ACTS7v1to53: STEPHEN'S DEFENCE.
(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)
Stephen stands before the Sanhedrin accused of being a controversial spokesman for Jesus of Nazareth. He is said to have argued that Jesus would ultimately destroy the temple and modify the law of Moses.
Now, on first reading Stephen's defence is a bit of a disappointment. He gives the Sanhedrin a long history lesson. There is nothing original in what he says. It was all very familiar to the members of the court as it is to anyone who has attended Sunday school. What was the point of going over such well-worn ground?
Stephen's defence also seems unbalanced. He talks about the history of his people at some length and in a way that is perfectly acceptable and then, all of a sudden, without any warning, there is an outburst of pure invective - "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears..." v51.
I think the key to understanding Stephen's defence is to be found in v51: "You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!" He draws lessons from history until his indignation at the pigheadedness of his people gets the better of him and he lets rip at the latest manifestation of Jewish intransigence.
(B) Lessons from history.
Stephen shows that at crucial stages in the history of the Jewish people God intervenes and takes the initiative. It was God who chose Abraham and told him to travel to the Promised Land. "The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. 'Leave your country and your people,' God said, 'and go to the land I will show you.'" v2and3. It was God who arranged for the Israelites to migrate to Egypt and settle there. God prepared the way through Joseph. "He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt; so he made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace." v10. In the land of Egypt the descendants of Jacob became a distinct people. It was God who, after 400 years, selected Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. He said to Moses: "I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt." v34. Under the leadership of Moses the Israelites left Egypt, received the law and were schooled in obedience during the wilderness wanderings.
The point Stephen makes is that when God takes the initiative great changes occur. God's last great initiative was to send Jesus. His coming amongst the Jewish people was bound to bring about change - to the relevance of the temple and the need for ceremonial law.
When Moses led the mixed multitude toward the Promised Land there may have been some Jews who remained in Egypt. They preferred to stop where they were than risk an uncertain future with Moses. They would not change and missed out on the blessing. One of the greatest tragedies of history, one that perplexed the great apostle Paul, was that the chosen people rejected God's one and only son. The majority of Jews would not embrace Christ and change. As such the very people God had so carefully prepared for the coming of the Messiah never benefitted from his saving work.
Today - whenever the Holy Spirit is active, lives and churches change. Not all will welcome transformed lives and churches. An influx of new converts to the church will increase the workload and pastoral responsibility of mature Christians. It might actually be necessary to change the style of worship or at least the format of the service. If we are unable to face the challenge presented by God's grace we, too, will lose out.
(b) God makes use of those who are misjudged and rejected.
Joseph was rejected by his brothers and sold into Egypt. Moses, whom God specially prepared to lead the Israelites, was frequently misjudged by his contemporaries. Stephen said: "Moses thought that his own people would realise that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not." v25. It was very difficult for Moses to return to Egypt to act as God's spokesman. He didn't want to be spurned again. The very prophets who predicted the coming of the Righteous One were persecuted and killed. Stephen concludes this litany of woe by saying: "And now you have betrayed and murdered him (Jesus) -"
Yet God did use Joseph to save his family from starvation; he did use Moses to set his people free; he did honour the prophets, in the fullness of time, by sending his son; he has saved through faith in this self-same Jesus a family as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Gen22v17.
In my lifetime I have seen many spurn the message of salvation. This is hard on the messengers who themselves feel rejected. It is heartbreaking and demotivating to sow the seed year after year only to have it fall on the wayside. However, those who attend our churches and remain unsaved are ultimately resisting the Holy Spirit and disdaining God's provision in Christ Jesus. God's purpose is not thwarted. When the Jews refused the gospel Paul turned to the Gentiles. How did the king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son respond to the refusal of the invited guests to attend? The king said to his servants: "The wedding banquet is ready but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find. So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests." Mt22v9and10. The church in Western Europe may be in decline but that does not mean thousands are not daily being saved in other parts of the world.
(c) The Israelites have a long history of disobedience.
The Israelites disobeyed God when they made the golden calf at Mt Sinai. Stephen says: "But our fathers refused to obey him (God). Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. v39 From that time until the exile the Jews were prone to idolatry. Stephen concludes his survey of Jewish history by saying contemptuously: "you who received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it." v53.
When Jesus, the Saviour promised long, finally arrived on earth his people did not love the Lord their God with all their heart or their neighbour as themselves. They were so out of tune with God that they disowned and murdered the Righteous One - God's beloved son.
If we love Jesus we will obey him. Those that love and obey Jesus are receptive to the Holy Spirit's prompting and leading. Wherever there is disobedience the Spirit is grieved and blessing withheld. It is a tragedy that so many Christians make all manner of excuses for not meeting for prayer. This a basic Christian corporate exercise. What does it say about the spiritual appetite of believers who would do anything rather than attend a prayer meeting? How can a church expect the Holy Spirit to move without prayer? Paul writes to the church at Ephesus: And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Eph6v18.
(d) The Israelites put limits on God.
The Jews believed that God was their God. He was the God of the Jews. So in order to worship the one true God it was necessary to become a Jew and be circumcised. God was also the God of the temple. That was the place to worship God through sacrifices and ceremonies. But Jesus told the Samaritan women who questioned the Jewish claim that men ought to worship in Jerusalem: "A time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth." John4v23and24.
This is a truth Stephen reiterates: "However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says:
and the earth is my
Stephen was not prepared to limit God to either the Jews or their temple.
Men still limit God. It is wrong to limit him to any one denomination or sect. He is no more the God of the Roman Catholics or Grace Baptists or Jehovah Witnesses than he is of the Jews. I read in the Daily Telegraph for Monday April 29th the obituary of the Russian hero, Colonel-General Alexander Lebed. I was glad to see that: Although he was a convinced atheist for most of his life, Lebed found that with the collapse of Soviet power and the revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia he was moving, albeit with some bewilderment, towards Christianity. Who can deny that many are brought to God through Christ within the Russian Orthodox Church - a tradition so different from my own.
It is equally wrong to limit God to a gifted, talented or influential person. The Corinthian Christians made this mistake - some followed Paul, some Apollos and others Cephas. There were even a few who followed Christ! I am always amazed that so much is made of the testimonies of celebrities. Can't God work through the testimonies of ordinary Christians? Of course he can! Most conversions are made through the witness of commonplace Christians.
Finally it is foolish to limit God to a particular form of evangelism. I know a man who was converted by the text on a wall calendar and another who came to Christ through the words on a placard - one side of which read: The wages of sin is death, and the other: The gift of God is eternal life. Romans6v23. That is the shortest, most complete, statement of the gospel I know!