Wisdom versus desperation

Sermon: Sunday, 28 January, 2024
Speaker: Geoff Murray
Scripture: Acts 6

1. The Wisdom of Stephen

Stephen is clearly a man who is being singled out by Luke the author as someone spectacularly gifted by God. This isn’t said of every Christian in the New Testament; it isn’t said of most Christians in the New Testament. He has a full, strong and vibrant faith, he is full of the Holy Spirit which is seen in that he is “full of the God’s grace and power.”

‘a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.’ (Acts 6:5)
‘a man full of God’s grace and power, performing many great signs and wonders.’ (Acts 6:8)
‘They could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him.’ (Acts 6:10)

Every question they asked, he had an answer. Every comment they made; he could rebut.

Now before we go onto a bit more about the wisdom of Stephen, I’m going to just address the elephant in the room – namely verse 15: ‘All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.’

There are so many thoughts about what this could be. It’s pretty evenly divided between those who think:
His face is simply at peace or that his face shines with light.

It could be any and it could be both, but I personally would favour the simple explanation that his face is like an angel in that he is at peace and at rest for the reason that it never mentions light it just says his face is like that of an angel. Also, when people saw Moses’ face which reflected the glory of God, people were afraid. There doesn’t seem to be any of that here. The link to Moses would be neat given they’re accusing him of rejecting Moses, but I’m just not so sure.

I think he’s at peace because of what he’s communicating. He knows he will be vindicated one day even if he is falsely charged here. He knows that God, far from accusing him, is actually accusing them as he does brilliantly in chapter 7 by just opening up God’s Word. As he is falsely accused here he doesn’t jump about shouting, full of rage. In fact the contrast is huge. Whilst at the end of chapter 7 we’ll see the religious men grinding their teeth shouting, we see a man with a face like that of an angel, perfectly at peace.

Back to wisdom. Stephen is a man full of wisdom. Now, there is a general level of wisdom given to all believers. Wisdom to know Christ, yet we can always grow in that as Paul prays for in Colossians 1. Wisdom to walk in line with what the Bible teaches like the Proverbs call us to.

Where do we get wisdom? It doesn’t come simply from experience, knowledge, but by the Holy Spirit. Of course, the Spirit can teach us wisdom through experience, the Spirit can teach us wisdom through the knowledge we have but these things on their own do not equate to wisdom but only when they are fuelled by the Holy Spirit.

A wisdom which not only possesses knowledge but can apply that in helpful ways that challenge and confront, which encourage and strengthen, which get people thinking.

Stephen clearly has wisdom by the bucketload. Not to jump ahead into future weeks but as we look at his defence in chapter 7 and the thing is littered with Scripture. It is the fullest defence and explanation of Jesus from the Old Testament scriptures recorded in the New Testament.

What is clear is that his wisdom is Spirit given, but it is not Spirit given in an abstract and mystical kind of way. Like he was just zapped with wisdom. It is wisdom that is informed by the Bible. I think it is easy to look at Stephen a man who is full of faith, who is full of grace, who is full of wisdom and think, ‘That’s definitely not me.’

I can understand that same feeling, yet, let’s remember the source of all Stephen’s wisdom: the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture. Do you have the Holy Spirit? Do you read your Bible? You have all the key ingredients with which to grow in wisdom and therefore all the ingredients to speak up for Jesus to non-believers.

Of course, not all will be given the same degree of wisdom, as I said, Stephen I think is especially wise but if our faith is in Jesus Christ we have been given his Holy Spirit who speaks to us through the Bible.

So as you open up your Bible pray with Paul in Colossians 1:9; ‘Lord, fill me with the knowledge of your will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so I may live a life worthy of you and please you in every way.’

Or as you prepare your heart on Saturday night to come to church on Sunday ask God, ‘Speak to me through your word, give me the knowledge of your will that I may be growing in wisdom and understanding.’

Which means that when you are asked for the reason for the hope you have, you don’t have to panic. Rather go in with confidence, that God has given you his word, he has given you his Holy Spirit, he has given you all the tools to speak up for him.

My point is not to discourage you and simply say, ‘Do more.’ My point is you may not think you have much to offer, but as a Christian, filled with the Holy Spirit, with the Bible in your hands you have every tool in the toolbox that is required to be a wise Christian around non-Christians.

In Luke 21, Jesus is speaking of persecution that will await his disciples but they need not fear. ‘For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.’ (Luke 21:15)

Who was this spoken to? The disciples. The disciples who, far from believing wisdom came from God, spent their time arguing who was the greatest and shooing away children whom they deemed to be the least. The disciples who at Jesus’ arrest all ran a million miles!

Jesus speaks these words to the disciples and he speaks these words to you. When it comes to speaking with non-Christians about Christ we can feel worried we won’t know what to say, we feel worried we’ll get it wrong. But with the Holy Spirit within you and the Bible in your hand read through and prayed through you might be surprised just what words come out.

Don’t feel dwarfed by a man like Stephen, feel encouraged by him.

2. The Desperation of the Jews

They love their way so much and detest Christianity so much that they’re willing to use any means necessary to defeat and bring down the church. Even when they have been disproven, even when they’re stumped by Stephen and have no answer, they don’t humbly admit defeat and gladly accept Christ, they try to take him down by spreading lies.

They’re committed to winning by any means necessary and that comes out here as they change tactics. They lie about what he has said and they strong-arm people into testifying falsely against him. They’re so desperate for Stephen to be wrong, they don’t admit defeat, they don’t trust in Christ. They go rogue. They twist and manipulate Stephen’s words, they caricature his words, the stir up the people, they persuade people to testify falsely so they can eliminate Stephen.

They persuaded people to give false testimony – see verse 11. It’s hard for us to understand in 21st century Scotland what a serious accusation this was but in 1st Century Judaism, to speak against the temple and the law of Moses was the worst possible thing you could do. Those were in many ways your bread and butter of 1st century Judaism.

This is the height of desperation and clutching at straws from the Jews to make things up. They did it with Jesus and here they are doing it with Stephen. The only way they can get round it is to lie and to produce false witness about Stephen. To say he is blaspheming is far from the truth.

What is interesting, of course, is that they’re breaking the 9th commandment as they do it. ‘Do not give false testimony against your neighbour.’ (Exodus 20:16) For all their seeming desire to protect religious observance, they themselves are breaking the commands and are failing to observe one of the 10 commandments.

What’s clear is the utter blindness the Jews have here. They claim to be followers of God, they claim to care deeply about honouring God and Moses the one who received the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai but they find themselves at odds with the law of Moses and therefore God’s law. It seems they have little interest in God or the law, but it seems there is a great interest in preserving the status quo which the Jesus and the early church threatened.

They are so desperate to maintain this whatever the cost – even lying. They’re even willing to disobey the God they say they honour just to preserve and maintain religious order. And they can’t seem to see the problem with this. It seems they’re wanting a certain answer, regardless of the sum.

What we have here is, not a group of God-fearing Jews, we have a group of people who want to preserve an outward appearance of religiosity who have no interest in who God actually is. The problem is of course, they equate their religiosity with honouring God but they are not the same thing and that is an extremely dangerous place to be. As soon as we bend God’s word to accommodate our religious practice, that’s when we know surely we’ve gone too far.

We, of course, don’t know what Stephen said at this point, we aren’t privy to their argument. But there’s nothing in his coming speech in chapter 7 which says he is speaking blasphemous words against Moses or God. And apart from anything else, Acts 6 doesn’t paint Stephen as a dubious character, he is unequivocally good and godly.

And the judgement of God’s Word is clearly the right one. Even if we don’t have Stephen’s words in the argument, we have the verdict given by God’s Word.

They get a false witness to testify against him on trial that he never stops talking against the temple, saying Jesus will destroy the temple, and change the customs Moses handed down.

Again, clutching at straws. They go for Stephen with lies. It’s not that they don’t understand. They understand Stephen’s position clearly hence why they’re stunned to silence. It is their intentional rejection of that position means they are making straw men arguments.

Jesus said, ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.’ (John 2:19).

They thought he meant the physical temple in Jesus’ day and it’s the same with Stephen, who has clearly articulated a similar thing is getting placed on trial for their misunderstanding.

Similarly, the customs of Moses, they misunderstand everything. Things like Sabbath observance and hand washing laws which were instigated not by Moses but by religious traditions Jesus contradicted. That was met by mass opposition from the religious leaders who again conflated their rituals and regulations with the law of Moses because Jesus was not opposing Moses, he was opposing their man-made rituals. Jesus, it’s fair to say was not a fan of the Pharisees.

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.’ (Matthew 23:23-24)

(See also Matthew 5:17-18, Matthew 15:9, John 5:39-40 and 46.)

They were so caught up in what they thought was honouring God that they failed to see who it was all about. Jesus says “if you really did believe Moses, you would believe in me because it was me that Moses was writing about.

The stirred up the people against him – see verse 12. Why did they do this? Just to publicly smear Stephen’s character? Well, it’s worse than that. They knew this would get to the religious high authorities who would put him on trial and that’s exactly what happened.

All of a sudden, this ramps up in seriousness. The elders and teachers of the law are absolutely raging. They are the gatekeepers of the religious community, they are the ones who form the religious council called the Sanhedrin. All of a sudden, these false accusations mean he is to be put on trial.

The application of this point is simply this: don’t be surprised if you have been clear on what the Bible says to outsiders and they oppose you by mischaracterising you or misquoting what you say. It isn’t logical but people will hear what they want to hear, take away what they want to take away and if they don’t like what they hear they’re quite inclined to ignore it.

In fact Jesus says in John 15 as he quotes from Psalm 35, ‘They hated me without reason.’ That’s what happened to Jesus, it’s what is happening to Stephen here and is what happens to us when people understand our position, don’t like it and so hate us. They have no reason for their hatred other than they just don’t like the message. Understand it, yes, but dislike it yes also, so reject it they will.

If we’re unclear or if we’re unfairly representing the Bible, that is fair enough. But sometimes, though we speak the truth, people reject it and will therefore do anything to discredit you or your message.
If this ever happens to you, let Stephen be your encouragement. There was certainly no fault in Stephen or his message. If you’re clear in your message, and your message is the Bible’s message, people can mock, people can misrepresent but God sees your labours.

So to close, in the face of possible persecution in smaller ways today perhaps and maybe in bigger ways to come we can go forward with confidence. God has given us the tools he gave Stephen. The Holy Spirit and the Bible. And if people misrepresent you, misquote or misunderstand you when you did share what the Bible says, take heart, it’s a well-trodden path.

Don’t shrink back from the opportunity to speak up for Jesus. You might fear, you might worry about yourself and your wisdom or lack of it, you may worry about what will people say, think or do. We have been called to speak the truth in all wisdom and love, let that be our task and let’s leave the rest up to God.