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Acts 6:8-8:3 Stephen's Sermon

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Acts 6:8–8:3 ESV
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” And Stephen said: “Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs. “And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds. “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons. “Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’ “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: “ ‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’ “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, “ ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’ “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Both God and Israel are consistent.
God is constant in His attributes - dynamic, merciful
Israel is constant in fashioning a god who is static, serves them, and they reject his messengers.
Last time - the selection of the deacons
The spot light now falls on one of those deacons - Stephen
He is described as being full of grace, and was doing great signs and wonders
He was empowered by the Holy Spirit to live a life the reflected His Saviour
Just like Jesus was full of the Spirit and wisdom, so also was Stephen - not because he possessed these things himself, but because the Spirit was dwelling in him
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Accusation
Stephen was preaching and performing signs and wonders among the people, when a group of religious people from the nearby synagogues came to argue with him
But Stephen was so full of the Spirit and wisdom that the combined wisdom of all these religious leaders couldn’t get the better of him -
- they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking
Stephen wasn’t an educated pharisee - he was a Greek!
He wasn’t a seminary-educated man with a bachelors degree in theology - how did he manage to defeat these religious experts?
This is a fulfillment of what Jesus promised his disciples:
Luke 21:12–18 ESV
But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish.
Because they couldn’t defeat Stephen, the religious leaders cook up a false accusation against Stephen.
They twist what he has been teaching about the fulfillment of Moses and the Law in Jesus,
And falsely accuse him of blaspheming against Moses and God.
They say in chapter 6 verse 13-14
Acts 6:13–14 ESV
and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”
A very similar false charge to the one they made against Jesus
How would you respond in such a situation?
Our response to a false accusation might be to play the lawyer, to prove our innocence, to get ourselves out of the predicament
Stephen’s response shows that he is fixated not on saving his own skin, but on fulfilling his calling as a disciple of Jesus - he sees this as an opportunity to be a witness
Stephen goes onto the offensive - shows them they are in fact guilty of breaking the Law and rejecting God
So Stephen goes onto the offensive - shows them they are in fact guilty of breaking the Law and rejecting God
Stephen begins to take them on a journey through their past
Abraham
God appeared to him in Mesopotamia
By grace, covenanted with Abraham before the Law, the temple and Israel existed
Covenant of circumcision and a promise that Abraham would be the father of a great nation of offspring who would receive an inheritance from God
By grace, covenanted with Abraham before the Law, the temple and Israel existed
Joseph
rejected and hated by his brothers and sold into Egypt, but God was with him
sold into Egypt, but God was with him
became a type of Saviour of his people
There was no temple for God in Egypt
Moses
God was with him from birth, being found as a baby in Egypt
Saw himself as a saviour of his people, but was rejected
went into exile in Midian in the wilderness, and God was with him there, appeared to him in the burning bush
God was with Moses throughout his life - From Egypt to wilderness and back to Egypt and then out in the wilderness again
Was a saviour of Israel, performed signs and wonders, received living oracles from God to give to Israel, but Israel rejected him and replaced the worship of God with the worship of idols
because of that, God sent them into exile in Babylon
The Tent & the Temple
The tent of witness in the wilderness
Solomon built the temple
Stephen quotes Thus says the Lord: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be,...
God is the creator - he cannot be confined to a building
God told Moses to make the tent and the tabernacle, and gave David and Solomon his blessing to build the temple - both were God’s will. Making them was not wrong, but confining God to them is.
The thrust of Stephen’s message is showing that:
God appeared
God spoke
God sent
God promised
God punished
God rescued
God is working his sovereign will all over the earth - he is not confined
Isaiah 66:1–2 ESV
Thus says the Lord: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.
Stephen now reaches the climax of his sermon
Using the language of the prophets, he tells the religious leaders they are just like their stubborn, hard-hearted fathers who rejected God’s Word, prophets and appeals
Acts 7:51–53 ESV
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Acts 7:51-
Using the language of the prophets, he tells the religious leaders they are just like their stubborn, hard-hearted fathers who rejected God’s Word, prophets and appeals
They have
Abraham
Their whole existence… their place in the world, being called Israel, God’s people…
… was owed only to the grace of God in calling Abraham while he was still a pagan idol worshipper in Mesopotamia, and giving him a promise
Abraham then believed the promise and turned his back on his pagan ways to worship God
Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise, and the promise is not for Abraham’s physical descendants, but for all who turn from their sin and believe in Jesus.
Joseph
Then came Joseph…
rejected by his own family - left to die…
but God was with Him even in Egypt where there was no temple
He was a type of saviour who was rejected by his own people but ultimately held the key to their salvation
His life ultimately foreshadowed Jesus, who would come in fulfillment of prophecy as the Messiah - the Redeemer of Israel...
but his own people whom he came to save rejected him and killed him
Moses
performed signs and wonders just like Jesus did
Heard from God just like Jesus did
Gave oracles from God to the people just like Jesus did
Was the Saviour of the people of Israel from slavery - a great foreshadow of how Jesus was to come and be the Saviour of all peoples from slavery to sin and death
But just like they rejected Moses, the people rejected Jesus
The Tabernacle and the Temple
Even the tabernacle and the temple were not ever meant to be the permanent dwelling places of God, but they pointed towards Jesus living in and among his people
The Israelites carried the tabernacle with them wherever they went, as a dwelling place for God
Solomon also built the temple as a dwelling place for God, and God’s presence would fill the temple as long as the people were being faithful to Him
but in reality, God doesn’t live in a building
God makes his dwelling place in His people
1 Corinthians 3:16 ESV
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
Hebrews 3:6 ESV
but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.
Stephen’s Point
He was referring to his own body
Stephen’s Point
Stephen’s point is that the religious leaders of Israel are really the ones guilty of being the law breakers and of rejecting God.
The Tabernacle & the Temple
They have accused him of blaspheming Moses and God, and speaking against the Law and the Temple
They cooked up similar false charges against Jesus himself - which you can read about in
Jesus said in ““Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” - he was speaking of his body
John 2:19 ESV
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
In he is falsely charged with making a blasphemous statement about the temple
Here too, they are twisting Stephen’s teachings about these things being foreshadows and types that point to Jesus, so that they can get rid of him.
They charge him falsely for blaspheming Moses and God
But Stephen has gone on the offensive
He has shown that there truly is someone who has broken the Law and rejected God - but it wasn’t Stephen, it was them.
Moses, the Law, the Temple - these thing all found their fulfillment in Jesus Christ and pointed to him all along
But Israel’s religious leaders had rejected him and murdered him.
They who had received the Law, did not keep it. Those to whom the Messiah came, did not receive him. - they betrayed him and murdered Him
The people are enraged - they ground their teeth at him like animals
There is no anger quite as fearsome as the fury of a self-righteous person who’s hypocrisy has been exposed
Stephen sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God
They cast him out of the city and stone him
Only 1 of the attackers is named - a young man named Saul
Stephen endures a horrible death - receives blow upon blow to the head from sharp and round rocks and stones, until he’s on the brink of death from the damage to his head
But in that very moment, before dying, Stephen does the unthinkable - he prays for his attackers
Just like Jesus prayed on the cross - Father forgive them, they know not what they do - Stephen prays “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Only someone who truly knows the forgiveness and grace of Jesus for their own sins, can offer such forgiveness and grace to their others
He didn’t realise how miraculously God would actually answer his prayer!
Soon after this, God would take the one who was leading this attack against Stephen, and forgive his sin and use him as one of the greatest evangelists in history - that same man Saul
Where do you see yourself in this narrative?
Who’s actions do you reflect most closely?
We all will want to say Stephen.
Stephen reflected Jesus in 5 amazing ways
He was empowered with grace and filled with the Spirit like Jesus
He spoke with unanswerable wisdom like Jesus
He endured a trial just like Jesus
He preached the Word and the fulfillment of OT types in Jesus - just like Jesus did
He suffered and died, like Jesus did
Of course, we all would naturally put ourselves squarely in Stephen’s corner, and see ourselves as being him in this narrative
But when you consider the actions and attitudes of the religious leaders who stoned him, one starts to see some very scary parallels with what is all too common today
Like the religious leaders of Stephen’s day, we also love our traditions, our temple, our church building…
We love our traditions, our church building…
religion is something we come to the (temple) to do, as if God is confined to the church building between the hours of 9:30-10:30 and 18:30-19:30..... and for goodness sake you better be finished on time
When in reality, God is not confined to a building but is sovereignly at work everywhere in the world right now
true religion is not merely meeting God in the temple, its really being God’s people out there - out in the world 24/7
God is everywhere - he is active everywhere in the world where His church is engaging with the culture, engaging a lost world and taking the light of the gospel to the dark places
But just like Israel in the wilderness, we also have fashioned a golden calf for ourselves.
Like the religious leaders of Stephen’s day, many have an idea of god in their minds that doesn’t look anything like the God revealed in Scripture.
A god who accepts us as we are and would never expect there to be any change in us
A god who accepts us as we are and would never expect there to be any change in us
A god who would never expect us to get uncomfortable or step out of our comfort zones
A god who would never ask us to lay down our lives
A god who sits comfortably static in his building, waiting for us to come in for our weekly sacrifice of an hour of our time -
A god who in our mind always finds our offering of nearly inaudible, shy and reserved singing acceptable and appropriate for His glorious stature
A god who is content as long as we are maintaining the building and facilities - and along with that, the status quo
A god who is content as long as we maintain the traditions, and an exterior display of morality and church etiquette
Surely our god would not expect us to mingle with or eat with those filthy, unbelieving, gentiles - those immoral people who don’t even attend the temple on Sunday morning
No… we will just be satisfied to trust that by some whim they will come to church of their own accord…
and then we will give the preacher a supporting nod and thumbs up as he does the work of ministry...
… and hopefully does a good job of telling those dirty unbelievers to be more like us.
(and they keep their rowdy kids away from our tea cups)
And… may God have mercy on that soul who dares to challenge our traditions or religion!
The religious leaders of the day had a religion that was fixed on and revolved around the temple and the rules, …
and ignored or rejected the One who came to be the fulfillment of the Law and who has made his home in the hearts of His people
Are we more like them?
God is sovereign and working all things in history and in the world today to advance his purposes
Even Stephen’s death and the fierce persecution that followed served God’s purpose
Notice
Acts 1:8 ESV
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Acts 8:1 ESV
And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
Secondly, if you have recognised yourself as looking more like the religious leaders who stoned Stephen, rather than Stephen himself,
Know that this same Saul who approved of Stephen’s execution and ravaged the church, going from house to house dragging off men and women to prison
Would soon to be saved in a mighty and gracious way
God’s grace is enough
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