|Preacher||Rev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness|
|Sermon Title||Men Full of Faith|
|Text||Acts ch.6 vv.3-5 |
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"Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business." And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost (Acts 6, 3 & 5).
1. Full Of Faith And Of The Holy Spirit
2. Three Indications Of Spiritual Growth
Let me say a word to introduce the passage that we have here in Acts 6. We refer to this passage as 'The Appointment of the Seven' The obvious reason for this is that these men, who were set apart here, were seven in number. Their names are given to us.
What were they? They were not apostles, of course, and they were not elders either. They were an order of men known as 'deacons'. This is the first time that such an order of men was appointed in the church of Christ very early on, indeed, in the history of the church, and was done so by the authority of the apostles and also in conjunction with the free approval of the whole church. I do want you to see that that is the case, because we are told here that this word, that the apostles gave, was welcomed by all the people. The people approved of what they said - verse five, notice, "The saying pleased the whole multitude."
This was the church in Jerusalem. There had been three thousand men converted on the day of Pentecost. We have no idea how many women. We do not know how many had been converted since, but the church in Jerusalem probably numbered something like ten thousand people. We don't even know if they all met under one roof, or if they had various buildings; as in Inverness, you could say the church is in various locations and in various buildings. What we do know is this, that a problem had now arisen in the church at large. It was, of course, still at this point, a Jewish church: there were no non-Jewish persons in it, as yet, though very soon they were to come in. When we come to later chapters 8, 9 and 10 we see non-Jewish people flowing into the church, notably through the conversion of Cornelius in chapter 10. That point has not yet been reached. All the Christians in the church at Jerusalem, at this time, were Jewish, either by background or by adoption: they had come in voluntarily to become Jewish Christians.
The problem was this, that there were two classes of Christians - Christians from two different backgrounds. We are told about them in verse one. You see the names; some were called Grecians and others were called Hebrews. I must explain they were all Jews. So then, what is the difference, you say, between them? The difference was this, that Grecians were Jewish Christians who primarily spoke the Greek language. The Greek language was the Lingua Franca of the world at this time in the Mediterranean world, just as English is today in Britain. There was a minority language, and that was Aramaic - very like Hebrew in fact. Some of these Christians used the language of Aramaic, or a form of Hebrew. Others used the language of Greek. We don't have to look far for a parallel to this, do we? English and Gaelic, or English and Welsh - a situation we get in many places that we are familiar with: two languages.
The problem was this, that evidently, in the distribution of funds and relief money, more, so it appears, was going to the widows of those who were Hebrew speaking than to the widows of those who were Greek speaking. This, of course, was unfair. It gave rise to a problem which issued in what is called here 'murmuring'. "There arose a murmuring" (verse 1). This is the first time that a problem of this order had arisen in the Christian church. Murmuring is always a bad thing. We don't have to look very far in the Old Testament Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy to have references to murmuring. Murmuring amongst the people of God always causes trouble, so here was a potential threat to the unity of the church. The apostles, therefore, acted promptly and swiftly to provide a solution and the solution was what we are talking about in this chapter. What was it?
Notice the solution was not for the apostles to deal with the matter directly. The apostles already had tremendous work on hand. Look at verse two. "The twelve (apostles) called the multitude of the disciples unto them and said, "It is not reason (or reasonable) that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables." Then look at verse four. "We will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word." We then have the explanation in these words as to why the apostles did not do this job themselves - which was to distribute funds to the widows. There was no national system of relief for the poor in these days. Widows were entirely dependent upon their families, and if they didn't have support from that source, they were dependent upon the church. The church collected funds from various sources, as we do, and they dispersed these monies to widows who were dependent for their relief on such benevolent gifts.
That then is the picture and the apostles wouldn't do this. They refused to do so. Why? Because they had a most important task to do, which was the ministry of the Word of God. Their duty was praying and preaching: studying the Word of God, preparing sermons, preaching and teaching the people. That shows us that that is what a minister's work really, primarily should be: praying and preaching. The danger is that other things take over so the apostles, in order to provide a suitable order of men in the church who would attend to this problem, appointed these seven - these seven deacons, as they are called, whose names are given to us here.
My concern is to point out to your attention the kind of men, the character of the men, for whom they were to look. This is in verses three and five. "Look ye out among you," says the apostle Peter, "seven men of honest report (trustworthy men, in other words), full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom." Then at verse five, "The saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost." I bring these words to you because, not only is this relevant, of course, to those who are appointed to be deacons and elders, and servants of any kind in a church, but they are relevant to us all. What sort of character does God desire to be within us all if we are Christians? What sort of men and women should we strive to be? Well here it is! Isn't it a wonderful expression, "Filled with the Holy Ghost (the Holy Spirit) and wisdom"? Could anything be more beautiful than those words?
It is so touching when you read these tributes to Stephen who, I suppose, was the most outstanding of them all. Almost every time he is referred to, we are told this about him, that he was full of faith, full of the Holy Ghost. When he was called upon to defend the faith in the presence of these critics from the different Jewish synagogues, you remember what was said about him. He has such a spirit and such faith, they couldn't withstand him. He was on his own defending the truth of the Gospel. Here were his critics, great numbers of them, but they couldn't answer him. He silenced them. He stopped their mouths with the truth. What a wonderful thing is said at the end of chapter six that they "saw his (Stephen's) face as it had been the face of an angel." His very faith shone through visibly upon his face. The same is said about him as they stoned him later on, when he faced the entire Jewish Sanhedrin or Supreme Council of the Jewish church. When he made his great oration and defence of the faith and charged them with hypocrisy and with wickedness and with the things which he knew they were guilty of, they rushed upon him and they stoned him with stones. Calling upon the name of Christ and of God, "Lord," he prayed, "lay not this sin to their charge" (Acts 7, 60).
Our concern today is to consider first of all the sort of men and women that God would have us be. Men and women full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. Isn't that a beautiful designation of the character of those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? It's an expression which is surely full of spiritual beauty: "Full of faith and of the Holy Spirit." It's a wonderful expression.
I have to say dear friends that, of course, every Christian, if he is a true Christian, has faith. He wouldn't be a Christian at all, if he did not have faith, but that is not to say that he is now yet full of faith. Every Christian has the Holy Spirit. You can't be a Christian, of course, without having the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the One Who at our spiritual change, brings us to faith in Christ and unites us in union and communion with our blessed and holy Saviour, Jesus Christ. It is the Holy Spirit Who enters the soul and the body and dwells in the body and in the mind. The Christian is a man who has the Spirit; that's the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, and that's what makes him the man he is, or her the woman she is. They have the Spirit. They are not carnal any more. They don't live for the things of this world any more as they used to do and as others do. They are spiritual, but, having admitted that, and having stated that every Christian has faith and has the Spirit, there is a difference between having the Spirit and being full of the Spirit. There is a difference, of course, between having faith and being full of faith and wisdom. What is the difference? It is the difference of degree: the measure of it.
We are all familiar with the simple idea that a bottle may have a whole pint, a half pint, or a quarter pint in it: it may have more or less. This man, however, was full of the Spirit of God, radiant with the presence of God. He was a visible saint. His whole character was 'brilliant' you could say, by the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling so richly and plentifully in him.
You remember the apostle Paul tells us, "Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5, 18). I must point out to you that that is a present tense. The tense of the verb 'be filled' is a present tense: "be being filled" - be continually - the present continuous tense: go on and on and on being filled with the Spirit of God. This is what sanctification is - it is a growth in the measure in which we are filled with the Spirit and filled with faith. The apostle John, does he not describe Christians like this? He says, "I speak to you, young men; I speak to you, little children; I speak to you, fathers" (1st John 2, 12-14). What he is doing there is he is indicating there is a measure of difference between one Christian and another. What is this difference? It is maturity, or lack of maturity. Maturity is not to be measured in terms of grey hairs, although sometimes that may be an index too, but is to be measured in terms of the fullness of the Spirit in a believer's mind and soul and life, the degree in which he is filled, like Stephen and these others, with faith and with the Holy Ghost and with this spiritual wisdom.
Needless to say, my dearly beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, here is what we are to aim at. This is why we have our private devotions in the morning. This is why we rise from our beds to wait on God. This is why we spend time reading the Bible. This is why we have our church services, fellowship meetings, and our communions. They are not an end in themselves but they are the means to being more and more filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith.
I must just give you three indications as to how we can recognise this development in faith and this growth of maturing in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. I take them all from this passage that we have read.
The first one I give you is this: one indication of being filled with the Spirit is to have a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible. I can't put it in any other way. Where do we see this? We see it, of course, in Stephen's great defence. It would have taken too long to read the whole of that wonderful defence in chapter seven. I commend it, however, to you. What you will discover when you read it is that Stephen there, who is addressing the Sanhedrin and making his glorious statement of faith, challenging their unbelief, is showing us - he's not doing it for this reason, of course, but he does show us nonetheless - he has a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible. He is drawing quotations from here and there and everywhere. That is one of the indications of a man who is full of faith. He knows his Bible; there is no substitute for it. Other books are important in their way. We must be readers of others books, and of good books especially, but, my beloved friends, there is no substitute for having this comprehensive knowledge of the Word of God. To be able to quote it from here and there and everywhere; to draw texts of Scripture to mind in every situation of life; this is a sign of a man or a woman full of faith and of the Holy Ghost. Stephen unwittingly does it. He is making his sermon and, as he preaches, he gives this glorious statement about the Old Testament history of the people of God. Very rich and profitable it is to study it.
I say to you and I say to myself, O let us be students of the Bible all our lives. Let us not be content with a mere cursory acquaintance with the general outlines of Scripture but let us try to know it so that we are controlled by it. I'm afraid this is one of the ways in which so many have gone wrong in our generation. They are so busy telling us we must have new versions of the Bible, we must have a new version of everything, they haven't got time to study the old version.
I'll tell you this about the old version of the Bible that we have in front of us; its translators would certainly, all of them, have died for God. It is very questionable whether you can say that about many new translators, or modern translators. These men so loved the Bible they would die for it; that is the Spirit we need to have. I say this again about the old version that it has been proved and demonstrated again and again to be the best version for memorising. Those who have the new versions - well let them have them if they must - but let them remember not simply to have the Book, but to have it in their minds, and in their memory, and in their thoughts, and to have their whole thinking shot through and permeated, infused with and controlled by the Book of God. You see that in these men.
The second indication is this: courage to serve God in this world; that also is a sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit - courage, spiritual courage. You see it again and again in the Acts of the Apostles. You see it in Peter and John when they are at the Gate Beautiful and, by the power of God, they heal a lame man. Then along come the temple police and arrest them. "How do you dare preach in the name of Jesus Christ? Do you not realise He is the One we have crucified?" So they are arrested and thrown into prison, but Peter and John say, very boldly, "We must obey God, rather than men. Whether you put us in prison or whether you put a spear through our heads, we must serve God." That is the spiritual courage I refer to. Of course, it is visible in the life of this man Stephen. Here he is making his defence, but then what do they do? They don't try to answer him because they can't answer him. They are furious with him. He challenges them and he charges them with breaking the Ten Commandments; then he charges them with the murder of their own Messiah, of Whom he said, "Of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it" (Acts 7, 52-53). They are cut to their heart because he told them the truth, and the truth hurts them. The truth is spiritual. They hate him for it, and they stone him to death, as we see.
That's the point my friends, a man or a woman who is full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, is a man who puts the truth of God first, before his own life, his own reputation and everything else, because truth is absolutely sacrosanct. Truth is God's method of salvation. Better to die for truth, than to live in the betrayal of truth. And that's how this man was.
The third thing briefly is this: I've alluded to it already but it is worth my briefly repeating it again on this occasion. A man or a woman who is full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, is a person who is a visible saint. I must bring you back to this beautiful description of Stephen, one of the most lovely things perhaps in the Bible itself: They "saw his face as it had been the face of an angel" (verse 15).
I have never seen an angel and I daresay you have not seen one either, but we know what is meant there. He had a face so full of heavenliness, a face so shining with the presence of God, a face that betrayed the purity of his character, his love of God, his delight in Jesus Christ, that his face shone like the face of an angel. I can only put it in that way; that a man with faith, who is filled with the Holy Ghost, is a man or a woman, whose face will often shine, as it were. There is this luminescence about them. You can see it in their character, the way they talk, the way they smile, the way they treat you: godliness at work.
I remember the old professors I had in the Free Church College some years ago now. I can remember to this day one of them going ahead of me to some double doors in the college. I was a very young man and very unimportant then as now. He went before me and he stopped, he opened the door, ushered me through as though I were some important dignitary. I was rather surprised but he was doing this out of sheer courtesy, Christian courtesy. It was a very beautiful gesture. I was edified by it. It showed us how a Christian should be a gentleman or gentlewoman: be piteous, be courteous. It is this heavenliness of character. That is the kind of man or woman that God would have us to be. That is why it is set here before us in Scripture. These are examples for our learning, and O what a lot you and I have to learn.
If time permitted, I could go on to say that office bearers especially, more than all others, need these very gifts and these very qualifications, for so many reasons and not least because they too must be examples to all the flock of these graces and good things which are so essential to the well-being of Christ's cause.
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