We have been working through the Book of Acts, and for good intent, so that we might understand the nature of the church from its very outset, its very foundation. We find ourselves in moving through the early history of the church and the foundations that are laid in chapter 7 of the Book of Acts. And in chapter 7, there is one very significant event. It is the first martyrdom of a Christian.
The church, by the time we get to this chapter, has had a significant impact on the city of Jerusalem. In fact, in chapter 5 verse 28, the Sanhedrin, the very council before whom Stephen stands, meets, and the high priest is there. And these are the words of the high priest to the apostles: “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name.” The name of Jesus. “And yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”
Well, they got it right. That’s exactly what the early church intended. They intended to fill the city of Jerusalem with the teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They intended to preach in His name. When the council had told them to stop, they said we cannot. In the very next verse, Peter says: You judge, do we obey God or men? Preaching the gospel was not only a mandate, not only a command, not only a commission, but it was the passion of their hearts. They had all been transformed, and they could not contain the message.
It went everywhere. The church was growing daily. The Lord was adding to the church daily those that were being saved. There were 3,000 to begin with; then, there were 5,000 men and more women, and the church may have reached by the fifth or sixth chapter as many as 20,000 people. It is literally all throughout Jerusalem. They don’t have any facility or building, so they occupy the temple courtyards. And it is there where there is constantly the in and out of people all day that they hold forth the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, who are responsible for sentencing Jesus to death, don’t like at all the idea that they are filling Jerusalem with His name. And not only that. They’re not only preaching the gospel; they’re indicting the council and the leaders of Israel for the blood of Jesus. They are declaring that His blood is on their hands for having sent their own Messiah to be executed by the Romans.
The heat is on, to put it mildly. As the church continues to grow and flourish, it gets organized in chapter6. And you remember in chapter 6, they pick some men full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, full of wisdom, pure men, wise men, and they give them responsibility to care for the widows, the Hellenistic widows in the church. But these are more than just men who serve; these are noble men who can articulate the truth.
Two of them, we know a lot about. Stephen, this chapter tells us all you need to know about him. And Philip, and we’ll meet him in the next chapter. These men were not just servants who cared for widows. They were great, powerful, effective preachers. And so, in the case of Stephen, we not only meet a man who is chosen from among the church to serve the church, but we meet a man who was a preacher, and we get an insight into his preaching. This is a full sermon by an early church believer, an early church preacher. This is a model of how they preached. And, of course, as Luther said, they knew one thing for sure: that the Old Testament is the cradle in which the Christ Child is laid. They, from the time that our Lord had taught His apostles on the road to Emmaus, all the things concerning Himself and the law of the prophets, and the testimonies or the writings, they knew the Old Testament meaning unfolded in Christ. Little by little, they were coming to understand the Old Testament in ways they had never before understood it. We learn very soon, and certainly we learn from Stephen, that the gospel and the coming of Christ is rooted in God’s dealings with Israel, recorded in the Old Testament. This is exactly the approach that Stephen in his sermon takes in Acts 7 because he’s talking to Jews, and he’s talking to the most literate Jews. He’s talking to the supreme court of Israel, the council of the Sanhedrin.
He is one of seven chosen leaders of the early church with spiritual qualities. He was literally extended the power of the apostles to do miracles along with Philip. He was a fiery, bold, courageous man in the face of persecution. By the time the chapter ends, they execute him the way they had executed his Lord. Different means, same end.
As we come into chapter 7, Stephen is on trial. The high priest speaks to him in verse 1 and says, “Are these things so?” Well, are what things so? Well, the indictment is this, back in verse 11. “We have heard him speak,” say some, “blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” And then in verse 13, more false witnesses appear who say, “This man,” Stephen, “incessantly speaks against this holy place and the law.” So there are four categories of indictment against Stephen. He speaks against God, he speaks against Moses, he speaks against the law, and he speaks against the temple. That is the indictment as it stands, as it has been posed by false witnesses.
So, chapter 7 begins with the council meeting, looking at Stephen, who has a face like the face of an angel, verse 15 in 6 says. And the high priest says, “Are these things so?” This is court. This is Stephen before the supreme court. He stands alone. He stands all alone. There is no lawyer on his side. There is no attorney to defend him. There is no jury to be objective. There is no one there to process evidence. He stands alone; he defends himself against these four charges of blasphemy. But, he’s not content to only defend himself. He will do what they had been doing all along. He will not only defend himself; he will indict them. He will indict the supreme court of Israel. And, it will cost him his life.
Now, as we study the sermon and we have gone all the way through verse 16 last week, we’ll see how far we get tonight with the rest of it. We want to keep in mind that we’re just weeks away, months away from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Keep in mind that all of the events concerning Jesus Christ happened in the context of this same council, this same Sanhedrin. They are very familiar with everything concerning Jesus. And here, though, they thought they had put an end to Him by death. The word is everywhere that He is alive. And not only is He alive, but His power is on display everywhere through the apostles, and even through some men like Stephen.
The church has been proclaiming relentlessly that Christ is alive, Christ is Messiah, Christ is Savior. He has provided redemption. And now, they have the same problem, only the problem has spread beyond Jesus and beyond 11 apostles. It has spread throughout the city. It is literally everywhere in Jerusalem, and they have commandeered the temple as their meeting place. They have tried repeatedly up to now to silence these Christians. They cannot shut them down. They have done everything short of killing them, and they will finally do that.
As relentless as their persecution is, so relentless is the preaching of the Christians. Powerful in their proclamation, faithful and thousands upon thousands are coming to believe on a regular basis. The impact is obviously divine. It cannot be measured by some human strategy or some human ideas that were concocted or crafted to make the message successful. This is all the mighty work of God.
Stephen sees this trial as an immense opportunity to stand before the most erudite religious body in Israel, the supreme court, and speak the truth to them. The truth of his own defense, and then turn the tables and indict them as the real blasphemers. That’s exactly what he does. I told you last time: there’s sort of four things that he has in mind. One is to get their interest and get their ears. And of course, their interest and their ears are all about the Old Testament. So, when speaking to Jews, he started where you always want to start, and that is with the Old Testament. He builds his entire defense and indictment from Old Testament history. Then, the second goal that he has is to answer the charges that he is a blasphemer.
Is he a blasphemer of God, Moses, the law, and the temple? Well, he defends himself against that again by the things that he says about those four things, those four realities from the Old Testament. Thirdly, he turns the table and indicts them as being blasphemers by tracing them right back through their ancestors who were also blasphemers. They are faithful to their blasphemous, rebellious heritage. And then fourthly and finally, he accuses them of the blood of the Messiah, murdering the righteous one.
That triggers their deadly hatred. They drag him by arms and legs, throw him off a cliff, crush him under bloody rocks.
As we look at the sermon, it breaks into those four categories: God, Moses, the law, and the temple. It’s a very reasoned defense, and it is a very biblical defense. All throughout this sermon, this defense, Stephen quotes the Old Testament. He had an amazing knowledge of the Old Testament, a verbatim facility with the Old Testament. It just comes out. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t using notes. This was part of the fabric of his life.
The first accusation that he wants to defend himself against is that he is a blasphemer of God, as verse 11 accused him of being guilty of speaking blasphemous words against God. So, remember now, in the opening part of the chapter, we saw that he answers that. He says, “Hear me, brethren and fathers!” And by the way, the Sanhedrin is there, the 70 plus the high priest, and then there were lots of other witnesses there, false witnesses, and then there were the folks from the synagogue who induced the false witnesses because they were offended by him, and lots of other people. There’s a massive crowd in wherever these chambers were. And to all of them, brethren and fathers, those who were just the common folks, and those who were the fathers, the elite court, “the God of glory,” he calls God. This is no blasphemer. He understands God to be the God of glory. He describes Him having appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, and he goes through that wonderful history of God calling Abraham, God promising Abraham and land and a people all through the Abrahamic covenant. We looked at that. He goes through the patriarchs. We saw all of that. He gave to him a covenant, verse 8. He became the father of Isaac. Isaac, the father of Jacob; Jacob, the twelve patriarchs.
He went through the whole patriarchal period and he saw it was all done by God. God, the God of glory. This is the God of Israel. He gave to Abraham the Abrahamic covenant, played out through the fathers, and belonging to their progeny – namely, the nation Israel.
He follows with the incredible story of Joseph and how God rescued Joseph from his afflictions, showed him favor, and used Joseph to save Israel. Joseph was a savior to Israel when famine came. Eventually, we have at the end of this first portion, all of the Jews, all of the children of the patriarchs living in Egypt. Verse 15. “Jacob went down to Egypt and there he and our fathers died.” And then there’s a word about their burial.
So, when we go through the first section as we did last time, and he recites the history of God’s calling of Israel, acknowledges that God is the God of glory who called Abraham and ordained the destiny of Abraham’s seed. He knows that Abraham is God’s chosen man. He knows that Israel is God’s chosen nation. He is no blasphemer of God. None whatsoever.
But, even in that, he turns the tables and there is an indictment. He reminds them. He reminds them that even their early fathers rejected the leader that God gave them. They rejected Joseph, who was given to them as God’s leader, God’s redeemer. And they rejected the deliverer. And thus, the true blasphemers of that era were the fathers themselves who rejected Joseph. His brother sold him into slavery and even later came and rejected him again. The history of rejection is very much in the fabric of Israel’s forefathers.
So, Stephen sets a basis for indictment that finally ends up in their indictment for having executed the Messiah. But this isn’t something new. As we know, Jesus said on other occasions throughout all of history: you’ve killed the prophet. You’ve stoned that were sent to you. You’ve rejected God’s intended leaders and redeemers. You and your fathers, and those who follow in that flow are the real blasphemers.
As Stephen presents the life of Joseph, you can even see glimpses of Christ. Joseph was part of the chosen people; so was Christ. Joseph was sold for envy; so was Christ. Joseph was sent to a pit to die, and yet rescued from that. Christ did die, and rose. Christ was accepted by Gentiles as Joseph was accepted by Gentiles, though rejected by his own people. Christ was humbled like Joseph and then exalted like Joseph. Christ was rejected the first time and accepted the second time. And so was Joseph. It’s almost as if Stephen wanted them to see in the story of Joseph, so familiar to them, the shadows of Christ.
So, Stephen covers the history of Israel in a brief summary from Abraham to Joseph: from the call to the captivity, the first great era of Jewish history. And in so doing, he defends himself against the idea that he’s a blasphemer of God. He knows the history of God and he knows who the blasphemers are who, in the ancient times, were rejecters of God and God’s redeemer, Joseph.
Now, let’s pick up the story. That was just a very condensed reminder of last time. But in verse 17, we pick up the second accusation and the answer of Stephen. It has to do with Moses. He was accused back in 6:11 of blaspheming words against Moses. Here, we see the same features. He will go to the Old Testament because that’s where their very interest lies. He will use the Old Testament to defend himself by the way he speaks of the Old Testament or refers to the Old Testament. It’s clear he’s not a blasphemer of Moses. Then he will turn the tables and indict the people of Israel for being the blasphemers of Moses.
Verse 17. “But as the time of the promises was approaching.” Now remember, there was a promise given. The promises was that He would give to him, chapter 7 verse 5, a possession, a land, and descendants. The Abrahamic covenant, Genesis 12. A people, numbering like the sand of the sea and the stars of heaven, and a vast and wonderful land. This was promised to them. They never saw the promise. All the patriarchs died in Egypt. They didn’t see that promise. But that was predicted too in verse 6. But God spoke to this effect, that His descendants would be aliens in a foreign land, and that they would be enslaved and mistreated for 400 years. That was predicted in the 15th chapter of Genesis and it came to pass.
So, they went to Egypt for 400 years. Actually, 430 years. They went to Egypt at the end of the patriarchal period. They were all there and they have their children, and they develop, and they fill up a place called the Land of Goshen in Egypt for 400 years. The promise is not fulfilled.
But in verse 17, as the time of the promise was approaching. Coming to the end of the 400 years. Coming to the end of that designated time. It is time now to enter the land. The patriarchs have all died. This is consistent with what Scripture says in, I think it’s the 13th verse of Hebrews 11. You might remember it. “All these,” speaking of the patriarchs, “All these died in faith without receiving the promise.” They all died in faith without receiving the promise. They were strangers and exiles on the earth. All the patriarchs died in Egypt; they never saw the promise. But it was now time for the promise. Their children were now growing up in Egypt. It was time for God to bring the promise to pass. So as it comes close to the time – 400, 430 years – the promise is approaching that God had assured Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt. They’re having children, more children, more children. God is protecting them. God is blessing them. They’re becoming a massive community of people, and they pose, as far as the new pharaoh thinks, a serious threat. “There arose,” verse 18 says, “another king over Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph.” He didn’t know how great Joseph was, what a great figure he was, what an incredible leader he was, what an honorable man he was, so there was no history to prevent him from literally, or to sway him from being frightened by this burgeoning number of Jews.
And so, he decided to turn them into slaves because he was afraid they would be a threat. Alarmed at the size of them, the formidableness of them, he used everything he could, every deceptive means he could to destroy them. Verse 19, “It was he who took shrewd advantage of our race and mistreated our fathers so that they would expose their infants and they wouldn’t survive.” What is this? Pharaoh decided the best thing to do to slow the growth down is to murder all the babies. Just murder all the babies. Exodus chapter 1 gives all of this. Infants is the word babies. Exodus 1:22. “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river.” Drown them all. Drown them all.
But God had another plan. “It was,” verse 20, “at this time that Moses was born; and he was lovely in the sight of God, and he was nurtured three months in his father’s home.” By his own mother. At three months, he was cast into the river. Yes, he was thrown into the river, but in a basket. We all remember the wonderful story. After he had been set outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and nurtured him as her own son. Amazing providence, because Moses was then raised as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter and was educated in all of the learning of the Egyptians, and he was a man of power in words and deeds. That about sums it up. If you’ve got power in both of those, you’re formidable. Power in words and deeds.
Now, this is important. I want to stop here. This is laurels for Moses. I’m no Moses blasphemer, but you have accused me of blaspheming Moses? I give Moses honor. Moses had the wisdom of the Egyptians. Moses had knowledge of astronomy. Moses had knowledge of geometry. Moses had the best knowledge available, even in medicine. Moses is a remarkable man. He is, first of all, a man of lovely, lovely symmetry physically. He is a man of power, both in his words, in his deeds. Stephen is saying everything positive he can say about Moses. He’s no blasphemer of Moses. He has great respect for this most noble deliverer of Israel.
And by the way, Stephen leaves out anything negative about Moses, and Moses had some negatives. But in his whole account of Moses, he brings none of them up. He’s affirming his great respect. But when he was approaching the age of 40, now the tables begin to turn. He was approaching the age of 40. It entered his mind to visit his brethren, the sons of Israel. Certainly, God moved in his heart. He knew his origins. You remember, even after he was the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’ sister had arranged for him to be nursed by his own mother, and his own mother had certainly made all the influences she could upon him about the true God of Israel and where he really came from and who he really belonged to. But it was now 40 years in the power halls of Egypt, and he remembers the plight of his people who are being abused by the Pharaoh.
You know some of the stories. They were to make bricks without straw. There was massacring of their infants going on. Life was as hard and as difficult as possible. They were turned into slaves, and Moses remembered his people, and he went to visit them. An incident happened that is dramatic. Verse 24. “When he saw one of them being treated unjustly,” this could’ve been any one of thousands on any day, because this is how they were all treated, but he saw one of them being treated unjustly. I might say he went into the ghetto, where they were sort of contained or kept, to do their work. When he saw this, he was outraged.
And so, he defended him. He defended him and took vengeance for the oppressed by striking down the Egyptian. In fact, he not only killed him; he buried him in the sand. Here was a defender of Israel. Here was a powerful, powerful man. Son of Pharaoh’s daughter, as prominent as you can be in the entire exalted nation of Egypt. And here he was, offering himself as a deliverer to Israel, as Israel’s defender, to alleviate their pain, alleviate their suffering, aid them in their distress. And Moses thought that his people would respond, and that he would become some kind of hero to them. And they might say, God must be at work in you. God must have sent you to deliver us. This was a kind of first act of emancipation of the slaves.
But that’s not their reaction. Verse 25. “He supposed that his brethren understood that God was granting them deliverance through him, but they didn’t understand.” So who didn’t understand God? It wasn’t Moses again; it was the people who didn’t understand God. Throughout their history, they haven’t understood God. They have rebelled against God. They have scored the deliverers that God sent to them. They rejected Joseph the first time, and now they reject Moses again the first time, just as they rejected Jesus the first time. They didn’t understand they were blind, and they again reject another deliverer. It is the time of promise. It is the time to be led out. It is the time for the 400 years to end. Stephen has recited, really, all of the beauties of Moses, all the dignities of Moses, all the honors of Moses. He has no interest in blaspheming Moses. He sees Moses as God’s chosen deliverer. So he answers the charge that he is a blasphemer of Moses by saying, of course, that is absurd. And then he turns the table again and indicts Israel of old for doing the very same thing they did with Joseph, being a rejecter of God and a rejecter of God’s deliverers.
They didn’t understand. Look at verse 26. “On the following day Moses appeared to them as they were fighting together, and he tried to reconcile them in peace.” Now he’s not only going to be a deliverer and a defender who literally slays the enemy, but he’s going to be a peacemaker and a reconciler who brings brothers together and solves problems. He’s a true deliverer. He says, “Men, you are brethren, why do you injure one another?” This is all you could ask out of a leader: somebody who can defeat and bury the enemy and bring peace.
But look at the response. Verse 27. “The one who was injuring his neighbor pushed him away.” This is a slave pushing away the prince of Egypt. And he said, and all of this is recorded in Exodus, as you know, chapter 2, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? You do not mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday, do you?” Wow, thanks a lot. Moses is rejected. The depth of rejection plunges this statement really into the category of sarcasm. Here was God’s chosen, saved deliverer of Israel. He had survived the drowning’s of male infants to rise to that place. He had saved a life. He had come as a peacemaker. He is confronted like a criminal. And it is his own people that he came to save who say, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? You don’t mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday, do you?”
Obviously, he would’ve rather have kept that silent. That’s why he buried the body. Now, it was his own people, the people he was trying to help, who were broadcasting the reality. Moses had no choice. So in verse 29, “At this remark, Moses fled and became an alien in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.” He had to get out because he had killed. His people had rejected him. They didn’t want him as a deliverer. They didn’t want him as a peacemaker.
What is Stephen’s point? His point is this: Israel is the rejecter. Israel is the blasphemer. Israel again rejects God’s anointed deliverer just as they did in the case of Joseph. And the point will build and build to the fact that they rejected the righteous one in verse 51.
Moses leaves. 40 years go by. Verse 30. “After forty years had passed.” 40 years postponing. 40 years postponing. Maybe that’s why there were 430 by the time it was all over. Israel blasphemed Moses, and therefore blasphemed God because Moses was God’s chosen deliverer. They rejected their God-sent redeemer. So, redemption was postponed another tortuous 40 years.
But again, at the end of 40 years, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai. What had he been doing for those 40 years? Well, he met a daughter of Jethro, shepherd, and her name was Zipporah. He married her and he had a family there. The 40 years were finished. An angel came to him in the wonderful occasion of the burning bush in the third chapter of Exodus and re-commissioned him. “When Moses saw it,” verse 31, “he marveled at the sight; and as he approached to look more closely, there came the voice of the Lord: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.’ Moses shook with fear and would not venture to look. But the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. I have certainly seen the oppression of My people in Egypt and have heard their groans, and I have come down to rescue them; come now, and I will send you to Egypt.’”
God is faithful. God is faithful. He will fulfill His promise. He will rescue His people. That incredible holy place was not holy because it, in itself, that it was holy; it was holy because He was there. God showed up. It was His presence that made that place holy, as it would make any place holy. God had not forgotten His covenant. He was ready to bring back the deliverer. “I will send you to Egypt.” God, faithful to His promise, sends the deliverer back once more.
I love how it’s expressed in verse 35. Stephen says, “This Moses whom they disowned, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’” This Moses “is the one whom God sent to be both a ruler and a deliverer with the help of the angel who appeared to him in the thorn bush.” They rejected Joseph the first time. He came a second time and was the deliverer. They rejected Moses the first time. He came a second time and was the deliverer. Do you see in that the foreshadowing of Christ? Rejected the first time; we will return again with full deliverance.
Moses came. This man, this Moses, this man, verse 36. “This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt.” All those incredible plagues, the parting of the Red Sea. And out they went into the wilderness for 40 years. What is Stephen after in this? He has shown the Jews that they had a consistent, non-stop pattern of rejecting God’s great deliverers. They were always priding themselves on their great love of their historic leaders, but their fathers had rejected both Joseph and Moses outright. They were historically blasphemers of God because they blasphemed God’s intentions and purposes in His chosen leaders. They were the rejecters of God. They were the rejecters of Moses. He lays the weight of rejection on them, on them. Matthew 21, he tells a parable about – you remember the parable about God sending servants, and they beat the servants and threw the servants out, and killed the servants. That’s how Israel treated God’s chosen leaders.
Verse 37. “This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren.’” They all knew that was a messianic prophecy from Deuteronomy 18:15. They all knew that. And at this point, he directly speaks of Messiah. This Moses, this Moses that you rejected was the very one who prophesied the coming of a prophet like unto himself, a prophet chosen by God, set apart by God. This is a billboard pointing to Christ.
Moses was a deliverer from among his own people; so was Jesus. Moses came down from a palace to a role of a slave to rescue slaves; so did Jesus. Moses offered himself and was rejected; so did Jesus. Moses left Israel to go into a Gentile land and have a family; Jesus left Israel to raise up a seed among the Gentiles. Moses came back a second time to redeem his people and lead them to the promised land, and Jesus will come back a second time and lead His people to the promised land. Again, the history of Moses is like the foreshadowing of the history of Jesus.
They prided themselves in believing in Moses and honoring Moses and exalting Moses, and that Stephen was some kind of a blasphemer, when it was Stephen who believed with all his heart in the very Messiah of whom Moses wrote. Peter has already, by the way, indicted them on this very same point back in the third chapter, verse 22, in that wonderful second sermon that he preached. “Moses said,” he quotes, “‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren; to Him you shall give heed to everything He says to you. And it will be that every soul that doesn’t heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.’”
That prophet is Christ. Stephen, as a believer in Jesus Christ, gave more honor to Moses than anybody did. You couldn’t honor Moses without honoring Christ. Stephen answers, then, the charge of blasphemy. He was no blasphemer of Moses. He gives accolades to Moses, honor and respect to Moses. But most importantly, he believes in the one of whom Moses spoke. He is neither a blasphemer of God or Moses.
The third charge against him was that he was a blasphemer of the law. And he speaks to that starting in verse 38. From Moses to the law is an easy transition because it was Moses who received the law, wasn’t it? On Mount Sinai. After they left the land, after he led them out, verse 36, through the Red Sea, into the wilderness for 40 years, it was there that Moses received the law. Verse 38. “This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you.” He has no disrespect for the law. He knows that the congregation in the wilderness gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, waited for the law to come to Moses, aided by angels, as it repeats back at the end in verse 53, “The law ordained by angels,” and that the law – I love this phrase at the end of verse 38 – is “living oracles.” Moses, on Mount Sinai, received the Word of God, living oracles to pass on to you. This was Exodus chapter 19. And, following where we have the receiving of the law, living oracles.
What is an oracle? Command. Statement from God. Word from God. Declaration from God. Divine authoritative revelation. Why is it living? Because it is the very Word of God. It is where it is alive and powerful, Hebrews 4:12 says. This is not merely the mention of men. The law of God is the law of God. It is alive. In fact, it lives forever, does it not? It lives forever. The Word of God which lives and abides forever. Our Lord Jesus said not one small speck of that law will ever pass away until it’s all fulfilled. He saw the law of God then as the very Word of God. He saw the law that came to Moses on Sinai as divine. It was vital, spiritual revelation from heaven. He is no blasphemer of the law. He doesn’t depreciate the law. He doesn’t have a low view of the law. He understood that God is the author, angels are the mediators, and Moses was the recipient.
He is saying, essentially, that the Pentateuch is written by Moses, the inspired writer, but the truth is all from God. It is God’s law. It is not dead. It is alive and powerful. He is not a blasphemer of the law. But here comes the indictment of them again, verse 39. “Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us; for this Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what happened to him.’” Hmmm. Boy, they have short memories. For the one that God used to part the sea and drown the entire Egyptian army? He’s up in the mountain, and they’ve already forgotten him, and they want to go back to their idolatry. Who are the blasphemers? It’s the history of this nation. It is the people who are disobedient, who repudiated Moses, who turned their hearts back toward Egypt. You remember, they were hankering for life in Egypt.
These Jews in the Sanhedrin were going to have a hard time with Stephen boasting about some kind of great, historic integrity for their fathers and leaders, while Moses was up in the mountain, they were having an orgy down below, melting their jewelry and making a golden calf that was part of their distorted Egyptian worship, and labeling it as if it was God. And in the sickness of that event, they brought a vast, sweeping death on themselves. Many of them slaughtered that very day, and all of them dying in the wilderness without ever entering the promised land, all of that generation.
It was there at the foot of Sinai that they began their idolatrous history. It all started there. They showed how much they cared for divine law, divine order. What did the law command? You shall have no other, what? Gods. Make for us gods who will go before us. Verse 41, they made a calf, “brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.” This sounds like Romans 1, but God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven.
Egyptians worshipped sacred bulls. Apis and Mnevis. They were considered to be the incarnation of Osiris and the sun god. So, the Israelites picked up on that idolatry. Treason against God, treason against Moses, treason against God’s law, and they gloried in it, and they wallowed in that idolatry and gross immorality. Again, this is the beginning of Israel’s idolatry. Exodus 32. They were in some kind of naked orgy – sick, sexual worship of this bull. God threatened to massacre all of them. Moses interceded and only thousands were killed. But the whole generation never entered the land.
Verse 42. God gave them up. He gave them up to serve the host of heaven. It’s like Hosea 4:17. “Ephraim has joined idols. Let him alone.” It is written in the book of the prophets. Verse 42. Where? Amos 5. “It was not to Me that you offered victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, O house of Israel? You also took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rompha,” which has to do with Saturn, planetary worship, “the images which you made to worship. I also will remove you beyond Babylon.” Oh my. The promise of another captivity.
That’s quoted from Amos 5:25 to 27. Sums it up. Their idolatry, from the start in the wilderness, on through their occupation of the promised land, led to the Babylonian captivity.
Stephen condenses all of that in the words of Amos. You shall have no gods before Me, no carved images, no likeness of anything. And he has to turn them over to the host of heaven, to the worship of the sun, the moon, the stars. We find them doing that in Deuteronomy 17, 2 Kings 17:21, 2 Chronicles 33. We find that in Job. We find Jeremiah writing about it. We find Ezekiel writing about it. Amos writing about it. By the way, Amos is prophesying on the verge of the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom, followed later by the Babylonians in the southern kingdom. Amos is predicting something that was about to happen in the north. The Israelites would be deported. Amos actually says beyond Damascus. And here in the New Testament, it enriches that by saying all the way to Babylon. “It wasn’t to Me,” God says. “It was not to Me that you offered sacrifices forth years in the wilderness, was it?” Was it?
So he turns the tables again on them. Who are the blasphemers? He has respect for the law of God. He has respect for obedience. It was the people that did not. It was their history. So Israel continually violated the first commandment, violated the rest of the Ten Commandments. Their history is a history of multiple thousands upon thousands of violations of every commandment the Lord gave. They worshipped idols, and it all led to Babylon.
So Stephen is reciting these huge chunks of history, and he doesn’t editorialize. It’s just hard facts from Scripture. He is not a law blasphemer. He is not a God blasphemer. He does not dishonor Moses. But their whole history is a history of blasphemy and rebellion.
And finally, he answers the indictment that he was guilty of blaspheming against the temple. The temple. Starting in verse 44. And he continues the history lesson. “Our fathers had a tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness.” Let’s go back and talk about it. It was a tabernacle of testimony. What does he mean by that? He means it was God’s witness. It was God’s testimony. God spoke in that tent. All of the elements of that tent were somehow earthly symbols of God’s glory, God’s majesty, God’s character, God’s nature, God’s covenants, God’s redemption. It was a tent to give testimony in the wilderness, and it was to be built and moved through the wilderness, and the tribes all surrounded the tent. It was the focal point. And the instructions for the tent he gave to Moses in the Book of Exodus. He spoke to Moses, directed him to make it according to the pattern which he had seen.
You find that in the Book of Exodus. It was God’s testimony. I’m not against the temple. The temple started with the tabernacle. It started with a tent, and it was the testimony of God. And they received it in their turn, and our fathers brought it in with Joshua upon dispossessing the nations when they entered the land of Canaan and threw the nations out and established themselves in the land. They brought the tent in, the tabernacle in, whom God had commanded them and given them the formula to build. They threw out the nations, drove them out before our fathers, and the tent was there all the way until the time of David. David was off fighting wars against all these idolatrous groups, tribes. Finally, when David put his enemies down and brought peace, he looked at God’s tent and thought: “This is not right.” Second Samuel 7. “I’m going to build a fitting house for God.” David said, “I have a house of cedar. God has a tent.” David said, I’m going to do that. Second Samuel 7.
But God stops Nathan the prophet from allowing David to do that and says no, you’re a man of blood. You can’t do it. Your son, Solomon, will do it. And Solomon is commissioned to build the first temple.
Verse 46. “David found favor in God’s sight, and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for Him. Solomon built a house. Stephen acknowledges that, that it was given by God to Solomon, and Solomon followed the pattern that God had ordained, and Solomon faithfully built the house. But you have to keep it in perspective.
“However,” verse 48. Such a strong statement: “The Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says.” And he quotes that great passage from Isaiah 66:1 and 2. “‘Heaven is My throne, and earth is the footstool of My feet; what kind of house will you build for Me?’ says the Lord, ‘Or what place is there for My rest? Was it not My hand which made all these things?’”
What’s Stephen saying? Don’t overdo the significance of the temple. Don’t overdo that. You remember those words of Solomon at the very dedication signifying the significance of the temple itself. First Kings 8. Solomon and the Hebrew prophets had protested against the idea of thinking God was confined to this temple, and they pleaded the cause of spiritual worship to God, that He was vastly and infinitely beyond a building.
But, by the time that Stephen was facing the council, they worshipped the building and not God. And the ritual. Temples were always temporary. There was a tent, and then there was Solomon’s temple, and then there was Zerubbabel’s temple when Solomon’s temple was destroyed under the judgment of God. And then, Zerubbabel’s temple was destroyed again under the judgment of God, and Herod’s temple was built. And Herod’s temple had already been cursed by Jesus and would soon be destroyed.
And by the way, even on the temple that hadn’t been destroyed – Herod’s temple – the veil had been split from top to bottom, and the Holy of Holies exposed. Stephen is saying: I recognized that God ordained a tent, and He ordained a temple. I get that, but God is bigger than your building, and you are blaspheming God by perverting the temple as if the temple itself is holy, and you have turned the temple, our Lord Jesus said, into a den of thieves.
By the way, this is an important transition. I think until Stephen’s sermon, believers may not have been sure just what place the temple played. But it was coming down, for sure.
Stephen challenges the church to go forward, beyond the temple where they were regularly meeting, beyond the traditional paths. Follow the path of the church forward. The new covenant is not a post-script to Judaism. It is new. It is fresh. God is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, anywhere, everywhere, by anyone and everyone. God is bigger than a building. He is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth. Solomon said that those who are true believers have always known that. You are the hypocrites. You are the hypocrites, you who worship a building. He’s a powerful, powerful preacher. He defends himself. He believes fully in God, Moses, the law, the temple. They are all God-ordained, God-designed, for purposes of God. He does not reject Moses, the law, the temple, or God. But they, in their history, are following the exact pattern of the rejections of the past.
Verse 51. “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart,” that’s the worst thing you could ever say to a Jew, “uncircumcised, unclean, in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet didn’t keep it.”
Wow. Courageous, powerful, unshakable force of argument that he has made. They were hardcore apostates. That’s what stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears meant. They resisted all the prompting of the Holy Spirit. They were part of the same history of killing the prophets, and now killing the very Righteous One Himself.
Now, that’s too much. Verse 54 says, “When they heard this, they were cut to the quick. They began gnashing their teeth at him.” And he’s just full of the Holy Spirit, gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, Jesus standing at the right hand of God. From there, verse 58 says they drove him out of the city, began stoning him. We’ll see all of that next time.
You know, we’ve been doing this preaching stuff long enough that we have every right to expect a whole lot better than I hear all the time from most preachers. If a first generation preacher like Stephen, who’s been a believer in Jesus Christ for a few weeks maybe, a few months, can preach with that kind of facility handling the Word of God and that kind of boldness and courage, may the Lord release on this generation a myriad of Stephens.
Father, we thank You for our time together tonight. We are deeply grateful for the example of this amazing man. We don’t know anything about him other than his message and his virtue. We don’t know his history, but we know what we need to know: full of faith, full of wisdom, full of power, full of the Holy Spirit, one of seven chosen out of the thousands in the church. Now we know why. And such boldness and such courage, a man with a face of an angel. And even while they’re taking his life, he’s transfixed on the glory of the one he loved and the one he preached. Give us boldness, Lord, to preach Your Word, to teach Your Word, and to indict those who reject Your Son. I’m sure that in the boldness of Stephen, there was compassion and love, as there always was in the boldness of Christ. May it be for us as well. But never was there equivocating on the truth. Thank You for what we can learn by his boldness. Make us faithful proclaimers of Your truth. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.