11. The Stoning of Stephen (Acts 6:8-8:1)
I have a confession. I feel a little bit like those two nuns in the “Sound of Music.” You remember, when the Von Trapp family was trying to get away from the Nazi’s and the two nuns helped them by stealing the distributor cap and wires from their cars. The nuns said something like, “Mother Superior, we have sinned,” as they held up the wires which they had “borrowed.”
Well I too have a confession. It was with great conviction last week that I taught on the first seven verses of Acts 6. One of the points which I tried to make was the priority of the preaching of the Word of God for the apostles. The apostles informed the church that it was not right that they neglect the Word of God and prayer in order to wait tables. It was a good point. I still believe it—but that is where my confession comes.
You see, for several weeks now I have been trying to complete the demolition of the little white house our church recently purchased. The demolition has all been done by hand, with the help of some of the men. Foul weather, a bad back, and some other problems has greatly hindered our work. This week, one of the men sent out a bulldozer, and a driver, to finish the job. The first part of the week I spent standing nearby, signaling to Oscar, the driver, what I wanted him to do. The last part of the week, I got to do what I really wanted to—drive the dozer myself. It was such great pleasure. If the dozer had not broken down, you would have known it from this message. But the truth of the matter is that I didn’t practice this week what I preached last week. Pushing stumps, for a time, took priority over preaching.
Our text for this week takes up where we left off in chapter 6. Our passage is indeed a large portion of Scripture, but because it is to be understood as a whole, and not merely in parts, I have decided to deal with it in one sermon. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, and so we shall endeavor to work through the text in its entirety. You will, of course, recognize that we are not able to go into great detail. I encourage you to make this text a matter of careful study. You will not be disappointed in the results.
The Structure of our Text
The structure of our text is simple and clear-cut and may be outlined as follows:
- The Setting 6:8—7:1
- The Sermon 7:2—7:53
- The Stoning 7:54—8:1a
- The Scattering 8:1b - 8:4ff.
Stephen has already been introduced in the first seven verses of chapter 6. The setting for Stephen’s arrest (if one could dignify his being “dragged off” by calling it an arrest), trial, and execution, is given to us in the remaining verses of chapter 6 (6:8-15) and the first verse of chapter 7. Stephen’s sermon is recorded in
7:2-53, with his stoning as the immediate and impassioned response of his audience (7:54—8:1a). The result is the scattering of the church (all but the apostles), in verses 8:1b and following.
Our Approach in the Lesson
Our approach in this lesson will be to first consider the setting of the sermon as we attempt to learn what brought about Stephen’s arrest and trial. Next we will look at Stephen’s sermon as a whole to identify some of its more important characteristics. We will then walk through the sermon noting some of its important points and seek to understand how it answers the accusations made against Stephen. Finally we shall seek to determine what the sermon meant—to the audience of Stephen, to Luke’s initial readers, and to us.
The Setting of Stephen’s Sermon
8 And Stephen full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen. 10 And yet they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” 12 And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and dragged him away, and brought him before the Council. 13 And they put forward false witnesses who said, “This man incessantly speaks against this holy place, and the Law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.” 15 And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel. 7:1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?”
The “Hellenistic Jews”—those Jews born outside of Israel who migrated to Israel but who still had a separate language and culture derived from their exile—have already been introduced in Acts. They were those Jews who, at Pentecost, heard the apostles “speaking of the mighty deeds of God” in their own native tongues. It would not be unreasonable to assume that it was some of the “native Hebrews”—those Jews born and raised in Israel who spoke Aramaic or some Semitic language—who thought the sounds they heard (since they could not understand these foreign languages) were the mere mindless babblings of those who had had too much to drink (Acts 2:13).
Not until the neglect of the Hellenistic Jewish widows did this group actually emerge as a distinct entity in Acts. Here, in chapter 6, they had developed strong feelings of resentment toward the native Hebrews whom they held responsible, in some way, for the neglect of those widows from their own (Hellenistic Jewish) group. In the appointing of the seven men who would oversee the feeding of the widows from this point on, Stephen and Philip were selected, and their names were listed first (cf. Acts 6:5) with greater details given about them, especially Stephen.
Stephen was described as a man who was both “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3) and as one who was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5). His ministry to Hellenistic widows seems to have put him in contact with a great many Hellenistic Jews. Among these people especially, and through Stephen, God accomplished many “great wonders and signs” (6:8). Feeding the widows gave Stephen a much greater exposure and the opportunity to function in a way that was similar to the twelve apostles.
The mention of Stephen’s ability to perform “signs and wonders” is very significant. It seems to imply that Stephen was, or at least functioned similarly to, an apostle. Up to this point, only the apostles were said to have worked signs and wonders. Since the twelve apostles would remain in Jerusalem after the church was scattered (Acts 8:1), it would seem that Stephen (here) and Philip (Acts 8) would serve as apostles to a more diverse group.
We are not told how the power to perform signs and wonders came upon Stephen. Had we been told, we would probably find this viewed as a formula by which saints are to manipulate or persuade God into acting as we would desire. Every indication is that both Stephen and the apostles were surprised by his ability to perform such miracles. It was not because Stephen “prayed through” or went through the right formula that he was empowered by the Spirit as he was. Neither was it because of the apostles, of their training, of discipleship, or ordination that these signs and wonders were performed. The simplest explanation for the mighty power which Stephen possessed was that the sovereign God had purposed to make him an apostle, in His own time, and in His own way.
Characteristics of Stephen’s Sermon
Before we begin to study the sermon of Stephen in greater detail, let us pause to look at the sermon as a whole and note some of its characteristics. Taking note of these will help us to understand its parts.
(1) This sermon is the longest recorded sermon in the Book of Acts. Stephen’s sermon is twice as long as Peter’s sermon delivered at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36).
(2) The sermon is not a defense but a response to the charges against him. If anything, Stephen’s words are an indictment, not a defense. It is Stephen’s answer to the question posed by the chief priest, “Are these things so?” (7:1)? The charges leveled against Stephen had to do with “this holy place”101 and the “customs handed down by Moses.” These are two of the major themes in Stephen’s sermon.
(3) The sermon is not an evangelistic appeal. This may sound strange, but I believe it is clear, once one looks carefully at the text of the sermon. The content of Stephen’s message is quite different from previous sermons in Acts. There is, for example, less emphasis upon Christ. There is also no reference to Christ’s resurrection. And the conclusion of the sermon is very unique. There is no call to repentance but only a very strong accusation of guilt.
(4) Stephen’s sermon is Scriptural.102 One cannot imagine how any more Scripture could have been packed into this message. Much of the sermon is a direct quotation of Old Testament texts.103 Virtually all of the rest of Stephen’s words, as recorded in 7:2-50, are Stephen’s summation of Scripture. Stephen is not like so many contemporary preachers who begin with a Scripture text never again to return to it. All of his message was Scripture. His conclusion was but an application of these Scriptures to his accusers.
(5) Stephen’s sermon is a survey of the Old Testament and of Israel’s history. Stephen begins his message with the call of Abraham, found in Genesis 12. He deals with a number of the major periods in Israel’s history and with several of its prominent figures, including Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and the prophets.
(6) Stephen’s message has a geographical orientation. Stephen’s preaching seems to have focused to some degree on the coming judgment of God on Israel, Jerusalem, and the temple. The charge against him was that he spoke against “this holy place.” Stephen’s message thus has much to say about the places where God dealt with Israel. The sermon is a kind of “walk through the Old Testament,” from Haran, outside the land where Abraham was called, to Egypt, back to Shechem where the patriarchs were buried, to the wilderness where Moses fled, to the holy mount where Moses was called, to Egypt again from which God delivered the enslaved nation of Israelites, to the wilderness, to the promised land, and finally to Babylon.
(7) Stephen’s sermon was Spirit-filled. Stephen was described as a man who was “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (6:3) and also as a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5). Finally, he was described as “full of grace and power” (6:8). His opponents were unable to refute the “wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (6:10). His face shown like the face of an angel” (6:15). At the time of his death he was said to be “full of the Holy Spirit” (7:55). Surely no one can doubt that his sermon was Spirit-filled. And though it was Spirit-filled, no one is said to have come to faith as a result of hearing it.104 Instead, Stephen paid for this sermon with his own life. It would be well for each of us to note that a man who was “full of the Holy Spirit” could find nothing better to say than the words of the Scriptures themselves.
(8) The sermon of Stephen supplies us with some details which the Old Testament does not supply. For example, Stephen tells us that Moses was “a man of power in words and deeds” (7:22). From Moses’ excuses to God, for not serving as His spokesman to Pharaoh, one would have concluded that Moses was a poor public speaker (cf. Exodus 4:10). Furthermore, we are told (by a literal rendering of the text) that when Moses was placed in the basket, he was really “put out to die” (Acts 7:21).105 Stephen’s sermon is an inspired commentary on certain parts of the Old Testament Scriptures.
(9) In spite of the fact that Stephen’s sermon had a very strong message of divine judgment, it was motivated by a loving and gracious spirit. Stephen was “full of grace,” and the words of Stephen at the time of his death are a testimony to this fact. He was not an “angry young preacher,” a hostile fellow belching forth the fire of hell. He was a man who loved his listeners, who prayed for their forgiveness and salvation. Paul was a delayed answer to this prayer. How the words and actions of Stephen must have stuck with Paul and even encouraged him in his hours of danger as he often brushed with death.
A Closer Look at Stephen’s Sermon
The charges against Stephen were false in the sense that they were not completely accurate, and they were based upon accusations of false witnesses (6:11, 13). There must have been some basis for the charges, however, just as there was at least a pretext for the charges against the Lord Jesus. Fundamentally, the charges were two-fold: Stephen was speaking against “the holy place,” and he was advocating an alteration of the customs handed down by Moses.
In one sense, these two charges were absolutely correct, and there were very much intertwined. These Jews, who may have spent their life’s earnings to return to the “holy land” (including, especially, the temple), must have believed that no one could worship God as well from foreign soil as from the sacred soil of Israel and from the sacred temple. This worship, they would have insisted, was rooted in the Law of Moses. But the coming of Jesus did mean that radical changes had come and that since the Law of Moses was fulfilled in Christ, rigid observance to the Law was no longer required in many instances. As a case in point, Jesus told the woman at the well (John 4-42) that worship was no longer a matter of being in the “right place” (whether that were Mt. Gerazim or the temple in Jerusalem) but a matter of the “right person.” Thus, those who were to worship “in spirit and in truth” must worship the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. And so the temple was set aside as the only place of worship, and the customs of Moses were being altered.
Stephen’s sermon is his inspired response to these two primary charges pertaining to Jerusalem and the temple as the “holy place” and to the customs of Moses.106 As Stephen led his accusers on their trek through the history of Israel, he was seeking to demonstrate two fundamental concepts: (1) The history of Israel bears out the fact that much of the life of the Jews was spent outside of the land; and, (2) that for all their smug self-righteousness, Israel had always shown themselves to be rebels against Moses and against the Law which was given through him. Consequently, as we work our way through Stephen’s sermon, we will cover many generations of Israelites, a number of well-known Old Testament personalities and places, and a good number of years. All of this will demonstrate that the conclusion which Stephen reached and preached was irrefutable and well-documented.
Stephen begins with the forefather of the Jews, Abraham, and he begins in Mesopotamia, the place where God appeared to Abraham and instructed him to leave that place and his family and to go to that (“holy”) place to which He would lead him. God spoke to Abraham in a foreign land (from the Jewish point of view). He promised Abraham the land of Canaan as his possession, and yet Abraham never possessed it in his lifetime, having to purchase even his own burial place. Abraham lived in Canaan as a sojourner, as a pilgrim.
Furthermore, God told Abraham that his offspring, his descendants, would live in an (as yet) unidentified foreign land for four hundred years (7:6). Here, Abraham’s descendants would be misused and persecuted, but afterward they would serve God in “this place” (7:7). The sign of this covenant was circumcision (7:8). Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, had twelve sons, who became the patriarchs of the nation Israel (7:8). The only problem was that they became jealous of Joseph and sold him into slavery in Egypt. No thanks to his twelve brothers, Joseph was sent to Egypt to which they would all be summoned after Joseph’s identity was revealed. It was while in Egypt for these four hundred years that this small party, who were seventy-five in number when they arrived in Egypt, left a mighty people, as the sand of the sea, as the stars of the heavens, just as God had promised. Abraham and Sarah, and later on Joseph, were buried in Shechem in the heart of Samaria, not far from Mt. Gerazim. This was that despised land through which the Jews would not pass (cf. John 4:4; Luke 9:51-55).
Moses, the man whose customs the Jews prided themselves for preserving and practicing, was persistently rejected by the Jews of his day. First, he was rejected by his own family who put him out to die (Acts 7:19-22). This Moses who was educated in Egypt, outside the land of promise, was God’s chosen instrument to lead His people from bondage to freedom and from Egypt to the promised land. His second rejection came from two of his brethren. When he attempted to mediate between two Jews who were fighting with each other, they both rejected his intervention and his leadership. They wanted nothing to do with him, and they wished him to keep out of their business. They could care less about the customs of Moses. They told him to stay out of their lives. They also reminded him that they knew he had killed an Egyptian the day before (Acts 7:27-28).
Moses fled to the land of Midian. It was here that God appeared to Moses and commanded him to return to Egypt, to free His people and to lead them into the land of promise, the “holy land.” Like Joseph, Moses was rejected by his brethren, but it was he whom God had chosen to save his brethren. This Moses told the Israelites that God would raise up another prophet, like him. In which way was this prophet to be like Moses? I believe that He was promised to be like Moses in being rejected by His brethren. As Moses performed “signs and wonders,” so this prophet by doing likewise would be like Moses. This Moses passed on more than mere “customs” to the Jews; he passed on “living oracles” (7:38).
The third rejection of Moses came in his absence from the people. Having given the people clear instructions, Moses went up on the mountain. The people refused to obey and induced Aaron to fashion for them a god which they could see. In their hearts, they had already turned back to Egypt, the place of their bondage. Rather than to worship the true God, whom they could not see, they rejoiced in and worshipped a god they could see, a god that was nothing but the work of their own hands (7:41).
I must pause at this point, when Stephen is speaking of Moses, to remind you of a very interesting comment included by Luke in the last verse of chapter 6:
And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel (Acts 6:15).
One can hardly fail to notice the similarity of this with that which Moses recorded in the Book of Exodus:
And it came about when Moses was coming down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses’ hand as he was coming down from the mountain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because of his speaking with Him. So when Aaron and all the sons of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him (Exodus 34:29-30).107
It was this “glowing of the face of Moses” which bore testimony to the fact that he had communed with God “face to face” (Exodus 33:11) and which caused the people of Israel to fear him. It was the same “glowing” which was on the face of Stephen, but they did not fear him. This one whom they accused of blaspheming against Moses was the one whose face was like that of Moses. Surely his face indicated that Stephen had communed with God and that they should hear him if they would understand Moses. But they would not hear. They saw his face, but they went on with their plan to put him to death. And when they would hear his sermon they would close their ears to it.
Here we reach a turning point, for Stephen turns from the law, that is the history of Israel as recorded in the five books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy), to the prophets. He cites the words of two of the prophets, who by divine inspiration interpreted the events of Israel’s history in the light of the law. They took the way the Israelites behaved and showed how they sinned, according to the law. They also told God’s people how the law was meant to be understood and practiced.108
In verses 44-50, Stephen will turn to the temple, comparing it to the tabernacle, the place of God’s presence, the “holy place” for the Israelites. Verses 42 and 43 provide a prophetic interpretation of Israel’s conduct in the wilderness when they had the tabernacle, God’s “holy place,” among them. Did God’s presence among them cause them to be more spiritual, more obedient to His law, as given by Moses? It did not. In fact, we are told by the prophet Amos that they were busily engaged in the worship of heathen deities. It was because of this idolatry, an idolatry that was not given up when they reached the land, the “holy place,” that God sentenced His people to captivity. The dispersion of Israel and the Babylonian captivity were the result of Israel’s sin (Acts 7:43).
Now Stephen turns to the “sacred cow” of the Israelites, the temple (in particular) and Jerusalem (in general) which the Hellenistic Jews revered so highly and for which they had sacrificed much to be able to worship God here. It was this “holy place” which they accused Stephen of blaspheming. Did Stephen, like Christ, warn the people of Jerusalem about the coming wrath of God upon this city and upon this temple (cf. Luke 19:41-44; 21:5-24)? What value was one to place on this city and upon this temple? To the Israelites, these had virtually become their gods. No wonder Stephen’s words seemed like blasphemy!
In verses 44-50, Stephen spoke about the temple, comparing it to the tabernacle. The tabernacle, Stephen reminded them, was that which God designed, which God initiated. It was the special place of His presence among His people. It did not, as previous verses indicate, make anyone obedient to God for they disobeyed God openly, in His presence. The temple was the “inspiration” of David. It was his desire, his conception. God granted David’s request to build a temple, but it was his son, Solomon, who was to build it.
Now Stephen turns to the words of the prophet Isaiah, in the last chapter of his prophecy, to remind his accusers of a very important theological fact: God does not need a building built by human hands in which to dwell. Nothing which man can build would be adequate. Why would the Creator need man to create a dwelling place for Him? Why would the God who inhabits heaven as His throne and who has the earth as His footstool need a temple?
I think I know why the Jews of Stephen’s day (and other days as well) thought so. They knew that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem and would reign as King from His holy temple. They thought that Israel, Jerusalem, and the temple were all necessities for the kingdom to come. No wonder these Hellenistic Jews were willing to give up all that they possessed to reach the “holy place.” How blasphemous it must have seemed to them to hear Jesus (first), the apostles, and now Stephen speaking of the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem. They understood this as a rejection of the kingdom. With the dashing of Jerusalem, all of their messianic hopes were dashed as well.
The problem, however, was that their understanding of the kingdom, and of how it was to be established on earth, was wrong. Indeed, in the context of this quotation of Isaiah 66:1-2, several important truths are revealed. First, God would bring judgment upon Jerusalem and the temple. Second, that God would bring salvation to the Gentiles. Third, when God came to the earth to establish His kingdom, He would create a new Jerusalem and a new temple. Israel’s man-made temple would be destroyed along with the city of Jerusalem. God would create His own Jerusalem and His own temple, which He would bring down from heaven. The destruction of Jerusalem and the demolition of the temple was not a rejection of the kingdom, or a hindrance, but a prerequisite to it. This was a necessary step, clear the ground as it were, so that God’s temple could be brought to the earth. God is not a remodeler. He will destroy the old earth and the old heavens so that the new heavens and earth may come.
Had the people heeded the prophets, they would have known this, and they would have welcomed the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles. The problem was the sinfulness of God’s people. And so, Stephen reached the conclusion of his message, recorded in verses 51-53. Israel’s history was one consistent account of God’s grace and of Israel’s sin and rebellion. God had given the Law, and they disobeyed. God sent His prophets, and they rejected them. These prophets spoke of the coming Messiah, and they were killed, just as these people were guilty of the blood of Jesus, the Messiah who had come just as the prophets had promised. The “holy Law,” which they claimed to revere and to defend, was not kept throughout Israel’s history, and it was not kept by Stephen’s accusers either. It was not Stephen who was worthy of death, but his audience.
The Stoning of Stephen
54 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. 55 But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56 and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ 57 But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears, and they rushed upon him with one impulse. 58 And when they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him, and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And they went on stoning Stephen as he called upon the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” And having said this, he fell asleep. 8:1 And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. 4 Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.
The message was too much to bear. Just as they had done before,109 they rejected God’s spokesman. They would do away with him in an effort to do away with his message and His Messiah. The description of the crowds is one of near insanity. They were out of their minds. Logic and reason would have agreed with Stephen, for his message was merely a recitation of the Old Testament. But they would have none of it nor of him.
What an illustration we have here of “dying grace.” The death of Stephen can rightly be called, “Spirit-filled dying.” I have heard many speak of being “Spirit-filled,” but few speak of it in the context of death. Stephen’s death, because it was experienced by a “Spirit-filled” man, is a model for all saints to desire to follow in their hour of death.
It was a peaceful death, even though the surroundings and the circumstances were violent and chaotic. It was a time of great intimacy and communion with God. Stephen was enabled to see the heavens opened and to see the Savior standing at God’s right hand, ready to receive him into His presence. The grim scene around Stephen faded away in the light of the glory of God before him. As Stephen spoke of these things, the crowds went wild. All pretense of “due process” and of a legal trial were swept aside. They dragged him out of the city and stoned him, with the consent and assistance of Saul. Stephen, like his Savior, called upon God to receive his Spirit. His last words, like those of Jesus, were words of compassion. He prayed for the forgiveness of those who had sinned by taking his life. The salvation of Saul, while it would be at a later time, was, I believe, an answer to this prayer.
We have only seen the “tip of the iceberg” in this message, and so it will be with its interpretation and application. Let me suggest some of the areas of interpretation and application which may be a starting point for your continued study and meditation.
In the developing argument of the Book of Acts, the sermon and the stoning of Stephen is very significant. It is a transition point, as we can see, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. It is the end of the “Jerusalem phase” and the beginning of the “Samarian phase.” Soon, with the conversion of Saul, the gospel will spread to the “remotest part of the earth.” But for now, God’s dealings with the city of Jerusalem are winding down. The apostles will remain, we are told, but the church is dispersed. The time for the destruction of Jerusalem draws near. The reason for the destruction of Israel is apparent in Stephen’s message and even in his own death. His sermon, much like the ministry of Isaiah the prophet (cf. Isaiah 6), was not intended to turn men to repentance but to seal their doom. The judgment of God on Jerusalem is not far off, and for very good reason. Now that the gospel has been preached to the Jew first, it will go to the Gentiles.
There are some very direct applications of this message to us. First, just as Jerusalem was rushing on to its own destruction, so is our own world, our own nation, and those around us. The judgment of God is soon to fall on our world, and for the same reasons that it fell upon Jerusalem—men reject God’s word.
Second, the “dying grace” that is evident in Stephen’s death can be ours as well. How often we pray that we will not die or that our death would be painless and quick. Stephen’s death should challenge us here. We should pray for grace that our death will be a glimpse of heaven, and our dying thoughts should be for the salvation of men around us. May our death, like Stephen’s, be a glorious event, regardless of the circumstances, for it is our entrance into the glorious presence of our Savior, who is still standing at the right hand of the Father, awaiting us.
Third, there is for us in Stephen’s sermon a lesson in how to use and interpret Scripture. Stephen’s message was drenched in Scripture. There was much of God’s thoughts and none of Stephen’s. Stephen had a grasp of the Scriptures, as a whole, and in large portions. While the scribes and Pharisees “strained the gnats” and focused on the obscure points, on the unknown, Stephen focused on the “camels” (cf. Matthew 23:24). While the Jews leaned heavily on their own traditions (and rejected the interpretation of the prophets), Stephen took his views from the prophets. May we imitate Stephen in his handling of the Word of God!
Stephen’s sermon deals with a number of the themes which Luke has been developing in the book. The sovereignty of God is evidenced in the results of this sermon. In previous sermons in Acts, many have been saved. Here (and for the first time), the preacher is put to death. God prospers some sermons in the salvation of many, but He also uses sermons for other purposes, as here. We also see that there is an evangelistic thrust, resulting from this sermon. This is an evidence of God’s sovereign control. Those who are saved are not the audience of Stephen, but the Samaritans and Gentiles who will be saved because of the persecution resulting from Stephen’s death. Without knowing it, these Jews are propelling the gospel beyond Jerusalem to the very places from which they have come. Many will be saved because of the sermon and the death of Stephen. And the one who was a part of Stephen’s death—Saul—will be God’s chosen instrument to reach the Gentiles. What a God we serve! How His ways are beyond ours (cf. Romans 8:31-39; 11:33-36).
In principle, the problem of the Jews (of Stephen’s day and of those described in his sermon) was one of materialism. That is, they wanted to worship and to obey only what they could see. They made idols which they could see. The minute Moses was “out of sight,” they turned to idols. The temple was a kind of idol. It was something physical, something which they could see. They preferred this temple to that temple which is, as yet, unseen. It is no wonder that Hebrews 11 is devoted to the subject of faith, and that, at the very outset, we find faith described as that which is based upon and which looks forward to the unseen. The kingdom for which the Old Testament saint looked forward was not an earthly one but a heavenly one:
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).
No wonder Stephen, a man who was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” did not fear death and did not revere the physical temple in Jerusalem. He was a man who “saw” a better temple and whose hope was not earthly. He was free to die, as were the saints of old, because of His faith in God and the promises which were sure to come. May we be more like this great man of old whose life and ministry were short but significant.
101 It is my understanding that the expressions “this holy place” (Acts 6:13) and “this place” (6:14) refers to the temple, but is not restricted to it. I believe that the city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel (to a lesser extent) are also included.
102 Notice that Stephen began at the beginning, with the patriarchs, and then turned to the interpretation of these events in the early days of Israel’s history, as given by the Old Testament prophets. Finally, Stephen relates the Old Testament events and their interpretation to the present, to the response of those who had opposed him and brought him to trial, showing how it was consistent with the actions Israelites in the past.
103 In the NASB this is indicated by quotations in caps.
104 Paul, of course, was saved later on, but it was never said to be because of this message. The message of Stephen, along with his death, had a great impact on Paul, I believe, but his sermon was not the immediate means of his conversion. It was, instead, his divine encounter with the risen Christ which brought about his repentance.
105 The term, rendered “exposed” by the NASB in Acts 7:19 is literally rendered “put out to die” in the margin. It is this same term which is found, in reference to Moses, in verse 21, with the same marginal note that the literal meaning was “put out to die.” Thus, just as all the other Israelites were putting their infants out to die, so Moses’ parents were putting him out to die, for all intents and purposes.
106 From the background we have been provided in the gospels, I would understand the phrase, “the customs which Moses handed down to us,” as not referring to the Law of Moses, but rather to the traditions of the Jews, which were added to the Law, and indeed were held above the Law in practice.
107 We should remember that Paul was present, and must have seen the face of Stephen. This must have later been understood as being a repetition of that which took place with Moses, for in 2 Corinthians chapter 3, Paul referred to this event in the life of Moses (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). Paul used it to illustrate the greater glory of the new covenant over that of the old, the very thing which Stephen’s opponents refused to accept.
108 In the same way Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapters 5-7).
109 Notice that Stephen’s words in 7:52 indicate not only that his accusers were guilty of the same kind of sins and their fathers, but that they were actually guilty of the sins of their fathers. Jesus taught the same thing in Matthew 23:34-36. To reject the Messiah and His messengers is to become guilty of the sins of rejection of those who have gone before us. When we reject Christ, we reject all those who have spoken of him. When we reject the gospels, we reject the Old Testament prophets.
Related Topics: Dispensational / Covenantal Theology