“And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 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. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 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, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 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.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel… You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 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, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 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. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 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. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 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.” (Acts 6:8-7:60 ESV)
Have you ever had a misunderstanding with someone only to learn later that they were correct and you were wrong? It can be a very humbling experience. There are times in my marriage when I have had this type of circumstance with my lovely wife of 40 years, Tina. Truth be told, she’s probably been right in these disagreements more times than I have. As I said, very humbling. Of course, we have all had times when someone else was right but we were stubborn and refused to admit it. No humility in those circumstances, just stubborn refusal to hear or admit to the truth and our reaction is very revealing.
The passage today is quite lengthy, so I did not put the entire text in this post for brevity’s sake. I do suggest you go read the entire passage (Acts 6:8 – 7:60) and note the detailed account of Abraham, Joseph and Moses that Stephen gives. It is easy to read through the story and completely miss Stephen’s point. I can assure you, those who heard it did not miss his point. They reacted very violently to his “sermon” and if you didn’t pay close attention then you may have missed the reason for their reaction.
Stephen is noted for being full of grace and power and for doing “great wonders and signs” among the people. This phrase is typically used to indicate some form of miraculous healing or other supernatural action by God through the Holy Spirit. So just like Peter and John in earlier chapters of Acts, Stephen’s actions begin to get noticed by the religious leaders and, specifically, by a group called the Freedmen. They begin to “dispute” with Stephen but are unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. It appears they are consistently losing public arguments regarding Jesus, the Christ.
So, Stephen is brought in on “trumped up” charges of speaking blasphemy against Moses, The Law, God and the threatening to destroy the Temple. The Freedmen hire some men who falsely testify against Stephen and he is brought before the Sanhedrin Council where his face appears to them like that of an angel. Stephen’s speech or sermon is aimed directly at these charges, though it seems to simply be a brief history of the Jewish nation. In reality, Stephen turns the tables on his accusers and shows how they are the ones who have been blasphemous while rejecting God’s guidance across the centuries and ultimately by rejecting His Christ, Jesus. Let’s take a brief look at the main points of his sermon…
First, Stephen points out that while God’s promises to Abraham included a land for his descendants, God’s work and presence were not confined to the Promised Land. In fact, God didn’t even give Abraham a “foot’s length” of this land but continued to use and bless him as the Father of Israel. The fulfillment of this promise continues as Abraham’s descendants are sojourners in a foreign land for 400 years as the promise is passed to Isaac and then on to Jacob. Stephen then moves to the story of Joseph.
Stephen notes that Joseph is specifically rejected by the Patriarchs (Joseph’s brothers) and sold into slavery in Egypt. God continues to fulfill His promise to Abraham, but outside of the land of Israel and through people specifically rejected by them. For example, Joseph brings salvation to the descendants of Abraham but through the Egyptians. Joseph was despised and rejected by his brothers and languished in prison for many years, but God was raising up a man to protect and save His people.
Next, Stephen relates the story of Moses and his rise from a childhood death sentence to the son of the Pharaoh. He points out that Moses was initially rejected by his brothers as the one who might save them from slavery and was driven out of Egypt and into exile. Stephen specifically noted: “He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand.” (Acts 7:25 ESV)
Stephen’s case against them is building and intensifying and his next point is like a dagger to the heart:
“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. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’” (Acts 7:35-37 ESV)
Stephen’s point is clear and lays out Israel’s continued failure to accept the very messenger God has sent and continues to send. They rejected Moses leadership in the wilderness and they desired to return to Egypt.
Stephen then makes one final point and it seals their guilt and his fate. He points out that when they rejected Moses they turned from God and to Egypt and idolatry and requested Aaron to build them a calf to worship. Even though God gave them the “tent of witness” or tabernacle (a witness of God’s call upon Moses and of His presence in their midst) and they brought it with them into the Promised Land, they have continued to reject God’s guidance and leadership. Stephen points out that the Temple has become nothing more than an idol to them and that they are as guilty as their forefathers in rejecting God’s messenger, Jesus.
We often want God’s presence and blessings in our lives, but we want them on our own terms. We often want salvation and forgiveness but, again, generally on our own terms. We love the socially involved Jesus who moves us to feed the hungry, help the needy, and heal the hurting but we despise and reject the Jesus who lovingly calls us to confess our sin and seek repentance. We love the Messiah who approves of our actions and motives (or at least turns a blind eye towards them) but we reject the one who claims to be “ruler and judge” over us.
Don’t be stubborn and refuse to admit that God is right. It isn’t until we recognize our sin and turn to Christ that we can even begin to experience the real blessings of God’s presence in our lives. The Jews have a greeting you may have heard, Shalom. It translates roughly into English as “peace” but it means SO much more than our understanding of the word peace. Shalom means wholeness or completeness. It is the experience of Moses in the wilderness and Joseph in the prison cell. It can be your experience today, if you will come to Christ, confess your sin, believe He is the Son of God and that He was resurrected and trust Him as Lord and Savior. (See Rom. 3:23, 6:23, 5:8, 10:9-10, 10:13, John 1:1-14)
So, let me end today with a question… which would you rather have, all the wealth and comfort the world has to offer or the very real presence of God in your life?
As you consider your answer, ponder the implications of this verse: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalms 37:4 ESV)