Home > Acts, Bible Study, S. Lewis Johnson > Lessons from Acts: The Life of Stephen

Lessons from Acts: The Life of Stephen


In my study through the book of Acts, S. Lewis Johnson points out a lot of interesting things. The last few messages have dealt with the short life of Stephen: Acts 6 and Acts 7.

Johnson discusses and speculates concerning the relationship between Stephen and Saul of Tarsus; one of the sermons for this part is even titled “The Paul Before Paul.” The text tells us that Saul was there giving approval to Stephen’s death, and that those who stoned Stephen laid their coats at Saul’s feet. Yet Acts 6 also tells us that the Jews tried arguing against Stephen, though unsuccessfully. It is very likely that the apostle Paul was one of those leading Jewish debaters trying to defeat Stephen in such arguments. Paul was also a Hellenistic Jew, hanging out in the Hellenistic syngagogues as Stephen was, and by Paul’s own later admission he had been a leader, unequalled and advancing far beyond the understanding of other Jews of his age. So, SLJ points out, it was very likely that Saul of Tarsus was the point man for the events of Acts 6; none of the other Jews could defeat Stephen, so they called on Saul to do so. The apostle Paul had been schooled by the Pharisee Gamaliel, yet it’s very likely that he learned more from Stephen.

In reference to Acts 7, Stephen’s speech to the Jews, Johnson notes something I’ve heard a few times before: that the New Testament does not give us the example of expository preaching, verse-by-verse through a Bible book. That fact is interesting, very different from the common advice today to preach sequentially through a text–and I certainly do enjoy the expository preaching “book series” sermons. Yet as SLJ points out, the sermons given in Acts are more of an overview of God’s redemptive work and God’s purposes throughout Israel’s history. From browsing the MP3 titles on the websites (Believers Chapel and the SLJ Institute), I have noticed that S. Lewis Johnson also preached several non-expository, non-sequential, doctrinal overview series — for instance, “Basic Bible Doctrines,” “God’s Plan for the Ages,” “The Divine Purpose”, and “The Divine Purpose in History and Prophecy.” I am considering one of these series for my next lesson plans (after this Acts series), and this encourages me toward that idea.

SLJ notes some of the distinctives of Stephen’s speech, and briefly notes one I had heard previously: that Stephen especially points out the incidents that occurred in locations outside of Israel, to show that God is present in many places outside of Israel. He does not make more of it than is warranted (such as one preacher who tried to justify Church Replacement theology from this text), but notes it as it relates to Stephen’s purposes in the speech: God’s sovereignty over the people in all locations and times, and that throughout all of these experiences outside the land, the Israelites had persistently rebelled against their leaders including Joseph and Moses. Stephen’s speech also emphasizes that for God the tabernacle was the only thing commanded; the temple was thought of by men, not something commanded by God.

Now to the end of Acts 7: Stephen sees Jesus “standing” at the right hand of God. Elsewhere we are told in the Bible that Jesus is “sitting” at the right hand of God; of course He isn’t chained there, as though He cannot get up. SLJ pictures the “standing” as Jesus’ special gift to Stephen, that Stephen sees before his death that Jesus is especially greeting him, Stephen, as the first martyr of the Christian Church.

Stephen was apparently a young man, one of many since that time who burned brightly for a time–and to us their early death seems a great loss. Surely such a gifted man as Stephen would have been of great benefit to the early church. Yet God has His purposes when He takes such men at a young age. We really don’t know the time of our death, and we cannot take for granted a long life from God. S. Lewis Johnson relates that many times in his seminary classes, he would tell his young students that he would go to heaven before they would, and admit his enjoyment about it (that he would be in heaven before they). Yet, he now observed that it turned out that he was still here (he was 69 when he did the Acts series in late 1984), and some of those seminary students had already died and gone to heaven before he did; he mentioned that one of his students had died 25 years ago. So indeed basic things, such as normal life span, do not always work out as we suppose they will.

Interestingly enough, I must confess that I have recently had similar joyous thoughts. Now that I’m in my mid-40s, I am thankful that, if the Lord tarries in His return, I will go to be with Jesus that much sooner than the younger believers I know, and consider this as one advantage of being older–that many fewer years left dealing with this evil world. So here too I can better appreciate SLJ’s later words of wisdom. I really cannot say with certainty that I will go to heaven before the twenty-something believer. SLJ must have had similar thoughts as I, when he was in his forties (twenty five years before the Acts series), and I can take heart that such thoughts are at least somewhat common for my age.

The Stephen-series within the book of Acts is a nice look at this part of Acts, at the great life of Stephen, who died a harsh death but with great reward. He lived well, died well, and he has been remembered throughout the centuries even to our time.

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  1. December 29, 2009 at 3:52 am

    Thanks for this! As I read through Acts 6-7 I noticed parallels in terminology and structure of argument to that which is found in the book of Hebrews, which puts to rest, I believe for good, the untenable liberal position that “Paul invented Christianity.” If Paul debated with and watched over Stephen as he elaborated upon the Old Testament and its relation to Christ and post-ascension Israel, then this theology was not a later invention but pre-existed Paul AND Stephen, dating back to the disciples and, necessarily, to the Lord Jesus Himself.

    Check out my post and let me know what your thoughts are! Here’s the link:
    http://involutedgenealogies.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/stephens-speech-and-the-book-of-hebrews/#comment-461

    Thanks,
    Hiram

  2. December 29, 2009 at 8:40 am

    Thanks for your comment, and I looked at your post, which also makes good points about the connection between Stephen and Paul and the OT heritage. Yes, the Bible includes all of these details for us, the amazing riches of God’s word, including the lives of these early saints such as Stephen, “the Paul before Paul.” I highly recommend S. Lewis Johnson’s teaching, if you haven’t listened to any of it yet, as he did a lot of teaching through the OT, NT, and the relationship between the two.

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