I once sat in on a murder trial in a county court. A young man of about my age (then) stood in the dock. The charge was read. The evidence was set out and pored over. He was cross-examined in painstaking detail. There’d been a brawl and a man had been knifed to death. I was enthralled. I got deeply involved in the case. But only from the safe distance of the gallery. I was very glad that it wasn’t me down there in the dock. At the end of the day I just went home for my tea.
But the truth is I am in the dock. And you are in the dock. And the court is infinitely more powerful, and the consequences of a guilty verdict are infinitely more serious even than they were for that young man.
This evening we’re listening to a man in the dock. His life is on the line. In fact he ends up executed. But even in the last minutes of his life, this man turns the tables on his accusers and puts them in the dock. I’m talking, of course, about Stephen. And we’re taking a look over these evenings at the speech that Stephen made to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem – the official gathering of the Jewish religious leaders. It’s there in Acts 7 – on page 1099 in the pew bibles. Two weeks ago we looked at verses 1-16. Now we come to verses 17-43. And here Stephen focuses on the life and times of Moses.
This is no mere history lesson of Stephen’s. But to get the impact of what Stephen is saying we need to be reminded of the big picture of what’s going on here. So I have three headings this evening, and the first of them is ‘The promises of Jesus’. It might not look like it when you see Stephen heading for a fatal stoning, but what’s going on here is that the promises of Jesus are being fulfilled. How? I’ll come to that in a moment. My second and third headings are ‘The accusation of Stephen’, and then ‘The argument of Stephen’. But:
First, THE PROMISES OF JESUS
What promises? And how are they being fulfilled? Well, there are four of them.
First, Jesus promises power to witness to him. As we work our way through the book of Acts, we keep coming back to Acts 1.8, because that’s where the risen Jesus sets the scene for all that follows. He says there to the disciples:
“… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you;…”
And that promise is being fulfilled. Acts 4.31 says of the believers:
“… they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”
Bold witness that Jesus is Lord is the consequence of being lived in by the Spirit of Jesus. Stephen was a chip off this block. So in 6.8 Stephen is described as being…
“… a man full of God’s grace and power.”
Jesus promises power and that’s what Stephen had.
Secondly, Jesus promises the progress of the gospel. Back in 1.8 that promise of power that the risen Jesus gives is followed up with this:
“… and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
You will be. That’s a promise. It will happen. The message that Jesus is Lord will – not might with a fair wind and a little bit of luck but will – travel all around the globe. And that was before the internet. And telephones. And trains. This is person to person transmission with a global reach. And by the time Stephen is facing martyrdom, it’s already beginning to happen. 5.13:
“… more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were being added to their number.”
Jesus promises the gospel will progress and it’s spreading like wildfire. Stephen is a part of that – even in death. So 8.4 says that in the aftermath of his execution:
Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
Thirdly, Jesus promises opposition to the gospel. If you go back into Part One of Luke’s two volume account, that is into Luke’s Gospel, you can see what Jesus promises before his death and resurrection. So in Luke 21.17 Jesus warns:
“All men will hate you because of me.”
And in the early chapters of Acts you can trace the rise in intensity of that hatred of Christians. So in 4.17 the religious authorities say among themselves:
“… to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn these men to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”
By 5.33 this hatred as moved on a step. When Peter and the others won’t stop talking about Jesus, Luke says:
“…[the authorities] were furious and wanted to put them to death.”
And then when it comes to Stephen, they are boiling. 7.54:
“When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at [Stephen].”
As the gospel progresses, it hits a wall of hatred. Jesus promised it would. Stephen was in the vanguard and faces its full force. And that hatred doesn’t just remain hidden in the hearts of the gospel’s opponents. It breaks out in violence. Just as you can trace the rise in hatred, so also you can trace the escalation of the violence against believers. And that violence is all part of what Jesus had promised would happen.
So fourthly, Jesus promises the persecution of witnesses. It’s just threats and warnings at first (in 4.21). Then by 5.40 they want to put the apostles to death, but they don’t. Yet. They just have them flogged. Threats have turned to actual violence. And for Stephen, that boiling hatred erupts into a barrage of bone-breaking rocks. Threat becomes flogging becomes the killing of Stephen. Then the scale of the persecution jumps to a new level. 8.1:
"On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem… Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison."
Jesus promises to his disciples power, progress, opposition and persecution. That was Stephen’s experience. It cost him his life but his witness remains fruitful to this day. Those promises remain true for us.
Two current situations come to mind. Andrew White is the Vicar of the only Anglican church in Baghdad. In a recent piece about the church he leads he said that the vast majority of their growing congregation of 1500 are women. Why? Is it because Christianity is regarded as women’s work? No. It’s because almost all of the men have been killed.
Alongside that, consider a recent article in the Times with the headline: ‘Church of England facing oblivion’ as the result of ‘catastrophic decline’ in recent years. It’s true, of course, that the Church of England as a denomination has no divine right of existence as we know it. But the church – whatever its current desperate plight – is not facing oblivion, however much those that hate it would like that to be the case. Instead, it will grow and progress, in God’s way and in God’s time. Jesus promised it.
So what should our response be as we look around today, as we listen to the promises of Jesus, and as we see the beginning of their fulfilment in the pages of Acts? Two things for starters. We should be characterised by realistic optimism. It’s going to be rough going. But the church will grow as the gospel spreads from life to life. Then that demands a steely determination. We mustn’t cut and run. We must stick to our gospel guns come what may. Realistic optimism and steely determination are the order of the day.
That’s the big picture into which Stephen fits – a man of realistic optimism and steely determination if ever there was. Which brings me to my second main heading. We’ve looked at the promises of Jesus.
Secondly, THE ACCUSATION OF STEPHEN
The double meaning in that heading is deliberate. That is, Stephen is himself facing accusation. But he turns the tables and accuses his accusers.
The accusation against Stephen is there in 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 and against the law. For we have heard him say that Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
Notice how in facing this accusation, Stephen is treading so closely in the footsteps of his Saviour and Lord. Mark 14.55-59:
“The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.’” Yet even then their testimony did not agree.”
Just as those who hated Jesus brought false witnesses against him, so those who hated Stephen did the same. Those who follow Christ faithfully will not only be hated by some; they will also have lies told about them, in an attempt to hurt them and their reputation.
So the High Priest himself puts the question to Stephen (7.1):
“Are these charges true?”
But with astonishing boldness, the speech that Stephen makes in response to that question about the accusation against him is really one long counter-accusation against those who hate both him and Jesus.
Stephen’s central accusation is that they killed Jesus, the ‘Righteous One’, and that this was no accident or aberration but the culmination of a pattern of behaviour of rejection of God’s servants that was symptomatic of their rejection of God himself despite all his blessings lavished on them.
It’s worth just for moment looking beyond our passage to 7.51-53 where Stephen comes to the climax of his argument against them. We’ll be coming back to this in a couple of weeks, but here’s a preview. Stephen says – not pulling his punches:
“You stiff-necked people [that is, arrogant, stubborn and wilful], 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, Christ]. And now you have betrayed and murdered him [Jesus] – you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.”
This is devastating stuff. And it’s not just them who stand accused. This is the central accusation of the gospel, and so of God himself, against us all. Do you remember what Peter said to the crowd from many nations gathered around him on the Day of Pentecost? He accused them. The vast majority of them, if not all of them, would have had absolutely no direct involvement in the semi-judicial murder of Jesus at all. And yet he said to them:
“… you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross (Acts 2.23).”
And again in 2.36:
“And God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
In a very real way all of us, all of humanity, are implicated in the death of Jesus. The hammer that hammers the nails into his hands and feet and fixes him to that cross, and the sword that thrusts into his side are simply the final outworking of the sin that rejects God. We crucified Jesus, just as surely as that Sanhedrin listening to Stephen. And this Jesus, who we crucified, is now ruling the world – so we’re in deep trouble.
It’s very important indeed that we realise that we are implicated in the murder of the Son of God. We’re never going to find the mercy and forgiveness we desperately need if we don’t even accept responsibility for the crime.
The prophet Isaiah puts it like this (in Isaiah 59.3):
“For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt.”
We’re very good at seeing the guilt of others. Take the Burmese military junta. We see the blood on their hands as they abandon their dying people to their fate and we accuse them of crimes against humanity. And so we should. But as we point a finger at them, we need to point four blood-stained fingers back at ourselves for our crime against the Son of God. It wasn’t our hammer. It wasn’t our sword. But it was our sin.
Now there are two possible responses to this accusation, and our eternal fate depends on which one we make. One possible response is a cry for mercy. The other possible response is a hardening of hatred.
A cry for mercy was the response to this accusation of Peter’s hearers on the Day of Pentecost. Acts 2.37:
"When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do? "Repent and be baptised, every one of you," said Peter. And thousands did, that very day."
How different it is amongst those listening to Stephen!
"They were furious and gnashed their teeth at him… they covered their ears [How telling! They refuse to listen] and, yelling at the top of their voices [so, double protection against the truth – shut your ears and drown it out], they rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.
Which is it in your heart? When you hear yourself accused, how do you react? With a cry for mercy? Or a hardening of hatred?
What should our lifetime response be? Honest repentance. And, like Stephen, a humble holding of the world to account. Don’t harden your heart. Do be ready to warn the world.
So that’s the accusation of Stephen. And, despite my title, I haven’t even mentioned Moses yet. In verses 17-43, Stephen does focus on what we might call the life and times of Moses. Why? Because Stephen is amassing the evidence of history in support of his counter-accusation against his accusers. He’s building an argument. Hence my third main heading, which we come to now.
So Thirdly, THE ARGUMENT OF STEPHEN
In verses 17-43, Stephen rehearses the story of Moses, the Israelites and the Exodus from Egypt. I won’t go over it in detail now. You can read it later in Exodus. It’s a gripping 40 pages. Luke’s account of Stephen’s retelling reduces it to one page if you’re short of time. What I want to draw your attention to is the thrust of Stephen’s argument. He’s not just telling a good story. He has a point. As we’ve seen, his point overall is that his hearers have killed the Messiah and are rejecting God. But he is going one step further and saying “It has always been so.” He’s saying they are just like their fathers.
What Stephen is experiencing is the same old story of rejection of God’s servants all over again. Only now it’s worse than ever, because this time it’s not only God’s servants like Stephen who are being rejected, but also God’s Son. So the point of Stephen’s retelling of the story of the Exodus in 17-43 is to show that even back at that historic high point in their spiritual and national history, they persistently kicked against the grace of God and hated God’s servant. They’re displaying a deep seated inherited trait.
Stephen’s argument is in seven steps. Let me run through them quickly.
First, God promises to Abraham he will save his people. Stephen has established that back in 7.5:
“… God promised [Abraham] that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child.”
Secondly, God begins to fulfil his promise. 7.14:
“.. Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all.”
That is, Abraham, once childless, by then has 75 descendants. God is at work.
Thirdly, opposition and persecution begin and are there from the start. 7.6:
God spoke to [Abraham] in this way: ‘Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and ill-treated for four hundred years.’
In 7.9 the persecution comes from within the family:
“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt.”
In 7.19 it comes from the ruler of Egypt:
“He [that is, Pharaoh] dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our forefathers…”
Fourthly, the time of Moses was a decisive step towards the fulfilment of God’s promise. 7.17:
“As the time drew near for God to fulfil his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt greatly increased.”
Remember, by the way, if you’ve been waiting a long time for God to act on his promise and answer your Godly prayer, whatever that might be: God will work decisively. But it will be in his own time. So while you wait, trust and pray; and watch and work.
Fifthly, Moses was an extraordinary God-given servant of God’s people. He is in fact, a ‘type’ of Jesus – reflecting before time what Jesus would be. Moses was great but Jesus was greater – the Son not just the servant. So we must not compound the sin of the Israelites by rejecting Jesus. Rather we are to rejoice in trusting and obeying him.
“[Moses] was no ordinary child.”
“Moses… was powerful in speech and action.”
“Moses thought that his own people would realise that God was using him to rescue them…”
Again at the end of verse 35:
“[Moses] was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself…”
And in verse 38:
“[Moses] received living words to pass on to us.”
Notice there, by the way, this New Testament attitude to the Old Testament. Stephen is clear that the Old Testament is the living word of God. We are not to neglect it but to ask God to bring it alive in our lives.
But over and over Stephen drives home to them the fact that Moses was an extraordinary God-given servant of God’s people (and Jesus even more so). And yet:
Sixthly, Moses was persistently rejected. The Exodus is not a story of God’s people gratefully receiving God’s saving grace through Moses. No. They kicked against all God was doing for them. Verse 25 again, with its ending:
“Moses thought that his own people would realise that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not.”
“But the man who was ill-treating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us?’”
“This is the same Moses whom they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’”
And verse 39:
“But our fathers refused to obey [Moses]. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.”
Amazingly, that is what God’s people do. Just when God is working to rescue them, they kick God’s servants in the teeth. That is the great litmus test that exposes the evil that lies under our carefully polished veneer of goodness. So what does God do? That’s the final piece in Stephen’s argument here. So:
Seventhly, God gave them over to their sin and idolatry. 7.42:
“But God turned away and gave them over to the worship of the heavenly bodies.”
It’s a remarkable example of the ultimate triumph of God’s grace that Paul – the very same man, then named Saul, who stood over the smashed up body of the dying Stephen, approving of what he saw – Paul later wrote in Romans 1, describing the God-rejecting world and echoing Stephen’s words:
[God] gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done… Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
So the force of Stephen’s argument is this. Rejection of God is built into our very nature. Moses’ experience shows it. The cross of Christ proves it.
I remember once a friend of mine had recently become a Christian. We both heard a talk about the cross. Later, we were discussing it, and he broke down in tears in front of me. For a short time, his body was racked with sobs of grief. When he quieted down, and I asked him what the matter was, he told me he’d felt overwhelmed by the knowledge of what we had done to Jesus. Many years later, he is serving Jesus still.
If we want to escape being given over to depravity and eternal death, we must not harden our hearts in hatred. We must cry for mercy.
And Stephen’s own example says to us: If and when you face opposition and persecution in your service of Jesus, don’t be surprised. It was always thus. And don’t lose heart. Remember that Jesus is fulfilling his promises, and using you to do it –as he used Stephen, even in death.