Before we dive into the story of the church’s first martyr, Stephen, I want to take a few moments to address last week’s text and sermon from Acts 6:1 – 7. Most preachers struggle with wondering if their sermons are faithful, effective, and helpful. I am not immune to those feelings or questions at all. I do not typically walk away from preaching a sermon feeling like Jesus is fist bumping me on the way out of the pulpit, but I do typically find some joy in preaching and some assurance that the Lord helps me to be faithful to his Word and his people.
Last week was not one of those weeks! If I had a do over, I would re-preach last week’s text and try to remain more faithful to the overall message of the passage. Namely that conflict arose among the church – no doubt stirred up by the prince of darkness to disrupt the gospel witness of the early church – but the church overcame the obstacle of unresolved conflict – by the Spirit’s help – as they selected and installed qualified deacons to serve the growing needs of the church family.
So, while conflict was part of the story, conflict resolution is not the main point; qualified leaders who serve the needs of the church family is the main point. And the application for us is to ask the Lord to raise up more leaders within our midst who will exhibit the character of Jesus as they unselfishly wash feet and clean tables. The Lord is the one who gives the gift of leaders to churches so that those churches can remain faithful in their gospel witness in the communities they occupy.
One of those leaders from last week – named Stephen – is the main topic of this week’s text. I have to note that I was helped tremendously by five chapters of commentary from R. Kent Hughes (1996)2and Derek W. H. Thomas (2011)3. Stephen was one of the men who was selected to serve the needs of the growing congregation in Jerusalem. We know from the text that he was a man that was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” and that he was “full of grace and power” and that he “was doing great wonders and signs among the people” (6:5, 8).
Despite Stephen’s obvious qualifications for ministry, there were some people who could not stand him because he would not shut up about Jesus. So, what do unbelievers do when a believer will not shut up about Jesus? The typical mode of operating in these circumstances throughout history is to arrest the believer on a set of trumped-up charges so they can face the death penalty. Look at the text with me…
8And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us. 15And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
7:1And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” 2And Stephen said: “Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ 4Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. 5Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. 6And God spoke to this effect – that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. 7‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ 8And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.
9“And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him 10and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. 12But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. 13And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy – five persons in all. 15And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, 16and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.
17“But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt 18until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. 19He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. 20At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, 21and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.
23“When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. 26And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ 27But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.
30“Now when forty years had passed, and angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. 33Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.
35“This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ – this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. 37This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ 38This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. 39Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 43You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send into exile beyond Babylon.’
44“Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. 45Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 46who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, 49“‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50Did my hand make all these things?’
51“You stiff – necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
54Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
#1: STEPHEN GETS ARRESTED (6:9 – 15)
In verses 9 – 10 of chapter 6, it appears as though there were some people in Stephen’s synagogue that were upset with him because “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he [Stephen] was speaking” as they debated with him. So, in verses 11 – 14, Stephen’s newfound enemies found a way to arrest Stephen by getting some people to level some false accusations against him, saying that he was blaspheming both Moses and God and not only that but that he was preaching that the temple was going to be destroyed by Jesus and that the Mosaic Law needed to be changed.
It is important to notice the basis of the accusations against Stephen. Namely, that he was supposedly blaspheming God, blaspheming God’s prophet Moses, blaspheming God’s temple, and even blaspheming God’s Law – not to mention that he was supposedly committing all of this blasphemy in the name of Jesus! The very Council that Stephen is being accused in front of is the very same council, with the very same high priest, that had previously found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and had also inflicted the death penalty upon him. Stephen’s enemies had murdered Jesus!
I think Stephen would have known that his time was limited, that he was about to die – especially after hearing the gravity of the false accusations against him – because the name of God, God’s prophet Moses, the temple, God’s Law, these were things that you did not criticize and let’s not forget that apparently Stephen was doing all of this in the name of the one whom this very council had already murdered on a cross as a blasphemer. Let’s just say that the deck was stacked against Stephen. What do you do when you know your moment of death is right around the corner? Stephen preaches a sermon!
#2: STEPHEN PREACHES A SERMON (6:15 – 7:53)
In verse fifteen of chapter six through verse fifty – three of chapter seven, Stephen preaches what has been called the best sermon in all of Scripture. In these fifty – four verses, Stephen takes his accusers on a journey through the Old Testament, and he shows them how all of their prized religious heritage has been misunderstood and turned into idolatry.
In short order, with his face glowing “like the face of an angel” (v. 15) Stephen proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Israel’s relationship with God was never meant to revolve around special people, special places, special buildings, or special laws; Israel’s relationship with God was meant to revolve around God’s work in redeeming them from the presence, power, and penalty of their sin. In reality, Israel and the leaders who made up the council that Stephen was standing before, were guilty of the very blasphemy they accused him of.
In verses 1 – 8 of chapter seven, Stephen points out that Abraham had walked in close obedient relationship with God as his redeemer regardless of what land he traveled through and it was to Abraham that God gave the gift of circumcision whereby we learn what it means to be separated from the ways of the world and united to God in obedient faith regardless of where we live or whom we are enslaved to. Though the Promised Land was important, because it pointed God’s people to the hope of Heaven, the greater promise here is that God is the one who would provide redemption from slavery to Egypt some four hundred years later. Redemption was always the plan, and a redeemer was always meant to be the main point of Israel’s obedient worship to God.
In verses 9 – 16, Stephen reminds his audience of a man named Joseph whose eleven brothers (the men who later became the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel) turned Joseph over to the Egyptian Pharaoh because they were jealous of him thus continuing a long history of using, abusing, and rejecting the redeemers and prophets that God sent to Israel.
In verses 17 – 45, Stephen turns his full attention to one of the most historical figures in all of Israel’s history, Moses. Moses grew up in Egypt long after Joseph’s death and we know that the Pharaoh tried to exterminate the Israelites – who were multiplying like weeds – by killing their sons but God spared Moses and he was raised into a very wise and knowledgeable young man by the Pharoah’s daughter (7:17 – 22).
In verses 23 – 29, Stephen reminds the council that at the ripe age of forty years old, Moses decides to visit his Israelite brothers and he winds up murdering an Egyptian as he tries to defend one of the men of Israel which leads to Moses being rejected by his own people and becoming an exile in the dessert for forty more years. The implications here are vital to Stephen’s sermon because he is implying that Israel has always rejected her Saviors, her Prophets, and her salvation. This truth – that Israel consistently rejected the redeemers that God sent them – is further proven when Stephen reminds his accusers of how God interacted with Moses in exile.
In verses 30 – 33, Stephen reminds his accusers that God spoke with Moses in the wilderness through the burning bush – a place where Moses needed to remove his sandals because he was standing on holy ground in God’s presence – which is a prelude to understanding that God cannot be refined to a special place like the temple in Jerusalem in the Promised Land. On the contrary, God can be found and worshipped wherever his people humbly seek his presence.
With this implication in the water, Stephen continues his sermon in verses 34 – 41 by reminding his audience that even though God sent Moses to be Israel’s redeemer, they rejected him despite the signs and wonders he performed and despite the Mosaic Law he received from God that he gave to them. Israel, just like all of humanity, has always rejected God and looked for new gods to worship – like the golden calf that they built with their own hands (vv. 40 – 41).
We humans always want some of the credit for our salvation. We think the place we worship will make us more acceptable to God. We think the country we live in is specially blessed by God. We love our moral codes, and we enjoy our denominational distinctives. I fear that we are no different than Israel oftentimes and that Stephen would say the same thing to us as he said to them when he said in verse 42that “God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven” (which is to say that they worshiped demons) even though they had experienced God’s powerful, redeeming, and conquering presence as they wandered in the wilderness with a tent and watched God annihilate their enemies in the Promised Land (vv. 43 – 45).
It has become common practice in the western church today, to protect abusers and to shield leaders from the accountability they deserve under the banner of building and protecting massive ministries at the expense of people’s souls. All in the name of man – made religious institutions.
The Israelites had built a massive religious system that included special land, special people, special laws, and a very special temple. Jesus did not come to abolish any of that, but he did come to fulfill it – to be the main point of it all. But he was rejected and murdered just like all the redeemer – like heroes throughout Israel’s history and just like the man named Stephen whom Israel was about to murder.
Before the council could regain their composure, Stephen hits them with the right hook that he had been driving at all along in verses 45 – 53 as he ends his sermon by reminding them that even David and Solomon knew that God did not live in man – made houses and that anyone who thinks differently – as the council did – were nothing but a bunch of stubborn mules whose hearts were nowhere close to being circumcised in obedience to the Lord because they “always resist the Holy Spirit” and they always persecute God’s spokesmen and they recently “betrayed and murdered” Jesus as they completely disobeyed the Mosaic Law that was meant to turn them to the Savior they murdered.
Stephen’s knockout punch is simple: Israel’s leaders accused him of blasphemy when in fact they were the real blasphemers (just like their forefathers) who should turn, repent, and ask God for forgiveness. I wish I could tell you that this is exactly what the council did. But that simply is not true because what Stephen preached got him murdered in a vicious act of premeditated murder.
#3: STEPHEN GETS MURDERED (7:54 – 60)
In verses 54 – 60, Luke tells us that the council rose up full of hatred and rage in contrast to Stephen who was full of the Holy Spirit and that as his accusers and soon – to – be murderers dragged him out of the city with their ears plugged and as they threw him over a cliff and dropped huge rocks on him, Stephen could see Jesus standing at the edge of heaven at the right hand of the Father, ready to welcome his good and faithful servant home. Jesus stood as Stephen took his final stand!
Stephens final words, as his murderers laid their coats at Saul’s feet were words that are echoes from the cross where just like Jesus, Stephen asked God to receive his spirit and to forgive his murderers (vv. 59 – 60). Only time will tell how his final words will affect those who heard them – especially the man named Saul! The reality once again is that what Satan intends to use to destroy the church, God uses to strengthen and multiply the church’s witness throughout the world.
We have witnessed the last day in Stephen’s life. One day he was happily serving widows in his church – a fairly routine ministry in the back shadows of the church family. No major glitz or glamor here and probably not a huge paycheck either. But the next day he was locked into debate with some other religious people in his local community about the importance of the Law, the temple, the land, the prophets, and Jesus.
Next thing he knew he was dragged in front of the highest religious council in the land on some false charges of blasphemy with the threat of death looming. Stephen’s response is a redemptive historical sermon that emphasizes how Israel historically missed the redemptive nature of its own history and repeatedly rejected, persecuted, and even murdered the redeemer prototypes that had been sent by God for Israel’s good – not to mention the fact that they also ignored and twisted the sacred laws they used to condemn our Savior, Jesus.
All of this of course culminates in the brutal murder of young Stephen as Jesus stands on the edge of heaven to welcome his good and faithful servant into the eternal promised land because of his willingness to remain a faithful witness even in the face of certain death.
#1: KNOW YOUR BIBLE. I think this story should challenge every one of us to know our Bibles (OT and NT) as well as Stephen did and be able to give an answer for the hope that lies within us as we testify to the person and work of Jesus.
#2: POSSESS AUTHENTIC FAITH. I think we should be challenged to think about the authenticity of our faith. We are either the religious nut bags who are full of jealousy and ready to murder those who follow Jesus or we are completely sold out for Jesus because he gave everything to redeem us from the presence, power, and penalty of our sin when he gave his life at the cross of Calvary, rose out of the grave three days later, and ascended into heaven with a promise to return and set everything straight once and for all as he vanquishes Satan, Sin, and Death once and for all.
#3: REMEMBER JESUS STANDING NEXT TO THE RIGHT HAND OF THE FATHER. If you are doing everything you can to live your life as a witness for the power of the gospel, expect to get persecuted, expect to get lied about, expect to get falsely accused, expect to be persecuted, expect that you might die for your faith someday. As you walk this witness out in your family, your friend crowd, your school, your job site, at the gas station, the grocery store, and every where else you come into contact with people, remember that as you are insulted and persecuted for the name of Jesus, Christ himself may very well be standing at the edge of heaven watching over you and ready to receive you home in the next moment.
#4: PUT ON THE CHARACTER OF CHRIST. Stephen was a man who was full of the Holy Spirit, full of wisdom, full of power, and full of grace with a winsome personality who even in his death graciously sked the Lord to forgive his enemies. The character of Jesus shined through Stephen in such a way that he stood tall for Jesus in sharp contrast to the creeps on the council who passed his death sentence. Put on the character of Christ by being with Jesus daily as you study his word and talk to him in prayer.
The story of Stephen should make us think about how we would spend our final day on this earth. I doubt Stephen knew it was his final day here on earth when he got out of bed that morning. One thing is for certain though, Stephen was a man who loved well, served well, witnessed faithfully, and he certainly did not back down from a deadly fight over gospel proclamation. Stephen was a man who spent time at the foot of a bloody cross. He spent time in the doorway of the empty tomb. And he certainly spent time looking toward the promise of the eternal Promised Land.
Stephen’s life proved these things. His ministry proved these things. His preaching proved these things. His death proved these things. My prayer is that our lives would model the same kind of wise, gracious, courageous, biblically knowledgeable, forgiving, Spirit Filled character that Stephen possessed. – Amen!
1 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible, The New Classic Reference Edition (ESV) (Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).
2 Kent, Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1996), 101 – 108.
3 Derek W. H. Thomas, Acts, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2011), 164 – 213.