(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

This is a short but very instructive passage. It is a glorious tribute to a life devoted to Jesus and lived in the power of the Spirit. It is a terrible indictment of religious pride and hatred. It is a stirring reminder that Jesus keeps watch over his own. I am indebted to Gordon J. Keddie for some of the points made in this exposition.

(B) Stephens exposure of religious formalism.

The members of the Sanhedrin, the intellectual elite and Jewish ruling class:

    (a) Were stiff-necked. See v51.
    The members of the Sanhedrin could not bend; they could not bow their heads in acknowledgment that they were wrong. We find it so hard to admit that we are wrong. On my trip to Japan with my friend Tommy, one day was spent exploring Miyako. I bought a map, with some difficulty, to plan our route. I must say that British O.S. maps are far superior to anything produced in Japan. We reached a point in our wanderings when we stood on a high bridge over a deep valley leading to an isolated bay. I wanted to get down to the bay. I said to my friend, "We go down this footpath."

    He said, "I'm not going down there."

    I said, "It will lead down to the bay - the map says so."

    He said, "You can't read a map."

    I retorted, "I can - that's my trade - I'm a Geographer."

    "Geographer! Huh!" he snorted.

    This was just the reaction you might expect from an Historian! It was with the greatest reluctance Tommy followed me down the steeply sloping footpath - through a cemetery - to the bay! He could not find it in him to apologise for doubting my map reading abilities. He was stiff-necked. That's how we are.

    (b) Had uncircumcised hearts and ears.
    This means that the religious leaders acknowledged God outwardly but not inwardly. Their religion was all rules and regulations, traditions and ceremonies. They had no feeling for God - no humility, no brokenness, no gratitude and no compassion. So when Jesus taught God's truth the Pharisees and Sadducees did not respond to it. They had no love for Jesus.

    Some years ago I attended the funeral of a former colleague. Another colleague gave the eulogy; he spoke with honesty, sincerity, affection, respect and eloquence about our old headmistress. However there was one aspect of her life that he did not deal with - her relationship with Christ. I found this very sad because she had been a devout Anglican. My colleague could not speak with understanding or feeling on this aspect of her life because he lacked a living relationship with Jesus. He attends the Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds but for reasons other than a deep commitment to Christ.

    There are a lot like that. I preached many years ago at a well- attended Anglican church in Norfolk. The vicar was a former student of mine. At the end of the service I stood at the door to shake hands with people as they left. Not a single one said that they had appreciated the message. My impression was that they returned home in some perplexity. My old pupil never repeated the experiment. I don't think the fault was mine. The congregation lacked new life in Christ.

    (c) Resisted the Holy Spirit.
    The custodians of Judaism were out of sympathy with the mind and will of God. They rejected the clear evidence of the power of the Spirit in the miracles of Jesus, the ministry of the apostles and the life of ordinary Christians.

    There are Grace Baptists who oppose the Alpha Course used by many churches for evangelism. I can understand some of their reservations but the fact remains the Holy Spirit has used this course to bring many to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. It is wrong to resist the means used by the Spirit to make new Christians.

    (d) Betrayed and murdered the Righteous One.
    The Jewish leaders acted against their own Saviour. They put to death the longed for Messiah. They despised the very Son of God. The Pharisees were religious - none more so - but they failed to recognise the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

    There are numerous church attendees who baulk at aspects of Christ's life and work. Some hate the very idea of Jesus making a sacrifice for sin. They are squeamish about the shed blood. Others refuse to accept inconvenient or demanding teachings on wealth, divorce, family responsibilities, forgiveness and anxiety. Donald Soper, the well- known Methodist open-air preacher, closed his mind to the possibility that Jesus cursed the barren fig tree. Sometimes we just have to submit to Jesus when we cannot understand and accept in faith that he knows best.

    (e) Didn't obey the law - given though it was by angels.
    The Pharisees and Lawyers were interested in the law. They defended the law - not one jot or title could be subtracted from it. In spite of knowing it, interpreting it, adding to it and making life a burden for ordinary folk with their traditions the Pharisees themselves did not obey the law.

    I am afraid there are plenty of fundamentalists just like that. They will expend a lot of energy ferociously contending for the inerrancy of Scripture but they are less enthusiastic about obeying it. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching , rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. We will not be held to account over whether we believe in the inerrancy of the Bible but over our lack of good works.

(C) Stephen's witness to the status and ongoing work of Jesus.

Stephen had a vision of the glory of God. He saw and testified that:

    (a) Jesus was bodily and consciously in God's presence.
    No other man is in God's presence like Jesus. John writes: No-one has ever gone to heaven except the one who came from heaven - the Son of Man. John3v13.

    Jesus does not live in the sense that his influence lives on - that his teaching and example remain a potent force for good. Stephen cried out before his death: "Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." v56. Jesus is alive and active in heaven.

    (b) Jesus was at God's right hand.
    Jesus is God's right hand man. He is in a position of power and authority. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this: Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. ...... Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need. Heb4v14to16. See Exposition on the great high priest.

    (c) Jesus was standing.
    It is almost as if the unfolding events on earth had captured Jesus' special attention.

    I often used to sit down as a schoolmaster. If the children worked quietly I, too, would sit at my desk and get on with some other task. However, if there was a disturbance I would stand up to show that I was paying particular attention. My pupils took care when I stood up!

    Jesus stood, he was on his feet, watching intently as Stephen faced death. He was waiting in anticipation of receiving Stephen's spirit. I believe that Jesus is always attentive and concerned when his friends are in trouble.

(D) The Sanhedrin's reaction to the testimony of Stephen.

The Jewish intelligentsia were overwhelmed with fury by Stephen's remarks. They ground their teeth, covered their ears and yelled at the tops of their voices. The Sanhedrin completely lost it! We see in what follows:

    (a) The effectiveness of anger.
    The Sanhedrin were so angry with Stephen that they took decisive action against him - notwithstanding the Roman law that prohibited them from exacting the death penalty. The polished, urbane, sophisticated members of the highest Jewish court rushed at Stephen, dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death. It was their anger that saw the thing through to the end.

    Professor Barclay, commenting on the Beatitude, 'Blessed are the meek,' wrote: Only when a man has mastered himself is he able to rule others. This is not true. Oliver Cromwell put an end to Parliament after he was overtaken by a kind of sudden berserk fury. He berated the assembled members like a mad man, kicking the ground and shouting personal abuse. When Peter Wentworth protested Cromwell's response was swift: "Call them in." In rushed five or six musketeers from Cromwell's own regiment of foot and that put an end to Parliament for Cromwell's lifetime. Cromwell, too, took decisive action in anger.

    (b) The danger of acting in anger.
    Anger makes us act unjustly. Actions fuelled by anger are often disproportionate to the offence. The Sanhedrin acted both illegally and unfairly in putting Stephen to death. It was a disgraceful example of judicial murder.

    I am very hot tempered and I have been guilty of going too far in my anger. Near the end of my teaching career I was very disappointed when a boy dropped out of a cricket match that I had organised. The boy's mother insisted that he play for a local village side instead of the school eleven. This ran counter to the National Cricket Association's guidelines that put the interest of school before club. I wrote a very hostile letter to the boy's mother and told the boy, himself, that I wanted nothing more to do with him. I went too far. The mother deserved the letter although she objected strongly to receiving it! However, the boy, who had a history of loyalty, did not deserve to be cast off for one offence. My anger had got the better of my judgment. I later saw the boy and rescinded my sentence.

    I have learned from experience that it can be foolish to act in anger - if that anger is out of control. The members of the Sanhedrin would have been better to put Stephen into prison and waited until their fury had abated before passing sentence upon him.

(E) Stephen died well.

Stephen died with unshaken confidence in Jesus. He cried out: "Lord Jesus receive my spirit." At death the Christian's spirit goes into God's safe keeping. Our hearts and minds are taken up by that greater heart and mind. God has perfect knowledge of our will, memory, beliefs, character and personality. Our spirit cannot be lost unless he wills it.

Stephen died without regret, resentment or fear. He was even able to pray for his enemies: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." v60. Stephen died content: that he had witnessed faithfully, that his work was done and for his spirit to be with Jesus.

He fell asleep. Death was no tragedy for Stephen. It was just like going to sleep. He would wake up at the resurrection of the dead - raised to life eternal.

It is a dreadful thing for a Christian to die badly. I was talking only this week to the church secretary of one of the small village chapels at which I sometimes preach. We were discussing a Mr N who used to worship at the chapel. He was a British Israelite with very decided views. I am afraid Mr N was extremely critical. He gave the coloured nurses and doctors at the West Suffolk hospital a hard time. The local vicar, who used to visit him in old age, was even more roughly dealt with. If Mr N did not like what the vicar wrote in the parish magazine his comments could be so venomous that the poor, long suffering clergyman was reduced to tears. Mr N. was a bitter and resentful man. He wished to be informed in advance if the young people of the chapel were going to play musical instruments at a service, especially if accompanied by Mr H on the big base drum, so that he could stop away. Mr N died badly. God abandoned him. At any rate he felt abandoned. He died crying out for God over and over again in utter despair.

(F) Stephen's witness.

Stephen's death undoubtedly affected Saul. That is why Luke tells us Paul was there giving approval to his death. Ch8v1. Saul could not escape the witness of Stephen. It troubled his conscience. The Holy Spirit goaded Saul with the martyr's triumphant death. By this means the persecutor in chief was prepared for his Damascus road experience.

It is so important to be a good witness. Mr H who played the big base drum, whom I mentioned above, was a funny little man. He was deaf - which is why he liked playing the drum. Mr H was not a dynamic Christian and I suppose he was something of a sceptic. He certainly was not cast in the mould of Stephen. However, the present church secretary of the chapel where he worshipped said, "Mr H encouraged us young people. He was easy to talk to. We felt he was one of us." Mr H is dead but the church he loved continues because of the young people he encouraged and who now carry on the work in his stead. He was, in spite of his relative insignificance, a good witness. His witness was, indeed, crucial for the maintenance of an evangelical cause in the village.