At my former church, it was common to hear this simple reminder of faith from the pulpit: “Forsaking all, I take Him.” If we are honest, having faith and experiencing or exercising it is different. We can have true faith and yet not experience the full measure of it. It is why the father in the Gospel of Mark exclaims, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). When there are challenges, trials, and struggles, we may feel unstable or insecure. We are not sure what God is doing. It is why we take comfort in the Scriptures that remind us that there are different experiences in our faith. Jesus says several times to His disciples, “O you of little faith” (Matt. 6:30; 8:26; 16:8; Mark 4:40; Luke 12:28). Paul also says there are those who are strong in faith and weak in faith (Rom. 14). Our experience or feelings of faith are mutable, while the source of our faith is not. Stephen is full of faith because, having been justified by faith, he now lives confident in that justification, prepared to forsake any worldly treasures for the cause of Christ. Having such a faith enables one to face trials and persecutions because the One in him was greater than those persecuting him.
Stephen was also full of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5; 7:54). This is not a new phrase for Luke, for he also used it in the context of Pentecost (Acts 2:4), with Peter and John before the Sadducees (Acts 4:8), and even in the prayers of the church for boldness (Acts 4:29, 31). It’s a wonderful truth to understand that the Holy Spirit lives within all who have been born again. This brings confidence because it reminds us that we do not receive only some of the Spirit; instead, we receive the entirety of the Holy Spirit. Luke is reminding us that the ministry of the Spirit supplies all that we need.
Stephen, being full of faith and the Holy Spirit, is also full of grace, power, and wisdom. The grace of God that saves us also changes us. There is a status change, but there is also a character change. We live differently because we are different. God was present in the life of Stephen, and it showed in the ministry of Stephen. One perhaps could summarize what Luke is saying by looking to what Paul says in Ephesians 1: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3). What was the purpose of being filled with every spiritual blessing? It was so that Stephen would be faithful.
Stephen is opposed by those who seek to destroy him, but Luke states that their aim is not the destruction of Stephen but the suppression of truth (Acts 6:10–13; 7:51, 57). What takes place with the persecution of Stephen has a great deal of similarity with the persecution of Jesus. The enemies of Christ attack Stephen’s theology—specifically his doctrine of God and his theology of worship—and they send false witnesses to accuse him. But why? Stephen was peeling back the layers of their hearts and showing that true worship isn’t the place, and it certainly isn’t the building, but it’s the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is why Luke tells us that those who saw Stephen described his face like that of an angel (Acts 6:15). We aren’t to speculate as to what angels look like, but rather to have our attention directed to someone else who was described this way, Moses (Acts 6:11). What did it mean if not to describe that Moses and Stephen had met with God? Being in the presence of God changes us.
Stephen became the first Christian martyr. He is an example of what it means to live well and die well. Yet, we would miss the overarching point if we saw Stephen as a model merely during trial and tribulation, when one’s life is at stake. Stephen reminds us that those who have been bought with the precious blood of Christ, having been filled with every spiritual blessing in Christ, will be shown faithful because of our faithful God even when we are not under trial. Our faithfulness is not only expressed at moments of trial or in opportunities to defend the gospel but is displayed each Lord’s Day when we demonstrate our understanding of faithfulness by coming into the presence of Almighty God in worship. The same truth expressed by Moses and Stephen takes place every time we come to meet with God in corporate worship. Corporate worship not only fills us but also gives us an opportunity to exercise our faith because we trust not in our efforts, or even in our worship, but in the One whom we have come to worship. May we as the people of God recognize together that we have been filled that we might be faithful in this life as we journey into the next.