Pastor Edward Brouwer Acts 7:51 – 8:4 “Jesus and Stephen”
Introduction—We’re all entitled to our opinions but we’re not entitled to our own facts. But even when we use facts we have a tendency to ignore some facts in favor of others that lend credence to our opinion or the narrative we are building. And the way we interpret facts is driven by our experience. In the story today, Stephen gets cross wise with a group from his home spiritual community because he has had an encounter with Christ and has entered into new life through the Spirit. He is such a persuasive speaker that the leaders in his home synagogue consider him a threat and bring him up on specific charges before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. He then launches into his defense, which is a recapitulation of Jewish history. The speech going well for him, the court is listening to him, until things go south and he turns the proceedings on its head by acknowledging that he is on trial but really and truly THEY are the ones that need to be indicted. Stephen has laid out all the facts and now he delivers his charge! Let’s stand as we read the scripture and see the conclusion of his speech and it’s effect on the hearers.
Acts 7:51-Acts 8:4
The Charge—the Greek speaking Jews in Stephen’s home synagogue are riled up, frustrated and angry with him. So they instigate unrest among the people over a false accusation that Stephen was speaking against Moses and God. (Acts 6:11) This got the attention of the leaders, and ever interested in avoiding riots (because of Roman intolerance of religious riots) Stephen was seized, detained and charges were brought up against him. The text in Greek says they brought up false witnesses: literally pseudo martyrs. (Do you feel the tension and the intense irony?) Specifically the charges were: this man speaks against the Temple and against the Law. For we had heard from his own mouth that this Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the Temple and do away with the customs of Moses handed down to us. (Acts 6:14) Are the charges well founded? Well no (For Luke says they are false) and Yes (on closer examimation). No they are not true (he was not speaking against Moses or God) in the sense that the gospel that Stephen was preaching was that the Messiah had come and he had fulfilled the true meaning of Law and true relationship with God. He actually honors Moses, precisely because Moses had predicted a coming prophet greater than Moses himself to which all the people should listen (Deut. 18). Jesus the Messiah came, and now we have been brought into true relationship with the God Of Glory (notice that Stephen addresses the assembly by invoking the Name of the God of Glory—proof indeed that he was not speaking against God). So Stephen was not speaking against Moses or God.
However, while those initial charges were the ones used to incite the crowds and the court, the actual charges were “he said Jesus would destroy this Holy Place (the Temple) and do away with the customs of Moses handed down to us by our fathers.” And in all fairness those charges were true! Jesus had said “destroy this temple and in 3 days I will raise it up again”…which John explains as Jesus body, that Jesus was saying He was the true dwelling place of God. But also in Matthew 24 Jesus tells his disciples that in their very lifetimes (this generation i.e. 40 years) that not one stone will be left on another. Surely this prediction was known and circulated. Also with regard to the “traditions and customs of Moses handed down to us by our fathers”…. in Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount he does not attack the Law (for I have not come to do away with the Law but to fulfill the Law) but rather he attacks the customs and interpretations handed down about the Law (when he says “You have heard it said….but I tell you”).
Stephen makes a brilliant defense by addressing their notion that the Temple is the only place of encounter with God: Abraham met God in Mesopotamia, Joseph delivered his people in Egypt, Moses encountered God in the wilderness of Sinai, Israel encountered God in a moving Tabernacle. And even when Solomon built this incredible temple they all now stood near, God himself said “will you make a dwelling place for me? I don’t live in a place built by human hands! Heaven is my throne…the entire earth is my footstool! In essence he is saying God is everywhere. And now it is in Christ that we encounter God. BUT this is too much, a bridge too far for the court.
The Culmination—the court falls into pandemonium. Everyone is yelling at the top of their lungs, while simultaneously plugging their ears because they are furious at Stephen’s continued speech and then the coup-de-grace comes: Stephen tells them that he sees the Glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And they drag him out and stone him to death. This whole scene reminds me of the trial of Jesus and the death of Jesus. False charges (he said he would destroy Solomon’s temple) and true charges (Are you the King of the Jews?). And when Stephen lay dying, he, like Jesus speaks grace and surrender. (Jesus said “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” and “Father into Thy hands I commit my spirit” and Stephen reverses these BUT emphasizes that Jesus Christ is Immanuel (God with Us) by saying “Lord Jesus receive my spirit” and “Lord don’t hold this sin against them”.
I look at this story and I weep. Stephen a man of such grace and power, struck down at the very beginning in his prime. It is such a painful tragedy. But God is all about bringing triumph out of tragedy. That’s the picture of the cross. It was only through the death of Christ that we would receive life. Because Christ crushed death to death in HIS death, and took up his life because He is God and has the power over life and death. We will all die but in Christ, death will not have the final word. In our weakness, Christ’s power will have the final word.
I don’t know what tragedy in your life you are dealing with today. I don’t know what addiction or idol has wrapped itself around your heart and threatens to undo you. But God will take your weakness and brokenness and he will bring about His victory. Indeed the things you once bragged about will be the very things you consider useless so that you will not put any confidence in yourself. Because when Jesus rescues you from yourself, you have nothing to boast in, except His mercy His love and His grace.
Stephen saw a vision of Jesus. Do you have Jesus in your sight? Hebrews 12:1-2 says
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses (and Stephen is one of those witnesses), let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him (that’s YOU and ME) endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.