Friday, November 11, 2016

Acts 7 - "Stephen’s Defense and Death ”

Last time  we saw that  Stephen  (one of the 7  men of Acts 6)  was being accused for blaspheming against Moses (the law) and against  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. 
Now to be clear, the law was God's word, and the temple was the manifestation  of  God's presence. But Stephen  pointed out resolutely that the law and the temple were  not an end in themselves.  Jesus was the  End of everything.And so, it was ultimately on account of Jesus, that Stephen as a true disciple of Jesus,  was  being treated in exactly the  same manner  as the Lord   Jesus  when He was being accused by  the Jewish  ruling council.

And so , as the Sanhedrin were looking (gazing)  at Stephen,   all who sat in the council saw that his face  was like the face of an angel (6:18), and it reminds us of Moses,   whose face shone in a similar manner  when he had come down from  Mount Sinai, after he had received the law of God.

With this observation  the high priest commences with the interrogation  concerning the false  charges  made in 6: 11-14. The High priest said: “Are these things so? “ (7:1)

THE DEFENCE: 7:1-53

What follows is a lengthy defense by Stephen.  His defense is actually  a history lesson  of the Jews,beginning with Abraham  and  ending  with a counter - accusing charge  in vv. 51-53 in which he accuses the Sanhedrin that  they were in fact  stiff necked and  stubborn, always  resisting the Holy Spirit. 

So, having read the text, let me sum it up in a nutshell. Remember, the primary charge is that Stephen  blasphemes against the temple and the law. Note how he defends himself: 

1.     Stephens’s defense with regard to the right use of the  temple:

The Jews  associated  the temple with the presence of God in their midst. That is  certainly  true, as many passages  (e.g. Ps. 27:4 etc) would  indicate.  And God  had indeed  promised to  manifest Himself  among the Jews in this way (2 Chron. 7) However in doing so they went far further than Scripture intended - and absolutely bound God to His temple,  by making the place and the  stones  themselves  a sacred place.
It is  fascinating to see how Stephen demolishes that sort of thinking. He uses prominent O.T. figures  such  as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses (in particular), David and Solomon to make his case.

The  important feature of  Stephen’s argument  is that  under none of these people  was God's presence limited to any particular place. The God of the O.T. was the God on the move. He was  always calling His people to move out into His purposes,  and always accompanying and directing them as they went.  Think about this :
  •          Abraham had no temple.
  •      Joseph had no temple.
  •         Moses eventually  had a moving tabernacle (portable temple)
  •        David had a tabernacle (and often not - whilst he was fleeing)
  •      Solomon eventually build the temple, but  Solomon and Stephen  were 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).
  • So then, the  holy place is not  so much a temple  in Jerusalem. The Holy place is where God is, and  it is the place where he is truly honoured. And God is where His chosen people are, and if it happens to be the temple in Jerusalem,  then good and well!
Stephen, in citing both Solomon and Isaiah thus had it right when  he said, "The most High does not live in houses made by hands."(7:48 -50).  God   has always lived in the  midst  of His  people. His dwelling place is always  with them and the highest expression of  His glory is the place where  His people assemble.  The temple in Jerusalem was built for this purpose, but rarely did it serve  this purpose in history, and certainly not in Jesus  day, when  He had to tell them that the temple  was no longer used as a house of prayer and worship, but  that it had  in fact become a den of robbers.[Lk 19:45-48]
The O.T. and the  N.T agree in this !
  
So then, we remind ourselves that  God does not dwell in buildings. He dwells with His  people  -  the living stones! [1 Pet. 2:5]  If they happen to be in the building - good and well, but the building itself can  never be holy. 

Eastside Baptist Church was constituted  in the  June of 1985,  as a  community of worship, and to the glory of God.   A place of worship  was built  to  meet our need for assembly. It has in fact become a   house  in which  Christian  worshipers assemble.  The more people assemble for the worship of God, the more glory goes to God.  That  is why it is important that we do assemble, and God  in Holy Scripture has always encouraged the  assembly  of His people  in public worship.

There is something very wrong with a person  who does not enjoy   the assembly of God’s people. There is  something very wrong  with someone  who chooses to spend  his or her Sundays   apart from the people of God.
So  it is  not primarily  about the place built for worship   - it is about the people assembling  for true worship.  And sadly,  as  many places of worship  begin to take on a life of their own, and   they easily detract  from the  worship of God.

So, Jesus  and  Stephen showed that, contrary to the  popular  religion of their day  which thought   that God  was  contained in a physical  building,   they showed that God is with His people wherever they are. If God's people happened to be  obedient to Him and worshiped Him in the temple, He would be there  - naturally.  But  when  the temple becomes an end in itself, and when the people  of God  become disobedient  to Him  then the glory of God departs, and  this is  what   Ezekiel foresees in Chapter 10, as   the glory of God departs from the temple. 

2.     Stephen’s defense with regard to the right use of the law :

It is ironic that those who charged Jesus and Stephen with blaspheming against the law, where themselves  far more guilty of  breaking the law.  Stephen uses illustrations  from Israel's history to prove this:

In 7:25  Stephen shows  that  the people  in Moses’s  day  failed to recognize Moses as the heaven sent deliverer. In 7:27  Stephen argues  that  instead of recognizing the wisdom of Moses, the forefathers  pushed him aside. In  7:35 they rejected Moses'  leadership even though He had met with God, and they ignored  the fact that he  had become a true prophet among them.  In 7:39ff    they  frequently refused to obey  his leadership in the desert. In their hearts they often turned back to Egypt, and so  they became idolaters.

It was the same pattern with the prophets. Now they praise them, but then they killed them! (7:52

The Accused Stephen  now becomes the Accuser - 7:51 – 53.

  • He accuses them of  being stiff-necked and  of  having uncircumcised hearts and ears.   which implied that they were still heathen at heart and deaf to the truth.
  •  He accuses them of being just like their fathers  in terms of their willful rejection of God's Word. 
  • He accuses them of always resisting the Holy Spirit.
  • He accuses them of always persecuting  the prophets. In fact they were worse - because they killed God's Son, the Righteous One. So, in effect, they did not obey the law!
The heart of the  problem is that they failed to see the Christ, the promised Messiah,  whom Stephen proclaimed!

STEPHEN STONED:

Stephen's speech before the Sanhedrin was full of Christ - and this continued  to be true  even unto his death. [7:55]
See  the Sanhedrin's response in  7:57. They covered their ears, yelling at their top of their voices, thus suppressing their consciences. You cannot think rationally when you close your ears or raise your voice. 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. oth prayed for forgiveness of their executioners and  both committed their spirits into God's  hands.

CONCLUSION:

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 that the mission to the gentiles began.  The church was forced out of Jerusalem, and so was the gospel. It was  now being carried to gentile territories.  Saul  who saw this,  and  who must have observed the way in which Stephen died, is soon going to be converted to become the great apostle to the gentiles. And so we see that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church! 

Some would say, how gruesome! How unnecessary! Our reply is, “don't worry about Stephen. He is with the Lord Jesus.”  Rather , worry about those hard hearts who will have to stand  before the great throne of judgement having to give an account for what they have done. 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 at the death of Stephen, but with the benefit of hindsight we can now appreciate God's providence in promoting the church's mission through  this means. 
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 more  concerned about the unbelieving world. Pray, witness, go and tell! Leave the consequence with God!  However we know that  generally speaking, Christians are slow to move out. 

What will God have to do to get us involved and active in telling the gospel to the unsaved?





[1] E.g. Lev 26:41 ;Dt 10:16 ; 30:6 ; Jer 6:10 ;9:26 ; Ez 44:7

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