake of it. “‘What’s frightening,’ says Caroline, ‘is the wolf’s singularity of purpose. She spends a lot of time looking after her sheep, but people also do other things—send text messages, do homework with the kids, vacuum the house. The wolf stays concentrated on how he’s going to run amuck in her flock.’” And then the woman says, “All the time, all the time they are watching us.” (For full story, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01w7jzx .)
These wolves who are now attacking the church are relentless. They started with Stephen, they’ve got Stephen dead, now they’re going from house to house. Do you know how much time, energy, and organization it takes to go to this Bible study, this Community Group, this Redemption Group? Whatever their groups were, they were meeting in homes, going through the list of the leaders, going through the organization of the church, and one by one, declaring war, and even taking men and women, leaders, off to prison to punish them. Well, this obviously causes the rest of the people to be afraid and to scatter. Wolf comes in the sheep pen, kills a few sheep, the rest of the sheep run for their life. It’s relentless, this plan that Saul has overseen.
It is also religious. Saul is not an atheist. If you were to sit down with Saul and say, “Tell me about yourself,” he would echo what he says in Philippians 3: “I was born into a devoutly religious family. I learned the Hebrew Scriptures growing up. I had a good, formal Bible education. I’m a leader in my religious community. I was circumcised on the right day. I obey all the rules. I’m a good, moral, upright person, and I am doing this for the Lord.”
No one appointed him, but he believes that God has anointed him. He could argue Bible with you all day in Hebrew. He’s very religious, but he didn’t love Jesus, and so he’s very wrong. He’s not serving the church, so he’s very wrong. It’s relentless, it’s religious, and it’s ravaging. They’re going into people’s homes, they’re going into relationships, they’re going into churches, and the goal is very simple: ravage, scatter. Ravage, scatter. What do you do when this is done?
What do you do when this is done? You grieve. It says that devout men led the lamenting. The Day of Pentecost was a wedding day, thousands saved. This is a funeral day. Stephen is dead, the church is bleeding, the sheep are fleeing, the wolves have gone berserk, and the alpha has come out of the shadows and is getting all the glory.
We in the West do not lament well. When tragedy befalls some Eastern cultures, you turn on the TV, you’re like, “They’re crying, they’re out in public, there’s days of mourning, there’s a process.” We don’t have that. We celebrate publicly; we lament privately. We make our wins known to all, and we keep our losses to ourselves. What do you do when you’re struggling and dying? What happens when you didn’t get cured of cancer and you’re dying? What happens when you didn’t live happily ever after, but you got served divorce papers? What happens when you didn’t just get pregnant, or you had the miscarriage? What happens when it all falls apart, or at least that’s how it feels—that evil is winning, and you are losing, and your heart is bleeding?
The answer is lamenting. It’s a way of not denying reality or becoming evil, but walking through it. And the Bible says we need to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And everybody wants to buy the book that says, “Here’s four, or six, or ten steps to walk around the valley of the shadow of death.” Nobody—you know, “Here’s the seven steps to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” We’re not going to buy that one. Nobody wants to go through the darkness, the pain, the grief, the loss, the mourning, and the hurt, but the only way to the other side of it is through it. You’ve got to go through it just like Jesus did.
There’s a whole book of the Bible called Lamentations. It’s about lamenting. There are large sections of the Bible that are journal entries of people who are lamenting, like Nehemiah. The book of Psalms is a collection of 150 poems and songs, the largest category of which are laments. People are crying out to the Lord in frustration, hurt, anxiety, grief, loss, and mourning. And it’s an act of faith to cry out to God in those moments, just as Stephen did. He was talking to Jesus.
If you don’t mourn, ladies, you end up in depression. If you don’t lament, you end up in depression. Men, if you don’t mourn and lament, you end up in anger. And it’s a purifying thing for the soul to mourn, to grieve, and to lament. That’s what Ecclesiastes says that a sad face is good for the heart. It says about the Lord Jesus he lamented over Jerusalem, wept over it. When his friend Lazarus died, he shed his tears. He lamented the death of his friend. When Jesus knew that the cross was before him and he was about to atone for the sin of the world, he had his lamenting moment in the Garden of Gethsemane with the Father, being honest but humble, submissive yet truthful about how this was all so very painful. Lamenting is how we deal with evil, injustice, sin, oppression, death, grief, mourning, and loss.
The Bible says, “We do not grieve as ones who do not have hope.” We know that the Lord Jesus rose from death, and we will rise from death. We know that the Lord Jesus sees and knows all, and so we know that all will be made right in time. And we know that when we die, we’ll stand face to face with Jesus, and we will see him who ultimately has the face of an angel. And so we grieve, but we do not grieve as those who do not have hope.
I’m not good at this—lamenting, mourning, and grieving. By God’s grace, I’m growing in it. And I find that it has a cleansing and purifying effect on the soul.
AN OPPORTUNITY TO RESPOND
So I invite you to this great gift of lamenting and weeping with those who weep. And this week, when you get together for Community Group, I want you to be grateful that you’re still meeting, that your leaders haven’t been thrown in prison yet, and that your group hasn’t scattered as everybody ran for their life. And I want you to treat one another as sheep. And if you know any wandering sheep, I want you to invite them back to the flock because they’re in danger. We love them.
And as we collect our tithes and offerings and we get ready to partake of Communion, remembering the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep, that Jesus, just like Stephen, he had his body broken and his blood shed, and the wolves attacked him in our place for our sins.
I want you to get ready for Community Group this week. A couple questions. Is your alpha a shepherd or a wolf? The person you look up to, listen to, and follow—are they a wolf or a shepherd? Are you in a pack of wolves or a flock of sheep? Wolves roll together in a pack; sheep roll together in a flock. Sheep don’t hurt people; wolves do.
Mars Hill, we don’t criticize other churches. We’ll disagree with certain theological content for sure, but we don’t criticize and attack other churches. We don’t. Are you in a pack of wolves or a flock of sheep? The people that you run with, spend time with, listen to, lean on, is it a pack of wolves or is it a flock of sheep?
Number three, how do you lament? How do you lament, and how can you lament together? It was a public thing that they did together. If one of you or more than one of you in the group is really struggling and suffering, it feels like a season of bleeding. What does lamenting look like?
Lastly, is God calling you to be a shepherd? You say, “Man, as I hear this my heart is for Jesus’ people, and his church, and the well-being of those who are vulnerable.” Then by the power of the Holy Spirit, qualify yourself to be a Community Group leader, and to be a deacon, to be an elder—whatever the case may be that God is burdening of you.
As we take of Communion, we honor our Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, who from the cross prayed, “Father forgive them,” just like Stephen. And we’re here because Jesus answered his own prayer. In dying for our sin, he forgave us. You need to know this. We’re the pack. He’s the Good Shepherd.
Then we’re going to sing to Jesus. We need to see him as Stephen saw him—in glory, standing up for us and waiting to welcome us.
Lord Jesus, we ask that you would send the Holy Spirit, that we would see the ways in which we are relentless, religious, ravaging wolves, and that we would see that you are a Good Shepherd who has laid down his life for his sheep.
Lord Jesus, we ask for the grace now through the power of the Holy Spirit to see you in glory, to see you seated at the right hand of the Father, to see you on your throne, to see you high and exalted, to see you receiving all praise and glory, to see you surrounded by angels and saints.
Lord Jesus, that’s where we are going, and so in this moment, let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, who endured such opposition from sinful men so that you would not grow weary or lose heart. Lord Jesus, may we look to you and not grow weary or lose heart.
Let’s stand now as we respond. We’re going to sing this, lifting our voices and reminding one another that in our hardships, God is there, just as Stephen looked up and saw that Jesus was with him and was ready to receive him. God is with you now in the midst of the hardest times.
This sermon transcript has been edited for readability.