Stephen's Last Words

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Deep Change is a book by Robert Quinn, a consultant who helps businesses that are in a situation of slow death. In business slow death is a terminal illness that is not always obvious. It is where, unless something radical is done or unless there is deep change, there will eventually (and inevitably) be the end of the business.

But necessary Deep Change, says Quinn, seldom comes from the top - or from the institutionalized leadership. The leaders are often the problem. For many their primary interest is not the company but themselves. Their goal is simply peace and pay. They do not want the trauma of change as they are working their way towards a pension.

Below the senior leadership many others also are not wanting change but to keep their heads down and their eyes open for job opportunities elsewhere. It is a form of active exit.

So, where, then, does change come from? Answer: from deep change agents, lower down the system who are willing for three things: one, to risk their jobs; two, to break cherished traditions and rules that are strangling the company to death; and, three, to be willing for much uncertainty - to "build the bridges as they walk on them," to quote Quinn. But why have I told you about Deep Change and this book?

Well, tonight we continue our studies in the Acts of the Apostles and our subject is STEPHEN'S LAST WORDS. And we shall see that Stephen was a vital "deep change agent" in the early church. He risked not his job, but his life. He challenged corrupt traditions. And he was willing for much uncertainty. So will you now turn in your bibles to Acts 7 verses 44-53. And my headings for tonight are, first, STEPHEN'S LAST WORDS; secondly, STEPHEN'S LASTING EFFECT; and, thirdly, STEPHEN'S LASTING EXAMPLE.

First let me say something by way of introduction. Deep Change was definitely needed in the early church. That is if it was to move forwards rather than drift backwards into becoming a tiny Jewish sect and, humanly speaking, slow death.

Up to this point there was no evidence the disciples were making the necessary changes to fulfil the Great Commission of Jesus. We read in Matthew's Gospel that after his resurrection Jesus had commissioned - indeed, commanded - his disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matt 28.19-20). And we read in Acts just before his Ascension Jesus was saying again much the same thing:

"you 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).

But the disciples were currently only concerned with witnessing to the Jews in Jerusalem and (Acts 5.16) "the towns around Jerusalem" - in Judea. Yes, the church was growing, with 3000 new members on the day of Pentecost; and, yes, some were from overseas, but they were Jews. And we read of more being converted as the days went by. But there were problems, too. There was persecution from outside and disunity from inside. These and later problems could have robbed the church of its enthusiasm for, and even memory of, that global commission of Christ to disciple all nations (or races).

Stephen then appears. He, along with six other Greek speaking Jews, is first asked by the senior leaders, the Apostles, to sort out the problem of disunity. It was between the Greek speaking and Hebraic (or Aramaic) speaking Jews who had become disciples. Stephen, though, wasn't only a successful administrator. He also was a preacher and teacher.

Before long he found himself arguing with non-believing Jews in the Synagogue of the Freedman where, we are told in Acts 6.10: "they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke." However, when defeated in fair debate, these opponents of Stephen started a smear campaign. In Acts 6.11 we read: "Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, 'We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.'"

"When arguments fail," says John Stott, "mud has often seemed an excellent substitute." And as Billy Graham says about arguing with such malicious critics: "Don't fight with a pig! Both of you will be covered in mud, and only one of you will enjoy it." However, Stephen didn't go with that advice. He believed as an Old Testament preacher of wisdom put it: "There is a time to be silent and a time to speak" (Ecclesiastes 3.7). And this was a time to speak. So we read in Acts 6.12-14:

"They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, 'This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place [that is, the Temple] 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.'"

And Acts 7.1 says:

"Then the high priest asked him, 'Are these charges true?'"

At that point Stephen began what we know now to be his very last words before his death as the first Christian Martyr. So much by way of introduction. Let's now look then at my ...

First, heading and STEPHEN'S LAST WORDS

Last words are certainly memorable. They can also have a profound effect on you. When I was a curate in Leeds, our recently married young Pathfinder leader (who taught the 11-14 year olds at church) had been working away during the week up here in the North East. On Friday evening he was driving south on the A1, back home, when involved in a terrible car-crash. He was tragically killed.

But what were his last words? Well, when his young wife went up to his study, she found on his desk a piece of paper. It was the notes he had just written before leaving home for the Pathfinder class for that Sunday after he was killed. And the words on it were the subject for that morning's lesson. They were St Paul's last words just before he died, as recorded in 2 Timothy 4.6-8:

"I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day - and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing."

When this young woman reported that at the funeral not only was it very moving, it was also a profound challenge to us in the congregation. When it comes to the day of our death or departure, will we be able to say those words, as she believed her husband certainly could?

Well, it appears that these last words of Stephen were a profound challenge to Paul. They had a profound effect on him. They were undoubtedly a factor in his conversion to Christ and also in his whole understanding of the Christian faith. When Stephen was stoned, Paul (then still known as Saul) was party to the event. And there is evidence as we will see later in Acts that it preyed on his conscience. But why did this speech of Stephen have such a profound effect? And why does Luke, the author of Acts, give it such prominence?

The answer is that many Jews at this time had a terribly narrow view of God as limited to their land and especially their Temple and its customs and ceremonies. They believed that the true God - Yahweh - was too identified with the Temple. So to destroy the Temple would mean God had abandoned them. When, therefore, Stephen was misrepresented as saying that "Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place [the Temple] and change the customs of Moses handed down" it inevitably caused an uproar. And that is why Stephen has to argue (as he does) that this belief in the Temple was not at all the true teaching of the Old Testament, the Jewish (and Christian) Scriptures. It was simply wrong.

In the previous part of his speech he reminded his hearers that, first Abraham, then Joseph and then Moses all showed that God was not limited to one place. God was at work all over the ancient near east, and all over the world. Then in our passage for tonight Stephen deals with the Temple itself. Look at verses 44-47:

"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 favour and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built the house for him."

So the great, permanent, stone Temple in Jerusalem was later than Moses. It was, therefore, not essential for God's presence. And God's own actual direction to Moses was for a "tabernacle" - a portable tent - that could be moved around as the people moved around. So the Temple was a change to those "customs handed down by Moses" that Stephen's accusers were so concerned about. This change was certainly tolerated by God, but not suggested by God, but by David.

But note: Stephen, is not against the Temple as a place to meet but against wrong beliefs about the Temple. Of course, when originally Jesus had said in John 2.19, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days," John tells us that "the temple he had spoken about was his body." And in support of his arguments, Stephen quoted the prophet Isaiah. Look at verses 48-50 of Acts 7:

"However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. 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?'"

These Jewish opponents of Stephen had too small a vision of God. The creator of the universe is interested in the whole universe and all people, not just Jerusalem and Judea. He is a God who "so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3.16). But Stephen knew these arguments would not cut any ice with his accusers and all their supporters. Look at how he goes on, verses 51-53:

"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 [that is the Messiah]. 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."

But why such a strong reaction? Well, there was another problem. Any threat to the Temple - real or imagined - was a threat to the livelihoods of so many in Jerusalem. The Temple ceremonial was big business. And of course it gave the clergy status and power. So here you have "peace and pay" with a vengeance. Any thought of changing anything to do with the Temple was, therefore, unthinkable.

And note, too, that Stephen was not against the law. In fact he was upholding God's moral law. It was his opponents who had (verse 53) "not obeyed" the law they had received. Yes, the ceremonial part of the law was now fulfilled in Christ. And civic regulations were fulfilled in Christ's teaching on God and Caesar. But the moral law, the fundamentals of which are clear enough with such aids as the ten commandments in Exodus 20, were and are still relevant. These commandments are for all time. But his opponents supporter murder - the breaking of the sixth commandment.

For many of his hearers, deep down, they would have known Stephen was right. Their problem was the cost of following Christ - the "Righteous One" - as their Saviour and their Lord. And that cost of following God's way was also a problem for their fathers and forefathers. Stephen's point is that there is always a cost and it is a cost in every generation and people are not willing for that cost. But that is the human condition. We are all like that until the Holy Spirit has his way in our lives.

Who tonight is resisting the Holy Spirit and refusing to change? You are refusing to accept God's call and the claims of Jesus Christ because of some relationship that you know is wrong and you should give up; or because of something to do with your job; or because you fear what others will think of you? Undoubtedly that was the case with many of these Jews who opposed Stephen. The problem was the cost of discipleship.

So much for Stephen's last words. But what were the results or lasting effect of this speech (apart from Stephen's death itself, which we should be hearing about next week). So...

Secondly, STEPHEN'S LASTING EFFECT

I must be briefer.

First, Stephen, by his example, taught that reasoned argument is a vital part of the Christian faith. This speech was the first of a line, extending down the years, of Christian "apologies". That is a technical name for extended reasoned arguments about the Christian faith. They relate to the belief that Jesus Christ is God's unique and final revelation in history for human kind - that Jesus Christ has no equals or successors. This is not a speech in defence of Stephen to secure his acquittal. It is in defence of true Christianity. So Stephen shows that our minds certainly matter.

Secondly, Stephen made it clear that God is the God for all nations. Yes, this had been part of the covenant with Abraham. But many chose - and still choose - to forget that. As we shall see as we continue our studies in Acts, from now own Christianity goes global. Christianity becomes a truly world-wide religion that is not tied to one sacred place with required pilgrimages. Stephen made it clear that even in the Old Testament God was tied, not to buildings, but to his people. And they were those who trusted him, wherever they might be, in which ever part of the world. That was true of Abraham, Joseph and Moses. So Jesus Christ promises to be with us wherever we are or go. He will be with us as we take the gospel to the ends of the earth.

Thirdly and vitally, to get the gospel out - not only to Jerusalem and Judea, but also to Samaria and the ends of the earth, you need change. Our God does not change. "I the LORD do not change" we read in Malachi 3.6. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" says Heb 13.8.

But the world changes and often for the worse. Hence the need for change and spiritual reformation. It was needed in Old Testament times. It was needed in New Testament times. It is needed today. And change is needed in individuals and in societies.

There needs to be that change for an individual from spiritual darkness to spiritual light, when a person begins a relationship of faith with Christ as Saviour and Lord. Who needs to start that change tonight? And then the Holy Spirit will help you change to become more like Christ as life goes on. And one day when Christ returns, the believer has a great hope of final change when "the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed" (1 Corinthians 15.52).

But Stephen shows that sometimes there has to be corporate change and a radical corporate rethink over specific issues. And for that you need change agents like Stephen or, in previous generations, a Martin Luther.

And today as we seek to re-evangelize the West, there needs to be some deep changes and so some modern Change Agents. Not least this is needed in the Anglican Communion. Some people are putting not Jerusalem and the Temple but Canterbury and being tied to the Archbishop of Canterbury before being faithful to the Apostolic teaching of the Bible, which is true Anglicanism and mainstream Christianity. So do pray for a world-wide Global Anglican conference taking that begins at the end of this week, and for more modern Stephens. So

Thirdly, and finally, how can you be like Stephen? Or STEPHEN'S LASTING EXAMPLE

Acts 6 tells us four things about Stephen.

One, he was full of wisdom - he used his mind. He was rationally convinced about his convictions and he had good judgement. And his thinking was based on the Bible - as is evident from this speech.

Two, he was full of the Holy Spirit - he did not resist the Holy Spirit like his opponents; but he obeyed God. And as you do that you will experience more of the Spirit's power. He is the "Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him" as Peter said in Acts 5.32.

Three, he was full of faith - he trusted God. The book of Hebrews which is like a great exposition of Stephen's speech says this:

"God has said, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.' So we say with confidence, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?'" (Heb 13.5-6)

That was Stephen's faith.

And, four, he was full of grace. But that isn't being a wimp, when there needs to be firm talking. Stephen had to be blunt with the Sanhedrin and his accusers. But that is only one side of the coin. We will see next week that as he was being murdered and lay dying, his very last words of all were these:

"'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' When he had said this, he fell asleep" (Acts 7.60).

May we all learn from Stephen's example.

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