2016-10-23 The Witness of Stephen

ACTS 7:48-8:3                                                                                   OCTOBER 23, 2016


As Christians, we are called to show love and respect to all people. As a result, we sometimes fall into the trap and think that the ideal Christian is one who does not offend anyone. At times we also do not want to make waves so we hesitate to speak, by remaining quiet when what is wrong is promoted as being good. I speak with experience as I have often hesitated to present the biblical perspective concerning many sins. The Holy Spirit convicts me and yet I often hesitate to speak the truth in love presenting the Message of Christ’s offer to forgive the sinner. The example and witness of Stephen inspire and challenges me to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ. And I hope the Spirit will also challenge you!

Stephen was one of the seven chosen to be the first deacons. The seven deacons were chosen by the church as each of them were known “to be full of the spirit and wisdom”. Luke now tells us of Stephen as he stood out among them. Acts 6:8 (NIV) 8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.” Stephen also stood out as he was very gifted in defending the faith in speaking about Jesus. Acts 6:9-10 (NIV) 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)–Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, 10 but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.”

We seem to forget the warning of Jesus and are then surprised when we face opposition. John 15:20-22 (NIV) 20 Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin.”

Stephen was a very effective speaker and advocate of Jesus. People are sinners and will always seek a way to silence their opposition. Acts 6:11-14 (NIV) 11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.” 12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”  The Jews sought to silence him in the same way as they sought to stop Jesus. They brought false accusations with no basis in truth. Satan still uses the same tactics against Christians by accusing us of falsehoods. (…like the missionary couple now being held in Turkey) Christians are often accused of lacking compassion and being judgmental whenever we speak out against sin.

Luke gives a summary of Stephen’s defense against the charges. If you look closely at Stephen’s message he is not seeking to give a defense that will see him freed and cleared of all charges. Stephen is presenting a defense of faith in Christ as he points out how the Jews have consistently rejected God’s call to obedience and faith. Stephen using scripture shows how Israel never followed the law, the commands of God.

Stephen shows how the Jewish people even rejected Moses. Acts 7:37-39 (NIV) 37 “This is that Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.’ 38 He was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us. 39 “But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.” Stephen is laying out the argument that in the same way the Jews rejected Jesus whom God sent.

Stephen then reminds them that the Temple is not the only place where God is present. Stephen shows that they are wrong in thinking that God is only present in the Temple and the only place he can be worshiped correctly. Even when the Temple was dedicated King Solomon declared in 1 Kings 8:27 (NIV) 27 “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!”

Notice the language used to describe the LORD’s frustration with the people of Israel. Exodus 33:3 (NIV) 3 Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.” Jeremiah 9:25-26 (NIV) 25 “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh– 26 … and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.”

Stephen uses the same biblical language that both Moses and the prophet Jeremiah used to describe the Israelites. Acts 7:51-53 (NIV) 51 “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him– 53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” You thick-headed self-righteous idiots you murdered Jesus, the Son of God, who was sent to deliver you from the bondage of sin.

Stephen spoke the truth but it was not received well. Acts 7:54-56 (NIV) 54 When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”  Stephen had a vision of Jesus, the Son of God, in heaven.

Those listening covered their ears and grabbed him without waiting for the Sanhedrin to make a decision about his guilt. In those moments they became a lynch mob. They took him and stoned him. Stephen did not resist but followed the example of Jesus. Acts 7:59-60 (NIV) 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.”

What did Jesus say would happen? John 15:21-25 (NIV) 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. 23 He who hates me hates my Father as well. 24 If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. 25 But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’”

This message of Stephen marks the occasion that the followers of Jesus began to understand that Christianity is a radical departure from Judaism. This break will soon include the acceptance of the Gentiles. The stoning of Stephen also marks the time when persecution broke out against the whole church and we are first introduced to Saul.

Acts 8:1-3 (NIV) 1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” It is estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 disciples fled Jerusalem and they scattered everywhere.

I’m sure that several Christians were upset with Stephen for causing this violent reaction. Yet little did they know at the time that God used this occasion to send them out as missionaries. We often can’t see what God is doing at the time. Yet, right now God has used the mass migration of Muslims into Europe so that they might hear the Gospel preached to them.

We are being called to be faithful in our calling to witness to others about Jesus. We must learn to trust God that his plan is unfolding so that we will not fear the uncertainty of these times. We must focus on our mission.

Let us pray.