STUBBORN AS A MULE
THEME: One of the “Seven” becomes the first martyr for the church. He is murdered because the Sanhedrin was too involved with the worldly affiliations of the Temple and would not stand for their power or position to be challenged. Stephen’s judgment and death are the logical outcome from the two previous trials of the Apostles. We must beware lest we become too involved with the earthly church and its trappings, and forget that we are called to follow Jesus and live His commandments.
SCRIPTURE: Acts 6: 8 through Acts 8: 3 (selected verses)
I. Stephen’s history and trial (6: 8 – 15).
A. Luke now treats us to one of the greatest of Jesus’ new converts: the first martyr, Stephen.
1. He is effective in preaching and healing and service.
2. Two things that empower Stephen:
a. God’s Holy Spirit – “full of faith and the Holy Spirit”(v. 6: 5).
b. The strong character he possesses – “full of God’s grace and power” (v. 8).
B. He comes into conflict with other Hellenistic Jews (Synagogue of Freedmen – Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, Asia).
1. These Hellenistic Jews came up against a great witness in Stephen. And the battle was straight out of today’s political headlines.
2. Defeated in open debate, Stephen’s opponents started a smear campaign against him. When arguments fail, mud has often seemed an excellent alternative.
3. The opposition degenerated from theology through slander to violence.
4. This all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it??? All we have to do is change a couple of names and – POOF!! – it fits right into CNN Nightly News.
5. Blasphemy was an extremely serious accusation. For nothing was more sacred and precious to the Jews than their temple and their law.
a. The temple was the ‘holy place’, the sanctuary of God’s presence, God’s house.
b. The law was ‘holy scripture’, the revelation of God’s mind and will.
6. To speak against either was to speak against God -- to blaspheme.
7. This synagogue was composed of Jews who had left their native homes and come to Jerusalem; to be nearer the Temple and follow the Law, in effect, to be better Jews. Paul was probably a member, since Tarsus was in the province of Cilicia.
8. The real issue: Who was obeying God when it came to Temple, Law, and promises?
9. Much similarity between Stephen and Jesus, both in the attacks on them and on their defenses.
II. Stephen’s trial (7: 1 – 53).
A. There are two very obvious themes in Stephen’s speech:
1. God has raised up a series of leaders whom the Jews failed to recognize/obey.
2. They respond inappropriately to God’s presence as reflected in the tabernacle and Temple (since they fell into idolatry).
B. Jesus had been accused of the very same things, and Stephen is being very faithful to Jesus’ teaching.
1. In the past, people came together at the Temple to meet God, but now and in the future, the meeting place with God would be Himself in a resurrected human form. (Mark 14: 57-58) “Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: “We have heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.’ ” (John 2: 21) “But the temple he had spoken of was his body.” (John 4: 21, 23-24) “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
2. Jesus contradicted all the scribal and legalistic misinterpretations of Moses – and so He swept away all the traditions of the elders. But he was never disrespectful of the Law itself. His resolve to lay down His life for us would fulfill all priesthood and sacrifice.(Matthew 5: 17) “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
C. The Temple was never designed to confine God but was intended to be a place of worship to Him alone as the One True God. (This speech and Paul’s in Acts 13: 16-33 both recall Jewish history as it relates to the Messianic promises).
1. Stephen uses the most potent weapon: Scripture.
2. He doesn’t preach Christ directly, but works through the Jewish history to show why the nation stands in terrible need of God’s own fresh work.
3. He draws lessons from history which they had never learned or even noticed.
4. He demonstrates that his position, far from being ‘blasphemous’ or even disrespectful to God’s word, actually honors it.
5. God is at work in and through Israel’s history: good comes out of evil.
D. Israel has rejected God’s messengers: Joseph, Moses, David, the prophets – now Jesus; and they have fallen back into idolatry as they did with both the tabernacle (golden calf) and the Temple (the godsidolspractices of the neighboring peoples).
1. Joseph and Moses and the prophets (and Christ Jesus) are rejected by Israel and suffer for it – but all are vindicated by God.
1. Instead of a golden calf (or similar), they treated the actual building as a “god”.
2. You don’t have to bow down to your knees in front of something to worship it – there are many ways to worship an idol. (like some people treat their Bibles)
2. Do you refuse to put other books on top of your Bible? Would you ever throw an old, torn, coming apart at the seams Bible in the trash? Do you have to have your Bible in a certain place only?
3. Are you treating the Bible as an idol instead of studying it and using it as God’s guide for your life???
E. Note the effect Stephen’s powerful preaching has on his audience: “they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. . . they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.”
1. His words and the unseen moving of the Holy Spirit show how powerful the truth can be.
2. Jesus the Messiah had come to replace the temple and fulfill the law, which both bore witness to him.
3. God calls for obedience, not sacrifices – always has, still does!!
(1 Samuel 15:22-23) “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.” (Psalm 51: 16-17) “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Micah 6: 6-8) “With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
4. The Jews know they are guilty, but rather than repent and acknowledge their sin, they go “mad” or “crazy” and lynch Stephen.
5. “If you can’t win, you can at least kill the winner, and put him out of the game.”
III. The martyrdom of Stephen (7: 51 – 8: 1).
A. The stoning of Stephen was clearly a “lynch mob action.” Note that, just like today, if you preach generalities and platitudes and the social gospel, it creates no noticeable activity – either on the part of Christians or our opponents. But if you speak the truth openly and in straightforwardly fashion – call “sin” a sin – just as the prophets did – people will go into a furor doing their best to silence you.
1. Note today’s WAR against preachers who dare to call adultery a sin; who dare to call homosexual activity a sin. Those who preach “love” and “peace” and “everything is wonderful” are tolerated and not bothered. But those who take a stand straight out of Scripture are hounded – and in the coming years, will be silenced one way or another. MARK MY WORDS!
2. If Stephen had simply preached “love” and “help for widows,” he would never have attracted the least attention.
3. But he preached Christ crucified, and called people to repent of their sins – and the powers and their followers would have none of that at all.
4. Stephen’s preaching cut too close to the mark. He knew it, and so did they. They could not allow it to continue.
5. They had given Christians a warning (Acts 4: 1-22), and then a beating and another warning (Acts 5: 17-40). They would not let this opportunity pass. They had to stop this movement.
B. Stephen was ready to be the first true martyr, who sealed his testimony with his blood. There are many parallels with Stephen’s stoning and Christ’s death on the cross. Take a little time and read the two stories together and you will see: (Luke 23: 26-49 and Acts 7: 54-60).
1. Stephen shows us two very exemplary behaviors during his all-too-short “Christian life”:
a. 1st, he was a great witness for Christ, “full of God’s grace and power.” The Greek word behind “power” is dynamos, from which we get “dynamo” and “dynamite.” Yes, Stephen was a case of dynamite in the center of Jerusalem.
b. 2nd, his willingness to verify his witness with his life. In the coming centuries, thousands – and maybe millions – would look to Stephen as their hero and model. Because of his example, they would not be afraid to witness or be executed for that witness.
2. How many of us today would take Stephen for an example?? Too many would not. Even many pastors and evangelists run away or shut up when the going gets even the least bit tough. I have given this much thought. Would I follow Stephen, or would I be a coward?? I hope and wish for bravery, but I’ve never faced such a choice; the truth is I just don’t know how I’d behave. I hope and pray to be a faithful witness for the Lord – that is all I can do. It is all you can do.
IV. The impact of Stephen on the church (8: 2-3).
A. The church was shocked, even stunned, by the martyrdom of Stephen and by the violent opposition and persecution which followed.
1. With 2000 years of hindsight, we can see how God used Stephen’s testimony, in word and deed, life and death, to promote the church’s mission to evangelize the world.
2. With the scattering of the 5,000 to 8,000 church members across the eastern Mediterranean, the Gospel was carried from at least Alexandria in Egypt in the west to Antioch in Syria in the east and to Rome in the north.
3. We do not know how long the church would have been content to stay in Jerusalem if the Holy Spirit had not used this strong persecution to move them out. God would have undoubtedly found another way to move the mission along.
4. Do we need a little violent persecution to get us moving today? It might not be all that bad of an idea. One thing is for sure: persecution would separate the lukewarm Christian from the real article.
5. Such a thought should terrify you. Are you of the lukewarm variety? Am I one of the ones Jesus will vomit like the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3?
I URGE YOU TO DO SOME VERY SERIOUS SOUL-SEARCHING ABOUT THIS.
DECIDE TO BE A STRONG WITNESS FOR GOD.
ASK HIM FOR HELP AND STRENGTH TO WITHSTAND TEMPTATION AND TROUBLE.
WATCH YOURSELF TO GUARD AGAINST ALL FORMS OF IDOLATRY.
DON’T FIND YOURSELF WITH AN ATTITUDE ABOUT THE CHURCH LIKE THE JEWS WERE ABOUT THE TEMPLE.
MAKE SURE YOU’RE WORSHIPPING GOD HIMSELF, NOT A BOOK ABOUT HIM!
LIVE FOR JESUS – ALL DAY AND EVERY DAY – 120%!!