Do turn first to Acts 6 as we start to look at Stephen and the first part of his speech to the Sanhedrin (the Jewish supreme council and court of justice) from Acts 7. But
First, WHO WAS STEPHEN AND WHAT IS HIS SIGNIFICANCE?
Have a look at Acts 6 and verses 3, 5 and 8. Luke tells us that as one of the seven entrusted with the care of the widows, Stephen was “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (v3). He was also “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (v5) and “full of God’s grace and power” (v8). He did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people (v8). He evidently still preached as his message and ministry provoked fierce opposition (v9&10). The men of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (freed foreign Jews) argued with him, but (v10) “they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke”. He was then falsely accused, seized and brought before the Sanhedrin. And by the end of chapter 7 he was being stoned to death for speaking the truth boldly.
Stephen’s faith, willingness to serve, preaching and martyrdom have inspired Christians down the ages and still inspire Christians today - to live for Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit, to serve him and the church, and to defend and proclaim the gospel whatever the cost. Recently I visited the largest private collection of Bible manuscripts in the world. It included the story of William Tyndale who translated the Bible into English in the sixteenth century. For translating the Bible into English he was burned at the stake. But even as he was being burned he was full of faith and prayed, ‘O Lord open the eyes of the King of England.’ Just shortly afterwards his prayer was answered when King Henry VIII ordered that every church in the land should have a Bible in English. I was greatly challenged by Tyndale’s example and faith. And as we consider Stephen tonight we need to be thinking: how does his example challenge me and us as a church? Am I living all out for Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit? Am I willing to defend and proclaim the gospel at work, school, university or wherever God puts me whatever the cost? Are we full of faith or when the gospel and church are attacked and falsely accused do we just hide? You see we might be tempted to think that it doesn’t matter if we’re never willing to put our heads above the parapet. But if we belong to Jesus Christ then we’re called to obey him and he calls us to go and make disciples of all nations and to be salt and light.
“Evil flourishes when good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)
And in the context of Acts and growth of the church, both in Jerusalem and worldwide, Stephen’s ministry and martyrdom were significant. So far in Acts the church has been made up of Jews in Jerusalem. Now the Holy Spirit is about to thrust his people out into the wider world. The Apostle Paul is to be God’s chosen instrument to pioneer this work among the Gentiles but first we see how the foundations of the Gentile mission were laid by Stephen and Philip. Philip was the first to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the despised Samaritans and then led the first African to Christ – the Ethiopian eunuch.
But before that there was Stephen. Stephen’s preaching aroused much opposition but in his speech to the Sanhedrin he emphasized the freedom of God to go where he pleases and to call his people to go forth too. And for telling the truth he was stoned to death. Yes church growth and world mission can be very costly. But rather like Tyndale, Stephen’s martyrdom was to lead to the spread of the gospel. Stephen’s death by stoning appears to have had a profound impact on Saul of Tarsus. In Acts 8:1 we read that Saul was there when Stephen was stoned to death and gave his approval. Shortly afterwards Saul was converted and became Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles. Stephen’s martyrdom also led to the scattering of the disciples throughout Judea and Samaria and therefore to the spread of the gospel beyond Jerusalem. God is sovereign and is working his purpose out. One reason why you and I have heard the gospel is because of Stephen’s faith and martyrdom. And God wants us to play our part so that others may hear the good news. Now you’ll be relieved to hear that that doesn’t always involve being killed. It can – one church leader in South Asia recently had his head chopped off. But it might at least involve inviting people to the Christianity Explored Taster Sessions in January when we’re praying for 450 to come. Or closer than that why not invite someone to next Sunday evening’s invitation service with Michael Green who is a gifted evangelist.
You see why has God put you in your particular workplace or neighbourhood? To reach out to those around you and to be salt and light. And this nation needs you to be salt and light. So let’s be willing to step out in faith and obey in peacefully but firmly opposing abortion as parliament votes on that. Stephen trusted and obeyed God. As we’ll see later Abraham trusted and obeyed God. And we are to do the same for the God of glory.
Now you may experience some opposition from doing so. Jesus never said it would be easy to follow him but he does promise to be with us and to give us the words to say. In Luke 21:15 Jesus says that he
“will give his disciples words and wisdom that none of their adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.”
As I’ve mentioned already Stephen experienced fierce opposition. Stephen discovered that promise of Jesus to be true when his opponents tried to argue with him (v9&10). Once his opponents found they could not win in open debate they turned to lies, false accusations, slander, violence and quasi legal action, all of which can still be so true today, especially in places where persecution of Christians is widespread. So
Secondly, STEPHEN IS ACCUSED 6:11-15
Look at verses 11 to 14:
“Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, "We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God." So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
Now that was an extremely serious double accusation. To speak against the holy place or temple and the law was for the Jews to speak against God. It was to blaspheme. But what had Stephen been teaching? Now please listen carefully. From what the false witnesses say it would appear that Stephen had actually been faithfully echoing Jesus’ teaching about the temple and the law. What had Jesus taught? Jesus taught that the temple and the law would be superseded meaning that they would find their fulfillment in him. Jesus was and is the replacement of the temple and the fulfillment of the law. In John’s Gospel (John 2:20-21) Jesus said:
“I will destroy this man made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.”
Jesus’ hearers misunderstood but John explained that “the temple he had spoken of was his body”, both his resurrection body and also his spiritual body, the church. In the past the people had come together to the temple to meet God, but in future the meeting place with God would be himself. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus said that he would fulfil the law. Like Stephen he was accused of disrespect for the law. But on the contrary he said (Matthew 5:17):
“Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”
And Jesus Christ and his death on the cross has fulfilled all the ceremonial and civil laws. Article 7 of the Church of England about the Old Testament states that: “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to humankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and humans, being both God and Human. That is why they are not to be heard, those who pretend that the Patriarchs only looked for temporary promises. [And note] Although Christians do not need to follow the ceremonies of the Law given from God by Moses, and governments do not need to follow the civil precepts of that law, yet no Christian is free from obedience to the moral commandments. And what we read next in verse 15 confirms that Stephen, far from being blasphemous, actually honoured God’s Word and was God’s servant.
“All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
Certainly the Sanhedrin should have recalled Moses’ shining face from Exodus 34:29-30 when he came down from Mount Sinai with the law. And now God was giving the same radiant face to Stephen when he was being accused of opposing the law. It was as though God was saying, “This man is not against Moses! He is like Moses – he is my faithful servant!” So now
Thirdly, STEPHEN BEGINS TO MAKE HIS DEFENCE
Chapter 7 verse 1:
Then the high priest asked him,
“Are these charges true?”
How would we have reacted? How do we react in similar situations? Would we shrivel or in God’s strength would we respond with a biblical defence? So often we can take the easy way out and avoid conflict. But Stephen doesn’t. Perhaps he was aware of God’s favour resting on him as his face shone. Well full of faith and aware that God was with him he replied boldly. Verse 2:
“Brothers and fathers listen to me!”
He wanted to show them that the Old Testament confirmed his teaching about the temple and the law, especially as it predicted the Messiah. And if they reject his teaching they are the ones disregarding the law. So this address was more than a recitation of familiar facts. It was also a refutation of their indictments against him and a revelation of their own national sins.
So first Stephen draws attention to Abraham and then to Joseph in the verses we’re looking at this evening. In these two eras of Israel’s history Stephen reminds us God’s presence was not limited to any particular place, or, of course, to a temple. Yet many Jews conceived of the Lord God as so completely identified with the temple that its existence guaranteed his protection of them, while its destruction would mean he’d abandoned them. Yet the great figures of the Old Testament never imagined that God was imprisoned in a building. On the contrary, the God of the Old Testament was the living God, the God of glory, a God on the move and on the march, who was always calling his people out to fresh adventures, and always accompanying and directing them as they went. Look at verses 2 to 8:
“The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. 'Leave your country and your people,' God said, 'and go to the land I will show you.' "So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. God spoke to him in this way: 'Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,' God said, 'and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.' Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.”
Stephen’s emphasis is on the God of glory’s initiative. It was God who appeared, spoke, sent, promised, punished and rescued. And Abraham’s relationship to God was one of grace and faith. God had graciously appeared to him and called him out of darkness and into the light of salvation and Abraham had responded by faith (v3&4). Abraham was saved by grace, through faith and not because he was circumcised, kept a law, or worshipped in a temple. He believed the promises of God and it was this faith that saved him. God promised the land to Abraham’s descendants and then told Abraham that they would suffer in Egypt before they would enter and enjoy the land; and this took place just as God promised.
Now the Jews greatly revered Abraham and prided themselves in being his “children”. But they confused physical descent with spiritual experience and depended on their national heritage rather than their personal faith. Jesus warned them about this in the passage we had read earlier from John 8. They were blind to the simple faith of Abraham and the patriarchs, and they had cluttered it with man-made traditions that made salvation a matter of good works, not faith. But God has no grandchildren. Each of us must be born into the family of God through personal faith in Jesus Christ (John 1:12). Who here tonight needs to understand that and trust Christ. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone and not by works. The Jews also prided themselves in their circumcision, failing to understand that the rite was symbolic of an inner spiritual relationship with God (Acts 7:51). Over the years the fulfilling of ritual had taken the place of the enjoyment of reality. And this can so easily happen in churches today.
Secondly Stephen moves on to Joseph (v9-16). God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision (v8), so making a solemn promise to bless him and his posterity. Circumcision was to signify and seal this covenant. So long before there was a holy place there was a holy people to whom God had pledged himself. God then renewed the promise to Abraham’s son Isaac, then to his grandson Jacob and then to his great grandsons the 12 patriarchs and so we come to Joseph. And again in these verses we see God’s presence not limited to any particular place. Now it’s not Mesopotamia but Egypt, the country not their own. Stephen emphasizes this by repeating the word Egypt six times in seven verses. Have a look at v9ff:
“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt; so he made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace. "Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our fathers could not find food. When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers on their first visit. On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph's family. After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our fathers died”
Stephen is now saying to the Sanhedrin that not only have you misunderstood your own spiritual roots as in the case of Abraham but you have also rejected your God sent deliverers. As with Moses (v25), in the next section of Stephen’s speech, Joseph was rejected as a deliverer the first time but was accepted the second time (v13). Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him into slavery, yet later he became their deliverer.
And this illustrates how Israel treated Jesus Christ. Israel rejected their Messiah when he came to them the first time (John 1:11), but when he comes again they will recognize him (Revelation 1:7). In spite of what they did to his Son, God has not cast away his people (Romans 11:1-6). Israel is today suffering from a spiritual blindness that one day will be taken away (Romans 11:25-32). Praise God individual Jews are being saved and it’s right that as a church we support such groups as Jews for Jesus who take the good news of Jesus Christ to their fellow Jews across the globe. But the nation as a whole is blind to the truth about Jesus Christ just as the members of the Sanhedrin were here. It’s important that we pray and ask God to raise up more Stephens. And for us all to be full of faith, grounded in the Bible and bold to proclaim it – whether upfront or one to one, whether to Jews, Muslims or those of no faith. Jesus is the Saviour of the world, the only Saviour, the only way to the Father. He is the fulfillment of both the temple and the law. And is he is with us by his Spirit wherever we go in his name.
So as Jesus said (Mark 11:22), “Have faith in God” as Stephen, Abraham and Joseph did for the glory of God. The God of glory is able and is sovereign. And even when we face opposition as we share the gospel, stand up for Christ and obey him, let’s remember what Joseph learned and what was true for Stephen and people like Tyndale after him (Genesis 50:20):
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”