The death of Stephen
Last week we talked about the trial of Stephen. The passage we read told us that he was performing great wonders and sings among the people but opposition arose from members of the Freedman’s Synagogue. They tried to argue with him but as we talked about, Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit so they were unable to stand up against his wisdom in their debates. Since Stephen was speaking in the power of the Spirit they were basically arguing against God which just doesn’t work very well. And as I said last week, it’s kind of futile to argue with the creator of everything that exists. But since they couldn’t beat him in a fair debate the members of this synagogue chose to stack the deck in their favor. They cheated. They lied about Stephen committing blasphemy and he was eventually put on trial in front of the Sanhedrin just as we’ve seen happen to Peter and John twice already in Acts. They accuse him of all kinds of things including threatening to destroy the Temple and to change the Law that was handed down from God through Moses.
This week we turn to Stephen’s response to these accusations. Now a big part of this series we’re doing in the book of Acts is reading through the scriptures together out loud each week here in our worship service. This is quite a long chapter but I don’t want to skip over any of the reading so let’s jump in.
Picking up in chapter 7 verse 1. This is right after the accusations have been leveled at Stephen.
1 “Are these things true?” the high priest asked. 2 “Brothers and fathers,” he replied, “listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran, 3 and said to him: Leave your country and relatives, and come to the land that I will show you. 4 “Then he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. From there, after his father died, God had him move to this land in which you are now living. 5 He didn’t give him an inheritance in it—not even a foot of ground—but he promised to give it to him as a possession, and to his descendants after him, even though he was childless. 6 God spoke in this way: His descendants would be strangers in a foreign country, and they would enslave and oppress them for four hundred years. 7 I will judge the nation that they will serve as slaves, God said. After this, they will come out and worship me in this place. 8 And so he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. After this, he fathered Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day. Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs. 9 “The patriarchs became jealous of Joseph and sold him into Egypt, but God was with him 10 and rescued him out of all his troubles. He gave him favor and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who appointed him ruler over Egypt and over his whole household. 11 Now a famine and great suffering came over all of Egypt and Canaan, and our ancestors could find no food. 12 When Jacob heard there was grain in Egypt, he sent our ancestors there the first time. 13 The second time, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 Joseph invited his father Jacob and all his relatives, seventy-five people in all, 15 and Jacob went down to Egypt. He and our ancestors died there, 16 were carried back to Shechem, and were placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.
Let’s stop right there for a minute. Stephen has been accused of some pretty serious crimes according to Jewish law. And when he’s asked if the accusations are true, what does he do? He starts out by giving them a history lesson. Now remember, the men on the Sanhedrin council are are very well versed in the scriptures. These are men who could literally quote the Old Testament books from beginning to end. And Stephen starts off by reminding them of what they’ve all not only read, but memorized. He reminds them of the story of Abraham how God called him and promised to bless his descendants forever even though Abraham had no children. But he reminds them that God granted him a son Isaac who would go on to father Jacob who would be the father of the patriarchs, the twelve men for whom the tribes of Israel were named. Then he reminds them of the salvation that God provided through Joseph during the time of famine which unfortunately led to a dark time for the nation of Israel. They spent 400 years in slavery in Egypt
And then let’s pick up reading with verse 17
17 “As the time was approaching to fulfill the promise that God had made to Abraham, the people flourished and multiplied in Egypt 18 until a different king who did not know Joseph ruled over Egypt. 19 He dealt deceitfully with our race and oppressed our ancestors by making them abandon their infants outside so that they wouldn’t survive. 20 At this time Moses was born, and he was beautiful in God’s sight. He was cared for in his father’s home for three months. 21 When he was put outside, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted and raised him as her own son. 22 So Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his speech and actions. 23 “When he was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. 24 When he saw one of them being mistreated, he came to his rescue and avenged the oppressed man by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He assumed his people would understand that God would give them deliverance through him, but they did not understand. 26 The next day he showed up while they were fighting and tried to reconcile them peacefully, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why are you mistreating each other?’ 27 “But the one who was mistreating his neighbor pushed Moses aside, saying: Who appointed you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me, the same way you killed the Egyptian yesterday? 29 “When he heard this, Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons. 30 After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight. As he was approaching to look at it, the voice of the Lord came: 32 I am the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. Moses began to tremble and did not dare to look. 33 “The Lord said to him: Take off the sandals from your feet, because the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. And now, come, I will send you to Egypt. 35 “This Moses, whom they rejected when they said, Who appointed you a ruler and a judge?—this one God sent as a ruler and a deliverer through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out and performed wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years.
So Stephen reminds them of their time as slaves in Egypt, but he goes on to remind them that God sent a savior. Moses escaped the purge of infant boys by the Pharoah and was even raised in the palace as the adopted son of the princess. When he grew up he would try to stand up for his people but they would initially reject him and he would flee Egypt for 40 years. Ultimately though, God sent Moses back to lead the children of Israel out of slavery and back to the land which God had promised to Abraham. But not before they spent another 40 years wandering in the wilderness.
Let’s pick up reading now with verse 37
37 “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites: God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers and sisters. 38 He is the one who was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors. He received living oracles to give to us. 39 Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him. Instead, they pushed him aside, and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron: Make us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we don’t know what’s happened to him. 41 They even made a calf in those days, offered sacrifice to the idol, and were celebrating what their hands had made. 42 God turned away and gave them up to worship the stars of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: House of Israel, did you bring me offerings and sacrifices for forty years in the wilderness? 43 You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship. So I will send you into exile beyond Babylon. 44 “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the testimony in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses commanded him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Our ancestors in turn received it and with Joshua brought it in when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before them, until the days of David. 46 He found favor in God’s sight and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 It was Solomon, rather, who built him a house, 48 but the Most High does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands, as the prophet says: 49 Heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool. What sort of house will you build for me? says the Lord, or what will be my resting place? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?
God rescued the children of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt, but once again they reject Him when things get tough. While Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the 10 Commandments the people waiver and they get Aaron, Moses brother, and the high priest, by the way, to create an idol for them to worship. And if you read through the Old Testament you see that this is a pattern that is repeated time and time again by the Israelites. They follow God for a while, then eventually they reject Him and turn away to other gods. They get conquered, spend time in slavery, but God sends a savior to bring them back to the promised land, and ultimately back to Him.
So Stephen reminds them of all these things that they already know. In these 49 verses he goes through the entire history of the nation of Israel reminding them of how they have continually rejected God and been saved by him over the centuries. But then, he turns to the present. He looks at the people accusing him and he looks at the members of the Sanhedrin and he says this, beginning in verse 51.
51 “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit. As your ancestors did, you do also. 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They even killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. 53 You received the law under the direction of angels and yet have not kept it.”
Stephen turns the accusations around. He says, “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit. As your ancestors did, you do also.”
What does he mean by uncircumcised hearts and ears? He’s telling them, just as Jesus had told them before, you follow the letter of the Law, but you’re missing the point of it. The whole point of circumcision, when it was given to Abraham as a covenant, was to separate out this nation as a people who had a special relationship with God. But over time the outward signs, the physical representation of the covenant had become more important than the relationship itself. The Sanhedrin was more concerned that people keep strict adherence to the Law then that they have a relationship with God. And you also have to remember that the law to them wasn’t exactly the Law as it had been given to Moses. Yes, they still revered the Law, big L, but over time there had been layers and layers of different rules added on top of it. As each generation of scribes and priests came along they added their interpretation of what was meant on top of what had been handed down to Moses. So where the Law, big L, said that the Sabbath should be a day of rest and no work should be done, the interpretations added so many layers on top of it that there was only a certain distance a person was allowed to walk on the Sabbath. I’ve even read that one of the laws said that you were not allowed to spit on the Sabbath because when the spit hit the ground it would create a furrow in the dust which would be plowing the earth, which is work. So that’s the attitude that Stephen is addressing here. He’s saying, you’re getting all the outward signs right, but you’re missing the relationship.
And then he goes on. He’s reminded them of all the times through the years that God has sent a savior for the nation of Israel. Then he reminds them that God has sent the ultimate savior, Jesus, and once again, just like with Moses and all prophets, they rejected him. In fact, he reminds them, they murdered him.
Now let’s pick up reading with the last few verses of this chapter beginning in verse 54.
54 When they heard these things, they were enraged and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 He said, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 They yelled at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and together rushed against him. 58 They dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he called out: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 He knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” And after saying this, he died.
So Stephen is falsely accused of blasphemy and of plotting to destroy the temple and change the Law handed down through Moses. But he turns it around on his accusers and shows how they are the ones that have changed the Law because they’ve added so many layers to it that it barely resembles what God gave them anymore. And what is the reaction of the people? As you might expect, they aren’t happy. Verse 54 tells us they were enraged. And they drag him out of town and they stone him. But even as they are throwing rocks at him to kill him Stephen is still praying for them, he looks up into heaven and sees Christ standing at the right hand of God and he prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
How many of us could pray that same prayer in the midst of persecution? I’m not even talking about being stoned to death, but just in the middle of some of the stuff going on today. As we see religious liberty being threatened in our country; as we see bakers being put out of business because they stand by their religious beliefs not to support same-sex marriage; as we see all Christian influence being expelled from our schools; as we see Christianity being suppressed more and more, can we pray the same prayer? Can we say, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them?” I know it’s hard for me. I felt called by God to come back into the military as a chaplain, but since I’ve come back I’ve seen policy changes that go totally against my beliefs as a Christian. And my human nature is to get angry. My human nature is to fight. And we should fight for what we know is morally right in the sight of God. But we should also pray. We should pray for those who don’t believe in Christ because as I said earlier, He is the ultimate savior. He is the answer to all the problems in the world. So we who know Him, should be witnessing to those who don’t, and we should be praying for them. Even when our human nature is to fight back.
So let’s join together in prayer right now.