Click here to join the effort!
After charges against Stephen had been placed, the High Priest with a show of honor, said, "Are these things so?" Stephen then stood forth and made his own answer. This answer is found in Acts 7:1-60 . We cannot complete our study of the Apology of Stephen in one sermon, but we will cover as much ground as we can.
This sermon, or apology, or defense, which Stephen gave not only recounts Jewish history from Abraham to Moses; but it is replete with quotations from the Old Testament Scriptures. We have seen Stephen as a man of faith and power, of wisdom and spirit, and as a man with a shining face; now we see him as a man versed in the Word of God. He knew how to open up the inspired Truth of God. He knew how to use its message to lay bare the hearts of the false men who heard his words.
I. STEPHEN'S APPEAL TO ABRAHAM (Acts 7:2-7 )
Abraham was the one character that was the boast of the Jews. They delighted in saying, "We have Abraham to our father." They loved to say, "Abraham is our father." Christ answered, "If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill Me, a Man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham." Christ admitted that they were Abraham's seed, but He said plainly, "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do."
Let us follow Stephen as he linked the memories concerning Abraham with his appeal to the "Men, brethren, and fathers."
1. "The God of Glory appeared unto our father Abraham." That was a wonderful day when God came to Abraham. He came as the God of glory. He came to Abraham with commission and promise. He came with a blessing and as a benefactor. He came to make unto Himself, through Abraham a special people, loved and honored above all the peoples of the earth.
Stephen is paving the way for his final comparison. The God of glory also appeared to the Jews in Stephen's day. He came in the Person of His Son. The Son had declared the Father, and told Him out to the Jews. The Son had done the will of the Father, spoken the words of the Father, and wrought the works of the Father; yet the Jews had spurned Him and had nailed Him to the tree.
2. The God of Glory came to Abraham with a command. The command with which God spoke to Abraham carried with it a call to come out of one country and into another. In speaking of this Stephen was doing two things:
(1) He was getting back to the beginnings of the nation. Israel was always proud of the fact that her calling had been in Abraham. She banked much upon the grand patriarch who left Mesopotamia to go forth into a land that God was to reveal. Sons of Abraham were favored sons. Abraham had been a friend of God. Unto him God had been wont to reveal His plans. God talked face to face with Abraham.
Abraham was a man favored of God, and loved of Heaven; Abraham was a man of undaunted faith and of peerless character, and he was the head of their nation. Israel felt that through him she had inherited all of her blessings. She was safely hidden in the bosom of Jehovah, simply because she was the posterity of Abraham. She was secure, no matter how far she might depart from the ways of the Lord, because she had obtained by inheritance a position of favor and of grace.
As Stephen began his apology he granted that the Jews around him were the children of Abraham. He said that Abraham was their father. He said more he said that in Abraham Israel had become inheritors of the land wherein they dwelt. They were Abraham's seed, and "to Abraham * * and to his seed" the promise had come.
Stephen granted that Israel's claims were true, but he was paving the way to say something very potent concerning her claims.
Israel had not known the day of her visitation. She was Abraham's seed but she was not able to enter into Abraham's promised heritage.
(2) He was getting back to the goodness of God in the call of Abraham. God had called Abraham to get out, that He might lead him in. This is what Stephen was setting forth. He expressed the great purposes of God in this act of love; purposes not linked up in Abraham alone, but purposes that included Abraham's seed for many generations down the line.
God gave Abraham His pledge of blessing. That pledge, however, never came upon Abraham directly, not in its fullest meaning. Abraham lived and died a stranger in the land that he should after receive as an inheritance. Abraham, with all of the blessings promised his seed, through his faith and faithfulness, never even anticipated his personal inheritance in the land he counted himself a stranger and a pilgrim down here, and he journeyed, looking for a city whose Builder and Maker is God.
This is what Stephen preached. This is what Stephen saw. But the Children of Israel saw it not,
3. The God of Glory came to Abraham when, as yet, he had no child. There is something majestic about this recital of Stephen's. Stephen is relating how God led Abraham wholly out on faith. Abraham heard the command of God to go out, and he went out not knowing whither he went. He heard the promise of God that his seed should possess a land, yet he, himself, never set his foot upon his possessions to claim them; he heard that he should have a possession in connection with a Seed that should be born of his sons, when as yet he had no son. Let me read Stephen's words. Speaking of Abraham, Stephen said:
"And he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child.
"And God spake on this wise. That his seed should sojourn in a strange land; and that they should bring them into bondage and entreat them evil four hundred years.
"And the nation to whom they shall be in bondage will I judge, said God: and after that shall they come forth, and serve me in this place.
"And he gave him the covenant of circumcision: and so Abraham begat Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat the twelve patriarchs" (Acts 7:5-8 ).
In all of this Abraham believed God. How matchless was his faith! How far-flung was the grip of his faith? He had a faith that made the impossible possible; he had a faith that made distant centuries, near at hand. His faith looked past his own enfeebled body, and loins too old to have a son; past the barrenness of Sarah's womb, and her old age, and its helplessness concerning motherhood, and he saw Isaac born.
He had a faith that passed beyond the sphere of his own earth life; beyond the period in which his seed should dwell in a strange land; beyond all of the tyranny of Pharaoh, and the years of servitude in Egypt beyond all, and through all, he saw God's promises made real.
Was not Stephen driving all of this home to the Jews? They claimed Abraham to their father; but they possessed nothing of Abraham's faith in God. They boasted in their being Abraham's seed, but they had naught of Abraham's vision that made the unseen, seen; and, that gave substance to the things hoped for.
O glorious faith! We build upon the promises of God. We shall yet stand with Christ in glory; and, looking back we shall yet say, "There hath not failed one word of all His good promise."
O glorious faith! We walk under thy banner. We claim all that God hath spoken to us. We trust Him. We cling to His Truth. We write, "Yea, and Amen," over all that He has written.
O glorious faith! O God-given, and God-honoring faith! Be thou our portion from this time forth and for evermore.
Thank God! Stephen, a man full of faith and of power, was chosen of God to speak with majestic sway upon the faith of faithful Abraham.
II. STEPHEN SHOWED HOW TIME WROUGHT OUT THE PRONOUNCEMENTS OF GOD (Acts 7:8-16 )
How marvelous it all is! Known unto God are all His works from the foundation of the world. In all the long swing of time there has never been a surprise event before God.
Man may not foretell, save by guesses, as he imagines the future by the conduct of the past. God foreknew, and therefore He foretold whenever He desired to do so.
To Abraham, before Isaac was born, and when his birth lay beyond any human possibility, God outlined to Abraham many things:
1. He told him that he should have a son and heir, to be born of Sarah who was past age.
2. He told him that his seed should be as the stars of the heaven for multitude.
3. He told him that his seed should be a stranger in a land that was not theirs for four hundred years.
4. He told him that his seed should possess the land from the river of Egypt, unto the great river Euphrates.
5. He told him of the coming of a Seed, Christ, who should redeem His people.
The above are a very small part of the things that God foretold, but these are the things that fall under the line of Stephen's message. It is familiar to us all. The envy of Joseph's brethren, their selling him into Egypt, and his exaltation to authority in Egypt, wrought out, step by step, God's purposes with His people. The dearth that came into the land, with Pharaoh's dream, and Joseph's words of wisdom and advise all played their part. The gathering in of the grain and its being stored by Joseph had its place. The famine that caused Jacob to send his sons down to Egypt to buy corn, with Joseph's making himself known to his brethren, marked progression in the plans of God, The final arrival of Jacob, with his sons, and his sons' sons; and their occupancy of the land of Goshen completed the first stage of the fulfillment of God's purposes.
Why the Lord did all of these things, we may not fully know.
III. STEPHEN SHOWED HOW GOD FIRST VERIFIED HIS PROMISE TO THE SEED OF ABRAHAM POSSESSING THE LAND (Acts 7:17 )
Let us give attention to Acts 7:17 "But when THE TIME of the promise drew nigh, which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt."
One feels like taking the shoes off from his feet. He is walking upon holy ground. In the simple story which Stephen told, there was plainly seen the stately steppings of God, as He moved to fulfill that which He had long since promised to Abraham. Let us mark the links in the chain of events:
1. There was the multiplying of the people numerically. Canaan was a large land, capable of sustaining millions, of people. So great an extent of land would have been useless to a few scattered families. Thus, before the land was turned over to the seed of Abraham, their need of the land was assured.
When Moses finally left Egypt, with Israel, they numbered in men alone, six hundred thousand souls.
2. There was the subtilty of the new Pharaoh.
"Till another king arose, which knew not Joseph.
"The same dealt subtilly with our kindred, and evil entreated our fathers, so that they cast out their young children, to the end they might not live" (Acts 7:18-19 ).
The Pharaoh that knew not Joseph, became afraid of the fast increasing numbers and power of the Children of Israel. He saw his throne and kingdom menaced thereby, so he instituted a system of slaughter, by which the male sons born to Israel would be killed.
Israel began to cry to God by reason of their affliction. Yet, in all of this, God was only making Israel ready in heart to leave Egypt, that He might give unto her a land like unto the garden of the Lord.
"Sweet are the uses of adversity."
The nation that had sorrows and afflictions were forced to look to God for relief.
IV. THUS STEPHEN WENT ON AND TOLD IN DETAIL
1. Of the birth of Moses the deliverer (Acts 7:20-21 ).
2. Of Moses and his rejection by Israel (Acts 7:23-28 ).
3. Of Moses' forty years in Midian (Acts 7:29-30 ).
4. Of how God met him at the burning bush (Acts 7:31-34 ).
5. Of how Moses whom they refused became their deliverer (Acts 7:35-36 ).
With these five statements made, we have set before you the gist of Stephen's sermon, concerning Moses. We do not know but that you have already anticipated what we are about to say. Personally, we are of the opinion that Stephen had something like this in mind, and that the Jews who heard him, quickly caught the meaning of his words. Let us see the analogy between the people and Moses on the one hand, and the people and Christ on the other.
V. SOME STRIKING ANALOGIES
1. Israel today is scattered among the nations. Of old, Israel was in Egypt, now they are everywhere, sifted as corn is sifted in a sieve. God, however, has never forgotten them; although they have forgotten Him days without number.
2. Israel today is being dealt with subtilely by the nations. Pharaoh, who knew not Joseph persecuted Israel until their cry came to the ears of God, by the reason of their affliction. Once more Israel was in trouble, but God heard their cries. From among the nations, their affliction came before the Almighty.
3. Christ was born the destined deliverer of His people. At the birth of Moses, the destined deliverer had come. At the birth of Christ, the destined Deliverer had also come. We remember how the aged Simeon, taking the infant Christ in his arms, said, "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, * * for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people." Then, turning to Mary, Simeon said, "Behold, this Child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against."
4. Christ was rejected of His brethren. "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not." Just as Moses was rejected the first time, so also was Christ. Once more the Children of Israel failed to discern the things which belonged to their peace. She took Christ, her Saviour, and nailed Him to the tree.
5. Christ was rejected of men and is now an exile from his own house. After Moses was rejected he was a stranger forty years in the land of Midian. During that time Israel's sorrows increased. Dark days grew darker; her groans grew louder. During the eighteen hundred years that Christ, a stranger to Israel, has dwelt at the Father's right hand, the sorrows of His people have again increased. At this very hour the cup of her anguish is coming to the full.
6. Christ will come to Israel the second time. Moses saw the burning bush, burning, but never consumed. The Children of Israel still live on. Their trials and troubles have not decreased them in number, nor have they overwhelmed them away forever. When Moses went the second time, the people accepted him. So will Christ yet come to be received by His own.
We have but briefly brought before you the story which Stephen was relating to Israel, We have seen how history was prophecy. In the story concerning Israel's treatment of Moses, we have been reading the story of Israel's treatment of Christ, This comparison angered Israel beyond all bounds. In our next sermon, we will consider all of this.
Just now, we wish only to remind you that the trend of events which marked the rise and fall of Israel, with her final deliverance from Pharaoh and her entrance, afterward, into the land of Canaan, is a foreshadowing of Israel's final deliverance.
VI. STEPHEN GAVE A TWOFOLD COMPARISON (Acts 7:37-41 )
1. There is a comparison between Moses and Christ. In the Book of Hebrews we read of "Christ Jesus; who was faithful to Him that appointed Him, as also Moses was faithful in all his house." Later we read, "And Moses verily was faithful in all his house, as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken after; but Christ as a son over His own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end."
2, There is a comparison between the fathers of Moses' day, and the fathers of Christ's day. Mark Stephen's charge:
(1) "Our fathers would not obey," The story of Israel's refusal to obey Moses, is a long one. There was Moses' first appearance and their repudiation of him. Then, there followed the return, after forty years, and the sad experiences during the forty further years of wilderness journey-ings. Never did they manifest a perfect heart toward Moses.
(2) "Our fathers * * thrust him from them." This was fulfilled in many ways, during the ministry of Moses a period that stretched through the years. Time and again rebellion broke loose and the people sought to repudiate their leader. As Stephen spoke, the wrath of the people began to rise. They knew well that Stephen was likening them to their fathers. They had done to Christ, just what the fathers had done to Moses. They had refused to obey, and they had thrust Christ from them.
(3) "Our fathers * * in their hearts turned back again into Egypt." They longed for the melons, and the garlic. This seems impossible, yet it was so. They went so far as to prefer the fleshpots of Egypt to the angel's food that God rained down from heaven. We are amazed that any people would long for Egyptian bondage, and for cruel taskmasters, and for abject servitude, to the liberty and joy of God's presence and power. Yet so it was; and so it is.
The Israelites of Christ's day denied Him, and chose Barabbas. They were goaded by the Roman yoke; yet, they chose that yoke, with all that Roman tyranny stood for, to the deliverance of Christ. He who healed their sick, raised their dead, and fed them with the Heavenly Bread, was repudiated. The people set their faces against their Deliverer.
Let us not be too harsh against the Israel of Christ's day. It is the same in our day. Men still love darkness rather than light. Men have life and death, the blessing and the curse, set before them today, and the masses chose death and the curse. Christ, the Giver of every good and perfect gift is still rejected, while men enroll under the flag of Satan, the greatest of all tyrants.
(4) "Our fathers * * made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice unto an idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands." To what depths did the people fall. They gave themselves over to worship the host of heaven; yea, they took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of their god, Remphan. All of this outreaches the seeming possibilities of sin. How could a people who had known what they had known, and who had felt what they had felt, go to such depths of dental of God. Turning against God's servant, they soon turned against God.
We can only concede what God hath spoken, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" Let us remember also, that what is true of Israel is true of the Gentiles. There is no difference for all have sinned. Are we better than they; or they, better than we? Not at all. God hath concluded all under sin. The whole world stands with their mouth shut before God, the just Judge.
Thus did Stephen charge the sins of the sons, his contemporaries, by outlining before them the sins of their fathers. And the people needed no interpreter to comprehend his message.
What Stephen said, was in line with what Paul later said. Paul spoke of the Israelites of old, of their lusting after evil things; of their being idolaters; of their committing fornication; of their tempting Christ, and of their murmuring; then he said, "These things happened unto them for ensamples; and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come." What do the words of Paul imply? That Israel was no more wicked than we. That we are no better, by nature, than she. God have mercy on us all.
The Jews to whom Stephen spoke boasted in Moses, but Stephen told them they, in their treatment of Christ, were the same as their fathers had been in their treatment of Moses.
The Jews of Stephen's day knew of the sins of their fathers. They knew how God had made a covenant with their fathers, and how their fathers had refused to walk therein. They knew how their fathers had tempted God in their heart, by asking meat in their lust. They knew how their fathers had spoken against God, saying, "Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?" They had not believed God, nor trusted in His salvation; yea, "they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel. They remembered not His hand, nor the day when He delivered them from the enemy."
As Stephen spoke he was shooting darts of conviction into the hearts of the people. We need not wonder that hearts full of envy and deceit and of every evil work were resentful. Men do not care to have their wickedness exposed. This leads us to Stephen's next great charge:
VII. A TERRIBLE CONSUMMATION (Acts 7:42-43 )
There are two things which Stephen said God did. Both of these things befell the Israelites of old as the consummation of their own folly, the reward of their own sins God did them both.
1. God gave them up. How solemn, how startling are the words, "Then God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven!" It has always been so. It will always be so. God does not force men to worship Him. All day long He pleads. He sends messengers to call men from their evil way. He ofttimes chastens those He loves. But when His people refuse His call, He must finally give them up.
We remember how Christ said, "How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" Then what? Here are the Lord's own words, "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate." What Christ said, in brief, was this: "I would"; "Ye would not"; "I could not." Then the Lord gave Israel her own way. God gave them up.
What was true of Israel was also true of the Gentiles of old. The Gentiles "changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up."
The Gentiles "changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator"; "Wherefore God also gave them tip."
The Gentiles, "Did not like to retain God in their knowledge," even so, "God gave them over."
Israel was broken off, as a branch of an olive tree is broken. Let the Church also fear, lest she also be broken off.
What horrors He in the words "God also gave them up." Let the man who spurns the Saviour's love, beware! God may say, "Cut (him) down; why cumbereth (he) the ground."
2. God carried them to Babylon. Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar felt that he was worthy of praise for his victory over Israel. He took the city, carried away its wealth and its people. He even took the golden and silver vessels that were in the Temple of God. Yet, Nebuchadnezzar's victory was no more than the permissive will of God. The fact is that God was using the wrath of man to praise him. He was using Babylon's king as a whip in His hand, to whip a disobedient and a gainsaying people.
It was something akin to this, that God spoke to the Corinthians, when He said, "To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus."
It was something akin to this that Christ had in mind when He said to Peter, "Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat."
Let saints, as well as sinners, remember that the way of the transgressor is hard. With sinners eternity holds the lake of fire. With saints the present day brings chastisement.
There are some who may feel that God is too severe in His judgments. Stephen, therefore, returns for a moment to the consideration of Israel's blessings and favors, given her of God.
Stephen's Last Words and Martyrdom
Let us, by way of opening word, speak a few words on two great benefactions to Israel (see Acts 7:44-50 ).
1. The fathers had the tabernacle of witness. There is a wealth of meaning in this striking naming of the Tabernacle. It is called a Tabernacle of Witness. What does all of this mean? God said to Israel, "Ye are My witnesses, saith the Lord, and My servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe Me, and understand that I am He." Again God said, "Ye are My witnesses, * * that I am God."
In after years Christ said, to the Church, "Ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth."
Now Israel and the Church both of whom are witnesses, have also had witnesses. You all say, yes, they have had witnesses many. True. Yet, among all witnesses, none is more comprehensive in the testimony borne than is the Tabernacle. Everything about the Tabernacle spoke of Christ. Seven times in the last chapter of Exodus we read how Moses wrought this and that in the construction of the Tabernacle, "as the Lord commanded Moses."
In the eighth chapter of Hebrews we read how the earthly Tabernacle served as an example and shadow of Heavenly things; it was for this cause that "Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the Tabernacle: for, See, saith He, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount."
No marvel then, that the Tabernacle in the wilderness was called The Tabernacle of Witness, because it bore witness to Christ in His spotless life, vicarious death, and eternal High Priestly work; because also it bore witness to the Greater Tabernacle which is in Heaven; and because in all things it was a testimony of things that should be hereafter.
This Tabernacle so full of meaning in its construction, in its equipment, and in its typical sacrifices, and washings, and Table of Shewbread, Candlesticks and Ark of the Covenant, was God's witness to Israel during her wilderness journeyings.
Stephen presses home the fact that this Tabernacle of Witness was with Israel a Tabernacle that spoke in no uncertain terms of Christ and His fullness. Against this fullness of light; this unmistakable testimony, the fathers had sinned. Their sons in Stephen's day, were none the better. Into the darkness and shadow of death where Israel sat, a great light shone. Jesus Christ came in fulfilment of many and definite prophecies. This the Jews knew. The virginity of His mother, the village of His birth, the slaughter of the innocents, the calling out of Egypt, His city of boyhood and youth, His forerunner, much of His ministry, the details of His death, His resurrection all of these, and much beside, were written in the Prophets.
Stephen made it plain to the people that they were blinded. The Jews had abundant witness, as well as their fathers. The fathers had sinned in the light of the Tabernacle of Testimony, they had sinned in the greater light of the Christ Himself.
2. The fathers had the temple of Solomon. Stephen showed how the fathers had wearied of the personal touch with God which had been so graciously vouchsafed them. At first God had spoken to them face to face; then He had given them His leadership through Moses, and Joshua, and through subsequent judges. The fathers, however, had sought a king, and God had allowed them to select the man of their choice, Saul the son of Kish. Saul became a thorn in their flesh.
Afterwards God gave them David, His choice, and then Solomon. Solomon builded the Lord an House. However, God dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the Prophet: for, Heaven is His throne and earth His footstool. The sad story of Israel's past sin, lay chiefly in their refusal to allow God to lead them. They walked in the ways of their flesh; fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.
All of this Stephen set before the people. Do we wonder that hearts walking in pride and boasting; that souls filled with envy and deceit and with every evil working, would accept no such an array of indubitable facts that demonstrated so openly their own wickedness. They would not meekly accept their own condemnation. This brings us to Stephen's last charge.
I. A TERRIFIC CHARGE (Acts 7:51-52 )
"Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.
"Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers."
As we have followed Stephen's argument, we are driven to the justness of Stephen's conclusion. Before ever he spoke the words just read, the Jews had already caught Stephen's implication. They were keyed to a high pitch of resentment, as Stephen gave His final charge. Truth cuts deeply, and it hurts as it cuts. Let us take Stephen's threefold charge, step by step.
1. Ye stiffnecked. This expression was not of Stephen's own coinage. God had spoken before in a similar strain. God had told of those who hardened their hearts and stiffened their necks. Of the fathers, God had said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people." In fact five times in the days of Moses, this charge had been made. See Exodus 32:9 ; Exodus 33:3 ; Exodus 33:5 ; Exodus 34:9 ; and Deuteronomy 9:6 .
No wonder, then, that Stephen likened the sons to their fathers.
2. Ye uncircumcised in heart and ears. This was a terrific charge. The Jews were great sticklers for the religious rite of circumcision. The Gentiles to the Jews were uncircumcised dogs. Jonathan had once said to his armour-bearer, "Come, and let us go over unto the garrison of these uncircumcised." David had thrown at Goliath the stigma, "Who is this uncircumcised?"
Stephen's contention was that the sins of Israel had made the typical significance of their circumcision, uncircumcision. They were circumcised in the flesh, but uncircumcised in their hearts and minds. They had a symbolical religious rite, but had lost its symbolism. Thus, they had a form, without the power thereof. Circumcision is nothing, without a new creature.
3. Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost. "Resist" is a war term. It suggests a besieged city, straitly shut up against the enemy. It speaks of stubbornness. A heart that withstands, a will that is unbroken. It describes a tightly closed door, a door locked and bolted against God.
The Holy Ghost was manifest in Old Testament times. The Fathers withstood the Spirit of God. "Wherefore (as the Holy Ghost saith, To day if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness: when your fathers tempted Me."
The fathers resisted the Holy Ghost, so also did the sons of Stephen's day.
4. As your fathers... so ye. Stephen asks, "Which of the Prophets have not your fathers persecuted?" He says they even slew those who prophesied, shewing before of the coming of Christ, the Just One. Then he added, "Of whom we have been now the betrayers and murderers."
The charge was so evidently true, that the people knew their guilt Stephen stood before them giving them an X-ray picture of their own lives. He showed them the sin of their hearts. He made that sin stand forth in lurid colors, by the contrasts he had made between them and their fathers. He made their sin the more prominent by pressing home to their consciences the light against which they had sinned. He said, in effect, "You have been betrayers and murderers of Christ, even you who received the Law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it."
How these wicked men proved all that Stephen had said in his charge by their treatment of Stephen himself. Their act in the martyrdom of Stephen enforced the truth of Stephen's contentions.
We must stop here and we will take up the Martyrdom of Stephen in our next address on the Book of Acts.
II. WAS STEPHEN TOO OUTSPOKEN?
There are those who think that Stephen was too outspoken, and that by the words of his own mouth he brought upon himself the sentence of death. For our part we fear that most Christians of our own day are quite the opposite. They are given altogether too much to fluttering flags of truce. They soft-pedal where they should cry aloud. They yield convictions where they should stand without flinching.
There is a cry for "peace" at the cost of "faithfulness" to Christ. Men who dare to expose error, and who courageously fight for the faith, are called trouble-makers and disrupters of harmony.
Shall we cry aloud and spare not, or shall we succumb to the call of the stand-patters, who do nothing but pour oil on machinery that is running out of gear? Shall we dare to be a Daniel and disregarding the king's commandment, pray with our windows open toward Jerusalem; or, shall we close our windows and pray in the secret cloister, where we will cause no offence?
Much of the spineless inertia that grips church men today is the result of lukewarmness in spirit. Of such the Lord has said, "Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of My mouth."
A graveyard may be quiet, but it is not conducive to life and light. We stand hard by Stephen and his fearless defence of the Truth; we endorse his courage and accept his words as the expression of a man who was a God-sent witness, filled with the "Holy Ghost and wisdom." Stephen was not a wild fanatic foaming at the mouth with words of unbridled folly. To be sure, Stephen spoke words that "cut to the heart" but the Word of God always "cuts" it is a two-edged sword piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and joints and marrow, and it is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Sermons that have no bite, no hook in them, are spineless, and useless.
III. THE FRENZIED MOB THAT STONED STEPHEN (Acts 7:54 ; Acts 7:58-59 )
A mob maddened by unbridled frenzy is sure to be destructive. A tornado is as easily controlled, as such a mob. A raging fire driven by a tempest is no more ruthless in its ruin. Here are some of the descriptions God has given us of the mob that stoned Stephen.
1. They were cut to the heart. The sword of the truth which Stephen wielded cut deep. It laid bare the inner heart-throbs of the people who denied Christ. We cannot but wonder what a scene it will be when God finally lays bare every life. There is a day coming when the dead, small and great, must stand before the Great White Throne. In that day the books will be opened. The secret thoughts of the heart will be unveiled. The words and deeds of the wicked will be spread before all eyes.
Will the wicked then be "cut to the heart"? They will. However, they cannot instigate a grand rush on Christ, the Judge. They will no doubt cry out, but they will cringe away from before the face of Him who sits on the throne. They will see the sins of their hearts; see the heinous iniquity of their deeds; but they cannot stone the One who lays bare their shame.
From the Great White Throne, and from the face of Him who sits upon it, the heaven and the earth will flee away, and there will be found no room for them. So, also, from that throne will the wicked fall back into the Lake of Fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
2. They gnashed on him with their teeth. The people were like mad dogs, foaming out their shame. They gnashed against Stephen even as they had gnashed against the Son of God, when He stood before Pilate, and as He later hung upon the Cross.
Will the wicked gnash their teeth when, in the last day, they stand before God? Will they gnash their teeth as they pass out into their final doom? Yes, they will. Christ said of the evil servant, that He would "cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Why should sinners in their fury press on toward their doom? Why should they with hard and impenitent hearts set themselves against the Lord? They are but hastening on to where they will gnaw their very tongues for pain.
The stubborn folly of those who gnashed their teeth against Stephen is no more manifest, than is the folly of all who hold out today against Christ. Oh, sinner, bend the knee, break the will, confess your sin; kiss the Son lest He turn from you in the way.
3. They cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears. This whole picture is of a crowd swayed by passion, and dead to reason. They would not allow Stephen to finish his address they stopped their ears. They were not open to conviction. Under the full knowledge of their sins, they madly rushed out against the one who had exposed them.
It seems that hell was turned loose. Men were driven by demons. It is the same today, Christ still is despised and rejected of men. He is still hated, maligned, trodden under the feet of men. Some who profess to be His friends are, in fact His chief enemies He is being betrayed with a kiss, set at naught in the house of His friends.
Men, against all reason, are pulling wide the throttle and madly driving on to hell.
The Prophet David said, "Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, and bow down their back alway." So indeed it proved true in Stephen's case. They had eyes that did not see, and ears that did not hear. They even placed their fingers in their ears and ran against Stephen.
4. They cast Stephen out of the city and stoned him. Thus began the sad story of martyrdom that has blotted the pages of the history of the Church. And yet, the blood of the martyrs has proved to be the life of the Church. Persecution has not stopped the progress of the Gospel. It has the rather produced saints with iron in their blood. It has the rather caused saints to press on and on with the Gospel message. When one died a martyr, a dozen seemed to spring from his funeral pyre.
"I saw the martyr at the stake.
The flames could not her courage shake,
Nor death her soul appall;
I asked her whence her strength was given,
She looked triumphantly toward Heaven,
And told me, 'Christ is all'"
IV. LET US CONSIDER THE LAST HOURS OF STEPHEN (Acts 7:55 )
How soul-stirring are the scenes which now confront us. Stephen was a man full of faith and power; he was a man of wisdom but, he was more. Stephen had a courage that knew no fear. Let us watch him as the crowd surged around him, as they ran upon him and cast him out of the city and stoned him.
1. He looked steadfastly toward heaven. Of one thing we may be assured: Stephen did not turn to men in the hour of his need. His face had an upward turn. From whence came his help? Did it come from the hills? Nay. Did it come from his co-laborers in the Gospel? No. His help came from the Lord.
Of another thing we may be assured; as Stephen saw death imminent he did not let his face become downcast, looking into a dismal tomb. He had a faith that pierced the clouds and saw an open Heaven. Death, to Stephen, was only a larger, fuller life. Death, to Stephen, was entrance through an open door to the glories of the skies.
It was D. L. Moody in dying, who said, "Earth recedes, Heaven opens, God calls, and I must go." The Christian looks upon death as the doorway through which he must pass to be forever with the Lord.
Why did so many martyrs face death with eager anticipation? Why did they sing, and shout, and glorify God?
It was because, to them, death had been robbed of its terrors: death could claim no victory.
Why should we weep for those who sleep?
Our God doth comfort give;
Above the night, in realms of light,
Our dead in Christ still live.
Our God is God, not of the dead,
Who cease to see and know,
He is the God of saints who died,
Yet live above earth's woe.
Our dead are blest, from toil they rest
Beyond all pain and care;
No tear, no cry; no pang, no sigh,
Can touch their spirits there.
In safe retreat, in joy replete,
They dwell in peace at Home;
They always wait at Heaven's gate,
The hour that we may come.
The Lord hath said, He'll bring our dead,
When He comes down the skies;
Then from the gloom of dismal tomb,
Their bodies shall arise.
Up in the air, some place up there
Together we will go,
With Christ to dwell, His praises swell,
Where joys eternal flow.
2. He saw the Glory of God. Here is something that illumines the mind and heart. The glory of God that was the supreme vision of Christ as He approached the Cross. In the upper room after the supper, He prayed, and said, "Father, the hour is come; glorify Thy Son, that Thy Son also may glorify Thee." The Lord Jesus did not discourse in His prayer about the sorrows that He was about to share. He looked through them and beyond them to the glory. He said: "Glorify Thou Me with Thine own self with the glory that I had with Thee before the world was."
Thus, as Stephen was gnashed upon by the teeth of men, He looked toward Heaven and saw the glory of God.
Natural eyes cannot usually see what Stephen saw. When the glory of God shone from Heaven upon Saul on the Damascus road, he fell to the earth blinded. Here was even a greater glory, that came to Stephen. Peter said that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed. Peter's words were realized beforehand by Stephen.
Think you now that Stephen was a fanatic madly crying out against those who heard him? If so, God would never have opened the heavens and have shown Stephen His glory.
What will it be to enter into that glory! Yet it is to that very glory that the God of all grace hath called us, after that we have suffered a little while.
"Millions of years our wandering eyes,
May o'er His glories rove."
Yet, there will always be glory to follow.
On the other side of night,
Is the land of love and light,
On the other side of night;
There the sun ne'er shines,
And the moon declines,
For God's glory is the light.
V. LET US CONSIDER STEPHEN'S VISION OF HIS LORD (Acts 7:55 , l.c.)
He saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God. Such a sight, so far as Divine revelation goes, was never given to another living soul. So many things vital to faith lie within this vision granted unto the Church's first martyr.
1. There is the proof of the ascension of Christ. Christ had been seen, after His resurrection, as He went up. Peter and the Apostles had preached that He had gone into the heavens, and that He was exalted to the Father's right hand. Stephen saw Him there. Here was a wonderful witness to Christ's living reality, and to His presence with God a witness born by a man who dared to declare the Truth even at the price of his death; and of a man who was filled with the Holy Ghost as he looked and saw.
2. There is the proof of Christ's supremacy over Satan. He who ascended went up through principalities and powers, and took His seat far above them. The men who surrounded Stephen were children of the wicked one, energized by the devil, the prince of the power of the air, but Stephen saw Christ above them a Conqueror, Thus Stephen knew no fear. Nor should we. We have a victorious Christ who is given all authority and power.
3. There is the proof of His acceptance with the Father. Christ was seen by Stephen at the Father's right hand. That is the place of acceptance, and of recognition that is the place of power. Men below were about to martyr Stephen because he preached Christ; men below were set against the Lord and His anointed. Up above how different the scene, great was the contrast. God was according to the One whom the people despised, all honor and glory. How blessed is the thought:
"God is now willing in Christ reconciled,
Willing to save you and make you His child;
God is now willing, are you?"
If God gives Christ acclaim, should not we? If God is satisfied with Christ, should we not also be satisfied.
4. There is the proof of the Headship of Christ over the Church, Stephen seeing Jesus at the Father's right hand conceded that Christ the exalted was clothed with authority over the Church. Not man, nor pastor, nor evangelist, nor elder, nor deacon, nor bishop, but Christ is Head of the Church. Not pope, not conference, not ecclesiastical Board, but Christ is Head of the Church.
5. There is the proof that Christ is intimately cognizant and lovingly considerate of His saints who suffer for His sake. Christ standing at the Father's right hand, is Christ watching, Christ concerned, Christ animated in behalf of His own. The martyr is not one forsaken; he is one observed. The martyr not only saw Heaven opened, but Heaven saw him.
"God lives shall I despair.
As if He were not there?
Is not my life His care,
Is not His hand Divine?"
The Psalmist gave promise "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, * * Thou art with me." The Spirit by Isaiah said: "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee."
How helpful, how full of comfort is this scene of Christ standing in eager concern as His first Christian martyr is stoned to death.
VI. LET US CONSIDER STEPHEN'S LAST PRAYER (Acts 7:59-60 )
1. He prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Beautiful beyond compare is this prayer of expectancy. Stephen knew where the spirits of those in Christ went at death. He saw Heaven opened not alone to give him a view of God's glory; not only to show Him Christ standing at the Father's right hand; but, he saw Heaven opened to give his spirit entrance.
Blessed be the God of grace, when this life is over, there is no oblivion; no spirit held in a cold damp grave there is departing to be at Home with the Lord.
2. He prayed, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." This prayer breathes the spirit of Christ on the Cross. It does more. It reveals to us the spirit with which Stephen had delivered his apology. Stephen had spoken plainly; he had laid the charge of murder against his hearers, but he had not spoken harshly.
One is reminded of the darkest anathemas that ever felt from the lips of Christ the Woe! Woe! woe! of the 23rd of Matthew spoken against Jewish hypocrites. The startling names that Christ gave the hypocrites "Whited sepulchres"; "Blind guides"; Children "of hell"; "Fools and blind"; "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers." Yet, when one reads the last two verses of Matthew 23:1-39 , the verses that give Christ's final words, he understands the spirit with which Christ had spoken. Hear Him: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, * * how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!"
So we assert that Stephen's words of strong condemnation were prompted not by wrath but by deep concern. Even Paul who so plainly outlined before Israel their sin, said, "I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, * * I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart * * for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: who are Israelites."
Let us preach hell, but let us not preach it in a hellish way. How tender the compassion, how genuine the concern that Stephen had for Israel as He prayed, "Lay not this sin to their charge."
VII. LET US CONSIDER THE ALL GLORIOUS END OF STEPHEN'S LIFE
This is the way the Word put it, "And when he had said this he fell asleep." "Asleep," what does that mean? We remember how Christ said, "Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awaken him out of sleep." The disciples said, "Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well." Then said Jesus plainly, "Lazarus is dead." Again we read, "Them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him."
The sleep of Lazarus could not mean cessation of existence because our God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. Sleep cannot mean that the spirit of the redeemed is detained by the tomb in unconscious repose, because the spirit goes to God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7 ). Sleep does mean cessation of toil, and trouble. Stephen fell on sleep, because he passed beyond the reach of the surging mob that stoned him. He rested from his labors, and his works will follow him.
Thank God for this delightful view of death. Let us not, however, make the word "sleep" mean anything contrary to the testimony of other Scripture.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Neighbour, Robert E. "Wells of Living Water Commentary on Acts 7". "Living Water". https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent