Teaching series from Acts

A Man Named Stephen

Acts 6:8-7:60

Teaching t05718

Introduction

Repeat the theme of Acts: expansion of early Christian movement across geographic and ethnic lines (1:8).  Chapters 6-10 describe three key figures whose willingness to share Christ with others led to key breakthroughs for the gospel.

Chapter 8 describes Philip’s conversion the Ethiopian Eunuch (LAST WEEK) and the Samaritans.

Chapter 10 describes Peter’s conversion of Cornelius and the first true Gentiles.

Chapters 6,7 describe another key figure.  His name was Stephen, and his Christian life was like a SHOOTING STAR: it was brief (probably less than one year), but his insight into God’s Word was deep and his impact on the world for Christ was lasting...

His insight into Jesus’ purpose (6:8-15)

Stephen was one of the men selected to ensure equitable distribution of food to the widows (6:5).  He evidently already had an evangelistic ministry which he continued.  Read 6:8-14.  Note the progression from serious theological debate (vs 9) to slander (vs 11) to quasi-legal persecution (vs 12-14).  What was it about Stephen’s message that threatened the Jewish religious establishment so much?  Their charges obviously distorted his message, but Stephen was undoubtedly teaching something about Jesus’ impact on the Temple and the Law (vs 14).

Like Jesus, Stephen was preaching a revolutionary message.  They were both revolutionaries, not in the sense of being terrorists, but in the sense that they announced the inauguration of a new stage of God’s kingdom.  By studying chapter 7 and Jesus’ teachings, it is clear Stephen understood that Jesus had come not reform first century Judaism, but to replace it with God’s new program of grace.  And his impact on the Jewish Temple and the Law were two key areas of replacement.

The Old Testament Temple represented God’s presence among people, so relating to God revolved around going to the Temple.  But it was only a temporary picture.  When Jesus came, he was God-incarnate who tabernacled among us (Jn.1:14).  That’s why he said Jn. 2:19-21.  Just as the SUN supersedes the MOON, so with Jesus’ coming the significance of the Temple faded into the background.  Now people can draw near to God through Jesus Christ anywhere and any time.  That’s why he told the Samaritan woman Jn.4:20-26.

The Old Testament also required people to be born into or to become a member of the Jewish nation to be part of God’s family (not to be saved).  To become a member of Israel involved taking on the cultural and ritual obligations of the Law of Moses (circumcision; dietary laws; dress; etc.).  But Jesus’ coming changed this.  Now it is possible to become a member of God’s family just the way we are (read Jn.1:12).

>> This is great news!  Stephen saw the implications for God’s new program.  He saw that it was time for the emphasis on the Temple and the Law to end, and it was time for the emphasis on Jesus and God’s grace to begin.  He was excited about getting this message out, and he challenged his fellow Jewish countrymen to get with the program.

But, as is so often the case, this news enraged and threatened the religious establishment.  They had come to view the Temple as God’s exclusive dwelling place, and they had come to believe that it wasn’t possible for people to be saved unless they became Jewish.  The Synagogue of the Freedmen tried to refute him, but when they couldn’t they dragged him before the Supreme Court. 

>> Read 6:15.  As they accused him of speaking against Moses, Stephen’s face evidently shone with supernatural radiance.  This was probably one way God confirmed that Stephen was speaking for Moses--because Moses’ face shone in the same way when he returned from Mount Sinai with the Law (Ex.34:29ff.).  Read 7:1.  So Stephen begins his defense...

His defense before the Sanhedrin (7:1-53)

>> Even though Luke’s account of Stephen’s defense is the longest discourse in Acts, it’s still too long for us to cover today.  Stephen gives a masterful distillation of the Old Testament (GREAT Old Testament PRIMER), through which he responds to the root issues of both of their charges...

To the charge that he was speaking against the Temple, Stephen proves from the Old Testament that God never restricted himself to a building or certain area of the world.  He was always the God of the whole world, who was accessible to all who called on him in faith.

He appeared to and worked with their greatest leaders outside of Israel and before there ever was a Temple.

God appeared to Abraham and made his promises to form the nation of Israel when Abraham was in Mesopotamia (vs 2).

He worked through Joseph to build and preserve the nation of Israel when Joseph was in Egypt (vs 9).

He appeared to Moses in the burning bush and promised to deliver Israel from Pharaoh in the wilderness of Midian (vs 29,30).

When the Temple was constructed, he specifically rejected the idea that he was in any way restricted to it.

Read vs 46,47.  At the Temple dedication, Solomon specifically denied that the Temple in any way contained God (2Chron.6:18)

God made his sentiments about this crystal clear through Isaiah (vs 48-50).

APPLICATION: The Jews had developed a royal EDIFICE COMPLEX!  And the church has certainly not proved immune from this!  What do most people think of when they hear the word “church”--a group of people who know God personally, or a building?  Why did God have to take such strong measures with John Wesley to get him to be willing to share the gospel with spiritually hungry British coal-miners?  Because he had been raised to believe it was a sin to communicate God’s Word anywhere else than a church building!  This is one reason why I’m such a stickler about calling a facility the “church” (LEITH ANDERSON’S $1 FINE POLICY WHEN THEY MOVED INTO THEIR NEW FACILITY--maybe we can raise more money for the Building Fund this way!!!).

APPLICATION: God is always available to people who want to know him, and he is always moving out to reach more people.  Israel is his chosen nation--but that didn’t mean they had all Jews go to heaven, or that they have an exclusive claim on his blessings.  He chose them to be his light to the rest of the world.  He chose them to be the vehicle through which he gave the Bible to the world.  He chose them to be the nation from which he gave the Messiah to the world.  How we respond to this is a key index of how well we know the true and living God.

To the charge that he was speaking against the Law of Moses, Stephen demonstrates that the Jewish people had a rich legacy of rejecting God’s deliverers and their message.

When God raised up Joseph, his brothers became jealous of him and rejected him (vs 9).

When God raised up Moses to deliver them from bondage in Egypt, the Israelites rejected him (vs 25-27,35) and the Law God gave through him (vs 39).

This legacy of rejecting God’s deliver/spokesman continued right through Jewish history to the men standing before Stephen (read vs 50-53).  They knew the Old Testament by heart and scorned the rebellious Israelites--yet they were guilty of the same thing!!

APPLICATION: Access to and knowledge of God’s Word is a great privilege, but it is not enough!  With this privilege comes a responsibility to respond to God’s Word by humbly trusting his promise to deliver us.  Some of you have recently come to an understanding of God’s offer to forgive you through Jesus Christ.  This is a great privilege--one that many others have  not had.  Now how are you going to respond to it????

>> Stephen was on trial before these judges, but he put his judges on trial before God.  I’ll bet you could hear a pin drop when he finished.  Then did he hear the sound of weeping as they repented?  of rejoicing as they believed in Christ?  No, he heard the sound of grinding teeth...

>> Read 54.  This was how Jews expressed their anger.  But this didn’t stop Stephen (read vs 55,56).  When they heard him refer to Jesus as the “Son of Man” (a Messianic title from Dan.7), they lost it (read vs 57-60, omitting vs 58b).  This was an illegal lynching, since the Romans had to clear all executions.  Yet Stephen (like Jesus) prays for their forgiveness even as they kill him.  Since Stephen knew that there is only one way that people get forgiven (by believing in Jesus Christ), he was praying that God would somehow work through his death to bring some of these men to Christ.


Assessing Stephen’s life

Some think it was tragedy.  Here was a man with tremendous insight and gifting, undoubtedly destined to become one of the great leaders of the early church.  Now, in a moment, his life was snuffed out and his ministry was cut short.  Doesn’t Stephen’s story prove what so many similar stories about other Christian workers prove--that it’s useless to follow Christ, that God doesn’t care about us or that he is unable to overcome evil?

No!  God does not measure the significance of a human life by its length and comfort.  And the suffering of his servants does not prove his indifference or weakness. 

Stephen stepped out in faith to share the gospel and trusted God for the results.  When this brought him into real suffering and danger, he entrusted his life to Christ and asked God to work through this terrible and painful situation for God’s glory and others’ good.  And God answered Stephen’s prayer in a way far greater than he could ever have imagined. 

Read vs 58b.  The one who instigated this stoning was undoubtedly a member of the Synagogue of Freedmen from Cilicia--a man named Saul.  This man went on to lead the charge to arrest, persecute, and execute many more Christians.  But Stephen’s witness had an impact on him, and he later became the apostle Paul, who became the most effective missionary to Gentiles ever, the author of half the New Testament books, and the one who spelled out the radical insights about God’s grace that he heard first from Stephen.  If you asked Stephen today he had any regrets about his premature death, how do you think he would respond??

Far from a tragic failure, Stephen’s life (including his death) was a success that demonstarted God’s power and wisdom and goodness.

Assessing your life

What’s your goal for your life--to have the longest, safest, most secure and comfortable life you can have, or to have a life full of the Holy Spirit’s insight and power and lasting spiritual impact on others for Jesus Christ (quote Mark 8:35)?  Which will you choose??

Though none of us can help lead Paul to Christ, we can all have lives just as signicant as Stephen’s.  Each of us has a unique opportunity to display God’s power and goodness through our lives--including our sufferings.  Though we cannot see the whole picture in this life, we have God’s promise that he will do this if we trust him (Romans8:28).  This can change the whole way you view your life, situation--everything.