Building the right foundation part 12
Acts 6:8-8:3 “They saw the face of an angel.”
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 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. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 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, and they set up false witnesses who said, “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.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” And Stephen said:
“Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot's length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them for four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship 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, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favour and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph's family became known to Pharaoh. And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.
“But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God's sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father's house, and when he was exposed, Pharaoh's daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.
“When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarrelling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ But the man who was wronging his neighbour thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.
“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. When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: ‘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. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’
“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 the angel who appeared to him in the bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’
“Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favour in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,
“‘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? Did not my hand make all these things?’
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 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, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul approved of his execution.
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
English Standard Version Anglicised
Last time we considered Stephen a man full of grace and the Holy Spirit having been one of seven chosen by the church to deal with unfairness in the church. The verse prior to our passage today tells us that God continued to bless the preached word and that many including some of the priests were converted. It is therefore no surprise that opposition flared up against the church. Stephen was clearly a key figure; Luke tells his readers once again that he was a man full of grace and power and consequently was performing mighty works among the people.
The church just keeps on being successful no matter what the devil might throw at it.
Internal conflict had failed and there was no time to rest: Enter the synagogue of the Freedmen who were probably an order of freed slaves. They joined forces with a number of other groups and disputed with Stephen.
It seems that it was Stephen against a whole crowd but they could not stand up to him because he was not only wise in the scripture but he was also filled with the Holy Spirit.
The old saying “one with God is a majority” is clearly seen to be true here.
What an encouragement that is to each one of us as we contend for the faith. But beware of simply believing that if we simply wing it and speak of Jesus then we will ultimately be powerful in our witness. We certainly cannot assume that to be the case for Stephen. He was chosen to be one of the seven because he was a man of good repute and was full of the Spirit and wisdom. Remember that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Stephen was a man who loved the Lord and was wise in the ways of God therefore he was a scholar of the word.
Teaching and preaching has largely been relegated in the modern evangelical church to a lesser place with singing and activity taking the lions share of many worship services. The church when it gathers together along with worship and prayer needs to be fed the pure food of the gospel which at first will be milk but very soon will be full of meaty content. The reason being that the world needs to hear what salvation is really all about and not some half hearted ramble that only really tells them that Jesus loves them.
Stephen's reasoning was too much for his critics and so they trumped up false accusations of blasphemy. As we have said many times the devil has no new tricks and so here we see that he brings out the same charges of blasphemy as were made of the Lord Jesus Christ. The leaders went around stirring up trouble and involving as many as possible in their lies. They enrolled the scribes, the elders of the people and as many of the general public as was possible. Of course the Pharisees were involved as we see from the end of the passage where one Saul of Tarsus oversees the execution of Stephen.
But before we get there there are a few things that we need to consider. The passage is too long for our purposes today and so I will leave you with some homework to look at the content of Stephen's defence or sermon.
We will consider what it means when Luke tells us that Stephen's accusers saw that his face was like the face of an angel and also what Stephen saw as he gazed into heaven.
They saw the face of an angel:
I pondered over this statement for a long time wondering what it was that the council saw that day as they sat in judgement over innocent Stephen. I have this picture of an angel as has been portrayed for many centuries now. We have pictures of beings in white with a shiny apparel and a halo prominently over their heads, they of course are always blue eyed with long flowing golden hair and pure white complexion. We need to first of all exorcise that image form our memory banks it is certainly not consistent with the bible's description of what an angel is. It is true that sometimes as at the tomb on the day of resurrection the angel is described as wearing white apparel. But an angel is much more than the clothes that he wears or the way that he looks. The word that we have for angel is something of a made up word that maybe confuses us as to what an angel is. The word translated directly from Greek which along with the Hebrew word simply means messenger.
Easton's Bible Dictionary definition:
Angel: a word signifying, both in the Hebrew and Greek, a "messenger," and hence employed to denote any agent God sends forth to execute his purposes. It is used of an ordinary messenger (Job 1:14;1 Sam. 11:3; Luke 7:24;9:52), of prophets (Isa. 42:19; Hag. 1:13), of priests (Mal. 2:7), and ministers of the New Testament (Rev. 1:20).
It is also applied to such impersonal agents as the pestilence (2 Sam. 24:16,17; 2 Kings 19:35), the wind (Ps. 104:4).
But its distinctive application is to certain heavenly intelligences whom God employs in carrying on his government of the world. The name does not denote their nature but their office as messengers. The appearances to Abraham at Mamre (Gen. 18:2,22. Comp. 19:1), to Jacob at Peniel (Gen. 32:24,30), to Joshua at Gilgal (Josh. 5:13,15), of the Angel of the Lord, were doubtless manifestations of the Divine presence, "foreshadowings of the incarnation," revelations before the "fullness of the time" of the Son of God.
Remember how the Lord Jesus addresses the leaders of the seven churches at the beginning of Revelation. He speaks through John to the angels or messengers of the church. An angel is always a messenger of God and it is his message that is all important!
We have recently been considering the signs and wonders as reported by Luke. They are an authentication as to the reality of the gospel and the church. God chose to work remarkably in order that people would see that this work was of Him and not a sham. Similarly with angels God authenticates their message by making them special and often quite frightening. The point is that it is always about the message and not the messenger. When the message had been delivered the messenger then disappeared.
Some say that what the council saw on that day was Stephen shining as Moses had when he came down from Mount Sinai. Moses had spent 40 days in the presence of the Almighty and some of God's glory had rubbed off on him. I do not think that this incident is of the same order because of what follows. The high priest (you are not too surprised that he is once again in the thick of it are you???) gives Stephen the floor. The gospel message must be heard once again by the leaders of Jerusalem and so Stephen beginning with Abraham and finishing at the cross tells them of their guilt in resisting the Holy Spirit and killing Jesus and of them breaking the law of God. The messenger told them boldly; therefore they could not honestly deny the truth of it because they had seen that Stephen was an angel to them but of course these were not honest men who were interested in the truth. They were charlatans and rogues who were looking after their own ends.
The first part of Stephen's message enraged them but it is what comes next that seals his fate. Can you imagine the scene? They were gazing at the face of an angel but Stephen himself was gazing into heaven. These men were supposed to be the custodians of the faith and yet they never once looked up into heaven where Jesus could be clearly seen by Stephen.
They were enraged but Stephen was enthralled.
They did not want to know the truth of Jesus being God the Son in heaven and so they stopped up their ears, made as much noise as possible and charged at Stephen and dragged him out of the city.
People still act in exactly the same way, if they could get away with it many would march us off up Kit Hill and do away with us but they cannot in this country. It is different for many of our fellow Christians in other countries some are even now being persecuted simply because they believe that Jesus is the King of glory.
Our hearers here in the UK simply stop up their ears whilst singing under their breath “Ho-Hum” etc.
We are their angels and as such they need to hear our message, for that to be really effective we need to know our bibles as thoroughly as Stephen knew the Old Covenant scriptures. That is why we lay so much emphasis upon bible teaching and preaching in the church.
This message is food for the week for you, I wish it could be better but it is the best that I can do.
What we really need is for the message to be empowered by God as Stephen's was on that day.
His message was powerful and was the means of promoting Stephen to glory.
Stephen's death was a hollow victory for his accusers but it was a glorious victory for God and heaven.
Stephen saw the face of Jesus and prayed as he was being bombarded with boulders. As his life ebbed away he saw the Lord Jesus who was standing at the right hand of God. He was preparing to welcome home a good and faithful servant Stephen the first martyr for the faith.
The kingdom of God was about to be Stephen's experience as Jesus promised in the beatitudes!
Stephen's final prayer is also vitally important. Firstly he commended himself into the safe hands of his Saviour the Lord Jesus and then he prayed for his murders the leader of which was Saul of Tarsus. Saul would go on from there to persecute the church with even greater fervour than ever before but as we shall see in chapter 9 Saul is miraculously converted in answer to Stephen's prayer that his murder might not be held against all of the perpetrators.
The church then entered a period of even greater persecution which again did not destroy it but it was the vehicle for the conversion of the greatest Christian of all time, the Apostle Paul.
So what do we learn from this passage?
God always equips the church with messengers sometimes they are special agents appointed by God for a “one off” purpose as on this occasion. Ordinarily it is through the regular pastor/teacher appointed by the church but the message is always powerful and effective! The effect might not be immediately palatable but it will accomplish the purpose for which it was intended.
Prayer in all circumstances even at the point of violent death is vitally important. A man called Nicky Cruise was about to kill a New York pastor but at the point of a knife and almost certain death the pastor declared Christ's love to Nicky Cruise who could do n other than run away. Later Nicky Cruise himself was converted and became a powerful preacher of the gospel. Who would have thought that the dying prayer of the first Christian martyr would be so effective;
BUT IT WAS!