Sunday, November 06, 2011

[Matt's Messages] "Stephen"

From Jerusalem to Pennsylvania: The Book of Acts
November 6, 2011
Acts 6:1-8:1

This is the sixth message in our study of the book of Acts. Our series is called “From Jerusalem to Pennsylvania,” and together we’re watching the gospel take root and then spread from the center of Judaism to the ends of the earth.

So far, we’ve just been in Jerusalem. The gospel has taken root–there are over 5,000 Christians and the number is still going up. There has been some opposition, but the church has continued to grow in the face of the opposition.

Last week, we looked at some snapshots of the early church which included an angelic jailbreak.

The apostles had been preaching and the been arrested and then put in jail and then were broken out by an angel and then were preaching again and then were arrested again and then were...flogged.

And then they were preaching yet again. The Bible says “they never stopped teaching and preaching the good news that Jesus is the Christ.”
And we ended with this question, “What is stopping you?”

What is stopping you and me from sharing the good news about Jesus?
Well, today’s passage is going to get even more serious.

Because we’re going to read about a man who was stopped.

And the only way to stop him was to stone him.

His name was “Stephen.”

[pull out rock]

Here’s a good sized rock. Fits nicely in the hand.

Not so heavy that it couldn’t be thrown.
Not so light or smooth that it wouldn’t do any damage.

Can you imagine throwing one of these at person?

Can you imagine having a hundred or so of them thrown at you?

We would all cringe if I just threw this one at that piano over there.

What if it was thrown at a human being?

What if it was thrown at an innocent human being?

This is how Stephen died.

Now, normally, I like to have a bunch of points that I give you when I preach. You know, point #1 this and point #2 that up on the big screen.

Well, I couldn’t figure out what “points” to make this week.  So you can take notes if you want to, or you can just follow along in your Bible as we read this story together and think about what it means for us today.

In Acts chapter 6, we get introduced to this man named Stephen.

He is called upon to help solve a problem. Verse 1.

“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.”

The church is growing and that means more problems.  More people, more problems.

And this was an ethnic problem. The Jews who were Greek speaking, probably had lived outside of Jerusalem were not getting the same distribution of food for the Greek speaking widows. The early church was committed to caring for widows and the poor in general. We saw that last week.

But some were getting missed.  Is that a problem?

Is that an important problem. You bet it is.

They brought that problem to the Twelve. The apostles. V.2

“So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’”

Now, the apostles see that this is an important problem. People are a priority! But they have another priority that cannot be neglected either.

So, they come up with a solution that gets approved the congregation (sounds like good-ole-congregationalism, doesn’t it?).

The solution is a division of labor and a new ministry team we could call “The Seven.”

Not just any seven. These need to be godly men, known to be mature Christians full of the Spirit of God, controlled by Him and exhibiting His fruit and wise.

So, the nominating committee gets to work and puts forward seven names.

And what is the first one?  A man named “Stephen.”  V.5

“This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip [we’ll learn more about him in chapter 8], Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 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.”

The plan worked. The seven made sure that it worked and the apostles kept up their priority of prayer and preaching. And the word of God spread.

Even a large number of priests were believing the gospel.

Everything seemed good.

Doesn’t it seem good?

Like the whole thing is inevitable now.

Jerusalem is being overrun with Christians.

Next stop, the world!

Put them in prison, and angels break them out.

Nothing can stop us now!

Yes and no.

The progress of the gospel is unstoppable.

But there are a lot of twists and turns in the story to get to the end.

Sometimes the van breaks down 10 hours from the gospel concert.

Is God still good then?
Is God still sovereign then?
Is God still in charge?
Can God still be trusted?

What if they kill us?

Verse 8.

“Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.”

Just in case there might be a mistake, understand this, Stephen is a good guy. He was one of the Seven. He was (chapter 6, verse 5, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”) here verse 8, “full of God’s grace and power” and used by God to do miracles.

This is a good guy if there ever was one. V.9

“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. These  men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.”

So, Stephen didn’t just wait on tables either. He spoke up about Jesus and He did it with wisdom and power.

Stephen tussled with these Grecian Jews who were not Christians. And they were frustrated that they couldn’t win the argument.

So, if you aren’t wining the argument, what do you do?

Change the rules. Cheat a bit.  V.11

“Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, ‘We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.’ So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, ‘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.’ All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”

Now, given what we’ve read so far in Acts, what do you think will happen?

The track record in Acts is that Stephen will be like Peter and explain the gospel and people will get saved, and Stephen will be released!

These are false charges, right?

Do you think that Stephen spoke against the temple and the law?

Well, we’ll see about that in a minute.  The basic answer is, “No.” Though he’s going to adjust their categories a bit in just a second.

But there is not going to be a jailbreak this time.

This story is more like the story that we read at the end of the Gospel of Luke.  (Of course, there was an ultimate jailbreak at the end of that story, too! Sometimes, we have to wait for the ultimate jailbreak!)

But it doesn’t come in Acts 7 or 8.

What does it mean that Stephen’s face was like the face of an angel?

I’m not sure. Does that mean that it was shining?

That’s possible.

I tend to think that it means that it was pure and worshipful.

But I don’t know.

I do know that whatever it looked like, it meant that Stephen was demonstrably innocent of the charges.

Do you get what the charges are?

They talk about the temple and the law that Stephene was blaspheming against Moses and against God.

But we all know what the real issue was.  V.14

“For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

The issue is always Jesus.

The problem is always Jesus.

Chapter 7 verse 1.

“Then the high priest asked him, ‘Are these charges true?’”

What do you have to say for yourself?

The high priest gives Stephen the floor.

Do you think he knew what was going to happen?

I think he knew what could happen.

Stephen takes this opportunity as an open door to share the good news about Jesus and to defend what he has said.

I’m always amazed that they let him talk so long.

Chapter 7 is the longest sermon in the book of Acts.

But I think Stephen was interesting to listen to and it wasn’t until he really started applying his message that it became intolerable to his listeners.

But the whole thing is about Jesus.

Jesus is always the issue.

But Stephen starts way back at the beginning of the story.  He goes all the way back to Genesis.  V.2

“To this he replied: ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. [Remember this from when we went through Genesis together?] 'Leave your country and your people,' God said, 'and go to the land I will show you.' ‘So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child.”

[Stop for second. Has he said anything wrong yet? Anything that could get him into  trouble with this crowd? Not yet. But notice that he didn’t start with the law or Moses or even inside of the land. The God of glory appeared where? In Mesopotamia? Is that okay? Can He do that? What about the land? V.6]

“God spoke to him in this way: 'Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,' God said, 'and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.' [Well, that’s okay then. Just as long as you aren’t talking against this place.] Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs. ‘Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. 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 he made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.”

Notice again that God is blessing OUTSIDE of the land and BEFORE the Law.

“‘Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our fathers could not find food. When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers on their first visit. On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph's family. After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our fathers died. Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money. As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt greatly increased.”

Turn the page. It’s time for Exodus. I don’t think that Stephen was stalling. I think he was building towards something.  V.18

“Then another king [Pharaoh], who knew nothing about Joseph, became ruler of Egypt.  He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our forefathers by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die. At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for in his father's house. When he was placed outside, Pharaoh's daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.”

[Does it sound like Stephen is blaspheming against Moses?  No. He respects and honors Moses. V.23] 

“‘When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not.”

Stop there for a second.

Interesting. Stephen understood what Moses was thinking even though Exodus doesn’t tell us that.

Isn’t it a lot like Jesus?  His “own people” should have recognized that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not.  “He came to that which was his own but his own received him not.”  V.26

“The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, 'Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?' ‘But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, 'Who made you ruler and judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?'  When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons. After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to look more closely, he heard the Lord's voice: 'I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.' Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look. ‘Then the Lord said to him, 'Take off your sandals; the place where you are standing is holy ground.’”

Holy Ground?

Is that in Israel? Was Sinai in Canaan?

No. You don’t have to be in the holy land to be on holy ground.

Wherever God is is Holy Ground. V.34

“I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.' ‘This is the same Moses whom they had rejected with the words, 'Who made you ruler and judge?' He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 

He led them out of Egypt and did wonders and miraculous signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the desert. [Now we’re in Numbers!]  ‘This is that Moses who told the Israelites, 'God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.' [That’s Jesus. It’s always about Jesus.] He was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us. ‘But our fathers refused to obey him.

Catch this.  Stephen is not speaking against the Law.

He is saying that the Jews have been disobeying the Law over and over again for years and years.

“[Moses] received living words to pass on to us. ‘But our fathers refused to obey him.  nstead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. They told Aaron, 'Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt–we don't know what has happened to him!' [Hope he doesn’t come back!] That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and held a celebration in honor of what their hands had made. [That’s speaking against the Law!]

“But God turned away and gave them over to the worship of the heavenly bodies. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets: ‘'Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the desert, O house of Israel? You have lifted up the shrine of Molech and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile' beyond Babylon.” [That’s from the book of Amos. And it’s the rest of the sad story of the Old Testament.]

The “people of God” have a history of rejecting the word of God!

And what about this temple that’s so important?

Well, yes, it is a good gift from God, but He doesn’t literally live there!  V.44

“‘Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. Having received the tabernacle, our fathers under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God's favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built the house for him.

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. [Not literally. It’s just a big old symbol!] 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?'”

Stephen is not anti-temple, but he knows that the temple in Jerusalem is just a symbol of much greater things.

He knows that God cannot be imprisoned in a building.
He knows that God won’t stay in a little box.
He knows that God has been on the move since the beginning.  The story starts in Iraq not Palestine! And it continues outside of the borders in places like Egypt and Babylon.

And Stephen knows that the people he’s preaching to don’t get that. Won’t get that. Refuse to get that.

And they refuse to receive what the temple stands for.

The people he’s talking to won’t see that the temple was a symbol of the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Lord Jesus.

Yes, he said that the temple would be destroyed but that he would build it up again in three days.

And we know now that he was talking about His body.

Stephen got that, I think.

But he knew that they were no longer listening.

So, he came to his points of application. V.51

“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One [the Lord Jesus!]. And now you have betrayed and murdered him–you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.’”

Stephen was boldly saying that it wasn’t him that was rejecting the Law.

It was them.

They were really the ones on trial, and they were guilty.

Not the best way to win friends and influence people.

But it was the truth and it was what they needed to hear.

And it brought glory to Jesus. V.54

“When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 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.’”


It was too much for this crowd. They don’t even finish the trial.

They take the law into their own hands a mob. V.57

“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.”

“Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. [We’re going to hear a lot more about this young man.] 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.”  He died. “And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”

Notice, how like our Lord, Stephen was in his last moments.

He forgave those who were killing him with rocks.
He asked the Lord to receive his spirit.
He died to bring glory to God.

Stephen lived for Jesus, and he died for Jesus.

I love that picture of Jesus in verse 56.

Did you notice that?

Normally, we’re told that the present position of our Lord is that He is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on High.

But what is Jesus doing in verse 56?

What does He allow Stephen to see?

Jesus is standing at the right hand of God.

Now, I don’t know all of what that means.

I heard it once described as a standing ovation.

I like that. I think that must be part of it.

The Lord Jesus stands to approve and receive the soul of this one who was faithful unto death for Him.

“What is stopping you?”

Nothing stopped Stephen short of rock in the mouth.

What is stopping you?

What is stopping me from speaking out about our Lord?

You know the truth is that we’re all going to die.

I actually have put it on my electronic to-do list.

Not with a particular date, but I read it every day. “You are going to die.”

I keep my to-do list in my email inbox, it probably looks like a death threat sent to myself.

But I need reminder. I am going to die.

Maybe I won’t get hit with a pile of jagged rocks, but I will die.

The question is what will I die for?

What will I live for?

What is stopping me from living and being willing to die for Jesus?

It’s always about Jesus.

We don’t have time to waste.

We need to tell others about Jesus.

Sometimes, we’ll do it and the opposition will melt away.

And other times, there will be no jailbreak.

We’ll just die trying.

And Jesus will still be worth it all.

Jesus will be standing, waiting to receive those who live and die for His glory.

Messages So Far In this Series:

No Other Name
Snapshots of the Early Church