In our study of the book of Acts we have now come to the point where the church is almost on the verge of being thrust out of Jerusalem by the Holy Spirit (remembering Jesus' words in Acts 1:8).
But how did this happen?
The next 6 chapters (i.e. from Acts 6:8 - 12:24) explain how the foundations of the mission to the gentiles were laid. 5 key people are at the forefront of what is happening in these 6 chapters:
(i) Stephen (6:8 - 8:3)
(ii) Philip (8:4 - 40)
(iii) Paul (9:1 - 31)
(iv) Peter and
(v) Cornelius (9:32 - 12:24)
These 5 men made an indispensable contribution to the global expansion of the church. Today we begin with Stephen, whose story is recorded for us in the portion we have just read.
A portrait of Stephen:
We first meet him in the first 7 verses of Acts 6 - "the dispute of the widows" , which threatened to unsettle the unity and the witness of the early church. With prayer and wisdom the early church appointed 7 godly men to oversee the diaconal/ benevolence/ social needs ministry of the church. Stephen (whose name means "crown") was one of them. He is described to us in Acts 6:3 as "full of the Spirit and of wisdom" and in Acts 6:8 "full of grace and power… doing great wonders and signs among the people."
He was the first Christian to wear the crown of the martyr in the history of the church.
A Christ-centered man :
What really strikes us as we see him in action in life and in his dying moments, is His absolute Christ - centeredness. His testimony in life and in death was focused on Jesus. His life showed the clearness, authority and influence of Jesus.
We are told that opposition arose from "members of the synagogue of the freedmen" (6:9) Also mentioned are Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. The "freedmen" (libertinoi) were probably freed slaves and their descendants. The synagogue of these "freedmen" seemed to have made up from Jews of these various parts of the world who were now living in Jerusalem. They began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom, or the Spirit by which he spoke. (6:10)
This then became a smear campaign with false witnesses involved (6:11), and so they dragged him before the ruling council (Sanhedrin),producing false witnesses. All this sounds very similar to what happened to Jesus.
We are very familiar with dirty campaigns in our day . The present Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton campaign has been reduced from a political campaign to a personal smear campaign.
In the case of Stephen it is somewhat different. He, like the Lord Jesus has a real case lined up against the Jews and their representative counsel- the Sanhedrin. But when the Jews hear Stephen’s irrefutable logic they turn it into a smear campaign.
John Stott observes that the same order of events has often been repeated. At first there is a theological debate. When this fails, people start a personal campaign of lies. Finally they resort to legal action in an attempt to rid themselves of their adversary by force .
From there the story is divided into three parts:
(i) The accusation made against Stephen (6:13 - 15)
(ii) The defence made by Stephen (7:1-53)
(iii) The sentence carried out against Stephen /death by stoning (7:54-60)
1. THE ACCUSATION: 6:13 - 15
…basically boils down to this: Their claim was that Stephen had blasphemed against Moses (the law) and against God and the temple (6:13,14).This is an extremely serious charge, for nothing was more sacred to the Jews than the law of God and their temple. The law was God's word, and the temple was the manifestation of God's presence.
In what sense did Stephen speak against the temple and the law? (Read v. 14)
The facts which they present against Stephen are not actually wrong, for this is what Jesus had indeed said in John 2:19, 20 (see also Mark 14:58 and 15:29).
In the first place Jesus had dared to speak of Himself as God's new temple, replacing the old.
In Matt 12:6 he said : "I tell you, that One greater than the temple is here." (In that same context he also proclaimed Himself as Lord of the Sabbath! Matt 12:8)
In the second place, Stephen was quoting what Jesus had said w.r.t the law. In Matt 5:17 Jesus claimed that He was in fact the end of the law and that He had come had come to fulfill the law.
What Stephen thus said to the Jews was correct! It was based on what Jesus had taught, and Jesus had clearly claimed that the temple and the law would be superseded and completed in Himself!
What was the problem then?
Stephen, following Pentecost and filled with the illumination of the Holy Spirit saw all this very clearly. He had seen Jesus for who He is! But, these particular Jews, like the Jews that condemned Christ could not see in Him anything but a threat to their religion. They had understood that He was saying that He was greater than their law and their temple, but they could not see that He was right!
Now if we accept that Christ is God, then this is purely logical that He should be the true fulfillment of everything! He is their Creator. The law and the temple testify to Him. They serve Him, and they are therefore subject to Him!
But these Jews failed to recognize Christ and therefore they would also not recognzse His spokesman. For this reason they rejected Stephen!
They were so absorbed with the law and the temple - that they could not see the greater reality before them, namely that He who created the law and He who gave the design for the temple was now here! In truth, all they needed to read was their own Old Testament to see the persistent testimony of the law and the prophets concerning the rotten status of Israel before God. The prophets had said time and again to Israel that their worship was vain and empty and that it lacked true reverence for God -
See for instance Jeremiah 7: 1 - 15!
Stephen was preaching Christ, the Messiah who was to come, and he proclaimed Christ as the One in whom all, that the O.T. foretold, is fulfilled, including the temple and the law.
It is highly significant then that at this point (6:15), namely at the height of their accusations and charges against Stephen, they look at him, and they see a radiant face - like that of an angel!This is exactly what had happened to Moses' face when he came down from Mt Sinai with the law! (see Ex. 34:29ff).
In this way God was showing that both, Moses ministry of receiving and giving of the law, and Stephen's receiving and interpretation of it had the approval of God. Indeed, we must note that God's blessing on Stephen is evident throughout his recorded ministry i.e. the grace and power in 6:8, his wisdom in 6:10 and his shining face in 6:15 were proof of this fact.
Oh, but there are none as blind as those that will not see. Have you seen Jesus for who He is ?
2. THE DEFENCE: 7:1-53
This is a lengthy defence. It is actually a lecture in OT history beginning with Abraham and ending with an accusing charge in 7:51-53 in which he accuses the Sanhedrin that they were stiff necked and stubborn , always resisting the Holy Spirit.
So, let me try to sum it up in a nutshell. Remember the charge is that he blasphemes against the temple and the law. Note how he defends himself:
(i) w.r.t the temple: the Jews thought that the temple was associated with the presence of God. That is not entirely untrue, as many passages (e.g. Ps. 27:4 etc) indicate. However in doing so they went far further - and absolutely bound God to His temple i.e. they were saying where the temple is , God is! It is interesting to see how Stephen proceeds to demolish that sort of thinking. He uses prominent O.T. figures [Abraham , Isaac ,Jacob ,Joseph, Moses (in particular), David and Solomon]. The connecting feature is that in none of these epochs was God's presence limited to any particular place. The God of the O.T. was the God on the move, who was always calling His people to move out into His purposes and always accompanying and directing them as they went. Abraham had no temple. Joseph had no temple. Moses had a moving tabernacle (portable temple). David had a tabernacle (and often not - whilst he was fleeing). Solomon eventually built the temple, but was quick to point out ) that no one could build a house for God, for no one and no building could contain the infinite God of the Universe (see 7:48,49). The holy place is where God is. And God is where His chosen people are! God does not dwell in this building. He dwells with his living stones! If they happen to be in the building - good and well! Do you see that the O.T. does not contradict the N.T.? Solomon thus had it right when he said: "The most High does not live in houses made by men." He lives in the hearts of His redeemed children. His dwelling place is with them. For the N.T. Christian this means that he/she should be where Christ's body is, for Christ is the head of the church! And He is where His body is! I trust that you understand this, and that it is for this reason that I encourage you to be in fellowship with Christ and His body as often as is possible. So Stephen showed that contrary to their interpretation (God is in His temple alone), Stephen showed that God is with His people., If God's people happened to be obedient to Him and worshiped Him in the temple, He would be there - naturally. Ezekiel foresees in Chapter 10 the glory of God departing from the temple.
(ii) W.r.t the law: It is ironic that those who charged Jesus and Stephen with blaspheming against the law, where far more guilty of it. Stephen uses arguments from Israel's history to prove this: In the first place they failed to recognize Moses as the heaven sent deliverer (7:25).In the second place they pushed Moses aside (7:27). In the third place they rejected his leadership (7:35). In the fourth place, in the desert they refused to obey him; instead in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, and so became idolaters (7:39ff). It was the same with the prophets. Now they praise them, but then they killed them!
(iii) This is where the accused now becomes the accuser : see 7:51 - 53
· Uncircumcised hearts and ears - expression common to Moses and the prophets , which implied that they were still heathen at heart and deaf to the truth.
· "you are just like your fathers" i.e. in their willful rejection of God's word
· "you always resist the Holy Spirit"
· "was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?" In fact they were worse - because they killed God's Son , the righteous One!
· In effect they did not obey the law!
(iv) The heart of the matter is that they failed to see the Christ (the promised Messiah) whom Stephen proclaimed!
3. STEPHEN STONED:
Stephen's speech before the Sanhedrin was full of Christ, and this continued into his death. Read 8:55!
See the Sanhedrin's response in 7:57 : they covered their ears, yelling at their top of their voices, suppressing their consciences. You cannot think objectively when you close your ears or raise your voice, and thus in a moment of madness fueled by a mob mentality, they stoned Stephen.
Note in 7:59 the similarity of Stephen's prayer to the Lord's prayer on the cross. Both prayed for forgiveness of their executioners and committed their spirits into God's hands. Saul was there, giving approval to his death (8:1)
The most direct consequence of Stephen's death was that the church was persecuted and scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (8:1 cf Acts 1:8) and thus the mission to the gentiles began. The significance of Stephen's death can never be over estimated!
The church was forced out of Jerusalem , and so was the gospel. It was carried to gentile territories . Saul who saw this (and must have observed the way in which Stephen died) is soon going to be converted to become the great apostle to the gentiles.
So we see that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church!
Some would say : how gruesome! How unnecessary! However, don't worry about Stephen. He is with the Lord Jesus. Worry about those hard hearts who will have to stand before the great throne of Judgement. Be concerned for men and women who blaspheme the Name of Christ, and who have no love or concern for Him.
It is true that the church must have been shocked, but with the benefit of hindsight we can now appreciate God's providence in promoting the church's mission. This sort of history has repeated itself again and again in the life of the church - Europe , America, Asia and Africa - the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church , and as we have said - don't be concerned about the martyrs ; do not even be concerned about your own life , if you are a Christian. Maybe some of us will have to die for the sake of the gospel, so that unbelieving men and women will hear! Be concerned about the unbelieving world. Pray , witness , go and tell! Leave the consequence with God!
Generally Christians are slow to move out with the Gospel. What will God have to do to get us involved and active in telling the gospel to the unsaved?