I. The Arrest of Stephen
A. The conflict
- In Acts 6:8 through the end of chapter seven we are going to find out some information about a man named Stephen. In Acts 6:5 we see that Stephen was a man selected by the church in Jerusalem to help with five other men to oversee the daily distribution to the Christian widows.
- But Stephen’s job was not limited to the distribution to the widows. Stephen is evangelizing by performing great wonders and signs among the people. But some from the synagogue of the Freedmen began to dispute with Stephen. Scholars indicate that the Freedmen consisted of a class of Jews who previously worked as Roman slaves but had been set free.
- However, these Jews were unable to stand up against the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. So what do people do when you cannot defeat the validity of another’s argument? In typical human nature, people attack the person. This is what these Jews, inducing men to say that Stephen had spoken blasphemous words against Moses and God. These Jews then stir up the people to cause a riot, such that the elders and scribes had Stephen arrested and taken before the Sanhedrin.
B. The false witnesses
- In Stephen’s trial, false witnesses are presented, saying that he preached that Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the temple complex and change the customs that Moses handed down to them. I think it is important to stop here and realize that the text tells us these were false witnesses. These words were not what Stephen was saying. The Jews misunderstood Stephen just like they misunderstood Jesus by thinking Jesus was saying the temple complex would be torn down and rebuilt in three days, but he was actually talking about His own body. Stephen was likely teaching something similar to what these false witnesses were saying. Stephen was likely teaching about the ending of the old covenant that was established by Jesus’ death and the warning of the destruction of Jerusalem.
- At the end of chapter 6 we are told something rather unusual. When those in the Sanhedrin looked at Stephen, they “saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” What that means, we do not know. Did his face have some sort of glow like that of a spiritual being or as Moses’ face shone brightly after being on the mountain in the presence of the Lord? Did his face simply show confidence since he knew the truth and was preaching the word of God? Many suggestions have been given trying to explain this phrase. What we do know is there was some sort of visible change in his face that could be notice when looking intently at Stephen.
II. The Sermon of Stephen
A. History of Israel
- As we begin chapter 7, the high priest (Caiaphas) asks Stephen if these charges are true. This is the central question posed to Stephen that he is asked to answer. I believe Stephen does answer these charges in a roundabout way as he retells the history of the people of Israel. Of course, these Jewish leaders were fully aware of their own history. Stephen is not speaking about their history as if these Jewish leaders are not aware of this information. Stephen tells these things as his defense of the charges laid against him by these false witnesses.
- Stephen begins with the call of Abraham to leave his land and go to the promised land. However, Abraham did not receive the inheritance, but his descendants did which the Jews at that time were enjoying. The first key of this story is that God appeared to Abraham and fulfilled His promise.
- Stephen then turns to the captivity of Israel in Egypt. Verse 9 is the key thesis to this next paragraph. “The patriarchs became jealous of Joseph and sold him into Egypt, but God was with him….” I find it interesting that Stephen does not say that it was Joseph’s brothers who sold Joseph. Stephen calls the brothers “the patriarchs.” The patriarchs were jealous and mistreat Joseph, but God was with him.
- Next, Stephen transitions to the story of Moses. There are a couple of key points concerning Moses that Stephen brings to light. First, God appeared to Moses and therefore God was with Moses. But, the people would reject Moses. Read verse 25, “He assumed his brothers would understand that God would give them deliverance through him, but they did not understand.” Then, see Stephen’s emphasis on verse 27, “Who appointed you a ruler and judge over us?” Now move to verse 35-36 where Stephen makes the key point: Moses, whom the people rejected, was sent by God as a ruler and redeemer of the people. This same Moses said another would be raised up by God. Stephen goes further to show that even after the exodus, the people still rejected Moses and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. Because of the people’s disobedience, the people were deported to Babylon.
- Finally, Stephen turns to the temple that was built by Solomon and points out the God does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands, just as Isaiah prophesied. But there is another key to this statement. The temple was constructed because David found favor with the Lord and asked to build a permanent dwelling place.
B. Answering the charges
- Now, how did this run through Israel’s history answer the high priest if the charges made by the false witnesses were true? Remember, the charges were that Stephen had blasphemous words against the holy place and the law.
- Let us start with the charge of blaspheming against the holy place. What was the argument that Stephen presents to vindicate himself of this charge? I believe Stephen answered this charge in Acts 7:44-50. God does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands. It is not possible to blaspheme the temple because God does not dwell there. Stephen cannot be speaking against God if he speaks about the destruction of the temple because God does not dwell in the temple. Heaven is God’s throne and the earth is God’s footstool.
- Now, let us look at the charge of blaspheming against the law of Moses. What argument did Stephen present to vindicate himself of this charge? I believe Stephen’s argument is this: who are you to condemn me of blasphemy against the law when you do not keep the law yourselves! Your forefathers have not kept the law, but repeated rejected Moses. You have not kept the law and cannot condemn me of such a charge! This is clearly stated in verse 53, “You received the law under the direction of angels and yet have not kept it.“
C. Stephen’s three accusations
- They were resisting the Holy Spirit, as they had always done. The first accusation Stephen presents to the Sanhedrin is that they had resisted the Holy Spirit (7:51). What did Stephen mean by this? I believe the answer is evident from the sermon. The Jewish leaders continually have disobeyed God. When God sent deliverers, they rejected God’s chosen deliverers. When God commanded what was to be done by the people, the leaders and people rejected that command. They were continually acting stubborn against God’s law and against God’s plans. In this way the leaders were rejecting the Holy Spirit.
- They were persecuting and killing the prophets, as they always had done. The second accusation Stephen presents to the Sanhedrin is that they had been persecuting and killing the prophets of God. Stephen is certainly including himself in this accusation. Stephen is saying to the Sanhedrin that they had arrested him without cause and were going against him who had been ordained to do God’s work. Even more importantly, Jesus was implied in this accusation. Joseph, who delivered Israel through the famine, was rejected and mistreat by the patriarchs. Moses, who had been sent by God to deliver the people from slavery, was repeatedly rejected by the people. Jesus was sent by God to be their Savior and Deliverer and the leaders had rejected Him and killed Him. They killed the ones who announced the coming of the Messiah and they themselves have killed the Messiah Himself.
- They are breaking the law of Moses, as they had always done. The third accusation Stephen presents to the Sanhedrin is that they were breaking the law of Moses, just as the people had always done. For all of their zeal to persecute violators of the law of Moses, Stephen points the finger at them and warns them that they are the ones violating and blaspheming the law. Moses predicted a prophet would rise up like Him and the leaders killed Him.
D. Reaction of the Sanhedrin
- After saying these words, those who heard these words were enraged and gnashed their teeth at him. As this is happening, Stephen gazes into heaven and sees the glory of God with Jesus standing at His right hand. Stephen exclaims, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!“
- What did Stephen just say? Stephen just exclaimed to the Jewish leaders that Jesus is alive, in heaven, and in favor with God at His right hand. The one whom these very people had killed was alive, was in heaven with the Father, and was honored by the Father being placed at His right hand.
- When the Sanhedrin heard this, they started screaming at the top of their voices and stopped up their ears. Then they rush against Stephen, seized him, took him out of the city, and began to stone him. As the leaders were stoning Stephen, Stephen cried out “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” This is similar to the words of Jesus, “Lord, into Your hand I commit My spirit.” Then Stephen knelt down and cried out, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin!” This is also similar to Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” After saying these things, Stephen died.
A. Preserve our traditions
- Will we act the like the Sanhedrin that would stop at nothing to keep their own traditions and creeds? How easy it is for us to refuse to accept the written word so that we can maintain a belief that makes us feel comfortable or a doctrine that we have always believed.
- How often we truly shut our ears to listening to new possibilities and concepts because we think that everything has already been decided for us and that New Testament Christianity has been restored! But the work of restoration never stops. If we believe that we are doing everything right and have no need to examine ourselves, then we will fall into error, if we have not already. This was the very problem with the synagogue of the Freedmen. They could not deal with the arguments that Stephen presented, but still refused to change their minds. How true today in religion also!
B. Preserve our lives
- Would we have the desire to sacrifice our lives for the cause of Christ like Stephen did? Would we stand and fight for our beliefs in the face of such strong opposition? How impressive it is to see Stephen ready to go to the death for Christ!
- We must become so dedicated to the Lord and love Him to the point that we would sacrifice everything, even life, because of our faith. The first century Christians had that passion. Serving God was not simply a matter of pew sitting and listening to entertaining sermons. Serving God meant sacrifice and zeal for God, not just the filling of their minds with knowledge.
C. Preserve godliness
- Finally, how far will we go to preserve godliness? Will we fight against error? Will we be upset at sin? Will we demand righteousness? We must desire godliness at all costs.
- This is the passionate plea of David in many of the psalms. He called for godliness and righteousness on this earth. Our lives should mirror that desire. So great was Stephen’s godliness that he had the ability to call out to God to not charge this sin against those who killed him. What love Stephen had for the people! Do we love people as much as that? Or are we more like Jonah who would rather watch the wicked perish? Stephen shows the way we ought to love those who are lost in this world, doing all we can to give people a chance to be saved.