The early church was exploding with growth. One hundred twenty people met in Acts 1 and prayed for God’s power. On the day of Pentecost, three thousand were converted, baptized, and added to the local church. In Acts 4:4, another five thousand men were saved, and we see in Acts 5:14, “Believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.”
When God’s work progresses we can be assured of at least two things: challenges from within and critics from without. We see both of these in the sixth chapter of Acts. The apostles were so busy preaching and praying that the needs of some in this growing church were going unmet. Thus, the apostles were led to appoint seven men to assist them with the daily needs of the people so that they could give themselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4).
Among these seven men was Stephen, who by the end of chapter 6 had riled the critics to bring false accusations against him. This bold layman, whose face shone like that of an angel (Acts 6:15), stood and boldly preached the Word of God to them. This sermon recorded in chapter 7 is a pointed history lesson describing Israel’s resistance to God’s plan for their lives. Finally, Stephen looks his audience in the eyes and declares: “Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye” (v. 51). “When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth” (v. 54).
The next verses are both tragic and beautiful at the same time.
But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:55–60).
If you think about it, we know very little about Stephen. We do not know when he was saved or whether he came from a Christian family. We do not know how old he was or whether he was married or had children. We know nothing of his educational background, economic status, or what he did for a living. We are not informed of his personality or whether or not he had unusual gifts or abilities.
So, how does one come from seemingly nowhere and in a matter of two chapters become the first martyr of the early church? What kind of a man would God choose for that role? What kind of a person is willing to fulfill that role and stand for Christ to the point of giving his life for what he believes? All of us would like to think that we are that kind of individual. We would hope that we too would have the courage to die for Christ.
Are there any clues as to the reason for this man’s courage? There is one word that is used often to describe him and teaches us something very valuable when it comes to standing for Christ in hostile days. It is the word full. We find it in Acts 6:3a: “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.” Again in Acts 6:5a: “And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of the Holy Ghost.” Again in Acts 6:8, “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.” Again in Acts 7:55a, “But he being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven.”
The Holy Spirit limits His vocabulary to one key word in this man’s life—full of faith, full of the Holy Ghost, full of power, and full of good works. While faith, the Holy Spirit, power, and good works would all be logical characteristics of one who is going to stand in wicked days, the key is in that qualifying word full. I’m sure most of us would like to think that we have faith. After all, we wouldn’t be saved without it, and we can’t walk far in our Christian journey without faith. We know we have the Holy Spirit residing in us if we are saved, and because of Him we have His power to accomplish some good works. But are we full?
You see, the word full indicates empty! At first reading I know that makes no sense, so let me explain. If the gas tank on your vehicle is full right now, it also means that it is empty. It is full of liquid fuel and empty of air. When you use up all of your fuel the tank will be on empty, but it is still full—of air. So your tank is always full— either full of fuel or full of air—never both. Thus, we come back to this qualifying word in Stephen’s life—full of faith, the Holy Ghost, power, and good works.
When the Holy Spirit tells us that Stephen was “full of faith,” He is also telling us that he was empty of doubt. You cannot have a tinge of doubt and still be full of faith. How is our faith today? Is it mixed with small ingredients of doubt? Do we trust God without any reservations? Or do we simply say we have faith but rely upon our own experience or understanding? Proverbs 3:5 would command us to trust completely—to be full of faith: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” Any speck of doubt in our heart will cause us to cave when we are called upon to have courage.
Are we filled with the Spirit? God commands us in Ephesians 5:18, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” To be full of the Holy Spirit would indicate that we are empty of the flesh. “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Galatians 5:17). We say that we will stand when the temptations and trials come, and we have every intention of doing so. But we end up falling because we are not “full” of the Spirit and have allowed the flesh to have control over certain areas of our life.
Are we full of power and of good works? Well, not if it is our will and our agenda that drives us. The disciples could never quite figure out what Jesus was up to when He would go out of His way to minister to people or give up personal necessities. He explained however in John 4:34, “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.” I’m sure it wasn’t the first time He had prayed the words, but they show us His heart in the garden before His imminent death, “Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). Before the Apostle Paul could preach or plant a church, or lay down his life for Jesus Christ, he had to come to the place he stated in Galatians 2:20: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
So what about us? Will we stand in an evil day? We will if we are full. But we can’t be full if we aren’t empty.