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Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Stephen's defense of the faith. Acts 7:1-60

Our last look at Stephen revealed a contrast between his accusers and himself. His accusers were happy to employ whatever means that they could in order to bring Stephen to justice as they saw it. The result in their thinking should never be in doubt. They knew wanted to have Stephen executed on trumped up charges of blasphemy. That was their desired end and so they began their business of entrapment. The reason was that Stephen had something which they did not have and of which they did not understand. It is right at this point to remember that amongst the number of accusers was Saul of Tarsus. He was one of them and so he was part to all of the proceedings and was in full agreement, but from his testimony we know this incident would have had a profound effect on him. Before we even look at the content we learn that we can never tell what God’s purpose is in all circumstances. For Stephen it was an extremely difficult experience but God’s purposes were far more than anybody could expect.
Last time we saw that Stephen to his accusers appeared to have the face of an angel. We remembered that an angel is a messenger of God and so it is no surprise that:
1. Stephen is asked to speak.
2. Stephen’s message is powerful.
3. Stephen’s message is effective.
Stephen is asked to speak:
As we discovered last time Stephen having the face of an angel was displaying the purpose for which he was sent. His accusers thought that they were in control of the situation but God was about to speak powerfully and effectively to them through His servant Stephen. For that to happen Stephen needed and audience and when he got their attention they were captivated by what they heard. I am sure that as soon as Stephen started to speak they would have been most confused because instead of being defensive of his position Stephen gave a history lesson. He revealed his orthodoxy in what he believed about the nation of Israel and how God had separated them for Himself. He could never go wrong by speaking truthfully about the fore-fathers of Israel, and that is what he did. Stephen; beginning with Abraham and God’s promise to Abraham of a people who would have their own land. He moved on through Isaac and Jacob and to the 12 sons of Jacob. He speaks of God’s provision for Israel which came through great personal suffering for Joseph who was their saviour at that time. Israel were kept safe and provided for in Israel until in God’s providence another king who knew nothing of Joseph became ruler of Egypt. Israel then suffered greatly at the hands of the Egyptians but this was the unfolding of God’s plan for them. Moses was being raised up under the noses of the Egyptians and he would be the deliverer or saviour of his people from slavery. Moses would lead Israel through the wilderness and eventually to the doorstep of Canaan. Whilst in the wilderness God was present with His people in the Tabernacle which was the tent/temple of its day. David wanted to build a permanent temple but due to the fact that he was a king of war the temple was eventually built by his son Solomon who was the king of peace. Stephen then reminds them of scripture which says that God does not dwell in buildings of man’s construction and also by using Isaiah 66:1-2 he declares that God is as always residing and ruling the earth in heaven. This was all good stuff and I can imagine his accusers wondering where Stephen is going. He has been accused of blasphemy and yet seems to believe all of the right things. It is only when Stephen utters his final 68 words that they react. We will come to that soon but before then we have here a perfect example of what we discussed last week. God had a message for the men of the Sanhedrin, He had a message directly for Paul and Stephen was God’s messenger.
Just as they had looked intently into Stephen’s face earlier they now hung on to his every word. Their motive for doing so was to trap Stephen by his own words but in order to do so they needed to be fully attentive. We are reminded of Isaiah’s words in chapter 55 which says that God’s word will go out and will accomplish the purpose for which He sent it. The immediate result seems to have been to worsen the situation but we never know what God is doing in hearts and lives when the gospel is being preached. How often we hear of people being affected by the gospel when it has been directed elsewhere. E.g. Alan Jordan’s RAF friend!
Stephen’s message is powerful:
As we have discovered the majority of what Stephen speaks of is the history of the nation of Israel. There could not possibly be any fault found by his accusers until those last 68 (in our English translation!) words! It had all been historically accurate, theologically sound and proclaimed passionately but it ends with a pointed application. This is the sting in the tail!
The power of what Stephen says is not from his own thinking or imagination but is directly from the word of God. God’s word has been given to revive the soul, to make the simple wise, to give understanding and in the keeping of it there is great reward as David says in Psalm 19. But the word of the Lord also acts as a judge which passes sentence on all who reject it. Therefore the words of scripture are as sweet as honey is in the mouth to a believer, they are the words of life itself but to the unbeliever they are the sentence of death, they are odious to the heart and totally without blessing. Stephen’s hearers were readers of the scripture and lovers of the rules even though they did not fully obey God’s commands. When Stephen addresses the Sanhedrin he speaks biblically and so they could not help but understand and agree with what he was saying.
In his application Stephen quotes from Exodus 32:9 and refers to the Sanhedrin as a stiff necked people. Those were God’s words to Israel who were guilty of making a golden calf whilst Moses was on the mount receiving the commands of God. Again in Exodus 33:5 the Lord told Moses to tell the Israelites that they were a stiff necked people and consequently under God’s wrath and judgement. Straight away the whole Sanhedrin understood the implications of Stephen; the accused one is accusing them of ungodliness! That is just the first clause of his application. Stephen continues by quoting Leviticus 26:41 where God speaks of His disobedient people as being uncircumcised of heart. That done in the body was not evidence of the reality of the heart! In Deuteronomy 10:16 Moses instructs the people upon their receipt of the commands a second time around to “circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff necked any longer.” To be uncircumcised in heart is equal to being an unbeliever. Stephen is saying to the religious authorities you just like the Gentiles are rank unbelievers. But Stephen says that it is not only a problem of the heart but that their ears are shut also. They might be attentive to his every word but they will not listen and change! Their fathers were bigots and so are they. The Holy Spirit of God is resisted by them. God’s Spirit interprets and applies truth to their hearts but they resisted it. They were acting just like their fore-fathers who had killed God’s messengers in the past. The prophets declared the coming of the Righteous One and yet they were killed because of their message; and to cap it all Stephen accuses them of having killed the Righteous One. They have had the law handed down to them which had been put into effect by angels (God’s messengers!) but they have not obeyed what it demands. Stephen in a bold and powerful way is saying, you might judge me but the word of God judges you to be bankrupt of faith and out of relationship with God. That of which they were most proud (being God’s special people!) was not the reality.
There are many of us here today, most if not all appear to be good bible believing Christians. But is this true? Do you really trust in Jesus Christ for salvation? Or are you playing the hypocrite just like Stephen’s congregation?

Stephen’s message is effective:

We quoted Isaiah 55:10-11 earlier but here it is in full: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
God had given Stephen the authority to speak, He had given him the audience and He had given him the message. Just as rain accomplishes all that it is meant to so also the word that Stephen had that day accomplished all that God desired to achieve! The immediate result was their rage and anger! But Stephen’s message was not finished yet! He could see the glory set out before him. Being filled with the Spirit of God he saw God in all of His glory, he saw Jesus standing at His right hand and he declared this to his hearers. Look he said but they could not see. Stephen could see heaven open, ready for him to enter!! He saw the Son of Man, the title used of the Messiah! They knew that he meant Jesus; or the Righteous One and where is He? Standing at the right hand of God, equal with God in authority! This was impossible for them to agree with.
At this the word of God powerfully worked in their hearts, they would not listen, they shouted at Stephen stopping their ears just like children do to stop them from hearing what they are being told! It might be funny in children but for these men it was disaster. They lost all sense of decency, grabbed Stephen and stoned him. We have to say here that the word achieved for Stephen what God desired for him. He was promoted into heaven a few moments later. But not before he prayed! His prayer echoed our Lord’s Prayer from the cross, “do not hold this against them!” At that Stephen fell asleep, absent from the body present with the Lord which is far better. Stephen died, the Sanhedrin showed their true colours and God’s purposes were accomplished. BUT look again there is somebody else there a young man called Saul in charge of proceedings. God is working in his life also. Stephen’s word did not fall entirely on deaf ears, Saul would have to get much worse before he meets with Jesus on the road to Damascus but he was being irresistibly drawn to God.
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.

Are you listening or are your ears stopped up? Are you putting your spiritual fingers in your ears declaring “I will not listen to this?” If you are then remember this day because God’s word has been declared to you. It is powerful and active; it is empowered by God’s Holy Spirit and if you reject it then you are as guilty as the Sanhedrin were on that day. 
The choice that you are making is separation from God!

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