RPM, Volume 17, Number 15, April 5 to April 11, 2015

Stephen's Sermon (Part 1)

Acts 7:1-53

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Open your Bibles please to Acts 7. This week we come to the story of Stephen, this godly man, this man who is described for us by Luke as "full of the Holy Spirit", one of the seven chosen to help relieve the apostles in the dispute that has arisen between the Hellenistic widows and the Hebrew widows.

Stephen has already been described to us as a man of extraordinary godliness, and by the end of chapter seven he is going to be dead. He's going to be the first Christian martyr.

And accusations have been brought against Stephen. You see there in chapter six and verse eleven, "Then they secretly induced men to say..." Now what does that remind you of? And Luke is doing this deliberately. He's reminding you that they did this to Jesus, too, bringing false charges and false witnesses against Him.)

"They secretly induced men to say 'We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.'"

And then again in verse 14:

"We have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place [that is to say, the temple] and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us."

So this twofold charge is brought against Stephen: That he had set on teaching the destruction of the temple, and that he is defiling and desecrating the Law of Moses. And what we have in chapter seven and the first 53 verses is Stephen's defense. It's not a defense as you might find in a court of law, but it's Stephen's apologia; it's his spiritual defense. Actually, it's a sermon. It's a long sermon. It's a very long sermon. And we're going to read the chapter together.

Let's hear from Acts 7. Before we do so, let's pray.

Father, every time we read the Bible, it is like reading a letter that You sent personally to us. These are Your words, and we pray for that measure of reverence and attention and seriousness as we deal with holy things; and, Holy Spirit, grant a spirit of illumination, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

And the high priest said, "Are these things so?"

And he said, "Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, 'Depart from your country and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you.' Then he departed from the land of the Chaldeans, and settled in Haran. And from there, after his father died, God removed him into this country in which you are now living. And He gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground; and yet, even when he had no child, He promised that He would give it to him as a possession, and to his offspring after him. But God spoke to this effect, 'that his offspring would be aliens in a foreign land, and that they would be enslaved and mistreated for four hundred years. And whatever nation to which they shall be in bondage I Myself will judge,' said God, 'and after that they will come out and serve Me in this place.'

And He gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs. And the patriarchs became jealous of Joseph and sold him into Egypt. And yet God was with him, and rescued him from all his afflictions, and granted him favor and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh, King of Egypt; and He made him governor over Egypt and all his household. Now a famine came over all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction with it, and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers there the first time. And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph's family was disclosed to Pharaoh. And Joseph sent word and invited Jacob his father and all his relatives to come to him, seventy-five persons in all. And Jacob went down to Egypt and there passed away, he and our fathers. And from there they were removed to Shechem, and laid in the tomb which Abraham had purchased for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. But as the time of the promise was approaching which God had assured to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt, until there arose another king over Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph. It was he who took shrewd advantage of our race, mistreated our fathers so that they would expose their infants and they would not survive. And it at this time that Moses was born; and he was lovely in the sight of God; and he was nurtured three months in his father's home. And after he had been exposed, Pharaoh's daughter took him away, and nurtured him as her own son. And Moses was educated in all the learning of the Egyptians, and he was a man of power in word and deeds. But when he was approaching the age of forty, it entered his mind to visit his brethren, the sons of Israel. And when he saw one of them being treated unjustly, he defended him and took vengeance for the oppressed by striking down the Egyptian. And he supposed that his brethren understood that God was granting them deliverance through him; but they did not understand. And on the following day he appeared to them as they were fighting together, and he tried to reconcile them in peace, saying, 'Men, you are brethren, why do you injure one another?' But the one who was injuring his neighbor pushed him away, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and judge over us? You do not mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday, do you?' And at this remark Moses fled, and became an alien in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons. And after forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning thorn bush. And when Moses saw it, he began to marvel at the sight; and as he approached to look more closely, there came the voice of the Lord: 'I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.' And Moses shook with fear and would not venture to look. But the Lord said to him, 'Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. I have certainly seen the oppression of My people in Egypt, and have heard their groans, and I have come down to deliver them; come now, and I will send you to Egypt.'

This Moses whom they disowned, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and a judge?' is the one whom God sent to be both a ruler and a deliverer with the help of the angel who appeared to him in the thorn bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, 'God shall raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren.' This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you. And our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, saying to Aaron, 'Make for us gods who will go before us; for this Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt—we do not know what happened to him.' And at that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, 'It was not to Me that you offered victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, O house of Israel? You also took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rompha, the images which you made to worship them. I also will remove you beyond Babylon.'

Our fathers had the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness, just as He who spoke to Moses directed him to make it according to the pattern which he had seen. And having received it in their turn, our fathers brought it in with Joshua upon dispossessing the nations whom God drove out before our fathers, until the time of David. And David found favor in God's sight, and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for Him. However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says: 'Heaven is My throne, and earth is the footstool of My feet; What kind of house will you build for Me?' says the Lord; 'Or what place is there for My repose? Was it not My hand which made all these things?'

You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it."

Thus far God's holy and inerrant word.

Now I want to look at this passage. It's a long passage—a long sermon that Stephen delivers—and I want us to look at it in the next two weeks.

Two charges have been made against Stephen, one with regard to the temple and that he has been teaching that Jesus had said that He would destroy this temple, which indeed He did teach, and the second charge that he is desecrating the Law of Moses. And we'll look at that second charge and the way that Stephen responds to that second charge next week. So in many respects this will be a kind of bird's eye view of this sermon.

It's an important passage for many, many reasons. It's important because it gives us an example of New Testament preaching, and it's not just preachers who should be interested in how did the apostles and the disciples in the church of the New Testament preach. It was full of Bible, it was full of God's word, and it culminated in the coming of Jesus Christ, and there are lots and lots of lessons. We could spend an hour or two just talking about the template of this sermon and what it looks like, and what we should be looking for, and what we should be praying for.

It's important because it helps us understand the Old Testament, because one of the things that Stephen is saying so very clearly here is that these men in the temple, the Sanhedrin in particular, didn't understand the Old Testament. They didn't understand their own Scriptures, and this chapter provides for us an understanding of the central dominating themes of the Old Testament. What are the most important events in the history of redemption? And Stephen gives it to us here as he unfolds the story of Abraham and Joseph and Moses, and David and Solomon.

But it's important, too, and perhaps most importantly, because it helps us understand how the New Testament brings to a certain focus what the Old Testament had always been about. And it helps us to see how from the eyes of the New Testament and from the other side of the cross, the Old Testament suddenly comes to light and to focus.

Now, it's a daring thing that Stephen does here, you understand, because he is going to criticize not just the Sanhedrin, but he is going to say something that in effect the temple has no significance any more. And you understand the significance of saying that, because up until now and for a little while longer this fledgling Christian church is going to be under the umbrella of the protection of the Roman Empire because it is seen as a part of Judaism, which was one of the...it had the religio licita: it was under the umbrella and protection of Rome in a special category. But from now on the church is going to be separate from the temple and from the synagogue, and it will reap the consequences of persecution. And this is a daring, daring move on Stephen's part, for which he will pay, of course, the ultimate price.

It's not just Stephen who criticizes the temple. Even back in the Old Testament, you remember back in Jeremiah in chapter seven, the so-called temple sermon: "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord..." That's what the people of God were saying at the end of the seventh century. They were trusting in a building. They had put all of their hopes and all of their dreams, and all of their aspirations, in a zip code on Mount Zion, in Jerusalem, but their hearts were far from God. They had the outward forms and ceremonies, and they had the institutions...but they didn't know God. And they didn't love God. And they didn't love His word. And the prophets - Isaiah in the opening chapter and Jeremiah in chapter seven, and in other places in the prophets - bring down the warning of judgment that will take them into exile.

Chrysostom, that seraphic preacher from the early church, one of the early church fathers, preached a series of sermons on The Acts of the Apostles, and he says that what Stephen does here is that "he sets the whole of heaven against the temple." He sets the whole of heaven against the temple.

Now some controversy is always necessary. Sometimes you can't avoid controversy. But it's Stephen's winsomeness...Stephen is seraphic. There's nothing personal here. There are no tirades against individuals in the Sanhedrin. There's no anger here. There's no violence in Stephen's language, but there is strong language when he calls them "stiff-necked."

Now four periods of history are singled out as he tells the story. It's received bad press. George Bernard Shaw, for example, criticizes this sermon of Stephen's as "long-winded and boring." Well! So much for George Bernard Shaw!

What is Stephen doing here? He singles out the periods of Abraham, and Joseph, and Moses, and David and Solomon. Let's for this evening try and get the big picture, because he's answering the charge that he is opposed to the temple in Jerusalem by teaching that this Jesus, this Nazarene called Jesus, will destroy the temple. And Jesus had indeed taught that: "I'll destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it again," He had said, speaking of course of the resurrection, giving us the clue that the temple had always been about Christ. It had always been a pre-figurement of the coming of Jesus, and now that Jesus had come, and now that Jesus had lived, and now that Jesus had died, and now that Jesus had been raised from the dead and had ascended to the right hand of God, there was no place for the temple any more. And what Stephen does is he goes back to the Old Testament and says you understand that God was never limited to a zip code in Zion—not at any period in the history of redemption.

So he begins with Abraham, in verses 2-8. You haven't understood Abraham. That's a bold thing to say to a group of Sanhedrin...in Jerusalem...in the temple! You haven't understood Abraham. What was their great claim? That they were the sons of Abraham! That was their greatest claim. (It would be like me trying to teach you about "The War of Northern Aggression"!)

You see, these Sanhedrin, and the Jews generally, were trusting in something external. They were trusting in DNA. That genetic link all the way back to Abraham, that's what they prized, that's what they valued. It was outward. It was institutional. No matter what, God was on their side. Do you remember what John the Baptist had said? "Don't say," he said, "we have Abraham as our father. God is able to take these stones and raise up sons of Abraham." And they didn't like him, either.

So he tells the story of Abraham, and what is the story of Abraham? That he was called from a place called Ur of the Chaldeans in Mesopotamia, and he came to Haran, and when his father died he went down to Canaan, where they now are; and then for a while went into Egypt, and then came back to Canaan again, and God was with him. God was with him! The God of glory [verse 2], the God of glory! Not just God, but the God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia...in Iraq, of all places!

God isn't limited to a zip code of Mount Zion where Abraham offered his son Isaac. He's not limited there. God was present with Abraham in all of these places. 'You don't understand your own history about Abraham, because by faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land living in tents with Isaac and with Jacob, and heirs with them of the same promise, because he looked for a country whose builder and maker is God. Abraham never owned so much as a square inch of Canaan, let alone Mount Zion. He had no real estate in Canaan, and God was with him at every step of the journey because he lived looking for the true Canaan which is to come.'

And he goes to Joseph, the wonderful extraordinary story of Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery and bondage and left for dead; left in a hole in the ground for dead, and then released and sold into slavery. And the whole story...raised as the prime minister of Egypt. In verse 9: "And the patriarchs became jealous of Joseph and sold him into Egypt." But (and this is the point), "God was with him." He was with him in prison. He was with him when he was falsely accused of rape. He was with him in the famine. He was with him when his father Jacob came down to see the one as though he had been raised from the dead, because for years and years Jacob had believed that his son was dead. And He was with him in Egypt.

God was with Abraham in Mesopotamia. God was with Joseph in Egypt. And oh, I wish I had time!...but that extraordinary story, you remember when Joseph takes his father Jacob back to Shechem to bury him in that little plot of ground, and the whole Egyptian entourage coming back? A little signal that Egypt would bow down to these lowly Jewish peasants one day, because God was with them no matter what the circumstances might be.

And Moses — and we're only going to skim along the surface of the story of Moses because I want to come back to that next week, because in part that's answering the second charge about Stephen's understanding of the Mosaic law. But the climax is in verse 33:

"The Lord said to him, 'Take off the sandals from off your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.'"

Where did that take place? It wasn't on Mount Zion. It wasn't in the zip code where the temple was. It was in Mount Sinai. It was in the foothills of Mount Sinai that God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush and uttered those words, "I Am that I Am," when God asked Moses to go back to Egypt - and there's a price on his head, and his own people aren't too sure about him, either! And he said, "What name will I give them?" And God gives that name: "I Am that I Am" (or possibly, "I Will Be what I Will Be"). In part, as older theologians insisted, it's a name that conjures up the idea of God's eternal self-existence, but also perhaps a name...as I Am that I Am is shortened to what we used to call Jehovah, and now we say Yahweh, meaning I will be with you...I'll be with you in covenant, I'll be with you in promise.

So as with Abraham, and so with Joseph, so with Moses. God is with His people in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in Sinai.

And David and Solomon—when David desires to build a house for God, and Solomon his son is the one who actually builds the house for God, what did Solomon say? What did Solomon say about the temple? The Solomonic temple in all of its beauty and glory? And you remember when they built the second temple after the exile, the ones who could recall said 'It's nothing like the old temple.' Do you remember what Solomon said in his prayer? "The Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands." He doesn't dwell in houses made by hands...and there's a little thread that's running through here, and Stephen wants you to understand what that thread is. It's a contrast between "made by hands" and "made without hands." Paul will take up that theme. You remember he talks about a circumcision made with hands and a circumcision made without hands, talking about the spiritual conversion and union with Christ. And these people were fixated on the things that they could make with their hands.

Now that little term, that little word that Stephen was using in the Greek was a word that was rendered in the Greek translation of the Old Testament is the very same word about making the golden calf. It was naughty, because what the Sanhedrin heard was "This temple has become a place of idolatry, like the golden calf; a place where the judgment of God is about to fall." Does Stephen back away from the charge about the destruction of the temple? Not at all. But he's answering the charge, too. And he's saying God was never limited to this zip code in Zion.

And in actual fact, God was about to build another temple and it was going to be in Judea, and it was going to be in Samaria, and it was going to be in Ephesus, and it was going to be in Rome, as Gentiles are brought into the kingdom of God and into saving faith with Jesus Christ.

And what is the conclusion to this first little study of this great, great sermon? He says in verse 51... Well, before he says that, of course, do you notice how he picks up that great quotation from Isaiah 66:

"'Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool; and what kind of house will you build for Me?' says the Lord; 'Or what is the place of My rest? Did not My hand make all these things?'"

And it comes right at the end of the prophecy of Isaiah, and Isaiah is talking about the new heavens and the new earth, and it's a little clue—actually, it's a very big clue—that the temple was always about something far more significant and far greater than this structure on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

And so he reaches his conclusion in verse 51:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. And is all you see is the outward form, if all you see is the outward ceremony, if all you see is the institution, then you are stiff-necked and you are resisting the Holy Spirit.

You see, the tragedy is that Israel thought that their joy and fulfillment was to be found in something that they made with their own hands. It's the way of all flesh, because every false religion at the end of the day is a variation on the theme that we can make it by our own hands. That's why (and I've been accused of saying it ad infinitum, and I will say it to my grave):

"Nothing in my hands I bring;?Simply to Thy cross I cling.?Naked, look to Thee for dress;?Helpless, look to Thee for grace.?Foul, I to the fountain fly;?Wash me, Savior, or I die."

Because if I trust in something that I can make with my own hands, then it's the road to ruin and death and judgment; and I can only glory and find joy and fulfillment in that which God makes with His hands: His Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, because He is the temple. He is the temple. That's why John says, you know, at the very beginning of John's Gospel...that little wedding ceremony in Cana in Galilee...(Cana in Galilee was about as far away from Jerusalem as it was possible to get and still be in Cana). And you remember John gives us that little clue about the six water pots of the ceremonial washings. It's giving us a little clue in that story. Jesus is the true temple, and you worship Him. And when you worship Him, this physical building in Jerusalem has no function any more. It has fulfilled its purpose.

May God give us that vision. Let's pray.

Father, we thank You for this courage that we see in Stephen, and we pray for that insight that through pages of the Old Testament we too might see something of Your glory and greatness and of Your Son, Jesus Christ. Hear us, Lord, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Please stand; receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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