Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin is a defense of the message and faith as preached by Christ, his first disciples and the early church leaders. Stephen is a forefather and an example of all who defend true Biblical faith against those who oppose or try to change its teaching. He is also recognized as the first to die for that reason. Jesus confirms Stephen’s actions and proves that this faithful servant was right by standing in honor of him before his Father in heaven. Stephen’s love of the truth and his willingness to give his life to guard and defend that truth stands in sharp contrast to those who do not want to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Spiritually weak and misguided individuals might defend their actions in the name of love, peace and tolerance; but in reality they feel no need to oppose false teachers who twist the truth for which Christ died.
Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”
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 Harran. ‘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 Harran. 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 enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. God spoke to him in this way: ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. 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.’ 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 Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.
“Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers 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 ancestors 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 had greatly increased. Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’ He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors 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 by his family. 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.
“When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the 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. 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? Are you thinking of killing 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 get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: ‘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, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 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 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 performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.—7:1-36
Stephen’s message gives a short, but very detailed, history of the Jewish people, from their forefather, Abraham, to Moses to Kings David and Solomon. He highlights God’s call to Abraham and the family history of Israel’s original ancestors. He recount how the people of Israel ended up in Egypt, but also how God miraculously rescued them from slavery in his own time. He speaks of the tabernacle God’s people used in the desert and of the temple later built by Solomon. Through all of this, Stephen highlights Israel’s rebellion and their refusal to recognize what God was doing through them. They frequently went so far as to kill God’s true prophets. Stephen reminds the leaders they have done the same thing in killing God’s Son. They refused to see that God’s plan all along was not only to live with his people, but also to live within them by his Spirit. But like so many before them, the religious leaders missed God’s purpose because their hearts were hard and resistant toward him and his message.
“This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’ He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.—7:37-38
“The assembly in the desert” refers to Israel as God’s chosen people—the ones through whom he would reveal his plans and purposes to all nations. In Hebrew, the word translated “church” is “qahal,” which turn is translated in the Septuagint as “ekklesia” (“assembly” or “church”). And there are two important things that we need to understand about this “assembly.”
- Just as Moses led the the church of the Old Testament, Christ leads the church of the New Testament. The New Testament church is called “Abraham’s seed” (his spiritual descendants) and the “Israel of God” (the true and spiritual Israel). This means that the church has a continuity and connection with God’s Old Testament people.
- Like the Old Testament church the church of the New Testament is “in the desert,” meaning that it is a pilgrim church—just passing through the world—far from its final promised land. For this reason, we must never become too comfortable with life here on this earth because it is not our final home.
“But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, 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!’ That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek
and the star of your god Rephan,
the idols you made to worship.
Therefore I will send you into exile’ beyond Babylon.
“Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors 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 a house for him.—7:39-47
Stephen’s words reflect a well-established principle of God’s Word, proven throughout the history of God’s people. Those who persist in rejecting God are eventually given over to the influence of evil, Satan and their own immoral desires. Contrary to popular teaching, God does not continue to show unlimited love and forgiveness without any condition or response on our part. He forgives and communicates his love to those whose heart are still open and who admit their sin, turn to him for mercy, surrender their lives to Christ and begin following his purposes in true obedience. For those who harden their hearts, resist God’s Spirit and refuse to accept God’s gracious gift of forgiveness and spiritual salvation, there is nothing else left but to face God’s anger and judgment.
God has always laid out a pattern to be followed by his people.
- God had a pattern for Moses that served as the standard for Godly living under the old covenant. In Exodus 12, God gave Moses specific instructions for the original Passover in Egypt, which became a pattern for all generations of Israelites to follow. In Exodus 20, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments as the pattern and standard of moral conduct for all generations to come. Exodus 25, God instructed Moses to construct a tabernacle as a copy of heavenly things and a symbol of the spiritual salvation that God planned to accomplish through Jesus Christ. Moses carefully made the tabernacle and all its furnishings “exactly like the pattern” that God had designed in wisdom.
- Just as surely as God had a pattern for the tabernacle under the old covenant, he has a pattern for his church under the new covenant—God’s plan of spiritual salvation and a renewed relationship with people through the life and sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ. The New Testament church leaders did not arbitrarily decide how the church was to develop and function. It was the Father and the Son (Jesus)—through what the Holy Spirit recorded in the New Testament of God’s Word—established the proper pattern for the church. All throughout the Gospels, Acts, the New Testament letters to churches and the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, God lays out specific instructions for the life of his church. These apply to local congregations as well as the worldwide body of believers, or Christ’s followers.
- Tragically, after the time recorded in the New Testament and after the original church leaders had passed away, the church began to stray from God’s original revelation. Church leaders began to modify God’s heavenly pattern by conforming to worldly patterns and over-adapting to the surrounding culture. They began to structure their organization according to human ideas and purposes. This has resulted in the spread of manmade patterns and ideas for the church.
- If the church of Jesus Christ is to experience again the full plan, power and presence of God, then God’s people as a whole must turn from their own ways and embrace the New Testament pattern as God’s timeless standard for his church.
“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?’
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: 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 — you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”—7:48-53
The history of Israel is the story of a people who repeatedly refused to obey their God and his revealed Word. Instead of submitting to the wise standards and restraints of his laws, their hearts continually turned toward the beliefs, behaviors and lifestyle of the ungodly nations and societies around them. They killed the prophets who challenged them to turn back to God and warned them of his judgment if they did not. In these ways, they were resisting the Holy Spirit.
In the same way, the Israel of Christ under the new covenant must be aware of the tendency to abandon the truth, just like the Israel of God under the old covenant. Christ’s churches can turn from him and his Word and refuse to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Those believers who allow this to happen will also experience God’s judgment: his kingdom will be taken from them. And that is where we will pick tomorrow as we see Stephen stoned for daring to speak the truth to the political and religious leaders of his day.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
1 Chronicles 24:1-26:11, Romans 4:1-12, Psalm 13:1-6 and Proverbs 19:15-16
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