Here we have the account of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Like Jesus, he is falsely accused and sentenced to death by the Sanhedrin, in their kangaroo court. This is a gruesome death; he is dragged out of the city and stoned. At first, it all seems so unfair. What kind of a man is Stephen? He’s described in chapter 6 as a man ‘full of faith and the Holy Spirit’, and a man ‘full of God’s grace and power’. Why did they hate him so much? Because he was a follower of Jesus and taught others that we can only know God through a relationship with Jesus. He taught that Jesus is the only Saviour who can save us from our sins. People don’t like to be told about their sins and need to be saved! But he was absolutely right. Stephen knew that Jesus is God’s long-promised king, and had risen from the dead. Some of the Jews, however, would not believe that Jesus was the Christ, even though Stephen proved this from the Bible, and even backed it up with signs and wonders. They can’t beat Stephen in a debate, so what are they going to do? They decide to round up some false witnesses and accuse Stephen of blasphemy. This is an enormously serious charge, coming with a death sentence.
Now Stephen is on trial for his life. Even before he gives his defence, we’re told (Acts 6:15) that his face was like that of an angel. This should have made it obvious to the court that the favour of God rested on him, as it had done on Moses, whose face also radiated from the presence of God. Stephen knows that it’s likely he could die, yet he does not hold back with the truth. In a magnificent speech, he keeps on witnessing to Jesus. Everything he says is true. However, rather than repenting and putting their trust in Jesus, the Sanhedrin are fuming, and remain convinced that Stephen is a blasphemer, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. And so, they stone him.
1. Should we feel sorry for Stephen?
Should we be angry with God for letting this exceptionally gifted and loving man face such an awful death? What on earth is God doing, we might think? Don’t feel sorry for Stephen! God always knows what he is doing, even in the middle of massive suffering, such as Stephen faces here. If this world is all there is, then yes, feel sorry for him. But life is short and eternity is long, and it is only those who trust in Jesus who will be welcomed into Heaven.
Heaven is not the place for those who think they have lived a good life, but the place for those who trust that Jesus died to clean them of all their sin. God gives Stephen a wonderful vision of the triune before he dies: But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.’ (Acts 7:55) These things are normally unseen. As the first martyr, God is assuring Stephen that he is with him in his suffering and will welcome his warmly into his eternal home. Stephen is about to go to Heaven. We ought to feel sorry for are the Sanhedrin, who refuse to believe Jesus is King. They remain under God’s judgment because they refuse to accept God’s rightful King.
What about you? Have you accepted Jesus as your rightful King? Jesus is God, and as Stephen was privileged to see, is now ruling and reigning from Heaven, and will one day come back again to judge the world. Stephen entrusts himself to Jesus: ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’ he says. There is no better thing for us to do than entrust our lives to King Jesus. Who else can deal with our deaths?
Should we feel sorry for Stephen? Stephen knows that ultimately it doesn’t matter what the Sanhedrin think of him, or anyone else. What matters is God’s assessment of our lives. Eternity hinges on this. What the Creator thinks of how you are living is the crucial thing. Stephen is ready.
2. Stephen’s death is not wasted
God never wastes anything. We normally have turkey at Christmas time, and I can assure you that nothing is wasted. After Christian we have turkey pie and turkey curry and the odd turkey sandwich. Nothing is wasted. God never wastes any of our experiences. Even our suffering, perhaps especially our suffering is used wonderfully in his expert hands, even though we usually don’t understand how or why at the time. But we read in Acts 8:1 that Stephen’s death is a turning point, ushering in a time of persecution for the church. That is not wasted. ‘Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.’(Acts 8:4)
Stephen’s death is a catalyst for the gospel moving out further and further. How marvellous. Note that the Christians who are forced to flee their homes carry on speaking to others about Jesus wherever they go. We won’t stop telling people about Jesus: it’s too important to keep quiet about. He’s the only one who can save us from Hell and death.
We also read that Saul approved of the stoning of Stephen. However, listening to Stephen’s speech and watching how he died, even praying for his enemies as Jesus had done, must have had a profound impact on Saul. It’s highly likely God used this to bring Saul to faith, who would become known as Paul and become one of the most influential Christians of all time. Nothing is wasted in God’s hands. Persecution and suffering are never wasted. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. New life springs from Stephen’s death. Listen to what God says to all Christians: ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:38) All things work for our good.
Let’s spend the rest of our time focusing on the key features of Stephen’s speech. As he stands on trial, let’s remind ourselves what he has been falsely accused of; speaking blasphemous words against both Moses and against God. They accuse him of speaking against the temple and the law. Quite remarkably, Stephen turns things upside down, accusing the Sanhedrin as being the ones who are guilty. His long speech might seem strange to us, as he gives a Bible overview. He focuses on three things: the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph; the time of Moses and the giving of the law; and finally, the place of the tabernacle in temple amongst the people. Let’s consider the main lessons using some school subjects as our headings.
Through a geography lesson, Stephen corrects the wrong view the Sanhedrin have of the temple, by telling them that God’s presence is not limited. The Sanhedrin have come to idolise the temple. Of course, the temple was a place God had given the people where he would meet with his people in a special way. It was a place where, through sacrifices, sinful people could come before a holy God. But the temple was never meant to be permanent. In fact, it was like a signpost pointing to something much better, when God’s presence would be known not in a building, but in a person – the Lord Jesus Christ, who is both God and man.
In a sense, the temple was like scaffolding. It was never meant to be permanent. It was there for a time until the finished thing under the scaffolding would be revealed. And the person revealed was Jesus. He was the great and final sacrifice, so the temple was not needed any more. But the Jews idolised the scaffolding and ignored the real thing. The idolised the sign, and ignored what the sign pointed to Jesus.
Think about geography now. Where was God’s presence revealed to God’s people? Just in the temple? No! ‘The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia.’ (Acts 7:2) Mesopotamia is a foreign land!
Where else is God’s presence felt? ‘Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him…’ (Acts 7:9) God is with Joseph in Egypt.
And another place – Sinai in the desert. God reveals himself in a burning bush: ‘Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ (Acts 7:33) The temple is not the only holy place. Wherever God is, that is a holy place!
And even when the temple was built, it did not contain or limit God. ‘48 ‘However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human 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 where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?’ (Acts 7:49-50)
‘Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.’ (Psalm 139:7-8)
God is everywhere. The Sanhedrin were wrong about the temple. By his death, the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus has done away with the need of animal sacrifice.
That’s why when Jesus died, the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom, to indicate that the temple was no longer needed. Stephen was not speaking against the temple, but was merely recognising the truth that it was always going to be temporary, and that now, worship is not about a special place, but a special person, the Lord Jesus Christ. There are no holy places. God cannot be contained. Do you want to meet with God today? We do that by meeting with Jesus in the Bible!
What does history teach us? It teaches us that God’s prophets have always been rejected. Stephen has been accused of rejecting God’s law- his Word. Again, Stephen turns this around and says, in effect, you are the ones who have rejected God’s Word, not me. They have rejected and killed Jesus, God’s ultimate Saviour.
Think back to Joseph, whom God raised up to save his people from starvation. He was rejected by his eleven brothers and sold into slavery. Think of Moses, whom God raised up to save the people from slavery in Egypt. How was he treated? ‘But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.’ (Acts 7:39)
And worst of all, the people have now rejected the Son of God. ‘Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One.’ (Acts 7:52) What a track record!
The Sanhedrin rejected Jesus and his message, but God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. So, what does history teach us? There is a strong pattern. Israel’s leaders have a long and sad history of rejecting God’s appointed prophets. And the huge irony is, they accuse Stephen of speaking against Moses, but what did Moses say? ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’ (Acts 7:37) The one the Sanhedrin rejected, Jesus, is the one Moses himself said God would send. This begs the question, if the Sanhedrin rejected the one whom Moses foretold, who is really guilty of blasphemy against Moses?
What can you learn from this history? Whatever you do, don’t reject Jesus’ offer to save you and transform your life. Receive him as your King. Do not reject him. This is extremely serious. The Psalmist gives us both a warning and beautiful promise: ‘Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.’ (Psalm 2:12)
5. Religious and Moral Education
This is a subject in schools which is often treated lightly by schools and pupils alike. Yet, it is more important than Maths, English or languages, in that it encourages us to think about the big questions in life, such as: what is the meaning of life? Why we are here? Is there a God? And how can we be forgiven? The problem that Sanhedrin have is the problem that each one of us in this room has; ‘… you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.’ (Acts 7:53)
One of the most important Religious and Moral Education lessons we need in Scotland today is that when it comes to God’s law, summarised by the 10 commandments, we have all fallen short and need God’s forgiveness. When we realise our guilt before God, we need to repent and trust in Jesus. But what do we read about the Sanhedrin? They are a stiff-necked people (verse 51). Even though they have been shown to be wrong, they cling on to their idolatry of the temple, and to their own self-righteousness and refuse to change. Do not be like them!
And what is their worst mistake? They have betrayed and murdered Jesus, the Righteous One. They rejected the very person who was sent to rescue them. That’s like a drowning man refusing to hold on to a life ring. ‘He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.’ (John 1:11) Yet what does the next verse say? ‘Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.’ (John 1:12)
What will you do with Jesus?