Stephen appears for the first time in scripture and is described as a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.”
Abruptly, we discover that even as Stephen is signing up as a waiter, men are preparing for his execution.
The Rolling Stones made famous the line “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Few who heard those famous words caught the next line in the song: “And if you try sometime you find you get what you need.”
I would argue that the spirit of the world has so infected, so contaminated what we have known as “church” that the standards used by Christendom for determining even such spiritually exclusive elements as “anointing” are secularly and not spiritually derived.
The Criteria of Victory; Faithfulness, not Success
In a religious culture that gauges success in Christ in terms of spiritual victories, increasingly large numbers of followers – the crowds played to, name familiarity, achieved prosperity, good health, good kids, good wives, good husbands and good graces, God judges us according to our faithfulness.
And while victory and prosperity are not standards for success in the eyes of a watching, heavenly Father, conversely, neither are the myriad difficulties, challenges and troubles that come uninvited into our lives an accurate measure of our spirituality. Instead, problems and challenges are merely opportunities for faithfulness to shine.
In Stephen’s brief resume in Acts 6, we discover that he was a gifted administrator, a capable teacher and a talented communicator. He bore the reputation of faith, wisdom and grace. The Holy Spirit of God infused and enabled his ministry.
As we consider these gifts and abilities, we expect to find in Stephen a rising star in the galaxy of the apostles: Surely, he will rally men to the cause of Christ and lead them into all the world to preach the gospel of the Kingdom.
But in stark contrast, God has a position prepared for Stephen far from the lights of the stadium or the elevated platform of international notoriety: God calls Stephen to be a servant; a food distribution manager at the local Senior Center for Displaced Widows.
In comparison with the conspicuous gifts Stephen possesses, the calling to wait tables seems somehow unglamorous and unspectacular; not what we expect from our talented brother.
He’ll never grace the cover of Charisma Magazine or be asked to appear on anybody’s Christian Television Network. What conceivable interest could a table waiter be to the Body of Christ? We want a “winner” to talk to us; we want flash and shine and a story that will blow our minds. Too often, what we call “anointing” is little more than showmanship. To the less than discerning heart, what we call “charisma” may actually be theatrical performance; a stage presence carefully developed and presented.
But the Greek rendering of Stephen’s ministry contains a familiar word, diakoneo (the verb form of diakonos), which we recognize as “deacon:” One who, by virtue of his assigned office cares for the poor. A waiter, one who serves food and drink.” Matthew, Mark and John each contains, in the Greek texts, the same word, used by Jesus in reference to those who would follow Him, but also used as an intimation of Jesus’ own position in the Divine order: He came as a Servant to you and to me; “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."
To be intentionally redundant: The perpetual pollution of the church by the toxin of worldly standards has sickened the church until we crave that which is at best, superficial and at worst devilish. We hunger and a thirst for the charismatic-appearing, the “beautiful” and the “special” among us. We want charisma, regardless of its true source. With Israel of old, we desire a king as other nations.
To compound our error, this unholy and unhealthy elevation of celebrity is passed on to ensuing generations until our Bible Colleges and Theological Seminaries become manufacturing plants for more of the same cookie-cutter replications of today’s “hero” ministers.
The “waiter” is ignored, relegated to the soup kitchen or to the anonymity of an obscure mission field: We want “star power!” And too many young, Spirit-filled and energetic men and women find their models among the “beautiful” and not the truly useful.
Stephen’s acceptance of such lowly estate guarantees he will receive no “Dove Award” or “Medal of Honor” by the church. Yet God considered him worthy of higher honor: He will be lifted by a loving God into the balcony of the Martyrs.
As followers of Jesus, we are not afforded the luxury of choosing what we will do for heaven. We are not offered choices from a full color catalogue of potential ministries. We are called to hear and to obey when the Father bids us “come.”
In immediate reaction to Stephen’s unabashed preaching of the Cross, religious rulers are “cut to the heart” and they “[gnash] at him with their teeth. In moments he will be seized upon, led out of the city and stoned. “But he being full of the Holy Spirit gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
He will call on God and say, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He must have been nearby, near the Cross on the brow of the Hill, on the Day when his Savior suffered similar abuse, for Stephen will “kneel down and cry out with a loud voice, Lord, do not charge them with this sin.”
Stephen’s ministry is brief. He will not sit as an old man and pen his memoirs of a long and multifaceted ministry. His service to God is measured in hours, not in decades. Yet Stephen was no catastrophe; instead, he was faithful.
God is not interested in our success or failure, neither is He especially concerned whether we are treated fairly or unfairly in this life.
Were we to complain about our difficulties, He might testify of His Son’s experience, being “despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief . . .” Men lied to the manifest Truth, they falsely accused and murdered the only One Who did no wrong.
In a court of justice God’s Son’s testimony far surpasses our little complaints at life’s unfairness.
Neither the accolades of this world or the trophies of the success of men mean anything to God. But how we bless His heart with the wounds we bear from the persecutions we endure.
We struggle and clamor to get other people to see how wonderful we are, how talented, how anointed, how unique: How much better to reveal the limp, to bare the scar, to manifest a life of being faithful, in small things and large.
With all the uproar in charismatic circles regarding “open heavens,” perhaps Stephen knew the true secret: In his steadfast faithfulness to the heavenly vision, he “saw heaven opened” and Jesus, “standing” there, His own scars evident.
Such a vision would stop our need for worldly, religious success, for what others may think about the product of our lives and produce in us a thankfulness for the scars of faithfulness – no matter what life may bring us.
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