Opening Scripture: Acts 6:8-15
Scripture Reading: Romans 12:3-8
Last week Pastor Darren introduced the series “The Coach In Your Corner” with a message which reminded us that as believers we are a team of players hand-picked by God – chosen by Him for a very special purpose – part of His great, eternal plan.
God?s “Coach”, the Holy Spirit has been watching us, drafting us and training us since before we were even born. He teaches us what we need to know, shows us what needs work, and what we can become, but best of all he affirms our potential.
Now, I don?t know about you, but I find that encouraging. You see, so often we don?t reach our full potential. We go through life in maintenance mode because it might be uncomfortable to be stretched to our full potential. It might cost us some extra effort!
I have a package at home which my Dad gave me several years ago. In this package are all my report cards from the day I started school until the day I left.
At the side of too many of the subjects which I studied the teacher?s comments are the words – “Nancy could do better!” As I look back at these reports and comments my conclusion is that if the teachers thought I could do better, then I probably wasn?t working to my full potential.
Then I make excuses for myself as to why I didn?t reach my full potential. How many of us can relate to that. We all do it don?t we! Maybe if I had been given some encouragement, some tools to assist me in this, maybe I could have done better – maybe then I would have reached my full potential.
Today we are going to take a look at how we can not only discover our potential, but also reach it, with the help of our “Coach”, the Holy Spirit and the tools and encouragement he gives.
We all love to hear stories of people who have overcome great handicaps to realize their ambitions. They are always inspiring aren?t they – possibly because it helps us to realize that if that person could do such wonderful things with such an incredible handicap then there?s hope for us.
So often we tend to live mediocre lives, not achieving anything outstanding, full of excuses about why we?re not “making it”, not fulfilling our destiny in Christ.
Marla Runyon is a person who overcame her handicap to achieve great things. In spite of the fact that Marla was diagnosed with Stargardt?s Disease as a child and has been legally blind for more than 20 years, she is a five time Paralympic gold medallist.
In the year 2000 she became the first legally blind runner to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team. She ran the 1500 metre race at the Sydney Summer Olympics, finishing 8th in the world,
while becoming the first Paralympian to compete in the Olympics.
In the 2002 New York City Marathon, Marla finished 5th among the fastest runners in the world. Amazing achievements for somebody who is blind. Marla is one of those people who inspire us to greater things – one of those people whom we look upon as a hero.
The dictionary describes a hero as “someone known for exceptional courage and fortitude.” I want to take a look at a hero from the Bible today, someone who certainly had exceptional courage and fortitude – the first Christian martyr – Stephen.
Stephen was an exceptional young man and amongst those who were chosen to be the first deacons. The list of those chosen begins with Stephen?s name. In Acts 6:5 he is described as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.”
This was no ordinary young man. In verse 8, Luke, the writer of the book of Acts calls him “a man full of God?s grace and power, [who] did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.”
However, everything wasn?t all sunshine and roses for Stephen. In verse 9 we read that “Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called) – Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.”
You see, Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit who gave him boldness to preach the gospel with no reservations. Stephen was performing miracles and people were getting saved.
However, as was the norm when Jesus spoke, the leaders of the synagogue were there and they were not happy with what they saw happening. They argued with Stephen about what he was saying – the religious leaders of that day were great debaters, they would want to give him a good run for his money.
But the Bible tells us that they didn?t just debate, they argued with Stephen, but because he was empowered by the Holy Spirit “they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.”
Now, we might say that Stephen was working with a handicap, although it wasn?t the kind of handicap with which Marla Runyon contends.
To understand the handicap which Stephen was under we also need to understand that, again according to the dictionary, “handicap” means – ?a condition or barrier imposed by society, the environment, or one?s own self.?
Stephen was handicapped by his society, by the culture and societal structure of his day. You see, Stephen was a Hellenist – a Jew with a Greek background. 600 years earlier Jews had made their home in the Greek speaking world and many generations had been raised there.
Some had returned to Jerusalem and Stephen was one of them. He probably had an accent, he had different cultural habits, he ate different foods.
In a nutshell, to the purebred Hebraic Jews who had been born in the promised land, he was a second-class Jew and his brand of Judaism, his religion was looked at questionably.
You see, there was discrimination present in the early church and this is evident as we read Acts 6:1 – “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.”
In view of all this then, you can begin to imagine people?s reactions when this foreigner, Stephen, began telling people about Jesus and how the Jews had crucified their own Messiah. Just who did this guy think he was trying to tell them about their own religion?
Yes, Stephen is one of the heroes of the Bible, the first Christian martyr. A person who overcame a genuine handicap to reach his full potential under the empowering of the Holy Spirit.
But you know, God can take handicaps and turn them upside down and use them for his purposes. Remember Joseph way back in the Old Testament? He certainly worked under a handicap. Sold into slavery by his brothers, unjustly accused of messing around with Potiphar?s wife and thrown into prison.
Yet Joseph remained faithful to God and rose to the second highest position in the land. When his brothers came to him for help and he revealed his identity to them they were afraid. In Genesis 50:19,20 we read the words which Joseph said to them, “Don?t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
And in Romans 8:28 the well-known words of Paul repeat this sentiment – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Harvard Medical School neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone observed, “Disabilities are not always disabilities. They may be assets in another realm.” With this statement I believe
Livingstone is intimating that when God takes a hold of what to us seems to be a handicap, it can actually become a success story.
Look at Rembrandt, the 17th century Dutch painter for example. Rembrandt is best
known for his profound use of light and darkness. It would appear from studies of his self portraits that Rembrandt suffered from an eye condition known as strabismus, where one eye is misaligned so that it points outward from the face.
This handicap may have actually contributed to Rembrandt?s success. The loss of depth perception caused by his eye condition gave him “an advantage in the task of translating three-dimensional scenes into two-dimensional paintings.”
Handicaps can become handles in God?s hands. So let me ask you, what?s your handicap? What?s holding you back from giving your all and accomplishing God?s purpose for your life?
What excuses do we make for not rising to our full potential? We all have excuses don?t we! Maybe you say your handicap is a problem you have with anger. Give it to God, he can turn your anger into righteous indignation, a burning desire for justice for the oppressed.
Maybe you?re struggling with problems in your marriage or family. Give it to God, he may turn it into a genuine concern for healthy relationships so that you can help other people who are struggling with the same problems – Disabilities and handicaps can become assets in other realms.
Now it appears that Stephen had a special ability to speak and to communicate his message to the crowd in such a way that they understood and accepted what he was telling them.
In our society today we tend assume that everyone who achieves is especially gifted. We have gifted programs in schools for children who appear to have special abilities. When we hear a talented pianist or singer we are quick to say, “Wow, that person really has a gift!”
But maybe we need to redefine our ideas of giftedness. Talk to the pianist or the singer and he or she will tell you that it?s not necessarily just natural talent or giftedness as the world knows it, but that it took grueling hours of practice to become proficient.
People might read the story of Stephen, of how he performed miracles and put it down to natural ability or talent, while in actual fact there is something else to consider here.
What was it which gave Stephen such composure as he endured the stoning? What was it that gave him the courage to face this ordeal so calmly, which prompted him to say, “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,” And then with his dying breath, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit.”
Stephen drew his strength from the Holy Spirit with whom he had an ongoing relationship. We can have this same stamina and courage as we too develop a relationship with the third person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit.
Certainly Stephen had natural abilities which made him a successful communicator, but what made him spiritually compelling and what accomplished eternal benefit in his ministry wasn?t due to his natural talents, it was due rather to his spiritual potential.
This is why it is so important that we too make ourselves available, body, soul and spirit to the Holy Spirit. Because anything that is of eternal value comes from Him.
If we want our lives and the work which we do for the Lord to count for eternity, we too must develop a relationship with the Holy Spirit, because He is the one who equips us for the work by means of the spiritual gifts which He gives to each one of us.
Spiritual gifts are not so much about natural ability as they are about supernatural ability, connected to divine purpose. We need to put ourselves in the centre of God?s purpose and plan. When we make ourselves available to Him anything can happen.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7 “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”
The first thing which we need to recognize is that these are spiritual gifts. They?re not just talents that we improve with practice, they are gifts given directly by the Holy Spirit to us.
Secondly we need to realize that these gifts are available to every believer. You may not be in the position yet where you know what your spiritual gifts are, but that doesn?t mean to say that you don?t have any. It?s up to each of us to discover what our gifts are.
Thirdly it?s important to know that these gifts are not given for the individual. One of the reasons some people have a hard time discovering their gifts is because they rarely put themselves in a position where they are serving others.
Yet we know as Paul says that “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given”. Each person is given different gifts, they all come from the same Spirit and they are given for the benefit of all believers.
Spiritual gifts then are given by the Holy Spirit, available to every believer and for the benefit of others. We all work together with our varying gifts to help build up the Kingdom. The church couldn?t function without each person?s gifts being in operation. We need each other.
Take a look around here this morning. We have people who are gifted with musical abilities who can lead us in worship. We have people who are gifted in teaching, those with the gift of hospitality who can help with our fellowship times, people who have the gift of evangelism who find it easy to talk to others about Jesus and his love.
Together, with the gifts the Holy Spirit has given to us, we work for the common good, for the benefit of all believers.
Let?s consider for a moment the variety of gifts that are available. There are at least three types of gifts listed in the New Testament. First, there are those gifts which we consider to be more supernatural.
These would be gifts such as the ?working of miracles,? ?gifts of healing,? ?various kinds of tongues? which is speaking in a language the individual has never learned, or the gift of interpretation whereby individuals are given the ability to interpret that language.
These gifts are manifestations that we couldn?t possibly create on our own, they?re something which the Holy Spirit does through us.
1 Corinthians 12:11 tells us, “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.”
The Holy Spirit releases these gifts to us as they are needed. As we make ourselves available to Him he will release these gifts to bring a solution, healing or miracle for a certain time and place for the glory of God.
Stephen, a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” was given a gift for working miracles from that same Spirit who gives spiritual gifts to all believers.
Secondly, in Romans 12, the passage I read at the beginning of this message we find another list of spiritual gifts.
In verses 6,7 Paul says, “We have different gifts according to the grace given us. If a man?s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.”
At first glance these may appear to be simply the natural inclination of the character of the individual. Well, yes they are natural inclinations, but God gave them to us when he gave us life. It is God who gives various talents and abilities to each person, what we do with them is what makes the difference.
When we give these natural abilities back to God they become supernaturally charged. It?s all about our availability and submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Stephen?s speech to the Sanhedrin recorded for us in Acts 7 touched on themes close to the hearts of the ruling parties of the Jews. He referred to the promised land, the law of Moses, the temple, the coming of Christ and His crucifixion, and showed Israel?s failures at each point.
The natural ability for teaching which Stephen already had, when submitted to the Holy Spirit brought many people to the place of conversion. This wasn?t just Stephen?s talents at work, rather it was an example of the Holy Spirit at work in and through Stephen.
Thirdly, there?s one more important gift list to consider in Ephesians 4. These are gifts (or ministries) which are resident in the body of Christ, the church.
This is what we read in Ephesians 4:11-14, “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God?s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
Paul lists five spiritual gifts or ministries here which have a very specific function, they are for the building up of the church. These gifts include the ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelist, pastors and teachers.
We all fit together and work together through the power of the Holy Spirit as we make ourselves available to him, to build up the body, the church and help it to become mature and to attain the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
By now, if you don?t already know what your spiritual gifting is, you are probably wondering just how you can find out. You may be wondering just what potential you really have for being used by God.
First of all we need to recognize that our potential is activated by the Holy Spirit. The potential is already inside of us, the Holy Spirit releases it. At the beginning of Acts 6 we read about a problem the fledgling church was facing – the fair distribution of food to the widows.
The apostles, realizing that they couldn?t both teach and take care of these needs appointed seven men to look after the work – Stephen was one of them. Stephen was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.
Anybody with a modicum of organizational skills could have done the job, but it needed men filled with the Holy Spirit to restore peace and love where there had been division and discrimination.
Secondly, spiritual gifts are demonstrated by stepping up to the plate. The apostles decided to delegate the work to others because, as we find recorded in chapter 6:2-4, they told the people, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you…We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the word.”
What do you suppose would have happened if Stephen had said, “Sorry I can?t do that, it?s not my gift,” or, “Sorry, but I don?t want to be in a serving position, I want to be a teacher,” as some people might be tempted to do? But he didn?t – he stepped up to the plate and took his place serving people.
As Stephen interacted with the people, as he served them and showed the love of God to them, people began finding new life in Jesus, and miracles took place. Amazing things happened because Stephen was willing to step up to the plate.
Thirdly power is liberated by taking a swing. Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” Stephen began to take some shots and the power of God was liberated, released in his life and ministry.
Acts 6:9b-10 tells us, “These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.” This wisdom was the manifestation of the power of God at work in Stephen as he made himself available to God.
If you?ve ever watched kids play baseball I?m sure you?ve seen the ones who get up there and when the pitcher sends the ball flying at them they swing, and they miss, again and again.
There?s potential there though. That child who doesn?t give up, who keeps getting back up there and swinging will eventually make a hit, may even become quite proficient at making hits.
The point I am making is, that if we don?t ever try anything because we don?t think we can do it, then we never will know what we can do. We never will reach out full potential. One thing?s for sure, we?ll miss 100% of the balls we never swing at, and just maybe, if we have enough courage to swing the bat a few more times, we?d get a few more hits.
In closing, I want to read a quote from Rick Warren?s book, The Purpose Driven Life.”
“Abraham was old, Jacob was insecure, Leah was unattractive, Joseph was abused, Moses stuttered, Gideon was poor, Samson was co-dependent, Rahab was immoral, David had an affair and all kinds of family problems, Elijah was suicidal, Jeremiah was depressed, Jonah was reluctant, Naomi was a widow, John the Baptist was eccentric to say the least, Peter was impulsive and hot-tempered, Martha worried a lot, the Samaritan woman had several failed marriages, Zacchaeus was unpopular, Thomas had doubts, Paul had poor health, and Timothy was timid. That is quite a variety of misfits, but God used each of them in his service. He will use you, too, if you stop making excuses.”
What?s stopping you today from reaching your full potential? Remember first of all that our potential is activated by the Holy Spirit, then step up to the plate and take a swing at the ball. If we never try anything we will never know what we can do.
Just last week we had people who offered to step up to the plate as nursery workers and take a swing at it. Praise the Lord!
Someone has said, “Between the great things we can?t do and the little things we won?t do, the danger is we shall do nothing at all.”
The Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts to every believer. It is the responsibility of the individual to discover what his or her gifts are.
Sometimes that happens simply by trying our hand at different things, taking a swing at the ball – and when we have discovered what our gifts are, it is up to us to use them to our full potential, as the Holy Spirit directs and empowers – not for our personal benefit but for the “common good”; “so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ.”
I want to ask you this morning – do you know what your spiritual gifts are? If you do, are you using those gifts for the Lord? Have you given your all your full potential, to the Holy Spirit to be used by him, for his purposes?
If you answered “No” to any of these questions I want to ask you another question. Why not? What?s your excuse? Will that excuse carry any weight when you stand before Almighty God and he asks you what you have done with what he gave you?
I challenge you today to give all of your potential to the Holy Spirit and see what he will do with it when you submit to him.