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We all love the approval and affirmation of those we love. From the “attaboy” to the standing ovation, there’s something validating about being affirmed; there’s something rewarding about being approved by someone we love or admire. When I think of standing ovations, I think of movies such as Rudy or Cool Runnings. In both movies, the athletes receive a thunderous applause although they didn’t win. The Jamaican bobsled team crashes and Rudy gets to play a whopping two plays. Nevertheless, the crowd rises to their feet, whistles with the mouths, and claps with their hands.

When it comes to believers, and even churches, deep down inside we long for the approval and affirmation of Jesus.

If you have been a Christian for any amount of time, you have read, or at least heard, the parable of the talents where the Master says to his servant, “Well, done good and faithful servant.” Applying that passage, many point to the desire of God’s people standing before him and hearing God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

In Acts 7:55, as Stephen is being stoned, because he bore witness to Jesus, he looks up towards heaven and sees something very interesting. He sees “the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” This is interesting because nowhere else in Scripture do we find the description of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Whenever the Bible describes Jesus in heaven, he is always sitting at the right hand of God.

  • Matt 26:64, “Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
  • Acts 2:34, “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord,’ ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’”
  • Eph 1:20, “according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…”
  • Col 3:1, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
  • Heb 1:3, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…”

Commenting on the background of Acts 7:55, Craig Keener notes, “Judges normally stood to render verdicts; Jesus, the true judge, is now [standing] vindicating his servant as his opponents prepare to condemn him.”[1]

John MacArthur indicates that Jesus stands to show both concern for Stephen and to welcome him into heaven.[2]

Warren Wiersbe comments, “Some have suggested that He stood to receive His martyr, Stephen, as he came to glory. Others think Christ stood as a witness, the usual posture of witnesses in the Jewish court, testifying to His servant’s message and ministry.”[3]

In any case, whether it was to receive, welcome, or testify, Jesus gave approval to the life that Stephen had lived for him. And that is exactly the point in Stephen’s life—he emulated (lived like) Jesus.

Looking at the life of Stephen, there are at least six ways he emulated Jesus—and as a result received approval from his King.

  1. Stephen Served Like Jesus (Acts 6:2)

Mark 10:45 records Jesus saying, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” John 13 describes Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and teaching his disciples to do likewise. Jesus touched the untouchable and loved the unlovable; he healed and hung out with those in need. In short, Jesus came serving.

Serving describes Stephen as well. Luke records in Acts 6 and 7 that Stephen was one seven men that the apostles chose to serve the widows in Jerusalem. This wasn’t a glamorous position in the church. When the need went out on twitter, there weren’t a lot of retweets. But Stephen served his King and his bride by serving widows. Where there was a need in the church, he stepped in to fill the need.

People will never serve what they don’t see. People will never serve if they never make themselves available. And people will never serve if they’re afraid of getting dirty. Service is messy. Service is costly. And service is humbling. However, service is deeply rewarding!

  1. Stephen was Filled with the Holy Spirit Like Jesus (Acts 6:5)

As the Spirit was present in Jesus, so the Spirit was present in the life of Stephen. In fact, I believe the reason why God mightily used Stephen was because he was a man filled with the Spirit. Luke introduces us to Stephen by stating, “they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). Luke also mentions two other times how the Spirit was present within Stephen’s life and ministry (6:10; 7:55).

The Spirit of God moved powerfully through the life of Stephen.

Think about it this way: as batteries are to toys, so is the Spirit to believers. Without batteries toys cannot fulfill their intended purpose. Likewise, without the Spirit believers cannot fulfill the purpose to which they were created. Because Stephen was full of the Spirit he was able to fulfill the purposes of God in his life.

  1. Stephen Knew the Scriptures Were All About Jesus (Acts 7:1–51)

Luke records Jesus telling his disciples, “That everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:44–47). Jesus is the center of the Scripture; all Scripture finds its understanding and fulfillment in the person and work of Christ.

Stephen also emulated Jesus in this regard. Stephen’s sermon (interestingly the longest sermon recorded in Acts) walks through the grand narrative of the Old Testament and shows how the entire OT points to and prepares God’s people for Jesus.

From his sermon, it is clear that Stephen knew the Scriptures, and as a result was able to effectively teach and share the good news of Jesus Christ.

  1. Stephen Witnessed to People Like Jesus (Acts 7:1–51)

Although Stephen was enlisted to serve the widows (Acts 6), he had a passion to bear witness for Jesus to those who hadn’t heard. As he bears witness of Jesus in his sermon, he calls the people a “stiff-necked” people.

Why would Stephen call them names? Stephen wasn’t trying to be overly aggressive, confrontational, or mean; he wanted them to know Jesus! He wanted them to see that their sin of being a “stiff-necked” people was a generational pattern of their fathers that prevented them from seeing and experiencing God.

In short, Stephen boldly witnessed because he hadn’t got over what Jesus had done for him. Alvin Reid, asserts,

The reason many believers today do not attempt to share their faith is because they have gotten over their salvation! The early believers did not—indeed they could not—get past the radical transformation they experienced through the gospel.[4]

  1. Stephen Forgave Like Jesus (Acts 7:60)

While hanging on the cross and looking at his executioners, Jesus exclaims, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Forgiveness, many times, is difficult, especially in cases where one feels victimized and unfairly treated. This certainly was the case for Stephen. But in the dramatic scene, as the stones are crashing against his body and head, Stephen falls to his knees crying out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

Stephen was a man who showed great mercy, great grace, and great love by forgiving the most hideous act.

  1. Stephen Sacrificed His Life For and Like Jesus (Acts 7:59–60)

Jesus taught a difficult truth for those who would follow him. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23–24). To follow Jesus, is to yield one’s life to and for Jesus. Stephen demonstrates, albeit severely, what it means to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus.

In everything—his service, ministry, actions, witness, extending forgiveness, and his martyrdom—Stephen exemplifies a sacrificial life that is sold out to the glory of King Jesus and his mission in the world.

Sacrificial living becomes a seedbed for the gospel of Jesus to produce fruit.

Guess who was standing off to the side approving of (or over-seeing) the death and martyrdom of Stephen? Saul. Many scholars believe that Stephen’s death was a turning point for Saul. That is the reason why in Acts 22, many years after Saul’s conversion, he still remembers the day he oversaw Stephen’s death.

In short, I believe all believers have the goal of hearing their beloved King and Savior tell them one day, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” For this to be reality, as it was for Stephen, we must emulate the radical faithfulness of Jesus. And remember, this can only happen when one has experienced the transforming power of the gospel.

[1] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

[2] John MacArthur, Acts 1–12, 222.

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines on the New Testament (USA: Victor Books, 1992), 295

[4] Alvin Reid, Evangelism Handbook (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 24.