Stephen was the first martyr. But he isn’t the last. In his dying words he issues a rousing wake up call to get on board with God's program.
“Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow!” Those were the last words of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple before he died at the age of 56. This was from a man who described death as “very likely the single best invention of life”. Whereas most of us fear death and do anything to avoid thinking about it or talking about it, Steve wanted to capture the beauty of death.
Today, we’re going to look at the last words from another man named Steve, these were words that cost him his very own life.
And yet that didn’t stop him at all, he didn’t back down and he didn’t shy away from the truth.
Now before we look at the speech, let’s just remind ourselves of where we’ve been in Acts. Jesus has died. He’s risen. He’s ascended back to heaven. But one of Jesus’ last words which frames the whole of the book
But you [the apostles] will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” ~Acts 1:8 (NIV)
OK, so come to Chapter 6 and let’s do the status check. The Holy Spirit has well and truly been poured out. Last week we left things at Acts 6:7.
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. ~Acts 6:7 (NIV)
There’s plenty of witnessing going on in Jerusalem. Priests are turning to Jesus.
Judea? Not yet.
Samaria? Not yet.
Ends of the earth?
The mission’s got a long way to go, there’s work to be done and Stephen takes it upon himself to get the ball rolling.
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. ~Acts 6:8-9 (NIV)
We saw last week that Stephen was 1 of only 7 deacons who were chosen to serve food to the widows, but that’s not the reason why he’s copping some opposition in verse 9. You don’t offend anyone by doing good deeds or performing miracles, do you?
Christianity’s not called NICE-ianity. No - it’s called CHRIST-ianity because the main game is Jesus. It’s all about him!
And Stephen can’t stop talking about Jesus.
See, being a Christian, and if you’re here today and you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, we are so glad you’re with us.
In fact, let me speak to you for a moment: to call yourself a Christian is more than being nice and friendly. Sure, that might be one of the things that’s attracted you to check out Christianity in the first place! Maybe you’ve had a friend or a family member, who just seems different, they don’t gossip, they don’t badmouth and they seem secure.
Christianity is that but it’s way more than that. Because to be a Christian it’s to look at the world in a totally different way. The things we chase after, how you spend your time, your money, your attitude to relationships, sex, work and sometimes (often) that kind of counter-cultural thinking results in butting heads. Because deep down what’s happened is there’s been a massive switch, a swap, a change of allegiance. No longer are you living for yourself. Instead, you’re living for the one who rescued you, Jesus, God’s one and only way out of the mess we’ve brought upon ourselves. This is more than doing good. This is good news! It’s this message coming out of Stephen’s mouth, that was landing him in hot water!
That’s why I thank God for those of you who’ve stuck your neck out for Jesus. Those who’ve opened your mouths for Jesus. Even if that’s meant opposition. I think of the grandparent who faithfully, sensitively, drops Jesus into the conversation even though her daughter and son-in-law doesn’t want a bar of Jesus. I think of the uni-student who gently disagrees when her classmate pays out on Jesus and then later has a personal conversation to hear how she came up with that view, because chances are there’s some previous hurt. I think of the guy who at a mate’s bucks party, calls it a night when everyone else is heading to the strip club.
You can see that following Jesus comes with a cost, it does today and it did back then. For Stephen in Acts 6, that opposition came in three stages. This was an all-out smear campaign against Stephen, what began with arguing quickly escalates to spreading lies.
Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” ~Acts 6:11 (NIV)
That then moves to stage 3: seizing Stephen and dragging him before the authorities and for good measure, let’s throw in some false witnesses as well. Come verse 13 we hear the accusation being levelled at Stephen is this.
“This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” ~Acts 6:13-14 (NIV)
You have to understand that for a Jew there’s nothing more sacred, nothing more precious, than the temple and their law. These were prized possessions in Jewish culture. The temple was where God had promised to ‘put his name’. It was the place where he would meet his people. The physical building represented security and God’s protection. The law, otherwise known as the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible. These were the precious words given by God to Moses. It constituted, it defined Israel as God’s chosen people, it was their history and how they were to related to their God.
The law and the temple, these were cultural icons. It’s what made you Jewish. They were like, say the Aboriginal flag to Australians or the Statue of Liberty to Americans or what Nelson Mandela is to South Africa. Well Stephen, by attacking these Jewish fixtures, it’d almost be like him burning the national flag. That’s how serious it was.
Now before we dive into Stephen’s response it’s worth noting this verse:
All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. ~Acts 6:15 (NIV)
Let’s just pause for a sec there. Can you imagine being there in the audience? Stephen’s in the dock and all eyes are on this prisoner, only you have to do a double-take, hang on a sec there’s a different Stephen and he looks like an angel!
This is a throwback to what happened to Moses as he walked down from Mount Sinai. That just as God caused the people back in that day to see that Moses had God’s tick of approval, so too He does the same with Stephen now. Stephen’s not an apostle, one of God’s appointed eyewitnesses. But he sure seems like he’s the total package, he’s full of God’s grace and power, he’s got Spirit-given wisdom and now he has the shining face to go with it. Stephen is without a doubt God’s anointed and appointed for what’s about to happen. God wants those listening to what Stephen’s about to say, to know that these words come with the authority of God himself.
Come Chapter 7. We now get Stephen’s speech! Its the longest speech recorded for us in the book of Acts. Some people joke it’s so long because that was Stephen’s way of buying time, so he could live longer! But more than self-defence in the face of death, more than being an outstanding summary of the entire Old Testament, which it is. More than Stephen just talking through the family tree, more than this being simply a history lesson, Acts 7 is a rousing wake up call!!!
Get with the Program. If you had to sum up what Stephen’s said then that’s what I’d say: get with the program; listen up! Don’t follow in the footsteps and don’t make the same mistakes your ancestors did. God has come good on the promises he’s made all along to our ancestors and Jesus is better! The old has gone and the new is here.
Now you break down the details of Stephen’s speech, and he really takes those two accusations that have been levelled at him, the temple and the law, and what he masterfully does is give the back story of what God intended with those two cultural icons.
So first the temple. Stephen’s point here is - you can’t box God in! The God of glory can’t be contained to one building or in one city. Stephen says to look at Abraham! God appeared to him in Mesopotamia, in modern-day Iraq and God blessed Joseph where? In Egypt! Second half of Verse 9:
....But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace. ~Acts 7:9-10 (NIV)
God’s always been a God on the move. Next stop, Midian in Saudi Arabia as Moses leads his people out of slavery.
In fact, you guys are here today living in the Promised Land but Abraham, Joseph and Moses didn’t even make it in alive! Their dead skeletons had to be carried in! and yet God was just as much with them, present with them, speaking to them, God spoke to Moses from a burning bush and He was no less committed to blessing them, temple or no temple.
In fact, the physical temple building itself that didn’t even turn up on the scene till WAY down the track, after David because it was Solomon who built it. Stephen says ‘you Jews, you’ve known this is the way God’s been working all along. In fact, don’t you remember Isaiah, one of our very own saying these words:
“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 7:48-50 (NIV)
God can go wherever he pleases, He’s not tied down to one location! God is on the move and on the march, accompanying, directing, guiding, calling his people from here, there and everywhere!
And now, thanks to Jesus, the temple’s been upgraded to a person. We meet God in the person of Jesus, He’s the new temple. You and I, we don’t make pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Why? Because we can meet God right here, here in the Scriptures. That’s why we, as a church, have been on about 1 thing and 1 thing only since the very beginning, introducing people to Jesus, from the Scriptures and in the context of loving relationships.
So in response to charge Number 1: That Jesus will destroy the temple. The verdict is in and Stephen is guilty as charged.
What about Charge number 2: Changing the customs of Moses. Well here the tables have turned, the accused becomes the accuser. Stephen points the finger at Israel’s track record of treating Moses. For me, verse 35 pretty much captures it, in the second half we read that:
…he (Moses) was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself’ ~Acts 7:35c (NIV)
But in the first half, Stephen says this:
“This is the same Moses they had rejected... ~Acts 7:35a (NIV)
And how did they reject Moses? by saying:
…‘Who made you ruler and judge?’… ~Acts 7:35b (NIV)
In verse 39 Stephen mentions again how Moses was treated:
“But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. ~Acts 7:39 (NIV)
Stephen says: You want to accuse me of getting Moses wrong? Well look yourselves in the eye, look at what our ancestors have done. When God sent Moses for our good, to make himself known, what did we do? We rejected him, we refused him, we would much rather worship a golden calf, some dead, worthless, pretend god who was puny and powerless. The history of the Jews again and again and again, it’s God moving towards his people and them pushing HIM away.
Essentially Stephen is saying, the problem isn’t God, it’s you! You’re the ones that are missing what’s there right in front of your eyeballs! you’re too busy being caught up in your traditions and customs. In a word, the problem is this: Idolatry. They turned good things, good, God-given things, like the temple. like the law of Moses and they turned those good things into God things.
What’s going on here is a refusal to let go, a refusal to see the bigger picture because all along the Jews have been fixated on pursuing their agenda rather than God’s, of keeping their customs and preserving their way of life instead of getting with God’s program.
Today, in church life, it’s no different. Rob helpfully alluded to some of these things last week. I was in one of those churches where it felt like we spent an excessive amount of time deciding what chairs we were going to buy. At another church, we were forever doing the delicate dance of being mindful of existing customs and traditions and not offending the original people who started the church and were still alive. Changes needed to be made for the sake of the gospel and there were cultural sensitivities involved. Both things were valid, but both, in my opinion, distracted us from getting on with the mission of Jesus.
Come verse 51. Stephen after putting the temple and the law in their proper context now gets stuck right into his audience. And I mean stuck in.
“You stiff-necked people… ~Acts 7:51 (NIV)
I remember a few years ago I woke up with a locked neck, I couldn’t turn and I couldn’t drive because I couldn’t check the blindspots. It carries that idea - you’re stuck in your ways, you’re stubborn, you won’t budge.
Stephen’s not done yet, he moves further down the body.
… with uncircumcised hearts and ears… ~Acts 7:51 (NIV)
Essentially Stephen’s saying this: The problem isn’t God, it’s you! Sure, you might be circumcised to mark you out as a Jew, but in terms of being circumcised where it matters, in your hearts and in your ears, the foreskin’s still on! It’s a graphic as that!!
Stephen’s not done yet, he’s still turning the screws.
…you are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him ~Acts 7:51-52 (NIV)
Instead of like father, like son, here it’s like ancestor, like you. Time and time again, they’ve failed to get with the program. The one thing Israel’s leaders have been good at is this, Rejecting God’s messengers, dragging them over the coals and they’ve even put some of them to death!
If you’re someone here today and you’re not yet a follower of Jesus, let me ask you, What’s stopping you? The thing about saying No to Jesus, again and again, is that you get very good at it. Perhaps the take-home for you today is what Peter was driving home: Get with the program.
Maybe you’ve been hanging around church for a while and you’re not happy with the way things are done, you want church to fit in around you. You know - why hasn’t church given me a best friend? Why hasn’t anyone from church reached while I’m doing it tough? Why is my kid not following Jesus? Well, the take-home for you is exactly the same: Get with the program.
See the bigger picture of what God has done, is doing and will do. He’s in the business of putting all things under the rule and authority of Jesus and that includes us!
Over the course of this week, I’ve developed a litmus test for myself. A self-check to see how on board with the program I really am. I’ve found myself asking again and again: Do I have that same fire in the belly as Stephen? What things do I get upset about? What things do make me want to speak up? To not back down. What things make my blood boil? What I’ve realised is this that for me, there’s been plenty of times when it’s been things other than the gospel.
Maybe like me, you need to ask God to put that burden on your heart, to make the mission of Jesus the forefront of your mind, your ambitions and your heart. To let that be at the centre and let everything else fall into place around that.
I want to be upset at the fact I spend more time pursuing small, tiny, limited dreams, things that revolve around me. Or limited to just this lifetime when God has given me a much bigger, a much better, a much bolder vision of the future. I want to feel the weight and the burden of the people around me, failing to treat Jesus rightly, the way he deserves.
That was the weight that Stephen felt. That’s what compelled him to do what he does in verse 54 when the heat is being turned up. When things are about to come to a head, Stephen looks up to heaven and what does he see?
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. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” ~Acts 7:55-56 (NIV)
The layers of heaven are peeled back as much for Stephen as it is for the Sandhedrin.
For the Sanhedrin it’s a sign, your authority is being stripped away, the Son of Man, God himself is calling the shots now. The Jesus you’ve rejected, that you’ve killed, He is the one standing in all authority. He will judge and deliver his verdict because he carries the authority of God himself. Your rejection of Jesus, that’s rejecting God.
For Stephen, it provides great comfort and great confidence. That what he’s been saying all along has got God’s tick of approval. He has well and truly got with God’s program. Whereas at the start of his speech, he had the face of an angel now he is able to set his gaze directly at the glory of God. He’s able to see God in all his splendour and majesty. You can understand how Stephen, having laid eyes on the glory of God, how he can face what happens next.
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. ~Acts 7:57-58 (NIV)
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. ~Acts 7:59-60 (NIV)
Notice here two very different responses, one use their position to kill, to silence and to engage in violence. The other uses their power to forgive.
For Stephen what a way to die! He’s seen the glory of God, he’s seen the bigger picture, there’s no fear in death at all for him. He can echo the words of the Lord Jesus himself who cried out to his Father on that cross: “Receive my spirit” and he can pray like Jesus too! Pray an other-person centred prayer, for his enemies, that they would be forgiven for the very thing they’re doing as they’re getting stuck into Stephen. Murdering another one of God’s messengers, just like their ancestors did. Following in the footsteps of their family.
Right to his dying breath Stephen is other person centred! Stephen speaks as one who knows what it’s like to not have his sin held against him.
I said at the start Steve Jobs’ last words were: "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." Well, I want to say about Stephen: "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow."
Stephen is the first martyr but he’s definitely not the last. In fact, Stephen is part of our story today because it’s the death of Stephen that blows things up. It’s this event that kickstarts the global expansion of Christianity. The disciples become scattered as we’ll see next week and God’s word will continue to spread. Things won’t be the same after today, what was once a localised affair, will go gangbusters, reaching all the way to you and I, here 2,000 years later.
Thanks to the boldness of Stephen, he is part of our story, he played a part in you and I being able to hear this wonderful news of Jesus. The challenge is this, who’s story are you seeking to be part of? Is that something that’s on your mind?
Is that something you’re asking God for?
For me, this past week, the person who God’s put me in regular contact is a lady who stands outside my house every weekday morning and every weekday afternoon, she’s the “School Crossing Supervisor”. It’s still very early days and I don’t even know her name but we’ve had a couple of conversations over the past few weeks. This week I got to say that I work at church and next week, the last week of school, I’m praying for an opportunity to invite her to Christmas.
Now what happens God only knows but we have a tremendous opportunity coming up to Christmas to be part of someone’s story don’t we. It’s why we’re committed to sending a launch team to Parramatta next year, so that they too can be part of someone’s story. A story that may involve them saying Yes to Jesus.
Let me ask you, the challenge is this, who’s story are you going to be part of?