MESSAGE FOR JUNE 20, 2010 FROM ACTS 6:8-15
This week, we move into a new section of the book of Acts. One way is to divide this book is into three sections, following the outline Luke gives in Acts 1:8. There he says, “8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Jesus tells the apostles that the gospel must go out in three major areas—first, to Jerusalem, then to Judea and Samaria and finally, to the end of the earth. As you read through the book of Acts, Luke’s record indicates this is precisely the way the gospel advanced. As we have seen, in the first section, Luke places his focus on the advance of the gospel within Jerusalem. In this next section, the gospel advances to parts of Judea outside Jerusalem and into Samaria. Finally, in chapters 10 and following, the gospel will move out to the Gentile world--what was then considered “the end of the earth” in the outlying parts of the Roman Empire.
One theme that Luke traces through each of the sections is—in each new area the gospel penetrates, it is Jesus Christ who is continuing his ministry, first through the apostles and then the wider church. We know that it’s Jesus doing his work because of what we saw last time when we reviewed Acts 1:1 where Luke says that his gospel account is his record of “what Jesus began to do and to teach.” Acts is therefore a record of what he continued to do and to teach. So Luke makes a point of showing us the fingerprints of Jesus in each of these areas where the gospel is advancing anew. In each new area the gospel penetrates, though different people are shown doing the ministry, each shows the unmistakable spiritual DNA of Jesus that we saw in the gospels. In the first section in and around Jerusalem, Jesus is ministering through the apostles—those men he had discipled for three years. James, John and most prominently, Peter are the men through whom he works. As they minister, we see the same kinds of signs and wonders Jesus does in the gospels. We see the same life-changing preaching and the ability to confound their opposition that Jesus displayed in the gospels. We also see the apostles facing the same persecution that confronted Jesus and like him, they too respond to that persecution with miraculous grace.
In the second section that we begin today, Luke shines his spotlight on two of the men chosen to minister to the Grecian widows in the section we looked at last time. These are Jews who were born outside of Judea and the two that Luke highlights are Stephen and Philip. They too manifest the fingerprints of Christ in these same ways. They perform signs and wonders like Jesus; they preach with power; they confound the opposition with their invincible arguments and they too are persecuted and respond with miraculous grace. In the third section, beginning in chapter 10 and continuing through the end of the book, the scene again changes as this time the gospel goes out past Judea and Samaria—to the Gentiles. Here, it’s not Stephen or Philip, but Paul—who we are introduced to in this section, just as we met Stephen and Philip in the last section. Paul uniquely shows the marks of Christ ministering through him. He performs signs and wonders, preaches powerfully, confounds his opposition and is met with fierce persecution to which he responds with miraculous grace.
From the standpoint of missions, you could notice this same pattern in much of church history—when the gospel penetrates new areas, we have often seen these same signature characteristics of Jesus Christ, especially today in Muslim areas—signs and wonders, powerful preaching, grace to confound the opposition and persecution accompanied by miraculous grace. As we pray for our missionaries to the unreached people, I think we should take this pattern in Acts as a template for how to pray for them because that is the pattern Luke records and I see no reason to believe that God would alter that pattern today. The text this morning focuses on the ministry of Stephen. This man is clearly doing more with his time than making sure the Grecian widows are fed and cared for. He has in some ways transitioned from the ministry of mercy that marked the Seven, to the ministry of the Word that characterizes the 12. A couple of features distinguish Stephen’s ministry from the apostles. First, we will see that the opposition to the gospel that he faced has broadened by this time to include the common Jews on the street. Initially, Stephen is not persecuted by the Sanhedrin, but by his fellow Jews from the Greek world. Eventually, they drag him in front of the Jewish legal courts, but that is not where Stephen first meets opposition. Second, we see that the opposition to Stephen is focused against new and different areas than what the apostles faced. Let’s begin with Luke’s account in verse eight.
Luke writes, “8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 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. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 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, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 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.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
If you know the gospel accounts of the opposition Jesus faced, you see a very similar pattern here with Stephen. Both appear in a legal setting, both are forced to listen to the testimony of false witnesses, both mention the destruction of the temple, both are charged with blasphemy, both are asked by the High Priest to speak. And next time when we read his sermon and the reaction against it, we will see that like Jesus, Stephen also commits his spirit to God and asks God to forgive those who are killing him. Luke includes those details in part to emphasize his argument that in this second area of gospel penetration, it remains Jesus who is ministering now--through his wider church. Luke is preparing us for that final area of gospel penetration in Acts where Jesus will minister, not through his remaining apostles or a pair of Hellenistic Jews, but through a Christ-hater named Saul of Tarsus. Again, we must hear the glorious progression of the gospel, not only in the widening areas of its penetration, but in the increasingly counter-intuitive instruments Jesus uses to spread his gospel. His first instruments are the twelve—those he had discipled. But then, the focus shifts to Stephen and Philip, devout Jews, but from the Grecian realm of the Roman Empire and these two perhaps never met Jesus. Finally, Jesus works through Saul—a Pharisee who, when we meet him, is helping to create the church’s first martyr. Only God writes a story like this!
Luke records that Stephen is initially opposed by Jews from five different regions of the Hellenistic world, all of whom went to the same synagogue—“the synagogue of the Freedmen.” That means that the Jews who went to this synagogue were one-time slaves who had been liberated. What is Luke’s message to us as we read this account of yet another instance of opposition to the gospel? A big part of it is that Luke wants to remind us that the gospel is comprehensively offensive. What we mean by that is this--we see in Stephen the same opposition the apostles faced, but this time the message of Jesus is found offensive for reasons we haven’t seen before in Acts. In the earlier accounts, the apostles are opposed because they preach in Jesus’ name. That is—they claim that the crucified, dead and buried Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah and they herald his resurrection. They also make a point of blaming the Sanhedrin for his death, which brought the wrath of the officials. Those are the main reasons cited up to this point for opposition to the gospel.
In this account, Luke tells us other implications of the gospel that are also very offensive to those who hear it. Paul makes this same point very concisely when he says in First Corinthians 1:23, “23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” Both the orthodox Jews and the pagan, idol-worshipping Gentiles to whom he preached opposed the gospel, but for different reasons. The main message to us this morning is: God will give us grace to stand for the gospel before differing kinds of people with their differing objections. The gospel is like a multifaceted diamond—radiating light in several directions. To those who are saved, those various streams of light cause us to the see the manifold glory of the gospel. But to those who are perishing, the various shafts of gospel light are just different aspects of its foolishness and which offend different people in different ways. As we move further into Acts, we see that the opposition to the gospel remains constant because the world’s opposition to Jesus is constant. The reasons for the opposition simply change from one group to another. As Stephen confronts the opposition he faced, we must learn from his example as we confront the opposition we will face if we are faithful to stand for the gospel and speak it to others. Many in the church today frankly don’t think much about being faithful to stand for the gospel or speaking its truth to others. If that is you, the main message here is by God’s grace--repent of your lukewarmness and gather strength from the truth we see lived out by Stephen. This morning, let’s look at two lessons Stephen’s ministry shows us by example.
The first is—We must be dependent upon and confident in God’s grace as you stand for the gospel. Luke repeats several times that those who faithfully stand for Christ and speak his truth are those who are filled with the Holy Spirit. We saw this in chapter one when Jesus forbade the apostles to begin their ministry until the Spirit was sent. Its only after the Spirit came that then Peter preached his sermon and 3000 people were converted. When Peter and John were standing before the council after they had been arrested in chapter four, Luke says in verse eight, “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…” The Spirit supplies his boldness and helps him in his defense. When they were released from prison, having been warned not to preach in Jesus’ name, the church prays for boldness. Luke concludes that section in verse 31, “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” Again, Luke wants us to see the unbreakable connection between on the one hand, living in humble dependence upon God seeking the Spirit’s empowerment, and on the other, being bold in our witness. If you are not filled with the Spirit—that is, under the control of the Holy Spirit, you will have no Biblical boldness. In your own strength, either the fear of man will close your mouth, or you will be bold in the flesh, which means you will just be obnoxious. Here, as we meet Stephen as a preacher of the gospel Luke introduces him by saying, “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.” In light of the larger context of Acts, that’s just another way of saying that it’s the Spirit’s grace and power that enabled Stephen.
When we read of these men and their ministries, our first response often is, “I could never do that.” Of course you can’t and neither could they—apart from God’s enabling. When we minister the gospel in any way, we must learn that the ultimate responsibility does not fall on our shoulders. Do we believe that? It is the ministry of Jesus as much today as it was 2000 years ago. He will minister in and through us as we learn to depend upon him and be confident of his grace. Obviously, Stephen and the other leaders in Acts have a special calling to preach in areas where the gospel had not been heard, but we can expect God’s grace as we follow God’s leading to share the gospel with those God has called us to speak. We know this is what enabled Stephen to be so powerful because in verse 10 Luke says that those who opposed him “could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” What makes Stephen’s arguments invincible is a combination of the wisdom God had given him through his years of study and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. This text shows us both the strengths and limitations of apologetics. A good apologist for the Christian faith—that is, one who is skilled in defending the truth claims of Christianity, in the power of the Spirit can confound the opposition and that is a strength. However, if the people you are addressing do not want to hear it or wish to remain deceived, no matter how empowered your arguments, you cannot persuade them. These men eventually executed Stephen in spite of the fact that they couldn’t withstand his arguments.
We may not be gifted evangelists or apologists, but one thing we can be certain of. That is—when we are in a position where it is clear that God has placed a person in our life with whom we are to share the gospel, he will give us all we need and we must learn to depend upon him and be confident in his provision. Without his provision and our confidence in it—there will be no genuine boldness. We’ll simply feel a burden to say something but that will be accompanied by a paralyzing fear. Believe this--when God burdens you to share with someone, he will supply you with whatever you need to share it. Do we believe this? This requires a step of faith just like every other thing we do that is pleasing to God. Will God provide me what I need to be faithful? The lesson we must draw from Stephen’s powerful example is, “yes.” Allow his example to build faith in you.
The reason so many of us fail is because we don’t trust God and we deep down believe it’s all up to us—our gifts, our ability to articulate and form cogent arguments. No wonder we remain silent! We should make sure our sins our confessed—believe we are forgiven—ask for his help—the filling of the Spirit and then, be confident that God is in charge and he will give you everything you need to say—however weakly you feel you are saying it. If God has placed someone in your life who needs the gospel and you feel that burden to share, know that once you open your mouth, God will use the knowledge and gifts and personality he has given you to be faithful in your Spirit-empowered, bold proclamation of the truth. Then, leave the results to God. It’s HIS job to convert lost sinners.
A second lesson we learn from the example of Stephen in our speaking the gospel to others is one we’ve seen before, but Luke again reminds us of its importance. That is—We must not avoid those elements of the gospel we think are mostly likely to incite opposition. The two areas of the gospel Stephen proclaimed that incited persecution according to Luke here are—1. the way the gospel impacts the Law of Moses and 2. the way it forever changed the role of the Jerusalem temple. The Law and the temple were perhaps the two most sacred institutions within Judaism. To seriously challenge the way the Jews understood them was to take your life in your hands. We know this is where Stephen stepped on toes from the charge in verse 11 where some said of Stephen, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”
This charge of blasphemy is clearly a distortion, but what made Stephen vulnerable to this charge is because the role of the Law—which is what is meant by “Moses,” had indeed changed and when Stephen brought that to light, that would have felt blasphemous to the Jews. We see the other offense in the testimony of the false witnesses who testify at his trial. Verse 13 says, “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.” Again, we see the emphasis on the Law, but also the temple. There are at least two reasons why they bring this charge against Stephen about destroying the temple. First, because Rome reserved the right to punish the Jews for all crimes, but they left the punishment of crimes involving any degrading of the temple up the Jews. That’s why they tried to convict Jesus of crimes against the temple—so they could execute him themselves. They couldn’t get their witnesses to agree on that count and so they were forced to go to Pilate.
The Jewish leaders wanted to execute Stephen, so they pin these crimes against the temple on him. A second reason why they bring this charge against him was because Stephen, like Jesus before him, spoke of how the ministry of Christ forever changed the relationship between God’s people and the temple. Both the Law of Moses and the temple find their fulfillment in Jesus. What I mean by that is--Jesus is the final and highest expression of both the Law and the temple. As it relates to the Law, Jesus says in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus fulfilled the Law is several ways. First, the Law pointed to God’s righteousness—it prescribes a righteous life that would be acceptable to God. When Jesus came, he lived that righteous life perfectly, flawlessly keeping all the Law. The way God’s people related to him under the Old Covenant was: 1. by being a born a Jew or being converted to Judaism, 2. by being circumcised and 3. by faith, obeying the Law. Jesus’ life and ministry brought all that to its logical fulfillment. Now the people of God will relate to him through faith in Jesus Christ and being born of the Holy Spirit.  Also, failure to keep the Law brought a curse according to the Old Covenant. Jesus came as the ultimate Passover Lamb whose death was the perfect punishment for all sin. He fulfilled the Law that demanded any animal sacrifice for sin and that meant the end of all temple sacrifices.
It was with those truths in mind that Jesus said things that the Jews understood to be degrading the temple. Those fundamental changes are what’s behind statements like he made in Matthew 12:6 where he says, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.” Or, in John 2:19 where he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Part of what that means is--Jesus is the new way in which God will dwell with humanity. In his flesh, he came and tabernacle among us. Now, he calls his church—his representative on earth—“the temple of God” and believers are living stones in which God by his Spirit dwells. In Revelation, we see that in eternity God will be the temple and we will live with him and he will dwell with us forever. The coming of Christ means that there is no sacred space where you must go to be with God and this truth has continued implications for us here today.
This is why it’s a good thing for us to sit here and worship him in a gym—why we don’t need, nor does he desire a new sanctuary to worship him. Jesus in John chapter four says those who worship him do so in Spirit and in truth—without regard to the kind of setting where we meet together. Sanctuaries are nice—there’s nothing wrong with them, but the leadership of this church has, I think rightly wanted to place our resources where God has placed his. His most precious treasure was Jesus and Jesus didn’t die to provide a sanctuary, he died to BE the sanctuary--to save sinners. We want our priorities as a church to reflect the priorities of the gospel, which means spending God’s money equipping his blood-bought church and bringing the gospel to those (near and far) who don’t know Jesus. And because there is no sacred temple outside of Jesus and his church, we can gather to worship just fine here in this good place. Stephen probably didn’t explain the new relationship between the believer and the Law and the believer and the temple in the same way Paul later does. But he obviously preaches a gospel that made it clear that the Law and the temple must be seen in a new light because of Jesus.
Again, in a Jewish setting the two things you did NOT want to offend anyone about were the temple and the Law. Stephen gives us a powerful example by taking them both on in his preaching. And in doing so, he signs his death warrant. In our culture, the implications of the gospel regarding the Jerusalem temple and the Law won’t offend anyone. Now, the sticking points of the gospel are things like--the fact that Jesus is the only way to be acceptable to God and everyone who does not trust in him is condemned to hell. Now, the fact that the gospel says that no one is good enough to get to heaven—not even those who go to church or who are nice people. The gospel teaches the politically incorrect truth that God is a God of wrath who hates all sin and must punish it. We must follow Stephen’s example here to not duck these truths of the gospel that will incite opposition. This account gives us great hope in that regard.
When we are faithful to do that in the power of the Spirit, the results are not necessarily that we will convert the ones to whom we speak—that’s not how Stephen’s story ended. But we do see that we can have God’s perfect peace in the midst of whatever opposition we may face. Notice in the text that after the Jews can’t defeat Stephen’s arguments and even when they falsely accuse him, Stephen is not angry or terrified. Verse 15 says, “Gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” Stephen doesn’t regret what he has said or the persecution it has brought him because he is filled with God’s Spirit. He would surely have said the same things again if given another chance and in fact, he does just that in his sermon we’ll look at next time.
What is it we fear when we feel that tug to open our mouth and speak the truth of Christ? That we will be persecuted in some way. Here, Stephen’s angelic face tells us that to be faithful and be persecuted is MUCH BETTER than to remain silent and avoid persecution. When you walk away from someone you know you should have shared with but don’t, do you have the face of an angel—kept by in perfect peace by God’s miraculous grace? No, instead of the peace of God covering our faces, we wear looks of shame and regret. Do we believe that we will have more joy if we remain faithful and face some potential persecution? The angelic face of Stephen in the face of life-ending persecution says—MORE JOY! May God give us the grace to be dependent upon and confident in God’s grace as we stand for the gospel and to not avoid those elements of the gospel that will bring opposition.
 Bock, ECNT, Acts, p. 268.
 Bruce, Acts, p.128.
 New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, electronic version—under the heading of LAW.
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