Luke wrote the history of the early church but he wasnt personally present at these events until chapter 16 (Ac 16:10). To gather all this information he had to interview eyewitnesses, ask them pointed questions to draw out their memories, and then carefully write down what they told him. Someone had to tell him about the martyrdom of Stephen; someone who was there and heard and saw what happened; someone who was at the debate and then later was present when the Sanhedrin gathered to try him; someone who saw the look on Stephens face and described it as the face of an angel; someone who listened to his defense and remembered it point by point; someone who saw, and maybe even felt, the anger that surged through the room when Stephen told them they had murdered the Messiah; someone who watched everyone cover their ears and rush forward dragging him out of the city to stone him; someone who stood close enough to hear him speak as he was dying; someone who heard him cry out, Lord, do not hold this sin against them!
I suspect I know who it was. Have you guessed? I think Luke didnt have to travel far to get this information. That man was only a few feet away from him, in the next room, awaiting his own trial. And when he allowed himself to remember Stephen, the first thing he said, probably through his tears, was to call him a man full of grace, because that was Stephens gift to him.
What happened (Ac 6:8-15)
v13: And false witnesses stood saying, This man does not cease speaking words against this holy place and the Law.
v14: for we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and will change the ritual ceremonies which Moses delivered to us.
v15: and staring at him, all those sitting in the Sanhedrin saw his face as the face of an angel.
What does it mean to be full of grace?
1) grace with you: undeserved help
2) grace upon you: favor
3) full of grace: an abundance of grace for others
How do we describe a person who gives grace to others? Its someone who is not judgmental, who tends to overlook peoples sins and weaknesses, and sees the person hidden beneath it all who God loves. This doesnt mean they have low standards, or dont care what people do. It means they understand the power of the cross to forgive and the power of the Holy Spirit to heal and transform. It was grace that led Stephen to confront the Sanhedrin with their sin (Ac 7:51-53). He must have known he was sealing his own death sentence as he spoke, but he loved them enough to tell them the truth. And it was grace that moved him to call on God to forgive them while they were executing him (Ac 7:60). Obviously this kind of grace is rooted in love, but its also rooted in faith. Its a heart where compassion and hope meet. It sees peoples needs and Gods supply, all at the same time.
Jesus, full of grace (Jn 1:14-17)
Theres only one other place in the Bible where someone is described as full of grace and thats John describing Jesus,
And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14).
Then John tells us that out of His fullness Jesus gave grace to us. We should remember that God didnt give Jesus this kind of grace, because He didnt need it. He was sinless, He didnt need mercy like we do. God helped Him in His weakness, but there was no sin to forgive. John says,
For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon (anti) grace (Jn 1:16).
He uses a preposition (anti) that means to be face up against something else. So hes telling us that out of this grace which fills Jesus we received one gift of grace after another. It doesnt come just once, its a constant layering of grace, one mercy, one undeserved kindness after another.
Its impossible to think of Jesus earthly ministry and not think of grace. We see it in the way he treated the sick, lepers, children, women, foreigners, centurions, the demonized, the thief on the cross next to Him
He didnt just love them, His love compelled Him to help them, to heal them, to bless them, to offer them salvation and finally to die for them.
Stephen, full of grace
Like Jesus, Stephen was a man who gave grace to others. He overlooked a persons poverty and treated them with kindness and respect. No wonder the congregation picked him to care for the widows. No one would be overlooked on his watch. He saw the sick and demonized and ministered to them. No wonder he was not only full of grace but also full of power. He overlooked his opponents spiritual blindness and hostility and proclaimed the truth, hoping someone would have ears to hear. No wonder the Spirit gave him the words to speak as he preached. And he even overlooked his own murder and prayed for those involved to be given mercy. No wonder Jesus stood
waiting for this disciple to come home.
Dying like Jesus
Jesus: Father, into your hands I commit My spirit. (Lk 23:46)
Stephen: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit (Ac 7:59)
Jesus: Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing (Lk 23:34)
Stephen: Lord, do not hold this sin against them. (Ac 7:60)
Jesus: He breathed His last. (Lk 23:46)
he fell asleep. (Ac 7:60)
Me, full of grace
Am I full of grace? To find out I need only answer a few questions:
how do I treat the lowly?
how do I treat the sick?
how do I treat those who believe differently?
how do I treat those who hate me?
would someone who knows me describe me as full of grace?
So, how does someone become a grace-filled person? Do I have to be one of those born with an easy-going temperament? Must I score high in mercy on a personality assessment? How do I get rid of my insecurities, my self-centeredness, or my judgmental attitude? How does someone like me become like Stephen? Jesus points to the answer when He says,
but he who is forgiven little, loves little (Lk 7:47). Lets remember what happened before He said this (Lk 7:36-47).
So grace is something we must receive, before we can give it to others. We arent born with it. It isnt a pleasant temperament. Its a gift we pass on. A grace-filled person is first of all someone who recognizes how much grace has been given to them. In other words, someone whos humble and thankful, but staying humble and thankful is much easier said than done. Here are four ways God humbles us:
1) failure: we fall short of Gods standards or our own and are forced to face our weakness (temptations, disappointments, lack of self-discipline, etc.)
2) suffering: we learn to comfort others with the comfort which we ourselves have been comforted by God (2Co 1:3-5) (illness, miserable work environment, depression, etc.)
3) the Word: if I read it with an open heart the Bible often corrects me and points me back to Gods path. As I read I recognize the difference between my way and His way, and I repent and ask for help.
4) the Spirit: If I harden my heart His inner voice will go quiet, but if I stay surrendered the Spirit will grieve when I violate Gods love and grace and encourage me to do selfless, kind things.
So, its when I recognize how weak I am, that I constantly need grace upon grace, that my tendency is broken to be harsh and demanding toward others who are weak. My own desperate need of grace is the medication I have to take regularly to keep my pride in check. But its worth it, because when Im full of grace theres much fruit. It opens my eyes to see people I would have ignored and it impels me to help them. And, of course, Gods not going to let me do that alone, so when Im full of grace Ill also find Im full of power to minister to peoples needs.
The face of an angel
Im sure by now youve guessed who I think told Luke about Stephen. I believe it was Paul, nearly 30 years later while waiting for his own trial before Caesar Nero. This must have been so hard for him to tell. He could still remember Stephens face, not filled with fear as you would expect, but unnaturally peaceful and unafraid to die; not full of hate as you would expect, but unnaturally full of love, of longing for his accusers to be saved; not full of confusion even though he was standing before the elders of Israel. He seemed to be able to look directly into the spiritual realm. Who, but an eyewitness, would have seen that face, and who, but Paul, could have told Luke? We know he was there overseeing the execution, and no one was more guilty than he. Had Stephen called on God for justice, See and avenge! (2Ch 24:22), he would have been given it. Psalm 69 promises justice for the persecuted. But he didnt. He died like Jesus, pouring out grace on that angry mob and on the proud young Pharisee who held their coats. And 30 years later, that Pharisee, now a great apostle, remembered that amazing gift of mercy, and called him, Stephen, full of grace
1) Who do you know that you would say is full of grace? Why, what do they do? 2) Name one of the ways God humbles you. When was the last time He did this? 3) Describe an event when someone gave you grace. What did you learn from that?