The trial of Stephen before the Sanhedrin is a lesson for us in how to completely miss the point!
The Sanhedrin, along with the majority of those whom they were (mis)leading, thought that God was on their side simply because of their geographic location. Since they were in the land of promise they assumed that they were in a right relationship with the Lord who owned the land. But in Stephen’s response to their accusations of blasphemy and treason, he argued that those who were historically God-followers among the Jews never saw the land as the issue. And as important as the law would become in Jewish history, and as important as the liturgy of temple worship would become, neither were they ever the be all and end all of being right with God. In other words, it was never about the land, the law or the liturgy, but rather always about the Lord.
This matter of missing the point is illuminated by how the Jewish nation largely responded to the Lord Jesus Christ—both in crucifying Him as well as in their subsequent continued rejection of Him as displayed in their rejection of the apostles and the early church. Their persecution of Stephen stands as Exhibit A.
This account in Acts, I must confess, has often puzzled me. Though I have always understood that Stephen was recounting some of the redemptive history of God’s dealing with the nation of Israel, and it did not seem to make much sense in connection to what had gone on before. For example, in the previous proclamations by church leaders the clear emphasis was upon proclaiming the gospel to the leaders and people of Jerusalem. But here Stephen seems to have proclaimed merely judgement. Though he did preach the cross, he did not preach the resurrection. And apart from the resurrection there is no hope. In a sense, though Stephen died in peace seeing the Lord risen, ascended and reigning, nevertheless there seemed to be little hope left for the nation. In fact, the sermon climaxed almost with the idea that the nation of Israel had exhausted the otherwise bountiful mercies of God.
Why the difference of tune and tone? I believe that there are a couple of reasons.
First, Stephen as a Hellenistic Jew saw the current religious situation somewhat differently than did the Hebraic Jews of Jerusalem. You know the old adage that if you want to know about water then don’t ask a fish? Well, if you wanted to know the real state of religious affairs in Jerusalem then it did little good to ask the Sanhedrin!
Stephen perhaps understood—even better than the apostles!—that the church was significantly different from the Judaism of the day. Stephen, it would seem, could see clearly that to follow Christ would require a complete separation from the temple and all of its liturgies and laws. He could see very clearly, as an “outsider,” that the days of Judaism were numbered. Perhaps he understood the Olivet Discourse better than the apostles and the Hebraic element of the church! And we know from the content of his sermon that Stephen had a firm grasp that the God who saves His people from their sins is not localised to a particular piece of real estate. Stephen knew that, ultimately, to be a God-follower, a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, was not about the land. And it was precisely because he got it that the Sanhedrin was so incensed.
As we study this chapter we will do so with a view to unearthing Stephen’s main point(s). As we do so I trust that we will examine our own lives to see if perhaps we are not also guilty at times of localising God within our own context.
How might we be guilty of localising God? We can be guilty of this in several ways. For example, there is the danger of overemphasising the holy land thereby being guilty of minimising God’s concern for the nations. There is the danger of an unhealthy focus on the text of Scripture while missing out on the purpose of Scripture. There is a danger of a right liturgy but no love for the Lord! There is the danger of ethnocentrism. “Stephen argues against a veneration of the Holy Land that would leave no room for God’s further saving activity in Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah. . . . He is rather delivering a polemic against a veneration of the land that misses God’s further redemptive work. And while his message relates to his time and situation, it also has great relevance for us. For we Christians today are constantly tempted to assert that our nation and our possessions are God-given rather than to confess our dependence on a God who is not limited by anything he has bestowed and to affirm our readiness to move forward with him at all cost.”1
In other words we face the danger of being guilty of the very thing of which these opponents of Christ were guilty: missing the point!
Stephen, a Spirit-filled, wise and faithful Hellenised Jewish deacon, had been mightily used of God to declare the truth of Christ in the synagogues. He had perhaps even verbally sparred with Saul of Tarsus—and won (cf. vv. 9-10)! God had authenticated his ministry of the Word through signs and wonders (6:8-10). This has landed him in big trouble with the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
False witnesses had been bribed to accuse Stephen of speaking blasphemous words against Moses and against God (6:11). Specifically they had accused him of speaking blasphemous words against the temple and against the law (6:13).
Arraigned before the Sanhedrin, Stephen responded in a way consistent with his character: He was Spirit filled (6:15). God, as it were, shone some of His glory on Stephen’s countenance as he listened to these false charges.
Upon hearing the false accusations Stephen was given the opportunity to state his response to the charges (v. 1). But rather than merely pleading not guilty, he used the opportunity to give a defence. His defence, however, was not as much of himself as it was a defence of biblical theology. Harrison comments “He did not mount a defence in the technical sense, for he was less interested in clearing himself than in declaring the truth so as to reach the consciences of his hearers.”2 He exemplified the charge of 1 Peter 3:15.
By recounting biblical theology he was pointing them to the storyline of the Bible: God seeking worshippers who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. And that this can only happen in the context of Christ, who perfectly fulfilled the law and who is the embodiment of the temple of God.
In the end the accused became the accuser, the church had its first martyr, and one of those who was responsible for his death began to be drawn into the kingdom of God. In short, what was the end of the line for Stephen (on earth) was the beginning of greater world mission for the church.
It should be noted before delving into the speech itself that Luke recorded this for the very reason just given. That is, the book of Acts records the spread of the worldwide gospel mission, and what transpired in chapters 6 and 7 were pivotal to an expanding worldwide mission. As someone has well said, if there was no prayer of Stephen, there might well have been no ministry of Paul!
I found it interesting in my studies that
many students of Stephen’s speech have criticized it as rambling, dull and even incoherent. A good example is George Bernard Shaw in his preface to Androcles and the Lion. Calling Stephen “a quite intolerable young speaker” and “a tactless and conceited bore,” he describes him as having “delivered an oration to the council, in which he . . . inflicted on them a tedious sketch of the history of Israel, with which they were presumably as well acquainted as he.3
I wonder how he really felt!
I am confident that we will see that this was everything but an incoherent, dull, or rambling “tedious sketch of the history of Israel.” Rather, it was a masterful recitation of selected Old Testament epochs, which vindicated him and convicted his judges. Stott observes with reference to the effect of Stephen’s speech, “What he did was not just to rehearse the salient features of the Old Testament story, with which the Sanhedrin were as familiar as he, but to do so in such a way as to draw lessons from it which they had never learned or even noticed. His concern was to demonstrate that his position, far from being ‘blasphemous’ because disrespectful to God’s word, actually honoured it.”4 The result of this profound use of Scripture was to highlight what these religious leaders should have known but in fact did not know. And when this was made known they were not happy to know it! You see, they missed the point.
It is important to keep before us, as noted above, that Stephen was a more “liberated” Jew than the Hebraic ones, and even than the Hebraic apostles. It seems from the speech that Stephen understood quite clearly that the structures within Judaism were never meant to last, but that these all were tutors to lead the nation to Christ (see Galatians 3:24). And yet, having said that, it must also be noted that he was no less “orthodox.” In fact, because he believed on Christ, he was the most orthodox Jew in that room that day (See Luke 24:25-26, 32, 44-49; John 5:39, 46-47)!
Further, as you read this speech there is, in one sense, an irenic tone. Note how Stephen opened the speech. He addressed his hearers as “brethren and fathers” (v. 2). Throughout the speech he showed where he stood on common ground with them as he referred to the patriarch as “our fathers” (vv. 11, 12, 15, 19, 38, 39, 44, 45). In other words, Stephen identified with them as much as he honestly could. He was not looking for a fight.
Even at the end of the speech, as they put him to death, Stephen responded with grace and prayed, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (v. 60). Stephen, in short, responds in a Christlike manner (cf. Luke 23:34).
We learn from this that even when we are under pressure from those who reject our faith in our Saviour that we can and must be irenic. We must be peaceable. We must rule our spirits (Proverbs 16:32; 25:28), which, of course, requires that we be ruled by the Spirit.
And yet, even though Stephen was irenic, he was also firm. He was very straightforward and pulled no punches. His irenic spirit did not minimise his indictment of them for their guilt in rejecting Christ. This is very clear, especially in vv. 51-53.
We can learn from this that, in our gospel proclamation, we should strive for at least three characteristics.
First, we must strive for identification. We must identify as honestly as we can with those whom we are evangelising.
Second, we must strive to be irenic. That is, we must have a peaceful and gentle disposition. Don’t look to win an argument but rather strive for the winning of a soul!
Third, we must strive for an indictment. In other words, don’t shy away from telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. People need to hear it, and, most importantly, Christ is honoured by it. “There is the anger of a man who sees a people commit the most terrible of crimes; but there is the sorrow of a man who sees a people who have refused the destiny that God offered them.”5
Stephen began his speech by identifying himself with their professed old covenant orthodoxy. Longnecker, commenting on this, writes,
Declarations of faith within a Jewish milieu were often tied to a recital of God’s intervention in the life of Israel. . . . But while Jewish in form, in content his address runs counter to much of the popular piety of the day. He argues that God’s significant activity has usually taken place outside the confines of Palestine, that wherever God meets his people can be called “holy ground,” that God is the God who calls his own to move forward in their religious experience, and that therefore dwelling in the land of promise requires a pilgrim lifestyle in which the land may be appreciated by never venerated.6
Let’s look at the content of this speech, which can be divided into four broad sections, while considering the above observation. As you listen to Stephen’s speech it becomes apparent that this was not mere rambling but rather a rational and powerful response to his accusers. In spite of Shaw’s critique, it is truer to say that this was a masterful use of old covenant history as a means to preach Christ. He was challenging them to move from the shadows to the substance.
The connecting feature of these four epochs is that in none of them was God’s presence limited to any particular place. On the contrary, the God of the Old Testament was the living God, a God on the move and on the march, who was always calling his people out to fresh adventures, and always accompanying and directing them as they went.7
Importantly, we must bear in mind two parallel ideas in this discourse: First, “the revelation of God had always been progressive, and had never been confined to the Temple,” and, second, “The messengers of God had always been rejected at first, but had been received later as divinely appointed deliverers.”8
Let’s look at the four sections of Stephen’s speech.
Stephen begins with a reference to Abraham, the “founder” of the Jewish race.
Then the high priest said, “Are these things so?” And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.’ Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell. And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abraham had no child, He promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his descendants after him. But God spoke in this way: that his descendants would dwell in a foreign land, and that they would bring them into bondage and oppress them four hundred years. And the nation to whom they will be in bondage I will judge,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and serve Me in this place.’ Then He gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham begot Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot the twelve patriarchs.
In this section note how Stephen began his historical review of Israel by highlighting that, when “the God of glory” revealed Himself to Abraham, He did so outside the holy land (v. 2). Yes, God works outside of the holy land!
Stephen also noted how Abraham received no inheritance in the Promised Land and that his descendants would live in a foreign land for 400 years. And yet, because God had entered into a covenant with him, Abraham received God’s favour (vv. 5-8). In or out of the land, God blessed His people. God’s promise took priority over God’s place. “Long before there was a holy place, there was a holy people, to whom God had pledged himself.”9
Second, in vv. 9-16, Stephen draws attention to the patriarchs.
And the patriarchs, becoming envious, sold Joseph into Egypt. But God was with him and delivered him out of all his troubles, and gave him favour and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house. Now a famine and great trouble came over all the land of Egypt and Canaan, and our fathers found no sustenance. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first. And the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to the Pharaoh. Then Joseph sent and called his father Jacob and all his relatives to him, seventy-five people. So Jacob went down to Egypt; and he died, he and our fathers. And they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem.
Stephen proceeded to trace a brief history of the patriarchs who came through Isaac. Note again in these eight verses the emphasis upon Joseph and his family being located in Egypt (six times in seven verses), and yet the Lord preserved and blessed them. Note especially v. 9. “God was with him”—in Egypt, of all places!
Stephen was building a case that the Lord had always been moving with His people and that His plan was never merely about getting to a parcel of ground and stopping. In other words, the physical temple was never God’s ultimate goal. It too was temporary. Stephen at the same time was seeking to demolish the ethnocentrism of corrupt because idolatrous Judaism.
Moses and the Children of Israel
In a longer section (vv. 17-43), Stephen focused on Moses and the children of Israel both in Egypt and then out of Egypt and their subsequent wanderings in the wilderness.
But when the time of the promise drew near which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt till another king arose who did not know Joseph. This man dealt treacherously with our people, and oppressed our forefathers, making them expose their babies, so that they might not live. At this time Moses was born, and was well pleasing to God; and he was brought up in his father’s house for three months. But when he was set out, Pharaoh’s daughter took him away and brought him up as her own son. And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds. Now when he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended and avenged him who was oppressed, and struck down the Egyptian. For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand. And the next day he appeared to two of them as they were fighting, and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brethren; why do you wrong one another?’ But he who did his neighbour wrong pushed him away, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday?’ Then, at this saying, Moses fled and became a dweller in the land of Midian, where he had two sons. And when forty years had passed, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire in a bush, in the wilderness of Mount Sinai. When Moses saw it, he marvelled at the sight; and as he drew near to observe, the voice of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘I am the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and dared not look. Then the LORD said to him, “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and 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?’ is the one God sent to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the Angel who appeared to him in the bush. He brought them out, after he had shown wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years.
This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear.’ This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us, whom our fathers would not obey, but rejected. And in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods to go before us; as for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the Prophets: ‘Did you offer Me slaughtered animals and sacrifices during forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You also took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, images which you made to worship; and I will carry you away beyond Babylon.’
Note again that God went with them even though they were not in the land.
But in this passage Stephen also turned up the heat as he laid the foundation to illuminate the hypocrisy of the Sanhedrin when it came to their professed loyalty to Moses.
Note the following important features:
- God blessed the Israelites with growth in Egypt (vv. 17-19).
- God blessed Moses in the household of Pharaoh (vv. 20-22).
- The children of Israel rebelled against Moses rather than following him (vv. 23-28).
- Yahweh blessed and appeared to Moses in Midian, in the wilderness of Sinai (and even here a spot became holy, v. 33), and instructed him to go to Egypt (v. 34). God also accompanied Moses and Israel in Egypt, through the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years.
- Again, note the pointed remark about Moses whom they rejected (vv. 35, 38). “The very man whom Israel had refused became God’s chosen instrument.”10
We should pause here to observe that, in Stephen’s references to Moses, he gave giving plenty of evidence of his respect for Moses. The charge that he was anti-Moses is ludicrous.
In vv. 37-43 Stephen recounted what, in many ways, was the most infamous episode in the history of Israel: that of the golden calf. He argued on that basis that the nation was largely characterised by rebellion to all that Moses taught.
Stephen’s point was clearly that, before the Sanhedrin charged him with blasphemy and with religious apostasy, they should review the history of Israel; if they were biblically instructed then they would have to conclude that, in fact, he was the orthodox one. “The inescapable inference from Stephen’s words is that Israel’s shameful behavior and God’s drastic response to it find their counterparts in the nation’s rejection of Jesus.”11
It was Stephen who was taking seriously Moses (see v. 37). “The history of Moses is the foreshadowing of the history of Christ. In Moses they believed and boasted. The accusation was that Stephen spoke against Moses. His testimony proves that he believes in Moses. But did the council really believe in Moses? The accused becomes the accuser. They did not believe in Moses and his words.”12
The Tabernacle and Temple
In the final segment of Stephen’s speech he spoke of the tabernacle and the Temple.
Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as He appointed, instructing Moses to make it according to the pattern that he had seen, which our fathers, having received it in turn, also brought with Joshua into the land possessed by the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers until the days of David, who found favour before God and asked to find a dwelling for the God of Jacob. But Solomon built Him a house. However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says: ‘Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. What house will you build for Me? says the LORD, or what is the place of My rest? Has My hand not made all these things?’
Though not all commentators agree, I believe that Stephen in fact spoke more favourably of the tabernacle than of the temple. And there was a very important reason for this.
You see, Stephen’s point in his whole message was that God is not confined to one location and that He has always been mobile with His glory. It is true that God chose the nation of Israel to be His people, but the Sanhedrin had lost sight of the fact that God chose Israel so that all of the nations would be blessed in Christ, the Prophet foretold by Moses (v. 37). The tabernacle was a means for God’s glory to be manifested from place to place. It was for this reason that Joshua, after Moses’ death, carried it into the Promised Land (v. 45).
Stephen then recounted how David desired to build a more permanent, localised place for God to dwell. I find the tone of v. 47 significant: “But Solomon built Him a house.” This does strike me as particularly “approving,” and the words that follow in vv. 48-50 support this. Of course, God did bless the temple. Yet it must be pointed out that even the temple was not the be all and end all of His plan for the world. The temple only pointed to the one who was the Temple (John 2:19-23), the Lord Jesus Christ. “The tabernacle suggested movement, going along with God under his direction, whereas the temple was static and served to symbolize a certain satisfaction in the status quo that made the nation unresponsive to further revelation, especially that which came in the person of God’s Son. He was the Temple without hands.”13
The nation of Israel had come to idolise the temple. The place became more important than the presence of God. In fact God’s, presence departed and they did not even notice! Proof of this was how they were treated Stephen.
Barclay perhaps says it best: “Stephen is insisting that the condemnation of the Jewish nation is complete because in spite of the fact that they had every chance to know better they continuously and consistently rebelled against God. . . . The Temple which should have become their greatest blessing was in fact their greatest curse. They had come to worship the Temple instead of worshipping God.”14
To sum up this speech, Stephen showed from biblical history that God had never been confined either to a particular place or to a particular people. Further, those to whom He had revealed Himself had a history of rejecting His revelation. “The defense of Stephen [was] . . . an indictment of the Jewish leaders for their failure to recognise Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah or to appreciate the salvation provided in him.”15
The land, the law and the liturgy were all important but only as the means to preparing the way for the Lord. Israel had a history of rejecting the Lord. Stephen was in fact in line with Moses (the law), and God’s plan for the temple; it was the Sanhedrin who were in the wrong. And with such a conclusion Stephen brought his sermon to a climax.
The accused became the accuser. Stephen courageously let loose a stinging indictment upon the Sanhedrin.
You stiff-necked and 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 foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”
This is reminiscent of our Lord’s pronouncement of woes recorded in Matthew 23.
Suggesting that Stephen perhaps “jabbed with a finger at his accusers,” Longnecker notes that, even if this was not the case, “a blind man would have felt his verbal blows.”16
It is interesting that, until this point, Stephen spoke of “our fathers,” but now he spoke of “your fathers.” His identification with the nation had its limits. Since he had believed on the Lord Jesus Christ he could not identify with those who opposed Him. There is a helpful pastoral observation here.
Those who know and love the Lord are different from those who do not. And we should not minimise this. It is true that only the grace of God that has made the difference, but nevertheless there is a difference!
Those who reject Christ need to be confronted with the truth, regardless of the cost and regardless of the way it will make others feel. In fact, we should desire that those who reject Christ feel it. Such awareness may serve as an awakening.
The closing verses highlight the commendation of Stephen’s ministry in this chapter.
When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Theses verses record the first martyrdom in the history of the new covenant church. It is an amazing and instructive scene.
The Sanhedrin snarled like wild animals at Stephen, and he responded like Christ. He looked into heavens and saw the Lord Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father. It was precisely this claim that sealed the crucifixion of Christ (Matthew 26:64-66).
The Sanhedrin were faced with a choice: either admit that Stephen was correct and that they were wrong in crucifying Christ some three years earlier, or be consistent and kill Stephen as well. They chose the latter.
In a murderous frenzy, following the customary method of stoning, they probably tied Stephen’s hands behind his back and cast him to the ground from a high place. Then, seeing that he was still alive, they would have cast large rocks to crush and kill him. In a supernatural manifestation of grace Stephen cried out (as did Jesus in Luke 23:46), “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He then interceded for his persecutors crying out, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (v. 60; cf. Luke 23:34). He then died in peace. “He fell asleep” is a beautiful description of the death of a believer.
Stephen stood for the truth. He understood the biblical teaching about the land, the law and the temple. He understood the point of it all: It was all about Jesus. He died clinging to this hope. And he died well. “The man who follows Christ the whole way will find strength to do things which it seems humanly impossible to do.”17
We probably will not face such death and yet we need the same understanding of biblical theology. We need to understand the plotline. We need the conviction that Stephen had. We need to gaze into glory as Stephen did, and then go with the perspective that he had and proclaim the gospel of Christ.
One very important element in this record needs to be highlighted: the fact that Jesus was seen standing at the right hand of God. What is significance of this—bearing in mind that Jesus is said in Scripture to be seated at the right hand of the Father? I believe the significance is that Jesus, as Stephen’s Advocate, was confessing him before the Father in response to Stephen’s confessing Him before men (see Matthew 10:32). It is wonderful to know that Christ stands with and for His servants!
Let me make a very important application to where we sometimes find ourselves. There are still those in the church who are too focused on the land, and even on the temple. The Scriptures do teach that there will be a large number of ethnic Jews who will be saved one day (Romans 11) but the idea that they will have a special piece of real estate with a rebuilt temple is as wrongheaded as the theology of the Sanhedrin in Stephen’s day, who missed out on the glory of the gospel because they were so focused on land.
The gospel is the sum of all the liturgy, laws and land to which the old covenant pointed. Nothing is more glorious and nothing can usurp the centrality of the church that Christ is building. Thank God that the wall that separated Jews from Gentiles has been torn down in Christ. And is it not interesting that the Jew who told us—Saul of Tarsus—this was a witness of Stephen’s martyrdom (v. 58)?
The inclusion of Saul’s name in v. 58 is deliberate. Luke inserted his name—the man who would soon be saved and transformed into the apostle Paul. In fact, from chapter 13 of this book, he would take centre stage in the world mission to evangelise the lost.
This Pharisee of the Pharisees would soon come to appreciate that the old covenant was not about the land, the law or the liturgy, but rather about His Lord and Saviour. And he would spend the rest of his life proclaiming this.
What can we learn from this?
There is much of practical value to be gained from studying this event.
We learn here that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
We learn that what appears in Christian missions as a setback is often the means of further expansion. The martyrdom of Jim Elliot and his colleagues seemed to be a tremendous setback, and yet Christ ultimately produced much fruit from it. Indeed—in the life and death of Stephen and in that of Jim Elliott and co.—God worked all things together for the good of those who loved Him and were the called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
In Acts 7 we are encouraged to learn Scripture and to grasp its plotline.
This chapter serves as a means of preparing us to face hostility from religious half-brothers and as a bold example to strengthen our resolve to lay it all on the line for Christ.
The chapter is a powerful reminder that how we respond to conflict can be a very effective means of witnessing to the truth of the gospel. We live our faith (or faithlessness!) before a watching world. We never know what God is doing behind the scene, but thankfully we know that He is in the scene!
Finally, this record serves as a wonderful encouragement that the worst thing that can happen to a believer is also the best thing that can happen to the believer!
Let us learn from this historical event and example that what we see at times as a disastrous tragedy is in fact often a divine triumph. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Stephen sowed his blood and Saul was saved as a result. And because he was, millions have been ever since. Thanks be to God that the church continues to grow. She continues to be built because it’s not about the land, but rather about the Lord. That, my friend, is the point!
- Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:339. ↩
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 121. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 129. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 130. ↩
- William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 61. ↩
- Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:339. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 130-31. ↩
- Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 72. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 132. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 129. ↩
- Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:343. ↩
- Arno C. Gaebelein, The Acts of the Apostles: An Exposition (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1983), 133. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 134. ↩
- Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 60-61. ↩
- Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:337. ↩
- Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:348. ↩
- Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 62. ↩