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Faithlife

Like the Face of an Angel

Acts  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Notes & Transcripts
Last week I told you we were coming to the end of the first section of the book of Acts. Remember this first section has been focused on the first part of Jesus mission to the apostles to be his witnesses in Jerusalem. These first 5 chapters have seen the witness of the gospel confined to the city of Jerusalem and really to the Temple Mount itself. Almost everything that has happened with the apostles in this first section of the book has been centered around the Temple and their preaching and teaching there. The witness up to this point has been confined to the Jews but very soon we’ll see that change and see the the mission move into the next phase of witnessing to all Judea and Samaria.
But first we need to finish up this section, and the culminating event is what we’ll begin talking about today, the trial of Stephen. Now remember I told you that these trials would become something of a pattern in the book of Acts. Here in these first 6 chapters this is already the third trial we’ve seen. But something I want you to notice here is the escalation of the trials. Or more particularly, the escalation of the outcomes. The first trial we saw in chapter 4 was following the healing of the lame beggar outside the temple gates. Peter and John were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin and threatened not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. And then we read in
Acts 4:19-
Acts 4:19–20 CSB
19 Peter and John answered them, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; 20 for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Acts 4:19–21 CSB
Peter and John answered them, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” After threatening them further, they released them. They found no way to punish them because the people were all giving glory to God over what had been done.
Acts 4:19-
So the first trial produced a warning.
So the first trial produced a warning.
I. A Warning
But then we saw another trial just a couple of weeks ago in chapter 5. Once again the apostles are standing before the Sanhedrin being told that they must stop teaching in the name of Jesus. And once again they answer, “We must obey God rather than people.” This angered the members of the Sanhedrin so much that they were ready to kill the apostles. But then you’ll remember, Gamaliel stood up and told the Sanhedrin to be careful in how they treated the apostles because as he says in
Acts 5:38–39 CSB
So in the present case, I tell you, stay away from these men and leave them alone. For if this plan or this work is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even be found fighting against God.” They were persuaded by him.
And remember, it says they were persuaded by him, but only to a certain extent. They didn’t kill them, but they did have them flogged.
So the second trial produced a flogging
II. A Flogging
And that brings us to the third trial which we’ll begin to look at today and then continue next week. And this third trial will see even more escalation of the outcome. Over the past several weeks we’ve seen these trials produce a warning, then a flogging, and now we’ll see the third trial produce a martyr. So let’s look at how that comes about.
III. A Martyr
Last week we saw the new church select what were, in effect, it’s first deacons. And remember the qualifications that the apostles gave the church for selection? They were to choose seven men, “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom.” The first of the men listed that were chosen for service was Stephen, and our passage this morning picks up with him. So let’s read beginning with verse 8 of chapter 6
Acts 6:8–15 CSB
8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from some members of the Freedmen’s Synagogue, composed of both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, and they began to argue with Stephen. 10 But they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; so they came, seized him, and took him to the Sanhedrin. 13 They also presented false witnesses who said, “This man never stops speaking against this holy place and the law. 14 For we heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” 15 And all who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Now there are really three parts to this short passage that we’ll look at in turn.
I. Stephen’s Debate with the Hellenist Synagogue
Luke starts off this section by telling us that Stephen is “full of grace and power.” This is not really a surprise since just a few verses previously when he was listed with the seven who were chosen to serve he is described as, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” He met all the qualifications that the apostles had laid so the fact that he was full of the Spirit, full of grace, anything like that is almost expected. What is not expected however is the second part of verse 8. It says that Stephen was performing great wonders and signs among the people. Stephen is the first person we see in the New Testament, other than the apostles, that was able to perform miracles. But just as the power of the Spirit didn’t keep the apostles from run ins with the authorities, neither did it keep Stephen out of trouble. Verse 9 tells us that opposition arose from members of the Freedmen’s Synagogue. Now this was a synagogue that was made up men from the Diaspora who had returned to Jerusalem. Remember, last week we talked a little about the Diaspora. It was a spreading out of the Jewish people due to the conquering of Jerusalem several times over the centuries. But in this time many of the people of the Diaspora were returning to Jerusalem. They brought with them their own customs and the Greek language that they had grown up speaking, and like many expats immersed in what is to them a foreign culture, they tended to band together. There is historical evidence of different cultural synagogues within the city of Jerusalem during this time. This one, by it’s name, seems to have been made up of either former slaves, or possibly the descendants of slaves who had resettled in Jerusalem. In fact, Paul himself may have attended this very synagogue. He was a Cilician Jew who had come to live in Jerusalem and study under Gamaliel. As an expat, he would likely have stuck with other Greek speaking Jews during his times of worship.
So we see some members of this synagogue opposing Stephen’s witness of the gospel. And we don’t see the debate itself, but verse 10 tells us, “But they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking.” So they try to argue with him, but they are getting nowhere. They can’t defeat his logic, his wisdom, which came from the Holy Spirit.
You know that’s what happens when you try to argue with God. It’s really kind of impossible to come up with an argument that will defeat the creator and sustainer of the universe. People still try to do it today, and it still doesn’t work. It’s like going up to James Naismith, the creator of basketball and saying, “According to my scientific study of this competition I have determined that it need not be played by two teams of a set number of players. There may be any number of players and any number of teams. And furthermore, scores should not be kept because it could create feelings of negative self worth in the players on the “losing” side.” Mr. Naismith would look at you and say, “That’s not the way it works. I wrote the rule book so we’re going to go by the rules.” Same thing with God, except He wrote the rule book for literally everything, so you can’t argue with Him. He wins.
Acts 6:10 CSB
10 But they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking.
So that’s what the people in the Freedman’s Synagogue were running into. They were trying to argue with Stephen, who was speaking in the power of the Spirit, so they were arguing with God. He wins, so they had to try to figure out something else. And that brings us to the second part of this passage.
II. The Frame-up
Since they couldn’t argue with him, they resorted to the only option available to them… They cheated.
Let’s look at verses 11 and 12 again
Acts 6:11–12 CSB
11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; so they came, seized him, and took him to the Sanhedrin.
So like I said, they cheated. They lied. They started spreading the rumor that Stephen had committed blasphemy. And it worked, because the passage tells us that, “they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes.” Now stirring up the elders and the scribes wasn’t that big a deal. We’ve seen them getting stirred up plenty of times already. Remember all those priests who were set to lose a whole lot of money if the sacrificial system went away. Yeah, not hard to stir those folks up. But here, for the first time in Acts we see the common people, the populace of Jerusalem, opposing the new faith. Remember in that first trial it said, “They found no way to punish them because the people were all giving glory to God over what had been done.” And then in the second trial, “Then the commander went with the servants and brought them in without force, because they were afraid the people might stone them.” So always before the people had been on the side of the apostles. But not this time. The men of the Freedman’s Synagogue were able to spread enough rumors and get enough people to believe them that the populace turned on Stephen and the apostles. Sound familiar? Sounds like they took a page out of the playbook of the priests when they were trying to figure out how to get rid of Jesus. Back at Easter we saw Jesus riding in to the city of Jerusalem to the praise of all the people. And then just a few short days later, they were screaming for him to be crucified. And that’s what happens here. The people, who have been behind the apostles up to now, turn on them. They turn on Stephen, they seize him, and they take him before the Sanhedrin.
And Oh, this is just what the Sanhedrin has been waiting for. In the first trial, all they could do was issue a warning, because they were scared of what the people might do. In the second trial, they went a little farther, but all they could do was issue a flogging, because they were scared of what the people might do and they were scared that they might possibly be opposing God. But now… Now they had the people on their side. And that brings us to the third part of this short passage.
III. The Trial
Christian Standard Bible. (2017). (). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publisher
Acts 6:
Acts 6:13–14 CSB
13 They also presented false witnesses who said, “This man never stops speaking against this holy place and the law. 14 For we heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.”
Acts 6:13–15 CSB
13 They also presented false witnesses who said, “This man never stops speaking against this holy place and the law. 14 For we heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” 15 And all who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
The men of the Freedmen’s Synagogue present charges against Stephen in front of the Sanhedrin. They accuse him of speaking against the temple and against Moses. In the Jewish culture Moses is identified with the receipt of the Law a Mount Sinai and its transmission in the Pentateuch. That’s what is referred to when they say “the customs that Moses handed down to us.
The men of the Freedmen’s Synagogue present charges against Stephen in front of the Sanhedrin. They accuse him of speaking against the temple and against the Law. In the Jewish culture Moses is identified with the receipt of the Law at Mount Sinai and its transmission in the Pentateuch. That’s what is referred to when they say “the customs that Moses handed down to us.” So by speaking against these customs of Moses, they are saying that Stephen is speaking out against the Law itself. And then they say that Stephen speaks against “this holy place,” which is the temple. They saw the temple as the dwelling place of God. To them it contained his very presence in the holy of holies. So to attack the temple was to attack God himself. They accuse Stephen of saying that Jesus would destroy the temple and change the customs of Moses. This is even more serious than mere blasphemy. This is a physical attack on God, since his presence dwells in the temple, and a moral attack on God by changing the Law which He handed down through Moses.
The men of the Freedmen’s Synagogue present charges against Stephen in front of the Sanhedrin. They accuse him of speaking against the temple and against the Law. In the Jewish culture Moses is identified with the receipt of the Law at Mount Sinai and its transmission in the Pentateuch. That’s what is referred to when they say “the customs that Moses handed down to us.” So by speaking against these customs of Moses, they are saying that Stephen is speaking out against the Law itself. And then they say that Stephen speaks against “this holy place,” which is the temple. They saw the temple as the dwelling place of God. To them it contained his very presence in the holy of holies. So to attack the temple was to attack God himself. They accuse Stephen of saying that Jesus would destroy the temple and change the customs of Moses. This is even more serious than mere blasphemy. This is a physical attack on God, since his presence dwells in the temple, and a moral attack on God by changing the Law which He handed down through Moses.
But there’s more going on here than simply an attack on Stephen. They aren’t just trying to bring him down. These charges are very similar to what Jesus himself was charged with in
Mark 14:57–58 CSB
57 Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, stating, 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands, and in three days I will build another not made by hands.’ ”
They weren’t just trying Stephen. They were putting Jesus on trial again, because this was his claim. Of course we know that Jesus wasn’t referring to the Temple in Jerusalem but to his own body when he said it would be destroyed and raised again in 3 days, but that’s not what the Jewish people understood. They thought he was speaking of the Temple, big T. They thought he was threatening to destroy the holy of holies. And in essence he was, just not the one they thought. Stephen had simply been faithful to the teachings of Jesus. The people rejected the testimony of Stephen, but that was ultimately a rejection of Jesus once again. That’s what this trial was really all about. Ultimately it wasn’t even Stephen on trial that day, it was the Sanhedrin. It was the elders, and the scribes, and the people. They rejected the teachings of Stephen, which were ultimately the teachings of Christ.
And this passage closes with this final verse.
Acts 6:15 CSB
15 And all who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
They were accusing him of things that carried the death penalty under Jewish law. They were twisting his words, and ultimately twisting the words of Jesus, just as they had done to Jesus himself. But look what it says. “His face was like the face of an angel.” Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit. He had to know what was coming. This was all just too similar to what had happened to Christ. But he is filled with the Spirit. And he’s not afraid. He’s calm. And his face is like the face of an angel. And next week we’ll look at Stephen’s response to his accusers.
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