God’s Faithful Witness July 10th, 2022
O God, our trustworthy teacher of truth, by your Spirit, reveal your will for us in the reading of your Word. Touch our hearts and minds and strengthen us to respond in faithfulness. Amen
This morning we’re going to look at three endings, first of all is the end of the seventh chapter of the book of Acts, secondly is the end of Stephen’s speech to the council of elders of the Temple in Jerusalem and finally we’ll look at the end of the life of Stephen.
Over the past three weeks we’ve dealt with sections of this speech of Stephen’s which was over 1300 words long and talked about the history of the Israeli people and the Jewish faith from its beginnings when God first made his covenant with Abraham up to the time of Moses.
If you recall Stephen was not one of the original apostles but had been chosen, along with six other men, by the leaders of the early Christian church in Jerusalem to take care of the physical needs of the less fortunate members of the church while the apostles focused on praying and teaching the word of God.
But Stephen was also blessed with the gift of preaching and because of this he was able to bring many more people to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. And this is what got him into trouble. The religious leaders felt threatened by him as they saw their power and influence fading, so they had him charged with blasphemy against God and he was forced to defend himself in front of the high council of the Temple, known as the Sanhedrin.
The sections of Stephen’s defense which we’ve heard over the last few weeks were concerning the history of the Jewish faith and the founding of the nation of Israel. He talked about the founding fathers of Israel from Abraham and Jacob through to Moses, who led his people out of captivity in Egypt.
But now in this final part of his speech he changes directions and starts focusing on other parts of the Jewish faith. First of all, he looks at the emphasis that was put on places of worship, be it the Temple in Jerusalem or the synagogues in the villages, Stephen says, “‘Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, who found favour with God and asked that he might find a dwelling-place for the house of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands.’”
When Stephen talks about a house for the Lord what he is referring to is the Temple in Jerusalem which was first built by Solomon, King David’s son. Five hundred years later it was restored but was once again demolished by the Romans shortly after the death of Jesus. This was the temple of which Jesus predicted, “‘Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” (Matthew 24:2)
The religious leaders at the time of Stephen thought that having the temple gave them special privileges with God, no matter how corrupt their behavior. They boasted about the temple as if it gave them special access to God. They thought that worship at the temple gave them a place of special blessing, even though their hearts were far from God. Stephen is telling them that the main issue is not the place where they worshipped, but rather having their hearts right before God.
After accusing the elders of worshipping a building rather than God, Stephen then ends his speech charging them with the murder of Jesus, the Son of God, he says to them, “‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’”
So, Stephen compares their actions to those of their ancestors, whom they revered. He reminds them that down through the ages their ancestors were responsible for the persecution and death of many prophets who were sent by God. These prophets had foretold of the coming of a Messiah for Israel, yet the people rejected their message and had them killed. Stephen then says, “‘They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’” This “Righteous One” is Jesus Christ and in these lines, Stephen not only confirms the fact that not only were those leaders responsible for the death of Jesus but also that he truly was the long promised Messiah, the Son of God.
And what was their reaction? When they couldn’t win the argument with reason they resorted to man’s default action, violence. The Apostle Luke tells us, “When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” They knew in their hearts that the words of Stephen rang true, so they ground their teeth and covered their ears in frustration, then they got rid of the problem the only way they knew how, by killing Stephen. Instead of reconsidering and looking to God, they resorted to violence so that they didn’t have to face the truth.
So, the leaders of the Temple dragged Stephen out of the city and stoned him. And Stephen went from being one of the churches first leaders to becoming the Christian churches’ first martyr. This wasn’t a legal trial and execution, the high priest had no power to execute anyone, Israel at that time was governed by the Roman authorities and only the Roman ruler could sentence someone to death. That’s why the Jewish authorities had to have Pilate issue the order for the death of Jesus, legally they couldn’t do it. So, in actual fact, Stephen was murdered.
Yet, even in his dying Stephen, was able to witness to the glory of God the Father and Jesus the Son, Luke says, “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.” Now don’t those final words of Stephen put us in mind of these words of Jesus from the cross, “‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34), and his final words, “‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’” (Luke 24:36)
Stephen’s death was much like that of our Lord, Jesus. Both were executed for things they didn’t do, and both were convicted on the basis of false charges. Both committed their spirit to God. Both asked God’s forgiveness for those who executed them. They lived and died with God at the center of their lives.
What we can learn from the life and death of Stephen is that we won’t always know the end result of our actions. Stephen died not knowing what would happen with the church he had helped to build with the help of God. He knew he had been faithful, and he died with the peace of knowing he had done the right thing, even if it had cost him his life. He knew the church was spreading through Jerusalem and having an incredible impact in that area, but he probably never envisioned a movement that would affect the whole world.
And it’s the same in the work we do for the church today. We live in an era when church attendance continues to drop in Canada, and fewer and fewer people profess to being followers of Christ, but that is not the case all over the world. God’s word is still spreading rapidly in many places. Sometimes it seems that our efforts will all be in vain but sometimes it also makes one wonder. God is giving us the opportunity but not all of us are listening, just as he said it would be. As we were told, the gate is narrow… As we all know, only God knows his future plans for us, but like Stephen, all we can do is place our trust in him and continue to honour the command of Jesus to his disciples, “‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’”
Let us Pray:
Heavenly Father, thank you for the life and work of Stephen in building your church. May he be a reminder to us that being your disciple in this broken world is not always easy but is necessary. We thank you that you have called us to be your workers in the field. Help us to be diligent workers who are empowered and strengthened by your word. Like Stephen, we know not how our lives will help others but that your work is the most important work we’ll ever do. Help us Lord to trust you fully in all things that come our way. Encourage us to see that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a great joy and a great responsibility. Bless us this week as we live in faith. All this we pray in the name of our Lord and Saviour. Amen