Sermon for Sunday Evening, May 22nd, 2022 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
[Act 6:8-15 ESV] 8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then 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. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And 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, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
[Act 7:1-60 ESV] 1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” 2 And 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, 3 and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ 4 Then 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. 5 Yet 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. 6 And 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.’ 8 And 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 10 and 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. 11 Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. 13 And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. 15 And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, 16 and 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 18 until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. 19 He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. 20 At 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, 21 and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 And 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. 24 And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And 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?’ 27 But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 At 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, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31 When 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. 33 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I 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. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and 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 your brothers.’ 38 This 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. 39 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40 saying 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.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But 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? 43 You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you 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. 45 Our 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, 46 who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet 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? 50 Did not 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. 52 Which 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, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” 54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed 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, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then 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. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And 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.
We’ve seen throughout the book of Acts a struggle between the first followers of Jesus and the religious authorities in Jerusalem. That struggle now continues with Stephen the Martyr.
And his name, well, it might require a “spoiler alert” because Stephen the Martyr … well, he dies for the faith. He becomes a martyr, a witness for the Lord, especially at his death.
Stephen only shows up in the previous passage, when he was selected among the first seven deacons in Jerusalem.
And so the fact that he now gets a full chapter is rather surprising. He’s sorta “come out of nowhere” and is now “center stage.”
The Lord has brought up Stephen for a special occasion to give a powerful speech and to be a powerful witness for Christ.
I. The Charges
The men in Synagogue of the Freedmen bring up charges against Stephen out desperation and anger because they couldn’t compete with him in debate. And surely they were jealous of how God was doing mighty works through Stephen.
This term “the synagogue of the Freedmen” is only in the Bible once. It is what they call a “hapax legomena,” a “oncer.” So we don’t have a lot of context to know much about these men. They seem to be either Freedmen in the sense that they were once slaves who had been freed, or Jews that had been taken captive by Rome but later set free.
Either way, they say that Stephen speaks “blasphemous words against Moses and God.”
Blasphemy is generally when one says evil things against God, or claims to be God, or something like this. But Moses is such a revered figure that apparently saying things against him was also called “blasphemy.”
Not only do they claim Stephen is speaking against Moses and God but also against “this holy place” (the temple and Jerusalem) and against the law.
And they say Stephen said “Jesus would destroy his place.”
Stephen was, it appears, repeating the words of our Lord who said “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19) but his accusers misunderstood him (either intentionally or unintentionally) and took it to mean not the “body of Christ” (THIS TEMPLE) but the temple in Jerusalem.
They really want to get rid of Stephen, and so they charge him with blasphemy, no ordinary crime, but one that is to be punished by death.
As needed per Old Testament law, they make sure to have multiple witnesses. But these are false witnesses; they are colluding together, lying about Stephen in order to have him killed.
There is irony then in the name “freedmen” as they are not freed from sin nor from lying. They certainly don’t know the freedom of the gospel.
The charges are great, and they’ve brought Stephen up to the religious authorities. And there is something clearly wrong with the religious authorities. They are not “religious” in the true sense of the word. They are not worshipping the true God. They are supposed to be the learned scholars, the guides of the people, but they are just blind guides. They should be doing the rituals of purification and yet instead they are doing the “dirty work” putting to death first Jesus Christ and now, as we shall soon see, the martyr Stephen.
But before his death, we have the speech of Stephen. Everything else he ever did in life was not recorded, but this God decided to make known to all posterity. This is what God has purposed Stephen’s life for – to give a grand speech, recorded in the book of Acts.
II. Stephen’s Speech
The majority of this speech is an overview, a recap, of the Old Testament. Then in just a few verses we have Stephen’s application to his present situation.
The Old Testament overview, as we’ve just read, recaps
– the story of Abraham
– and of Isaac, and Jacob, and Joseph
– and then of Moses and the people in the wilderness
– and finally of Joshua, David, and Solomon
And all of this is a response regarding that idea of “the holy place.”
Where is the holy place?
Stephen’s point is that it is not a place that is holy. And the Lord does not dwell in temple’s made of human hands.
See, God was there with Abraham though he was not in “holy Jerusalem.” Though there was no temple, God was yet the God of Abraham … in Mesopotamia, in Haran.
And God was there with Isaac, and Jacob, and Joseph though there was not yet a temple. He was still the God of Isaac and of Jacob and of Joseph, wherever they were, even in Egypt, that foreign land full of false gods. The territory of the true Lord God does not end where worship of idols begins. But Yahweh is the God of all the world, in all places.
God is with his people whether they be in the Middle East (Iraq) or in Egypt or the very wilderness of Sinai. And yes, they did build a temple for the Lord, but He is not constrained to that place.
Then, verses 51-53 we transition from Stephen’s overview of the history to his criticism of those who have him on trial. And remember is a sham trial. So, by criticizing them, he’s not going to get any worse punishment then he is already going to get. His fate is sealed. But he’s not going down without proclaiming the Lord Jesus Christ.
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which 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, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Stephen has recounted the history of Israel, and it is apparent that despite that history —despite the many times God has explained his nature to them—the religious leaders don’t get it. They care not about worshipping God but about building up their own kingdom.
That is why Stephen calls them “stiff-necked” and “uncircumcised in heart and ears.” We’ve seen these terms before. The stubborn animal is “stiff-necked” and goes against its master. The “uncircumcised in heart and ears” do not believer nor listen to the Lord God. They resist the Holy Spirit.
And their resistance—the resistance of THESE religious leaders—is like the resistance of the people of the past in that they AGAIN persecute the prophets, even the Righteous One, Jesus Christ, who they have murdered.
This enraged the religious leaders.
57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.
Stephen was martyred.
III. Stephen, Saul, and Others
Throughout the whole speech Stephen’s face was “like the face of an angel.” This must mean that it was glowing. And some have pointed out that before Stephen only Moses and Jesus had shinning faces. Moses when he came down from Mt. Sinai and Jesus at his transfiguration. This is God’s stamp of approval of Stephen’s message.
What are we to make of the overall scene?
For one, we see the quick story of Stephen before the long account of Saul (who takes the name Paul).
Saul is mentioned at the end of this passage:
“And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
Saul saw the death of Stephen, and he was unmoved. He was an enemy of the church. He had taken out one of its key people.
But where Saul removed a Christian from the world, the Lord would shockingly add a Christian in the very person of Saul the persecutor. The enemy of the church becomes its greatest earthly advocate.
And Saul would be stoned as was Stephen, though in God’s providence Saul would survive his stonings.
Then, we also see this: a man, chosen of God, for a particular time.
And he speaks about other men of God chosen for their particular times.
And Paul is being chosen for his particular time.
These men come and go.
And, even today we are chosen for our time and place, as God continues to work out his grand plan. And yet we come and we will go.
But all of the prophets, and apostles, and indeed even us today, we all point to Jesus, the eternal God-man, who, while he came to Earth and went back to heaven, did rise again and lives eternally at the right hand of the Father.
And because Jesus lives eternally, we will L-I-V-E E-T-E-R-N-A-L-L-Y as the old song says.
Men come and go, but Christ is the head of the Church and He is the thread throughout the history of the church. Yesterday, today, and forever.