"Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching" (2 Tim. 4:2). This admonition from Paul's second letter to Timothy describes the consistency that the Christian needs in proclaiming the gospel. Whether we experience joyful acceptance of the Word or violent rejection, our responsibilities remain the same: "convince, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and teaching." Paul has much to say on this subject in both of his letters to Timothy, but Stephen from Acts 6 and 7 also provides a powerful example of what this means in practicality.
A Faithful Worker. The first time we read of Stephen is in Acts 6:1-8, when the church in Jerusalem was facing a problem concerning the daily distribution to the needy of the congregation. Though this was a time of relative peace, at least in the persecution from outside the church, this internal dispute threatened to slow the work of the church and drive a wedge between the Jews and the Hellenists. A solution was proposed that "pleased the whole multitude" (6:5), but who would be the ones to actually carry it out? The seven men who were selected were "men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom" (6:3), and Stephen is again described as "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit" (6:5). Not only was Stephen a righteous man, but that he was well-known as such. Our primary purpose for doing what is right is not to be praised by others, but we know that our words and actions will influence others. "Full of the Holy Spirit" speaks not necessarily to his ability to work miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit, but that he lived a life that abounded with the fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-26 is Paul's list of the traits produced by the individual who does not walk according to the lusts of the flesh, but is led by the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are the characteristics listed; some of these are directly seen in Stephen in Acts 6 and 7, and the rest are not difficult to attribute to him given the descriptions of him. In part because of Stephen's work, the church grew (6:7).
Many churches have gaps like the church in Jerusalem did - a problem or need that is not being addressed. The easy thing to do is merely complain about the issue. Proposing a solution is a good start, but there is always a need for someone to carry out the plan. Faithful workers like Stephen recognize that even when the gospel is "in season", there is always work to do and not enough who are willing to do it.
A Persecuted Servant. As Stephen's public and private work grew, he attracted attention from the enemies of the church. A group of foreign-born Jews objected to Stephen's teaching and openly disputed with him. However, we are told that "they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke" (6:10). This was not for lack of trying! These wicked Jews angrily and maliciously opposed Stephen, but they could not satisfactorily refute his words. Their malice became more evident as their opposition grew. Since they could not identify any real fault in Stephen's teaching, they secretly induced men to bring false testimony against Stephen (6:11). Not content to stop with that, they also managed to sway the opinion of the general public as well as the authorities against him through slander and lies. Perhaps most infuriating was that they took parts of Stephen's teaching that were exactly what Jesus said and twisted them into blasphemy (cf. John 2:18-19; Matt. 26:61; 27:40; 5:17-20; Acts 6:11-14). It is telling that these same statements were a stumbling block for many during Jesus' ministry as well. The Jews obviously had heard what Stephen was teaching, but did not consider it with honest hearts. Because blasphemy was such a serious charge under Jewish law, this gave them cause to bring Stephen before the council and put him on trial.
False accusations sting in a unique way. It's difficult to stomach when someone takes your honest effort to serve God and speak truth as a malicious and evil action. Stephen is a great example of one who had to endure persecution from dishonest and unrighteous men because of his faithful work. We should expect the same in our lives. "In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1:6-7).
A Steadfast Preacher. One of the strangest things about Stephen's defense to the council is that he does not waste a single breath defending himself. He apparently was aware that the sentiment of the public and even the elders and scribes had been turned against him and that this was not to be a just trial. Instead of an impassioned defense of his teaching and actions, Acts 7 contains a sermon designed to prick the hearts of the council. Stephen begins by recounting the history of Israel and God's plan of redemption for His people. Unlike the similar sermons by Peter and Paul in Acts 2 and 13, respectively, Stephen's sermon emphasizes the many times that the Israelites rejected the blessings that were offered to them because they did not want to obey God's law. Stephen places the members of the council in this same category, calling them "stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears" (7:51). Stephen knew what the probable end to this trial was. Though the council was already heavily biased against him and intended to punish him harshly, Stephen steadfastly preached one more sermon to try to convince them to be faithful to God. Even when their bias exploded into murderous rage, Stephen did not recant his words or respond with equal anger (7:54-60). In an amazing display of selflessness, he even prayed to God with his dying breath that they might still be forgiven of their sin. This is about as "out of season" as one could experience, yet Stephen remained steadfast to the end.
Stephen provides us with one of the best examples in Scripture of a man who embodies the spirit of 2 Timothy 4:2, even before it was written. In fact, we know that Paul was there to witness the death of Stephen and played an integral role in it (7:58). Many years later, after his conversion and subsequent years of service to God, he wrote these words to Timothy and very well may have had Stephen in mind as he did so: "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season..."