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"Stephen, Full of Grace and Power"

MESSAGE FOR JUNE 27, 2010 FROM ACTS 7:1-53

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Read Acts 7:1-53

          This morning, we look at the longest sermon recorded in the book of Acts.  It’s interesting that the preacher isn’t Peter or Paul—it’s not even one of the 12.  It’s Stephen, a Hellenistic Jew who may have never even met Jesus personally and who appears in only two chapters of the book of Acts before becoming the first Christian martyr.  If you were here last week, you’ll recall that Stephen’s preaching had offended even the average Jew on the street, some of whom seized him and drug him before the Jewish high court and slanderously charged him with “speak[ing] blasphemous words against Moses and God.” [6:11]  False witnesses appear before the court and testify that Stephen“… 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.”  The penalty for profaning the temple was death yet, in spite of the fact that a death sentence hangs over his head, before he addresses this hostile crowd, he has (as we saw last week) the face of an angel—so filled is he with God’s Spirit and peace.

          As Stephen begins his message, we know from what he says here that his purpose is three-fold.  First, he gives an eloquent and remarkably well-versed survey of God’s dealings with his people and emphatically states his high esteem for the Law.  He does that in part to defend himself against the charges of blasphemy.  Stephen comes off as a learned, devout, God-fearing Jew—not a blasphemer.  Stephen shows he is not some theological lightweight who does not understand God and his redemptive plan for his people.  Instead, his message reveals a man who has a tremendous grasp on God’s dealings with his people.  Second, and related to this, he seeks to correct the distortions the Jewish leaders and teachers and the rest of the Jews have perpetuated about God’s purpose for the Law and the temple.  He does that by citing several Old Testament texts to support his position.  

Finally, he says that the current Jewish leadership, in rejecting God’s Messiah, has shown themselves to be part of an unbroken line of Jewish leaders before them who had rejected and killed God’s messengers.  So, Stephen here follows in the great tradition of Jesus and the apostles as a man without formal theological training and unrecognized as a Bible teacher.  But like them, he boldly declares from the Scriptures to the highly educated Jewish spiritual leadership that they had in fact, completely missed the true meaning and purpose of the Old Testament.  In this case, he chooses to point out their horribly twisted understanding of the two most sacred institutions in Judaism, the Law and the temple.  One reason this text is so pivotal within the overall message of Acts is because it’s this message and the Jews’ hostile response to it that formally mark the end of any real hope that the Jews as a people would accept Jesus and the gospel as a valid expression of Judaism.

Before this, followers of Jesus were seen more or less as a sect of Judaism.  From this point forward, the church and Judaism are increasingly seen as separate and theologically distinct entities.  From this point forward, the Jewish leaders and the Jews in general begin to formally and aggressively persecute the church.  Though we have felt tremors that have signaled this crack between Judaism and the church before this incident, this event represents the theological earthquake that opens the fissure where the Jews as a people begin to formally consider Christ’s teaching heretical and not as an extension of the Old Testament teaching.  These cracks had existed under the surface for some time because the Jews has abused and distorted the Scriptures by replacing the radical call to love God with all heart, soul, mind and strength taught in the Old Testament covenants and twisted them into a book of rules that would play into their self-righteous, self-centered and sentimental tendencies. 

When Jesus came on the scene, he recovered those Old Testament truths and taught the radical nature of what it is to be in a covenant with God and comprehensively love him as your Father, but the Jews as a people had never really wanted that, so they crucified him.  Like Jesus, Stephen here confronts some of these same distortions the Jews had created in their faulty understanding of the Old Testament---particularly as it related to Moses and the Law and the temple.  Because the Jews didn’t really want to know God personally and live radically in faith for him, they rejected Stephen’s teaching that placed Moses, the Law and the temple in their proper perspective.  It’s easy for us to look down our noses in disgust at the way the Jews abused and distorted the teaching of the Old Testament to fit into their self-centered lives, but my prayer is that God will use the negative example of these Jews to show us where we may have obscured the radical message of the Bible with one that conforms to our own self-centered, fleshly desires.

          The main truth for us this morning is, We must not abuse Scriptural truth in a way that obscures its radical call to discipleship.   Let’s look at three areas of this abuse that Stephen confronts here.  First, we see from Stephen’s message how the Jewish leaders, like those who had gone before them, had broken the Law; second—how they had distorted the importance and role of the temple and finally—how they had rejected God’s messengers.  First, let’s look at what Stephen says about how the Jews as a people abused Moses and the Law.  The main abuse of the Law Stephen summarizes at the end of his message in verse 53.  “…you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” The leaders here following in the footsteps of countless generations of their Jewish forefathers.  They received the Law—they were intensely proud of the Law and that God had given it to them.  They marveled at its wisdom—they were fascinated by its call to righteousness.  They understood it was precious because, unlike any other culture’s legal code, it had been delivered by angelic beings who received it from God.  There was just one small problem--they serially, continually didn’t keep it and in so doing they dishonored God and the Law.

          Stephen had been wrongly accused of speaking against the Law and so he demonstrates his great respect for it by referring to it with a title of honor.  He says of Moses in verse 38, “He received living oracles to give to us.”  Stephen uses this exalted title “living oracles” for the Law, not only to show his respect for it, but also to imply the difference between his regard for the law as a follower of Christ compared to them.  What does he mean by “living oracles?”  In both the Old and New Testaments, God’s word is seen as living and the main meaning behind is--the truth of Scripture is life-giving. There are many Old Testament verses like Leviticus 18:5 where God through Moses says “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.”  That is—as you live in obedience to God—you will find life.  Paul agrees with that in Romans 10:5.  For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.”  His argument in Romans is that—although that is true, because of sin, no one lives by them.  Peter tells Jesus in John chapter six, “You have the words of eternal life.”  There is LIFE in his words—eternal life.  Hebrews 4:12 says “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  The Word is alive in the sense that it gets into a person’s heart and does surgery from the inside out as it exposes areas of sin and spiritual pathology.  To put it another way, it shows us who God is and who we are by stark contrast.

          The prophets repeatedly condemn the Jews because they didn’t use the Law to bring life—it was on their lips, but not in their hearts.  It was external—it was a tool to master so that others would admire your knowledge—it was a lever by which you could manipulate others as you misapply it.  It was a club to beat people into doing what you want.  It was something you could selectively apply to yourself so that you could convince yourself of what a wonderful saint you were.  The Law was just another piece of ecclesiastical furniture, to be moved and manipulated to serve whatever purpose you wanted.  Stephen says—the Law is the living oracles of God—empowered by God to supernaturally reveal divine truth to tell you how to live and ultimately to bring you to repentance through Christ and his sin-atoning sacrifice.

          Next, let’s look at what Stephen says about how the Jews as a people distorted the importance and role of the temple.  The Jews had emphasized certain Old Testament texts about the temple to the exclusion of others and had distorted its importance--to the place where it became an object of worship of almost equal status with God.  We see this back in time of the prophets.  Ezekiel was laughed at when he prophesied the imminent destruction of the temple.  The temple couldn’t be destroyed because that’s where God lived.  That would be tantamount to destroying God.  Stephen doesn’t deny that the presence of God was in the temple, but he cites the Old Testament to show that the temple was 1. a temporary dwelling place for God and 2. that it was wholly inadequate to contain God.  In verse 44, he says, “Our fathers had the tent of witness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen.”  His point here is to say—“You know, long before there was a temple in Jerusalem, God dwelt with our people out in the wilderness…in a tent—a portable structure that needed to be taken apart and put back together.”  The tent was mobile because God was mobile.  He says in verse 45, “So it was until the days of David…”  Depending on how you date Moses and the Exodus, God made his presence dwell in this portable tent for about 500 years. By contrast, Herod’s temple in Jerusalem that they revered so intensely had only been in existence about 50 years at this time. 

          Stephen also corrects their inflated view of the temple as the dwelling place for God by saying up in verse two, “…Brothers and fathers, hear me.  The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran…  The implication is—God was manifesting himself to his people long before the temple.  Back at the founding of our nation in Mesopotamia, he appeared to Abraham—without the aid of a temple.  Then, he relates an incident five or six hundred years later where God again appears to his people… without a temple.  Verse 30 says, 30 Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. 33 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”  The same God whose presence made the temple sacred, also made the ground holy on the backside of Midian when he appeared to Moses in the burning bush.

          The temple was not the only place God dwelled.  He also dwelled in the tabernacle, in a pagan land before Abraham and in a burning bush before Moses.  He also makes the point that the temple was never to be placed on the same level as God because it was wholly inadequate to contain him.  He makes this point in verse 48 by quoting Isaiah 66.  Stephen says, “48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, 49 “ ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?’”  Stephen points to the absurdity of making too much of the temple because it’s clear that God doesn’t dwell in the temple in the same way people live in houses.  Stephen brings out the infinitude of God’s presence by saying not—my throne is located in heaven, but Heaven IS my throne.  The infinite expanse of the heavenly realm serve as the throne of God and this entire planet—not Israel, not Jerusalem and certainly not a single building in Jerusalem, but this planet is the place where—metaphorically speaking, God rests his feet as he sits on his heavenly throne. 

          Stephen wants these Jews to see just how badly they have twisted the Old Testament teaching of the temple by wrongly elevating its importance.  And the real crime here and the real irony here is that in making the temple so big in their eyes, as a result, God has been diminished.  As they have elevated the importance of this temporary and wholly inadequate dwelling place for God, they have diminished the infinite Lord and Creator of the Universe. That means that if anyone is guilty of blasphemy here, it’s the Jews because they had made the temple nearly as important as God himself.  Stephen cuts right through this distortion by masterfully applying the sword—the scalpel of the Word of God.  The final straw for the Jews, and what caused them to attack Stephen in their anger was his last charge against them.  His final point reveals how the Jews resembled their forefathers in their rejection of God’s messengers.  Again, Stephen traces a long and shameful pattern among the Jewish people of rejecting God’s messengers and at the end of his message he says essentially—and you are just like them. 

          He helps them see that this rejection of God’s servants goes all the way back to the patriarchs—this is in the spiritual DNA of the Jews and we see this sin throughout the Old Testament.  Verse nine says, “And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household.”  The argument seems to be—God sent Joseph with a message, but the patriarchs were jealous of him and rejected him--selling him into slavery in Egypt.  But even the pagan Pharaoh recognized that God was with this one his fellow the Jews had rejected.  The longest section of the message is devoted to Moses.  The reasons for this is first, because he had been accused of blaspheming him and he wants to show that he does indeed have great reverence for Moses. But also because Moses—who the Jews had revered so highly was, in the end—a type or forerunner of Christ who Stephen served and whom they crucified.

          He points out the parallels between Moses and Jesus in several ways.  In verse 35 we read, “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 an angel who appeared to him in the bush.  You see the parallels clearly here, don’t you?  Moses, like Jesus was rejected even though he was a ruler, judge and redeemer sent from God.  Verse 36 continues, “This man led them out, performing signs and wonders in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years.  Like Christ, Moses performed signs and wonders.  Verse 37 concludes the argument.  This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.  This Moses even prophesied about a future prophet like him from your brothers. 

Stephen’s testimony about Moses begs the question--who could possibly be more like Moses than Jesus?  He was rejected by his people even though he was a ruler, judge and redeemer who performed signs and wonders.  It’s hard to see how Stephen could say anything more offensive than what he says here.  That is—the Moses who you revere—with whom you align yourselves—this ruler and judge and redeemer who performs signs and wonders—when “the One greater than Moses was here” who he himself predicted —you followed the wretched example of your fathers and, to quote verse 39, “[you] refused to obey him, but thrust him aside.  By citing the golden calf account, Stephen says in effect that you are like those Jews who turned to Aaron and built a golden calf.  You are like those who disobeyed the Law of Moses by turning to worship the stars and the pagan gods of the Canaanites Moloch and Rephan.  This would have been so intensely offensive to these Jews.  It would be like telling Martin Luther King that he was no better than the slave owners of the south.  

Stephen concludes abruptly and dramatically in verse 51, 51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 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, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” Next week, we’ll see the powerful response this message gets from the Jews but for now, let’s think a bit about Stephen’s warning to these Jews which we too must take to heart.  Stephen  confronts the Jews for abusing the Law.  It was external—a tool to be used to hurt or manipulate or puff yourself up with.  Do we ever use the Word of God wrongly?  To condemn someone with guilt as we apply it without love or grace?  Do we cite it to cause people to see how pious or devout we are?  Perhaps we abuse the Word by reducing it to a moral code of conduct the way the Jews did.

Do we genuinely see the Word of God as “living oracles” that reveal God to us and give us life?  If we believe that the Bible is life giving—do we read it regularly and with great intensity?  Or do we fail to read it?  If we have a choice between reading the Word of God and a Christian fiction book or Field and Stream magazine or the Wall Street Journal or Ladies Home Journal or Vogue or Runner’s World or a professional Journal or a political blog on the internet or even People magazine—does our choice reflect the truth that the Word of God is life-giving?  Are we willing to sacrifice time that we would normally spend sleeping or watching television or listening to the radio to spend time feeding on the life- giving truths of the Word of God?  When we do read it, do we do so with an intense longing to meet God and understand it’s message?  Or, do we exert same the energy level in reading it that we would apply to the latest edition of Reader’s Digest?  Do we view it as life-giving or is it just another book on the shelf?

It’s easy to look down on those who killed Stephen, but how different are we than they were in this area?  Elevating the temple is surely no temptation for us, but how many of us spend more time working on our physical temples—getting them in shape, than we do spending time with God?  Paul says, “8 for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”  Physical training is good and can help extend your physical life, but it does nothing for your eternity.  Like the Jews did with the temple, we can (as Tim Keller says) take good things and turn them into idols by making them ultimate things.  Enjoying some time at the cabin is a good thing, but if it keeps you out of corporate worship, forsaking the assembly on a regular basis, you’ve bowed down to an idol. Spending time with family is a good thing, but if it keeps you from ministering outside your home to people who need Jesus or in the church, it’s out of proportion.  Work is a gift from God, but we make a good thing an ultimate thing when we allow it to pull us away from the Word, or if it keeps us from the things of God.

Finally, do we reject the prophets God sends to us?  I don’t only mean the preachers or teachers.  I’m talking about those people God uses to bring correction into our life.  It’s interesting that Stephen uses Joseph as the first example of a rejected messenger of God.  You’ll remember that Joseph communicated the truth to his older brother in ways that were not very sensitive and on a human level, we can understand why his brothers were not receptive.  But Stephen implies that they stand guilty of rejecting God’s messenger.  One point of application is—we need to be willing to hear God’s correction or encouragement from anyone--even from people who don’t know the Lord—from people we don’t like, or from people who speak like loveless Pharisees.  I have found there is a nugget of truth and sometimes several nuggets of truth in words screamed at me in anger.  It’s easy to dismiss those messages and write the messenger off as a crank, but that is not from God.  He wants us to be open and humble enough to receive his Word to us from any venue.  If we don’t do that, then like the Jews we too can be guilty of rejecting his prophets. 

Do we meet ourselves in the Jews?  We don’t have to remain where we are today.  The Holy Spirit is ready to transform us.  His call is to repent of our lukewarm attitudes toward the Word—to repent of taking good things and making them ultimate things.  He wants us to repent of our tendency to reject God’s messengers to us.  Go to the cross. Confess your sin and allow God to show you its magnitude and find the forgiveness Christ offers.  May God give us the grace to be like Stephen—to love God’s word, understand it and apply it rightly to both ourselves and others for his glory and our joy.

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