I confess that this is a play on words, but it is one that represents an important truth. The law of Moses was written on stone. The temple, too, was made of stone. In one sense, the Jews had made the law of Moses (as they interpreted it) and the temple an idol. Their “god” was a god of their making, rather than the One who made all things (Acts 4:24). They made stone (granite?) their “god.” Thus, they took God for granite, or perhaps we should say they took granite for their god.
In 1 Kings 21:1-24, we read how Ahab, prompted by his wife Jezebel, wrongly acquired a vineyard that belonged to Naboth. This vineyard was adjacent to Ahab’s palace in Jezreel, and so Ahab wanted it for a garden. Ahab offered a fair price. He was willing to pay cash or to trade for another piece of land. The problem was that the law forbade Naboth to sell his property, because the law required that possession must remain within his family. This way the land would remain evenly distributed among God’s people. Naboth was committed to obey the law, and thus he declined what otherwise would have been a generous offer.
Ahab was greatly depressed because he couldn’t have his garden. But Jezebel had a plan. If the law prohibited Ahab from having this property, she would twist the law in order to acquire it. In Ahab’s name, she privately instructed the elders and leaders of Naboth’s city to proclaim a fast and to set Naboth at the head of the people. The fast would give the appearance that something was wrong, and that the leaders were seeking God’s guidance to make it right. Following Jezebel’s orders, they seated two men by Naboth who would bear false testimony against him, accusing him of blasphemy against God and the king. Naboth, it would appear, was the source of Israel’s troubles, so they took him out and executed him. The murder of Naboth and the seizure of his property was carried out in the guise of upholding righteousness. What a horrible evil.
The prophet Elijah confronted Ahab and pronounced God’s judgment on him for this great evil. At the end of this account, we are given God’s assessment of Ahab and Jezebel:
25 (There had never been anyone like Ahab, who was firmly committed to doing evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel. 26 He was so wicked he worshiped the disgusting idols, just like the Amorites whom the Lord had driven out from before the Israelites.) (1 Kings 21:25-26, emphasis mine)2
These were some of Israel’s darkest days. Ahab and Jezebel hated Elijah the prophet and considered him their enemy. They sought to put him to death. It is easy to see why God’s judgment was not only deserved, but imminent.
Now consider the text before us in the New Testament Book of Acts – Acts 7:1-60. We are studying the trial of Stephen, his “sermon,” and his consequent execution by stoning. Stephen was a spiritual and highly respected man in the church at Jerusalem. He had just been chosen as a deacon, and the standard he met was unusually high:
3 But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 The proposal pleased the entire group, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch (Acts 6:3-5, emphasis mine).
As we noted in our previous lesson, God’s hand was upon Stephen in a very special way so that he, like the twelve apostles, was performing many great works. In addition, his preaching was so powerful that no one was able to successfully refute it:
8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke (Acts 6:8-10).
Stephen was a Greek-speaking Jew, and thus his ministry appears to have been primarily in the Greek-speaking synagogues. Since no one could successfully oppose him, his adversaries (better, the adversaries of the gospel) gave up their debate and took a different approach:
11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:11-14, emphasis mine).
I could not help but see the parallels between the death of Stephen in our text and the death of Naboth in 1 Kings 21. Both Stephen and Naboth were godly men who were determined to live according to God’s Word. Since no lawful means could be found to sway them, their adversaries stooped to accusing both of blasphemy. In both cases, false witnesses were employed, and the leaders were incited to execute the righteous, as though they were wicked.
The difference between these two events is also significant. The incident with Ahab, Jezebel, and Naboth took place in the northern kingdom of Israel. We are not surprised to read of such evil in Israel. But now, in our text in the Book of Acts, we are in Judah; more significantly, we are in Jerusalem. And those who orchestrate false testimony and the resulting execution of Stephen would appear to be devout Jews who are “defending the faith.” The incident in 1 Kings 21 describes one of the lowest points in Israel’s history. The incident in our text would indicate that things have never been worse in Jerusalem. No wonder judgment is imminent. It is this very judgment of which Jesus had spoken.3 And now He continues to speak of this judgment through Stephen.
This is one of the most powerful sermons in all of the Bible. It not only speaks to the Jews of Stephen’s day, but to each one of us as well. Let us listen well to these words, and ask the Spirit of God to illuminate our hearts and minds so that we may learn why they have been preserved for us.
In the beginning, it was charged that Stephen had spoken blasphemous words against Moses and also against God (Acts 6:11). This developed into the more specific accusation that he never ceased to speak against “this holy place and the law” (Acts 6:13). This is further explained as teaching that “Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:14). In other words, Stephen is accused of teaching what Jesus taught. And what Jesus taught, so far as Stephen’s accusers claimed, was that He would destroy the temple (with Jerusalem) and the customs which the Jews attributed to Moses (even though they were man-made traditions that violated the law of Moses).4
As we noted in our previous lesson, there was an element of truth in these accusations. Jesus did teach that Jerusalem would be destroyed, and the temple along with it:
41 Now when Jesus approached and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you had only known on this day, even you, the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and surround you and close in on you from every side. 44 They will demolish you – you and your children within your walls – and they will not leave within you one stone on top of another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Luke 19:41-44; see also Luke 13:34-35; Matthew 23:37—24:2; John 2:19-22).
The misrepresentation here is that Jesus posed an imminent threat to the well-being of Jerusalem and the temple. In His first earthly appearance, Jesus had not come to judge but to save. Jesus came as the promised Messiah, to bear the sins of His people, and thus to spare them from divine judgment, and to institute times of blessing. As Peter put it,
19 “Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you – that is, Jesus. 21 This one heaven must receive until the time all things are restored, which God declared from times long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:19-21).
Jesus came to turn people from their sins and thus to spare them from the horror of divine judgment. Judgment came upon Jerusalem because God’s people rejected their King (see Luke 19:41-44 and Acts 3:19-21 above). God would bring judgment upon His people because of their sin, because they would not receive the One who came to bear their judgment.
The second accusation against Stephen was that he continued to preach, as Jesus did, that the customs Moses gave them were to be set aside. It was true that “their customs,” which were wrongly attributed to Moses, would be set aside. But Jesus made it clear that His coming was to fulfill, not to abolish:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. 19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).
The Old Covenant was to be set aside and replaced by the New Covenant, but this was what God had already revealed through the Old Testament prophets (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-29). Nevertheless, Stephen’s opponents succeeded in convincing many of the Jewish people and their leaders that Stephen was a traitor, who needed to die. The Sanhedrin is summoned for the third trial thus far in Acts, and when it convened, the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these things true?” (Acts 7:1)
As one can quickly sense, Stephen’s sermon is hardly a defense as we know it. Stephen is not seeking to prove his innocence, but rather he is strongly indicting his accusers for their guilt. Stephen is the prosecutor, so to speak, and is not acting as an attorney for his own defense. Stephen dies because he proves his case.
2 So he replied, “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our forefather Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Go out from your country and from your relatives, and come to the land I will show you.’ 4 Then he went out from the country of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After his father died, God made him move to this country where you now live. 5 He did not give any of it to him for an inheritance, not even a foot of ground, yet God promised to give it to him as his possession, and to his descendants after him, even though Abraham as yet had no child. 6 But God spoke as follows: ‘Your descendants will be foreigners in a foreign country, whose citizens will enslave them and mistreat them for four hundred years. 7 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ said God, ‘and after these things they will come out of there and worship me in this place.’ 8 Then God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision, and so he became the father of Isaac and circumcised him when he was eight days old, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs” (Acts 7:2-8).
Initially, I looked at Stephen’s sermon as merely chronological in its structure. Thus, I was not surprised that he began with the call of Abram. After all, God’s purposes for Israel begin in the Book of Genesis with the call of Abraham and the Abrahamic Covenant. This is followed by Israel’s bondage in Egypt, the exodus, their time in the wilderness, and eventually their possession of the Promised Land. Now, as I look more carefully and seek to follow Stephen’s argument, I see that there is much more to this first paragraph which deals with Abraham, but more about this later in our message.
Here, as elsewhere in this sermon, Stephen does more than recite history, precisely as recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures. In some cases, Stephen actually adds information to what we find in the Old Testament. Let me illustrate this. From the account of the call of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that this call occurred while Abram was in Haran:
31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (the son of Haran), and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and with them he set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. When they came to Haran, they settled there. 32 The lifetime of Terah was 205 years, and he died in Haran. 1 Now the Lord said5 to Abram, “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. 2 Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name.” 4 So Abram left, just as the Lord had told him to do, and Lot went with him. (Now Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran.) 5 And Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they left for the land of Canaan. They entered the land of Canaan (Genesis 11:31—12:5, emphasis mine).
I somehow had the impression from the Genesis account that Abram’s father, Terah, took the initiative in leaving Mesopotamia and settling in Haran. And yet Stephen tells us that “the God of glory appeared to . . . . Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran” (Acts 7:2). I do not doubt that there may have been more than one call, one in Mesopotamia and another in Haran. But it is a different, an additional, piece of information, and Stephen makes something of it here.
The Jews of Stephen’s day seem to have concluded that the temple in Jerusalem was the only dwelling place of God. To speak against “this holy place,” then, was to blaspheme. It was as though God would no longer be present with men if Jerusalem and the temple were to be destroyed. Stephen will destroy this myth by reminding his accusers that God, the God of glory, appeared to His people at a number of other places besides “this holy place.” To begin with, He appeared to Abram in Mesopotamia. Next, as Genesis informs us, God spoke to Abram at Haran. Once again God instructed Abram to leave his family and his homeland and to journey to a land not yet revealed. The inference is clear here – and is clearly stated in Genesis 12:1-3 – that God would bless him in this place to which He would lead him. The point is that God’s presence and His power are not limited to, and dare not be restricted to, one place.
When Abram arrived in the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, he did not own so much as a foot of it, but God promised that He would give it to him as his possession, and to his descendants after him. Think of it. When God made this promise with Abram he had no son and no soil (Acts 7:5). Stephen then turns to a subsequent promise of God to Abram, a promise recorded in Genesis 15 (after Abram had believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness – Genesis 15:6). God informed Abram that his descendants would live in an unidentified foreign country, where they would be mistreated for 400 years, and after this He would bring them out to worship “in this place” (Acts 7:6-7). We know, as Stephen did, that this place of bondage was Egypt. We would have to conclude that God continued to care for His people, even during the days of their captivity. God’s purposes and promises were not limited to the borders of the Promised Land.6
I have come to see verse 8 as the key verse in this paragraph:
Then God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision, and so he became the father of Isaac and circumcised him when he was eight days old, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs (Acts 7:8, emphasis mine).
We need to remember how much the Jews of Jesus’ day made of Moses, the law, and circumcision. This remains a problem in the Book of Acts7 and elsewhere in the New Testament, especially in the Book of Galatians. The Mosaic Covenant was uppermost in their minds, and thus we see their emphasis on law-keeping and on preserving the customs of Moses. Stephen is not nearly as interested in the Mosaic Covenant as he is the Abrahamic Covenant. That is because the Abrahamic Covenant is fulfilled in the New Covenant, not in the Mosaic Covenant.8
Circumcision, which was so important to the Jews, was linked more to the Mosaic Covenant than to the Abrahamic Covenant.9 But Stephen is quite clear in our text, linking the “Covenant of Circumcision” to the Abrahamic Covenant. It is thus the Abrahamic Covenant which is dominant in the remainder of Stephen’s sermon. That is because this covenant promises God’s blessings by faith, and not by works, and it promises God’s blessings to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews.
If Stephen were to have stopped here, we would have the core of his argument. His opponents are upset because Stephen, like Jesus, emphasized the Abrahamic Covenant over the Mosaic Covenant. This is because salvation comes through the Abrahamic Covenant, not through the Mosaic Covenant.10 It all began with Abraham, Stephen is saying, and the covenant God made with Abraham. Circumcision is intertwined with that covenant. This is the primary covenant, and it is the basis for Israel’s hope, and that of the Gentiles as well. Obsession over the Mosaic Covenant misses the point, forgetting how it all began with the Abrahamic Covenant.
By the way, Stephen’s argument in these verses differs very little from what we read in the Book of Hebrews:
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, and he went out without understanding where he was going. 9 By faith he lived as a foreigner in the promised land as though it were a foreign country, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were fellow heirs of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith, even though Sarah herself was barren and he was too old, he received the ability to procreate, because he regarded the one who had given the promise to be trustworthy. 12 So in fact children were fathered by one man – and this one as good as dead – like the number of stars in the sky and like the innumerable grains of sand on the seashore. 13 These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. 14 For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they aspire to a better land, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:8-16).
Wherever Abraham was (in Mesopotamia, Haran, Canaan, Egypt, or Gerar), God was with him. Even when Abraham lived in the Promised Land, it was as a stranger and a pilgrim. Only hundreds of years after Abraham’s death did his descendants possess the land. Abraham’s blessings never came in his lifetime, but it didn’t matter because “the city” he looked for was a heavenly city, not an earthly one. Abraham was saved and blessed by faith, not by works, on the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant, and not on the basis of the Mosaic Covenant. Stephen’s opponents are jealously seeking to preserve a covenant that has been superseded. As Stephen’s argument unfolds, watch how this core argument is expanded.
9 The patriarchs, because they were jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt. But God was with him, 10 and rescued him from all his troubles, and granted him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11 Then a famine occurred throughout Egypt and Canaan, causing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. 12 So when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our ancestors there the first time. 13 On their second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers again, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 So Joseph sent a message and invited his father Jacob and all his relatives to come, seventy-five people in all. 15 So Jacob went down to Egypt and died there, along with our ancestors, 16 and their bones were later moved to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a certain sum of money from the sons of Hamor in Shechem (Acts 7:9-15).
Israel’s sojourn in Egypt comes as no surprise to us since God had already informed Abraham of this (Genesis 15:12-21; Acts 7:6-7). But now Stephen calls attention to how this came to pass. On the surface, it may appear to be “the luck of the draw” (accidental), but in reality it is the work of the sovereign hand of God. Note how Stephen expressed it: The patriarchs were jealous of Joseph and thus they sold him into Egypt – But God was with him. His point is that God was with Joseph in Egypt. He did not have to be in Canaan to be blessed or cared for by God. He not only survived in Egypt, he thrived there, being elevated to the second highest position in the land. Then a famine occurred (an “act of God”?), which providentially brought all of Joseph’s family to Egypt, where they were divinely preserved. While they were persecuted later on, they nevertheless prospered, becoming a great nation. When he died, Jacob’s bones were buried in Canaan, in the plot of land Abraham had purchased. They were yet to possess the land God had promised.
17 “But as the time drew near for God to fulfill the promise he had declared to Abraham, the people increased greatly in number in Egypt, 18 until another king who did not know about Joseph ruled over Egypt. 19 This was the one who exploited our people and was cruel to our ancestors, forcing them to abandon their infants so they would die. 20 At that time Moses was born, and he was beautiful to God. For three months he was brought up in his father’s house, 21 and when he had been abandoned, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 So Moses was trained in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words and deeds. 23 But when he was about forty years old, it entered his mind to visit his fellow countrymen the Israelites. 24 When he saw one of them being hurt unfairly, Moses came to his defense and avenged the person who was mistreated by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He thought his own people would understand that God was delivering them through him, but they did not understand. 26 The next day Moses saw two men fighting, and tried to make peace between them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why are you hurting one another?’ 27 But the man who was unfairly hurting his neighbor pushed Moses aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us? 28 You don’t want to kill me the way you killed the Egyptian yesterday, do you?’ 29 When the man said this, Moses fled and became a foreigner 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 desert of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and when he approached to investigate, there came the voice of the Lord, 32 ‘I am the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ Moses began to tremble and did not dare to look more closely. 33 But the Lord said to him, ‘Take the sandals off your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have certainly seen the suffering of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to rescue them. Now come, I will send you to Egypt.’ 35 This same Moses they had rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge?’ God sent as both ruler and deliverer through the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and miraculous signs in the land of Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers.’ 38 This is the man who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors, and he received living oracles to give to you. 39 Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him, but pushed him aside and turned back to Egypt in their hearts, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go in front of us, for this Moses, who led us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him!’ 41 At that time they made an idol in the form of a calf, brought a sacrifice to the idol, and began rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: ‘It was not to me that you offered slain animals and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, house of Israel? 43 But you took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rephan, the images you made to worship, but I will deport you beyond Babylon’” (Acts 7:17-43).
We will certainly not be able to deal extensively with this text, but remember that this is what the Sanhedrin heard, and they certainly got the point. In other words, the text speaks for itself and doesn’t need a lot of explaining.
Notice how this section begins with another reference to the Abrahamic Covenant, which Stephen first mentioned (Acts 7:2-8) as the foundation for his sermon:
“But as the time drew near for God to fulfill the promise he had declared to Abraham, the people increased greatly in number in Egypt” (Acts 7:17, emphasis mine).
The events described in this section are introduced as being a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. The exodus of Israel out of Egypt is viewed by Stephen in the light of the Abrahamic Covenant more than in terms of the Mosaic Covenant.
It was during the time when the Israelites were being mistreated that Moses was born. He was a child who was “beautiful to God” (Acts 7:20). Now every child is beautiful to his or her parents, but this child was beautiful to God – God took pleasure in Moses. For three months, the life of Moses was spared, in disobedience to the command of Pharaoh:
Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “All sons that are born you must throw into the river, but all daughters you may let live” (Exodus 1:22).
At this age, it would seem that Moses’ parents could no longer keep his existence a secret, and so they “put him out to die” (Acts 7:21).11 I think Stephen wants his audience to know that Moses was rejected by his own people on more than one occasion. First, he is rejected by his family, just as Jesus was initially rejected by his siblings.12
Next, Moses was rejected by those whom he sought to save (Acts 7:23-29). Moses grew up in the household of Pharaoh, and he learned the ways and the wisdom of the Egyptians. He learned so well that Stephen tells us he was “powerful in his words and deeds.”13 When he slew an Egyptian to rescue an Israelite, this became known to others. The next day Moses sought to intercede between two Israelites, but the guilty Israelite rebuffed him, saying, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” (Acts 7:27)
Knowing that his crime was now public knowledge, Moses fled to Midian, where he lived as a foreigner. He married and had two sons there. After 40 years, the Lord appeared to him in the burning bush in the desert of Mount Sinai. Moses was curious at the sight of the burning bush and drew closer. It was then that God spoke to him:
32 ‘I am the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ Moses began to tremble and did not dare to look more closely. 33 But the Lord said to him, ‘Take the sandals off your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Acts 7:32-33, emphasis mine).
Several things are significant about these words. First, God is speaking to Moses while he is in the desert of Mount Sinai. Far from Jerusalem, God is there, and He is speaking with Moses. Second, this is not “the holy land,” or, as the Jews of Stephen’s day would say, “this holy place,” and yet God informs Moses that the ground on which he is standing is “holy ground.” This is a holy place, even if not in the Holy Land. Third, God identifies Himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In other words, God identifies Himself to Moses in relation to the Abrahamic Covenant, before the Mosaic Covenant has even come into being.
When Moses first sought to be a deliverer for his people, he was rudely rejected (“Who made you a ruler and judge over us?”). Now it is God Himself who declares Moses to be the deliverer. He became both the ruler and the deliverer of this people through the hand of God, which became evident by the signs and wonders he performed in the land of Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness (Acts 7:35-36).
This Moses, who was initially rejected but who God raised up as ruler and deliverer, spoke of the One who would come after him:
“This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers’” (Acts 7:37).14
These words should sound familiar to the reader of Acts, for Peter has cited them in chapter 3:
“Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must obey him in everything he tells you’” (Acts 3:22).
Peter then followed up with this statement in chapter 5:
30 “The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, whom you seized and killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:30-31).
Stephen was accused of speaking against Moses and against God (Acts 6:11), and yet Stephen spoke of Jesus, of whom Moses also spoke. How was Jesus “a prophet like Moses”? In the context of Stephen’s sermon, he was rejected by his people, and yet he was raised to the position of ruler and deliverer by God. When it came to Moses, the people were wrong about him, and God exalted him, overruling their rejection of him. When it came to Jesus (Stephen would surely have us infer), the Israelites rejected Him, but God raised Him up as Leader and Savior, once again overruling the rejection of the people.
The problem was not with the leader (Moses or Jesus of Nazareth), but with the people. That is what Stephen now calls to the attention of his accusers:
38 “This is the man who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors, and he received living oracles to give to you. 39 Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him, but pushed him aside and turned back to Egypt in their hearts, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go in front of us, for this Moses, who led us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him!’ 41 At that time they made an idol in the form of a calf, brought a sacrifice to the idol, and began rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: ‘It was not to me that you offered slain animals and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, house of Israel? 43 But you took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rephan, the images you made to worship, but I will deport you beyond Babylon’” (Acts 7:38-43).
Think of who Moses was. God has spared his life as a child. God was with him in Egypt and then in the land of Midian. But God spoke with Moses at the burning bush, and He spoke to him on Mount Sinai. He performed signs and wonders and led the Israelites out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness, on the way to Canaan. In spite of all the indications that God was with Moses, the people rejected him. In spite of the fact that they drew near to the Promised Land, their hearts were still in Egypt.
In the end, they were just idolaters. When Moses was out of sight (he was on the mountain, getting the law written on stone tablets), the people decided they wanted a “god” they could see and touch, so they instructed Aaron to fashion a golden calf for them, which they would worship. And this was but one example, for God gave the Israelites over to their desires. Throughout their years in the wilderness, in spite of the many evidences of God’s care for His people, the Israelites worshipped the idols they (or their forefathers) had served in the past.
I should point out that in this portion of his sermon, Stephen has not only given us a review of Israel’s history from the call of Abraham to their journeys in the wilderness, he has also cited the Old Testament prophet Amos (Amos 5:25-27 in Acts 7:42-43). The law and the prophets bore witness to the coming of Jesus, the Christ, as they also testified to the sin and rebellion of God’s people, Israel.
Moses has been a prominent personality in our text, but little is made of the Mosaic Covenant. Instead, much has been made of the Abrahamic Covenant. As popular as Moses would appear to be among the Jews of Stephen’s day, the fact is that Moses was rejected by the Israelites of his own day. What people really wanted was a “god” that was the creation of their own hands, a “god” they could take with them, a “god” that would do their bidding.
As prominent as Jerusalem and the temple were in the thinking of Stephen’s opponents, most of Israel’s history (that Stephen cites) takes place outside the land. This, in fact, is where the hearts of the Israelites were. Their hearts were in Egypt (Acts 7:39), and their gods were foreign deities (Acts 7:42-43). And this Moses, whom they so greatly revered, never set foot in “the Holy Land.” He only saw it from a distance, at the time of his death. Somebody is missing the point. What was so important to Stephen’s accusers was not important to the writers of the Old Testament.
One last observation from verse 43:
“But you took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rephan, the images you made to worship, but I will deport you beyond Babylon’” (Acts 7:43, emphasis mine).
The prophet Amos wrote to those living in the northern kingdom, warning them of God’s coming judgment because of their idolatry, idolatry like that of their forefathers in the wilderness. It was due to their sin that God would deport them beyond Babylon. They would be thrust out of the land, and it would be because of their sin and their resistance to the Word of God spoken through the prophets. The temple was Israel’s idol. They assumed that so long as the temple was with them, God was with them. No wonder they thought of speaking of the destruction of the temple as blasphemy. The temple would be destroyed, along with Jerusalem, because the true temple (Jesus) had come to Jerusalem, and they had sought to destroy Him.
44 “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness, just as God who spoke to Moses ordered him to make it according to the design he had seen. 45 Our ancestors received possession of it and brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors, until the time of David. 46 He found favor with God and asked that he could find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. 47 But Solomon built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands, as the prophet says, 49 ‘Heaven is my throne, and earth is the footstool for my feet. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is my resting place? 50 Did my hand not make all these things?’” (Acts 7:44-50)
Unbelieving Jews could not stand to hear anything about the coming destruction of the temple. As the Law of Moses (or rather the traditions the Jews had made up themselves and attributed to Moses) had become an idol to the Hellenistic, Greek-speaking Jews who opposed Stephen, so had the temple. They assumed that to have the temple was to have the assurance of God’s presence among them and His blessings.15
Stephen’s adversaries greatly revered the temple, but Israel’s history does not bear out their disproportionate sense of adoration. When God manifested His presence among His people, He chose to do so by means of the tabernacle. God gave the plans to Moses while Israel was in the wilderness, and the tabernacle was constructed in exacting compliance to these plans. They brought the tabernacle with them into the Promised Land. It was with them when Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan and possessed the land. This was the case until the time of David. It was David’s idea, not God’s, to build a temple, and God granted his request, with the exception that Solomon would be the one to build it.
“Well enough,” Stephen would seem to say, “David purposed to build a temple, but one must be careful not to give the temple undue reverence and devotion.”16 Stephen now cites the prophet Isaiah:
49 ‘Heaven is my throne,
and earth is the footstool for my feet.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is my resting place?
50 Did my hand not make all these things?’”
(Acts 7:49-50, citing Isaiah 66:1-2)
God is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. The whole earth is His footstool. How, then, can anyone suppose that any temple made with human hands can do Him justice? How can anyone assume that it can contain God? The temple was a beautiful work of the hands of man, and it had great spiritual significance, but God no long dwelled in it. As our Lord Jesus told the woman at the well, worship is not a matter of finding the right place, but of finding the right person (John 4:20-26). They have an exaggerated view of the importance of the temple.
51 “You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did! 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold long ago the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become! 53 You received the law by decrees given by angels, but you did not obey it.”
Stephen is certainly not pleading for his life here. He is pressing charges against his accusers, for it is they who have blasphemed God. It is they (and their ancestors) who have rebelled against Moses and the prophets. They are a stubborn people, just as God had often said of them before:
6 Understand, therefore, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is about to give you this good land as a possession, for you are a stubborn people! 7 Remember – don’t ever forget – how you provoked the Lord your God in the desert; from the time you left the land of Egypt until you came to this place you were constantly rebelling against him. 8 At Horeb you provoked him and he was angry enough with you to destroy you. 9 When I went up the mountain to receive the stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant that the Lord made with you, I remained there forty days and nights, eating and drinking nothing. 10 The Lord gave me the two stone tablets, written by the very finger of God, and on them was everything he said to you at the mountain from the midst of the fire at the time of that assembly. 11 Now at the end of the forty days and nights the Lord presented me with the two stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant. 12 And he said to me, “Get up, go down at once from here because your people whom you brought out of Egypt have sinned! They have quickly turned from the way I commanded them and have made for themselves a cast metal image.” 13 Moreover, he said to me, “I have taken note of these people; they are a stubborn lot! (Deuteronomy 9:6-13; see also Exodus 32:9; 33:3)
How painful it must have been for those who made so much of their circumcision to hear Stephen accuse them of being uncircumcised in their hearts and ears (Acts 7:51). When they heard Stephen’s words, they covered their ears (Acts 7:57). The Spirit of God had been in Israel’s midst in the past, but He was even more dramatically present in Jesus, and now in His apostles. To resist Jesus and the apostles was thus to resist the Holy Spirit, and thus to identify themselves with their rebellious ancestors. Their ancestors persecuted the prophets of old, who foretold the coming of the Righteous One (Acts 7:52). Now that He, the Righteous One, has come, Stephen’s adversaries have betrayed and murdered Him. Those who talk so proudly about keeping the law, given by angels, have been shown to be disobedient to it. They murdered the only One who ever met the demands of the Law. It is not Stephen who is guilty; it is his accusers! The only thing you can say for them is that they are consistent – consistently disobedient to God.
54 When they heard these things, they became furious and ground their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked intently toward heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look!” he said. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, shouting out with a loud voice, and rushed at him with one intent. 58 When they had driven him out of the city, they began to stone him, and the witnesses laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They continued to stone Stephen while he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” When he had said this, he died (Acts 7:54-60).
Can you imagine what this must have looked like from Stephen’s vantage point? Over the past 30 years, I have looked into the faces of many as I have preached. Occasionally, there will be someone whose head nods (or worse). I can understand that. Some will be listening intently, and others may be distracted. Stephen’s audience was the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish court in the land. These men were the religious and political giants of the land. No doubt they were all about maintaining appearances (compare Matthew 23:5-7), so they would probably dress in a very distinguished manner and sit with great dignity and composure. This may have been the way things happened on other days, but not today! This audience must have been looking straight at Stephen. His message was not subtle; it was clear, condemning, and, worse yet, irrefutable (see Acts 6:10). There was no way to engage in debate. These men gave way to savage and primitive impulses. They were “cut to the quick.”17 They gnashed their teeth at Stephen.18 Talk about “body language.” It didn’t take great insight to discern that this crowd wanted blood, Stephen’s blood.
Stephen had to know what lay ahead for him. Luke tells us what enabled Stephen to continue to stand fast, dying in a way that underscored the truth of his faith and of his sermon. Full of the Spirit, Stephen looked into heaven, which opened for him, showing him what lay ahead. He beheld the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.19
Because of modern technology, we have been confronted by the horrible images of hostages, pleading for their lives as they face death at the hands of hooded terrorists. No doubt this is precisely the picture the terrorists wanted us to see. The Sanhedrin would have no such pleasure; indeed it would be quite the opposite. Stephen told his executioners what he saw as he looked up into heaven: “Look!” he said. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Luke 7:56)
This was more than they could take. Stephen beholds the Son of Man – Jesus of Nazareth, whom they crucified – standing at God’s right hand, in heaven. The One they rejected and killed is alive, and God the Father has made Him both “ruler and deliverer” (Acts 7:35). Stephen, whom they accused of blaspheming God, is beholding God, who awaits his entrance into his eternal reward. Stephen does not cower in fear, or plead for his life. He will die beholding the face of God. I have to believe that his face was still glowing (see Acts 6:15), like that of Moses (see Exodus 34:29-35). What a powerful way to underscore the truth of Stephen’s sermon.
This was the last straw for the Sanhedrin. They could stand it no more. They covered their ears and rushed at him, at one heart and mind with all the others, whose intent was to silence Stephen as quickly as possible. After driving him out of the city, they stoned him.
Here, Luke chooses to introduce us to Paul (or, more precisely, Saul). No doubt he was among those who debated with Stephen (Acts 6:9ff.). He might even have led the opposition to Stephen. He was probably among those who heard Stephen’s sermon preached to the Sanhedrin. He was certainly present at Stephen’s execution (or should we say his “murder”). Saul watched the cloaks of those who laid them aside to stone Stephen (Acts 7:58). I can imagine that this scene, along with Stephen’s sermon, was permanently embedded in Saul’s mind, never to be forgotten.
Luke gives Stephen the last word. One cannot miss the similarities between Stephen’s words at his death and those of our Lord at the time of His death:
Jesus: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46)
Stephen: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” (Acts 7:59)
Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).20
Stephen: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60)
I love Luke’s final words, describing what had to be a horrible, violent death: “And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60). I am of the persuasion that the external (visible) aspects of one’s death are not entirely synonymous with the spiritual realities of one’s departure from this life. I base this upon texts such as 2 Kings 2:11; 2 Kings 13:14; and Luke 16:22. In Luke 16, for example, Lazarus seems to die a miserable death. His last days were filled with misery. After his death, his body may even have been unceremoniously cast into the garbage dump, without being properly buried. The rich man is given all the comforts his money can provide.21 But something more is going on, beyond human view. Lazarus is transported to Abraham’s bosom by angels, but the rich man finds himself in torment. When Stephen died, I believe that God provided an exit worthy of a courageous martyr, and thus we are told he simply fell asleep. What a way to go, proclaiming Jesus to his very last breath.
Reading his final words, I could not help but conclude that Stephen’s death was much like that of our Lord. Both were executed for things they did not do, convicted on the basis of false charges. Both committed their spirit to God. Both asked God’s forgiveness for those who executed them. Aside from the fact that Jesus alone died as a sinless substitute, bearing the guilt and punishment for our sins, there is another great difference. Stephen died while looking into heaven, beholding heaven’s approval. When Jesus died, He was at that moment forsaken by God, because He bore our sin and guilt. No wonder we read,
At about three o’clock Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
What a horrid death that would have been. No wonder our Lord shed great drops of blood as He agonized in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44). That is the death that each of us deserves for our sin, a death that Jesus endured in our place.
As we conclude this lesson, consider some of the ways that this text speaks to us.
First, when Stephen stands before the Sanhedrin, it is as though our Lord were on trial a second time. One of my favorite commentators on the Book of Acts observed that Stephen’s sermon in our text was quite different from the earlier sermons of Peter in Acts. Specifically, he observed that Stephen hardly mentioned Jesus, while Peter spoke plainly of Him. The more I have thought about this text, the more I am inclined to differ with this assessment. I believe that the reason we hardly find Jesus mentioned is that while Peter spoke of Jesus, Stephen spoke for Jesus. The last two verses of chapter 7 make this point clearly enough to convince me at least. Stephen was being accused of teaching what Jesus taught, and by and large, I believe this to be correct.
I think this overlapping of Jesus’ and Stephen’s teaching may be significant. Let me try to explain why. I believe that Joseph’s dealings with his brothers in Genesis 42-45 help us understand the concept of repentance. To make a long story short, Joseph virtually reconstructed the circumstances of his own betrayal by his brothers. Now, rather than having the opportunity to make Joseph a slave, his brothers had the opportunity to make Benjamin a slave. At the beginning of Joseph’s dealings with his brothers,22 it was obvious that they regretted their cruelty to Joseph (Genesis 42:21-22). But regret is not the same as repentance. It was only after Joseph’s brothers faced the same temptation (to forsake their youngest brother and thus make him a slave) and responded differently23 that Joseph recognized true repentance in his brothers, and thereafter disclosed his identity to his brothers.
From the story of Joseph, we may derive this simple definition of repentance:
TRUE REPENTANCE IS DOING IT DIFFERENTLY WHEN GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO RELIVE THE SITUATION.
I am suggesting that in Stephen, God offers the Sanhedrin a second chance. When he stands on trial before the Sanhedrin, he is being accused of the very things which were the real reasons for Jesus’ rejection and execution by the Jewish religious leaders. This was their golden opportunity to confess their sin with regard to Jesus, and to acknowledge Him as Israel’s Messiah. Instead, they even more strongly rejected the gospel. They turned into primitive savages, becoming like a pack of wolves. And in so doing, they reaffirmed their sin and their guilt in rejecting and crucifying Jesus. This was a dark day indeed for Israel’s religious leaders. The irony of all this is that because they rejected Jesus once again (so to speak), they not only confirmed their guilt; they brought on the very destruction they opposed in the preaching of Jesus and the apostles.
In the early verses of chapter 8, we read that the death of Stephen triggered a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem. I have always looked at this in a positive light. The death of Stephen brought about the persecution of the church. The persecution of the church brought about the scattering of the church to “all Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). Thus, God was fulfilling the Great Commission as the gospel was being spread abroad. This is a very positive message.
But there is a dark side to this that I had previously overlooked. The church is scattered, leaving Jerusalem with a mere handful of believers. Only the apostles remain behind (Acts 8:1). Never again will we read encouraging reports about a large number of conversions in Jerusalem and of phenomenal growth in the church. When the church fled from Jerusalem, it was something like Noah and his family entering the ark, or like Lot and his family fleeing from Sodom and Gomorrah – it closed the door to repentance and salvation and opened the door for God’s judgment to fall upon this wicked city. What a tragedy for the great city of Jerusalem to be forsaken by God’s people. Jerusalem’s Day of Judgment was surely drawing near, even as they killed Stephen for warning them about it.
Second, I believe that the death of Stephen had a profound impact on Saul (Paul), one that served to prepare him for his day of salvation, and more. We know that Stephen’s preaching was so powerful and persuasive that no one could successfully refute it – even Saul (who I believe engaged in the debate with Stephen).24 I believe that Stephen’s sermon haunted Saul, until the day of his conversion.
I am even tempted to speculate further that Stephen’s sermon provided the rough outline for Paul’s later theology, after his conversion. As I was reading in F. F. Bruce’s commentary on the Book of Acts,25 I noticed he suggested that there are some strong similarities between the teaching and theology of the Book of Hebrews and Stephen’s sermon. Stephen’s sermon suggests that his thinking was ahead of its time – farther, for example, than Peter’s theology at this point in time.26 If Paul were the author of the Book of Hebrews (as I am tempted to think), then it would not be surprising to find Stephen’s theology (as found in his sermon) played out in greater detail in Hebrews. I cannot help but think of Paul as Stephen’s successor. Paul finished what Stephen started.
One more thing occurred to me regarding the relationship between Stephen and Saul/Paul. The next person (in Acts) to stand before the Sanhedrin is Paul. How different his trial turned out:
1 Paul looked directly at the council and said, “Brothers, I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God to this day.” 2 At that the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit there judging me according to the law, and in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” 4 Those standing near him said, “Do you dare insult God’s high priest?” 5 Paul replied, “I did not realize, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You must not speak evil about a ruler of your people.’” 6 Then when Paul noticed that part of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, he shouted out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead!” 7 When he said this, an argument began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.) 9 There was a great commotion, and some experts in the law from the party of the Pharisees stood up and protested strongly, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” 10 When the argument became so great the commanding officer feared that they would tear Paul to pieces, he ordered the detachment to go down, take him away from them by force, and bring him into the barracks (Acts 23:1-10).
Stephen stood before the Sanhedrin, no doubt knowing that they wanted blood. He did not hold back; instead he delivered a blistering indictment against his accusers, which led to his death. Paul likewise later stood before the Sanhedrin. He recognized that he would not receive a fair trial either (like Stephen). He may even have discerned that they fully intended to execute him, as they had killed Stephen. Paul identifies himself as a Pharisee and causes the members of the Sanhedrin to turn on one another, like a pack of angry dogs. This turns out to be Paul’s deliverance, for the trial is aborted by the violence Paul’s words triggered.
I am not faulting Paul at all. I believe that Stephen sensed that his mission was accomplished, and that he would most glorify God by speaking plainly and by dying well. That he did. I believe that Paul realized his mission (as described in Acts 9:15-16) was not yet fulfilled. Thus, he responded in a way that gave him additional days to fulfill his calling. He, too, would die a martyr’s death, but later. This leads me to my next point, the sovereignty of God.
Third, we are once again reminded that God is sovereign in this world and over His church. God sovereignly purposes the death of Stephen, while He will spare Paul when he stands before the Sanhedrin (see above). Some of the Greek-speaking Jews seek to silence the gospel by stoning Stephen, but the end result is that the gospel is proclaimed before the Sanhedrin, and now by the scattering of the church, it is proclaimed world-wide. Greek-speaking Jews oppose the gospel, yet their opposition only serves to spread the gospel abroad to Greek-speaking people. The very thing these enemies of the gospel oppose, they end up inadvertently promoting. God uses those who obey Him to advance His gospel – men like Peter and Barnabas and Stephen. Likewise, God uses those who oppose Him to advance His gospel – men like Pharaoh of old, like Judas, and like these Greek-speaking Jews. The Book of Acts is the record of God’s sovereign work through His church, and through those who oppose His church. As our Lord will later say to Saul, “It is futile to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14).
Fourth, we should learn from Stephen’s knowledge and use of the Old Testament Scriptures. We should learn from Stephen the value of history and its lessons for later generations. The Bible frequently takes us back to “ancient history” to teach us important lessons (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 9:8-10). From Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we learn of man’s sin and of God’s judgment on sinners (see, for example, 2 Peter 2:1-9). Nehemiah 9 and Daniel 9 review Israel’s history as a reminder of this nation’s sins. Psalm 78 is a review of history to recall the sinfulness of man and the faithfulness of God. Paul turns to Old Testament history to instruct the Corinthian saints about the dangers of self-indulgence (1 Corinthians 10:1-13).
We live in a day when history is not merely disdained; it is rewritten to justify crooked thinking and rotten living. We should learn from history so that we do not perpetuate the sins of the past. Let us learn from Stephen the value of history.
Beyond this, we learn from Stephen the difference between “camels” and “gnats.” Few people today preach the way Stephen did, using large portions of Scripture and drawing from them the overall, dominant themes. As a preacher I knew used to say of many other preachers, “They go down deeper and stay down longer than anyone I know.” Details are important at times, but we sometimes tend to focus on the minute details of biblical texts, rather than on the broad, sweeping themes of Scripture. How many of us can take a theme and trace it through the Scriptures as Stephen has done? Our devotional books dwell on a verse of Scripture, and sometimes less. Our daily Bible readings (even systematic Bible reading) are scattered across the Old Testament, the Book of Psalms, and a New Testament text. Why not read larger doses of Scripture, and seek to discern the broader themes of the Scriptures? Why not work at tracing themes and doctrines through the Scriptures? We need the “Vitamin C” approach to the Scriptures – we need massive doses, not a dab here and a dab there.27
Fifth, our text encourages missions. You may wonder how a passage that ends in the murder of a Christian can encourage anyone to consider missions as a calling. It really does, however. The principle which Stephen was seeking to demonstrate from Old Testament history is that God is not restricted to a particular place. Stephen reminded his listeners that God was with Abram in Mesopotamia, in Haran, in Egypt, and in Canaan. God was with Moses in Egypt, in Midian, and in the wilderness. Thus, Abram was able to leave his homeland and family and depart for an unnamed destination. Wherever a believer may be, God is with him:
7 Where can I go to escape your spirit?
Where can I flee to escape your presence?
8 If I were to ascend to heaven, you would be there.
If I were to sprawl out in Sheol, there you would be.
9 If I were to fly away on the wings of the dawn,
and settle down on the other side of the sea,
10 even there your hand would guide me,
your right hand would grab hold of me (Psalm 139:7-10).
Men and women, we can be assured of God’s presence, power, and protection wherever His will takes us. Parents, we can release our children to serve God wherever He may lead, knowing that God is with them. God’s presence is not limited to any one place; He is with His people wherever they may be. Now here is a truth that inspires those who would seek to serve God in distant or remote places. This leads to our next point.
Sixth, our text informs us that martyrdom can glorify God, build up the church, and can be a blessing and a privilege to those who die well for the Lord Jesus. Tertullian once said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Luke would surely agree with this statement. Stephen’s martyrdom launched an ever expanding missionary movement. The gospel spread from Jerusalem to “all Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.” To follow up on our last point, God is not only with us wherever we are on earth. He will also be with us in death, to take us to heaven:
4 Even when I must walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff reassure me.
5 You prepare a feast before me in plain sight of my enemies.
You refresh my head with oil;
my cup is completely full.
6 Surely your goodness and faithfulness will pursue me all my days,
and I will live in the Lord’s house for the rest of my life (Psalm 23:4-6).
23 Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You hold me by my right hand.
24 You will guide me with Your counsel,
And afterward receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.
26 My flesh and my heart fail;
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:23-26, NKJV).
Not long ago we prayed for missionaries who were returning to a dangerous part of the world. As we were preparing to pray, I called attention to these verses in Philippians 1:
19 For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 20 My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether I live or die. 21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain (Philippians 1:19-21, emphasis mine).
I don’t think that Paul is asking the Philippians to pray for his safety or for a life free from suffering and persecution. Paul’s desire is to glorify God by advancing the gospel, whether this is by his life, or by his death. Paul does not dread death; he dreads living – or dying – in a way that would dishonor the Savior. Seeing Stephen’s entrance into heaven, looking into the face of His Lord, who could wish some other fate upon Stephen?
I was at a lunch some time ago with a man who is in charge of a ministry where missionaries are in grave danger. Someone suggested that there might be ways to proclaim the gospel that would minimize the risk of martyrdom. This man hesitated, and then replied that he had just told those serving under him that what the cause of Christ might need is a few more martyrs.
I don’t remember exactly when or where he said it, but I recall John Piper saying, “There is no closed country to those who are willing to die for the sake of the gospel.” Once one is committed to die (if need be) for the cause of Christ, there is nothing that can hold him (or her) back. In some parts of the world where I have ministered, missionaries seem to be the first to leave when the going gets tough. “Safety first!” seems to be the motto. That was not Stephen’s motto. He faithfully proclaimed the truth of God’s Word, knowing it would likely lead to his death. But what a triumphant death it was, even as our Lord’s death was triumphant. The same faith that enabled Abram to leave his homeland and his relatives and go to an unknown country, the same faith that enabled Abraham to offer up his only son (if need be), is the faith that enables us to live dangerously for the sake of our Lord, whose death ended once and for all the fear of death for those who trust in Him:
14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), 15 and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).
35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we encounter death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us! 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35-39).
55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! 58 So then, dear brothers and sisters, be firm. Do not be moved! Always be outstanding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:55-58).
6 Therefore we are always full of courage, and we know that as long as we are alive here on earth we are absent from the Lord – 7 for we live by faith, not by sight. 8 Thus we are full of courage and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So then whether we are alive or away, we make it our ambition to please him (2 Corinthians 5:6-9).
1 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 12 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on January 22, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
3 See, for example, Luke 13:34-35; 19:41-44.
4 See Matthew 15:1-9.
5 Interestingly, the KJV, NKJV, NIV and others render it something like this: “Now the Lord had said . . . .” In this way, they have made the reading conform to what Stephen said in Acts 7.
6 Even Abram foolishly reasoned this way, supposing that God’s protection was only good within the borders of the land He had promised. When Abraham sojourned in Gerar, he once again misrepresented his wife Sarah as his sister. When Abimelech took Sarah, God revealed to him that Sarah was Abraham’s wife. Abraham excused his actions by claiming that he didn’t feel safe in that place. He said he thought there was “no fear of God” in that place (Genesis 20:11, NASB), which is just another way of saying he thought God would not protect him there. And yet God protected Abraham and Sarah, both in Egypt and in Gerar.
7 We will get to this in Acts 15.
8 Jesus fulfilled the Old Covenant as well (Matthew 5:17-19), but only so that He could establish the New Covenant, which was far superior. The Book of Hebrews takes up this matter in much greater detail.
9 See, for example, Acts 15:1.
10 See Galatians 3.
11 Here is another of Stephen’s insights into the Old Testament account of Moses, which is not clearly stated in Exodus 1 and 2. We know that Pharaoh ordered the Israelites to kill their boy babies by casting them into the Nile (Exodus 1:22; Acts 7:19). Moses’ parents delayed as long as they could, and finally complied with Pharaoh’s orders – except that they cast Moses into the Nile in a waterproof basket. Nevertheless, Stephen makes it clear that the normal consequence of this would be the child’s death. It is not so clear in the Exodus account (Exodus 2:1-4). If his parents had not cast him into the Nile, an Egyptian most certainly would have, but God had other plans.
12 See John 7:1-5.
13 This additional information helps to put Moses’ self-deprecating remarks (Exodus 3 and 4) in perspective. He was not as poor in speech as he indicated, unless he is saying something like: “Look, I haven’t been to Egypt or spoken Egyptian for 40 years, and my Egyptian has gotten pretty rusty.”
14 Take note that Peter made a similar reference to this statement of Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15).
15 This is nothing new. The same thing happened with the brazen serpent (2 Kings 18:4) and also with the ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 4:1-6).
16 One must keep in mind the fact that Solomon’s temple was destroyed (2 Kings 25:8-17). This is really Herod’s temple (see John 2:20), which makes it a lot less glorious.
17 I prefer this rendering by the NASB (“cut to the heart,” KJV). It is the same expression that we find in Acts 5:33, except no one (like Gamaliel) attempts to curb the rage of the Sanhedrin this time.
18 A. T. Robertson likens this to a pack of wolves. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (electronic edition via BibleWorks 6), en loc.
19 Much has been made of the fact that Stephen saw the Lord Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Normally, when reference is made to Jesus being at the Father’s right hand, He is sitting. This is the only place where Jesus is specifically said to be standing at the Father’s right hand. Perhaps Jesus is standing because He is ready to take action, either welcoming Stephen or judging those who will kill him. Some think it is a way of honoring Stephen and his courageous entrance into heaven. We can only speculate.
20 The NET Bible indicates that some manuscripts omit this statement. My inclination is to accept it.
21 See Psalm 73:4-5.
22 You will recall that Joseph disguised himself so that they did not recognize him, though he surely recognized them.
23 Earlier, in Genesis 37:24-27, it was Judah who proposed to his brothers that they sell Joseph into slavery. Now, in Genesis 44:18-34, it is Judah who pleads with Joseph for Benjamin’s release, offering himself instead.
24 In Acts 6:9, we are told that some from . . . Cilicia . . . opposed Stephen. Tarsus was a city of Cilicia (Acts 21:39), and we know Paul was present at Stephen’s death (Acts 8:1-3).
25 F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 132.
26 Remember that Peter was a native Hebraic Jew while Stephen was a Greek-speaking Jew. Also, Peter had some hard lessons yet to learn, as we see in Acts 10 and 11. Stephen’s thinking seems to be more advanced than Peter’s, especially when it came to the expansion of the church to Gentiles.
27 When I preached this message, I wrongly referred to the “Burma Shave approach: A little dab ‘ll do ya.” I was quickly corrected after the message. This was a Brillcream slogan, not a Burma Shave slogan. Regardless, little dabs of Scripture will not do us as well as large doses.