In chapter 5 we had the story of Ananias and Sapphira who tried to lie to the Holy Spirit and were immediately struck down. And we also read how Peter and John were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin looked set to kill them until one of them suggested that they just wait and see what happens. If what they were preaching was not from God, then it would eventually fizzle out. And so they were released. And they continued to preach about Jesus Christ. And from his throne in heaven, the Lord Jesus continued to build his church on the earth.
Now I don’t want to say much this evening about verses 1 to 7 of chapter 6 since we looked at that passage recently on a Sunday morning. Just notice in verse 1 that the church was increasing. Notice again that what we have here is another problem arising from within the church. Sometimes problems come from without: like the opposition from the Sanhedrin. Other times problems arise from within the church: like the story of Ananias and Sapphira. And this is a problem which arises from within: one group was being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. And the Devil could so easily have come in and used this incident to make things worse. He could so easily have stirred up division and dissension within the church. But the Apostles suggested a solution which was agreeable to everyone else and so the danger was averted. Seven men were appointed to oversee the distribution of food so that no one was overlooked. And the appointment of these men, and the institution of the office of deacon, left the Apostles free to continue their work of preaching and prayer. And so, in verse 7, the word continued to spread and the number of disciples continued to grow.
However, in verses 8 to 15, the church is faced with trouble from without once again. Stephen, one of the deacons, who was full of God’s grace and power, was enabled by God to perform great wonders and signs among the people. But opposition towards him arose from members of the synagogue of the Freedmen which comprised Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as from the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. Synagogues were like churches for the Jewish people where they would gather to hear God’s word and to be instructed in it. And no doubt some of Luke’s original readers knew exactly which synagogue he was referring to in this verse. And the members of this synagogue were opposing Stephen, perhaps trying to argue with him, but they couldn’t stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. And this reminds us of the Lord’s promise in Luke 21 that he would give his persecuted people a mouth, or the words to say, and wisdom when arrested so that they would be able to answer their critics and bear witness to Jesus Christ. The Lord will not abandon his people or forget them, but he continues to help them.
Stephen’s enemies are frustrated. They can’t stand up to his wisdom or refute what he was saying. So, what do they do? They fall back on the same trick that Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, used in the Old Testament. They organised some false witnesses to accuse Stephen. And they accuse him, in verse 11, of two things: blasphemy against Moses and blasphemy against God. And, if you look down to verses 13 and 14, the charges are given again in slightly more detail. Blasphemy against Moses means speaking against the law (given to Moses) and trying to change the customs handed down from Moses. And blasphemy against God means speaking against the temple which they refer to as ‘this holy place’. And they managed to stir up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law so that they seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin where more false witnesses spoke against him.
But when they looked at Stephen, it seemed to them that his face was like the face of an angel. Perhaps we’re to think of Moses whose face shone after he had been in the presence of God. And so, perhaps Stephen’s face shone too because he was one of the Lord’s true servants who knew the Lord and the Lord’s presence in his life. Or perhaps we’re to think of those occasions sometimes, when we meet an elderly saint, and their face shines with joy because they know the Lord and they know that very soon they will be with him forever. And so, the chapter ends, with Stephen looking serene, and facing the Sanhedrin who have been stirred up against him by these false charges.
The High Priest asked him: Are these charges true? And in verse 2 of chapter 7 he begins to speak. And it’s a wide-ranging speech. First of all, in verses 1 to 8 of chapter 7, he refers to Abraham. Then, in verses 9 to 16 he refers to Joseph. Then, in verses 17 to 43 he’s talking about Moses. And then from verse 44 to verse 50 we have David and Solomon.
And so, first of all, there’s Abraham. And in his summary of the life of Abraham we read that God promised to give to Abraham and his descendants the Promised Land of Canaan; that for a time they would live as slaves elsewhere; but God would bring them back to the land where they would worship him. And God gave them the covenant of circumcision. Then, there’s Joseph. And in his summary of Joseph’s life we read that his brothers were jealous of him and sold him into slavery; but God was with him and rescued him from all his troubled and he became the ruler of Egypt. The famine struck the land; his brothers came to him looking for food; Joseph revealed himself to them; Jacob and the rest of his family moved to Egypt, though after he died, his body was buried back in the Promised Land. Then, there’s Moses. And in his summary of Moses’s life we read that the king of Egypt had turned on God’s people and oppressed them; Moses was born; he was brought up by the Pharaoh’s daughter and educated as an Egyptian; when he was forty he rescued an Israelite from an Egyptian; however, instead of accepting him, the Israelites resented him: Who made you ruler and judge over us? So he fled. After forty years, God spoke to him from the burning bush to say that he had heard their groaning and was ready to set them free. Verse 35: The people had rejected him, but God appointed him to be their ruler and deliverer. And so he led them out of their captivity, performing signs and wonders for them in Egypt and at the Red Sea. And (verse 36) for another forty years they were in the wilderness. But (v. 40) they soon forgot about Moses and God and (v. 41) began to worship an idol.
So, that’s Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. Then in verses 44 to 50 he refers to David and Solomon. David wanted to build a temple; but in fact Solomon built it. However, God doesn’t really dwell in a temple because heaven is his throne and the earth his footstool. He cannot be contained in a temple made by men.
Now, what’s the point of Stephen’s speech up to now? Where’s he going with this? Well, let me mention three things. First of all, the Jews in the past rejected God’s appointed leaders — and they’ve done the same again. So, in the past their forefathers were jealousy of Joseph and they sold him into slavery. But God had chosen Joseph to rescue his people from the famine. And, in the past, their forefathers resented Moses: Who made you ruler over us? But God had sent him to rescue his people from their slavery in Egypt. And now they’ve done it again: because they killed the Lord Jesus whom God sent to save us from our sin and misery. So, they’re accusing Stephen, but he turns the tables on them and accuses them of doing what the Jews have always done: they’ve rejected God’s appointed leaders.
So, that’s the first thing. Then he also mentions the temple. They thought God dwelt in the temple. But Stephen reminds them that God does not live in houses made by men. So, where does he live? He dwells with his people. And this has always been the case. He was with Abraham long before the temple was made. He was with Joseph when he was a prisoner in Egypt. Ad he appeared to Moses in the burning bush. God doesn’t dwell in the temple, but he dwells with his people. And, of course, the point now is that because of their unbelief and rejection of the Lord Jesus, the Jews in the Sanhedrin are no longer God’s people. God is no longer with them. Now he’s with those who have trusted in Christ.
But the third thing to say about the speech is this. Back in verse 37 Stephen refers to Moses promising that one day God would send them another prophet. And Moses was referring to the Lord Jesus, our Great Prophet who came to reveal to us everything we need to know for our salvation. If the people really honoured Moses, and listened to him, they would have welcomed the Lord Jesus. But they didn’t welcome him. They killed him.
And so, in verse 51, Stephen turns on the Sanhedrin and accuses them of being stiff-necked. In other words, they were stubborn sinners. They may be circumcised in their body like Abraham, but their hearts and ears are uncircumcised so that, inwardly, they’re like the pagan, unbelieving nations. Like their forefathers who resisted the Holy Spirit speaking through Joseph and Moses and the other prophets, they too have resisted the Holy Spirit. Like their forefathers who persecuted and killed the prophets, they killed the Lord Jesus. And you claim to have received the law from Moses, but you have not obeyed the law which spoke of the coming Saviour.
When they heard this they are filled with fury. But Stephen, he’s full of the Holy Spirit and he looked up, and saw into heaven. And there he saw the glory of God and Jesus Christ his Saviour. But they refused to listen. They covered their ears. They yelled at him. And they rushed at him and dragged him out of the city and there they stoned him to death.
Notice how he died: Asking for God to pardon them, just as Christ had asked God to forgive those who crucified him, and knowing that the Lord Jesus was waiting to welcome him into heaven. That’s the great hope for all believers: because for all who believe, death is the doorway to our Saviour’s presence where there is no more sorrow or pain or suffering or death. When we die, the Saviour is standing at his Father’s side, ready to receive us and to welcome us.
And notice that Saul is there. And what a great change is going to happen in his life. Here he is, siding with those who killed Stephen, but the time was coming when the great persecutor of the church would become its greatest preacher. This is the grace of God to sinners. He does not treat us as our sins deserve, but he pardons us and enables us to live our lives for his glory. And so, despite opposition and set backs and troubles, the gates of hell will not prevail, but Jesus Christ will continue to build his church on earth.