Brothers And Fathers Listen To Me!
Key Verse 7:55-56
“But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’”
I think that this might be one of those beautiful sermons that always yields new insight every time you reflect on it. Stephen, a lover of Christ Jesus and a passionate preacher of the gospel— a young man recently chosen to serve meals on wheals to the widows of his church— was caught by the authorities and brought before the Jewish senate for questioning. We’ve spoken of this many times before. They were a formidable body of seventy-some men who sat in judgment of serious cases; they were responsible for condemning Jesus to death, and for threatening Peter and the other apostles not to speak in his name. Now this same senate convened when Stephen’s accusers “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 this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.’” (Acts 6:13-14) He was being accused of slandering the Bible Law and talking about the destruction of the Holy Temple of God. Not only that, he was being also being accused of insulting religious customs. Of course, none of this was true. So whoever brought these charges against him were driven to do so by jealousy— It seems Stephen knew the Bible Law a whole lot better than they did, and they could not find fault in anything he said. They could have also been driven by ignorance— It may be that they couldn’t understand his Bible study with them regarding the Law or the temple or religious customs nor anything else that Christ’s coming had changed. So they brought charges against him.
Many are like them, you know! They cannot understand what the Bible teaches. And when they don’t understand what the Bible is saying, they react by attacking the Bible or by attacking those who teach it. But why can’t they understand it? Here’s why. The things of God can’t be understood by these people who even consider them foolishness, first, because they have no Spirit of God to understand them, and second, because such things as the Bible teaching need be discerned spiritually through the spirit which is dormant or inactive in them. (ref: 1 Corinthians 2:14) Likewise, when these people didn’t understand Stephen’s Bible study, they attacked him by bringing him before this court of angry men who were as unspiritual and hateful towards the gospel as these men were. Luke tells us that as they stared at Stephen standing there before them, his face looked like the face of an angel. (6:15) “Then the high priest asked him, ‘Are these charges true?” (7:1) And “To this he replied: ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me!” (2a) And with these words, Stephen begins this long sermon which at first seems like a brief history of Israel. But when you examine it closely, it’s in every way a magnificent defense of the gospel— the same gospel which from the moment God called the nation of Israel to be a nation, intended for his people bear it to the world. Stephen wasn’t interested in defending himself to these people. He wasn’t even interested in saving his own life. His only interest was to remind them how they were born as a nation, and then from there, to also remind them of their tense history with God whom they had failed so often but whom God in return had never failed. Stephen also wanted to remind them why God called them as a nation in the first place. They were to bear the Messiah to the world so that he might save the world.
So Stephen’s sermon to them came in the way of a story. In a sense, it was the story of the nation of Israel and its ancestors. Yet in another sense it was the story of God himself who had been at the heart of Israel’s story from the start. From Stephen’s viewpoint, his accusers needed a very basic Bible study that begins in Genesis at the very beginning where their forefather Abraham was called by God and later became the father of that nation. There were elements in the life of that ancestor Abraham that became the foundation of all that God was hoping to build up when he wanted to take for himself a people and call them “my people” or “the people of God” in order to send his Savior and bless the world through them. Stephen knew that the people he was standing before knew the history and the religion behind the history, but they had lost the spirit and the faith by which the ancestors walked, beginning with Abraham. So Stephen began to teach them. Look at verses 2-3.
“The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’” Stephen then began with Abraham. But before there was a nation of Israel, God called a godless man Abraham and challenged him to leave behind his godless life and ways and to begin a new life with God. It would be a hard life because it would require faith and trust in God. He would have to live by faith and worship God alone. If he did, God promised him that he would bless him and make him a blessing to the whole world. It was a promise to send the Messiah of the world through his descendants even though Abraham had no children. And as strange and farfetched as it may have sounded this man Abraham accepted God’s call; he didn’t hesitate; he trusted and believed and started a life of faith with God. All of God’s promises to him seemed impossible, but Abraham still held on to them. Time passed with no sign that any of these promises were real; Abraham still believed and trusted God. It was faith. He lived by them. He hoped in them. And then he also died with these promises on his heart. In that way Abraham became the ancestor of faith not only for the nation of Israel which he eventually fathered, but for the whole world as well.
Look at verse 8. “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.” Stephen’s recollection of history is remarkable. This covenant of circumcision is critical to Israel, as it is to everyone who understands the way God works in history. Stephen reminded them of this in Bible study.
This was a very meaningful covenant in the life of Abraham. God wanted Abraham to set an example to all mankind, beginning with Israel. What kind of example should he set? The example he was to set was to live a life of repentance and of faith (since circumcision represents repentance in the Bible). And in return God would give him life and make him a blessing to all people. Abraham repented. He repented of something which most people actually have no idea that they too should repent of. Abraham at the time repented of only wanting to live an ordinary life— that’s all— just not being bothered, just enjoying life and doing nothing to honor God with his life. But Abraham repented and decided he would no longer live an ordinary life for his own pleasure. He decided to live for God once for all. I think such a decision isn’t easy. We may be inspired sometimes to do that, but as soon as the inspiration goes away, we usually return to the ordinary life. But Abraham really decided because in his heart he finally knew what God had made him to be— a man for God’s glory. And I think until we discover that as well, we remain ordinary. Stephen’s point was simple. It was time to remind these useless priests that God calls them to a humble life of faith and repentance, to serve God rather than to enjoy the prestige of their office. If they studied Genesis enough and with a humble heart, they would know that the nation of Israel was born in and out of the faith of a humble man of faith and repentance, whose heart was set on God’s promise.
Stephen’s story then takes us to Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson. Look at verses 9-16. Now Joseph’s story has a little different point than Abraham’s. Joseph inherited the same spiritual blessing from Abraham his grandfather. God chose Joseph to be a sort of deliverer from what the great famine that was coming on the earth. That famine was going to ravage not only the earth but God’s people as well and even kill them if God did not intervene. And God in his wisdom chose Joseph to save them. But his story is really a sad story. These brothers of his, in great pride and self-righteousness, they reject him and sell him as a slave to Egypt. Like Jesus, Joseph suffered greatly at the hand of his own brothers and strangers. But Joseph never turned his heart away from God. In all his troubles he continued to live by faith and to fulfill his mission as the shepherd of the people. And so God used Joseph to save them from disaster. Joseph also had another difficult mission other than saving them. He had the almost impossible mission to help them repent. Why? Because unless they recognize their own sins against God and against one another, and repent, even if they don’t die from hunger, they would die in their sins. And that’s the tragedy of mankind as well. When people cannot see their own sins, they cannot repent and if they don’t repent, even if their lives are alright, they will not see the light of day in the end! So Joseph helped them repent. It took him years of suffering to help them see their sins. When people study this part in the Bible they see him as being cruel. But he’s not. He is a man of God helping his brothers come to their senses. And then one day Joseph’s words led them to repentance. The man whom they had long ago rejected then became their savior.
The story goes on to when Joseph and his brothers grew in number in Egypt until they had become a huge nation. They had by now become slaves as God had told Abraham that they would. But God was already preparing another savior to save them from slavery. Moses, (20-53) a man born a Hebrew slave and raised as an Egyptian prince. But when he tried to help them by his own passion, they rejected Moses as well. So disillusioned, Moses ran away to the wilderness where for 40 wretched years of suffering God watched over him until he was ready to use him as a savior for these people. Then God brought him back to Egypt. And the Moses whom they had once rejected as the man to save them was clearly the one now chosen by God to be their savior. And so Moses led them to freedom. But as Stephen recounts in his story, it wasn’t easy at all. The people were difficult and disobedient. They were rebellious and idolatrous. And throughout his life as their shepherd and deliverer, Moses suffered greatly from their constant rejection and persecution. But like Joseph before him, he never turned his heart away from God. He continued to live by faith and to fulfilling his mission as the shepherd of the people. Once again, the man the people had rejected was none other than God’s chosen savior.
This had been their history, a history marked with so much rebellion against God and all his chosen servants. This is what Stephen wanted to remind them of. They had been a chosen people of God. They had a glorious history, chosen by God to live by faith, to set an example to the people around them, to be a blessing, to bear the Savior of promise to the world. But apart from the remnant few who had honored God, most had rejected all the servants God had sent them. Now these men in judgment seats were doing the same. But how is it that they had sunk so low? It’s not hard to understand how can such men of great learning and positions of authority be so callous spiritually.
God’s people in Jesus’ time were no different than any of the previous generations. They did not hold on to God’s purpose for them either. They didn’t understand the meaning of the temple/church or what God meant when he said such things as: “God’s house of prayer for all nations”. (Mk. 11:17; Jn. 2:16) They didn’t understand the meaning of the Bible or “God’s word of life” nor to spread God’s knowledge to the whole world through Bible study. They didn’t realize how blessed they were to be called God’s people and to serve God’s purpose. What they chose instead was to be worldly. And that’s the problem. They chose to pursue the ordinary and impure things of this world. When God offers promises that are intangible, it is sometimes easier to get a hold of something that can be felt and kept in the hand. They also had no faith nor trust in God. Some people talk about faith but abstractly but when you listen to their definition, they have no idea what it means to trust God. They also had no mission. In other words, they lived for their own selves for their own agenda. Of course, they assembled in the religious senate. But in their hearts they were somewhere else. And when a person has no mission of God in life, he or she has become a people useless to God. Finally when God sent Jesus to be the One and Only Savior— to restore them to repentance, to faith and to mission— they did just as their ancestors did. They again rejected the Savior. They persecuted him and crucified him. And if that were not enough now they were persecuting his church. They were killing off the people who had accepted Jesus and his gospel.
Read verses 51-53. Stephen rebuked them because they had abandoned their calling as the shepherds and Bible teachers of the world. In their pride they also hindered the work of the Holy Spirit. Stephen’s rebuke was harsh— but truthful. We are God’s people! It means we are blessed by the gospel of life and gifted with the Holy Spirit. We shouldn’t close our hearts to God’s word of discipline. In this life, the devil will do everything to stymie us, to hinder our spiritual growth, to make us proud and unresponsive, to make us deny the good heritage of hardship and suffering that God gives us for a useless heritage of pleasure and sin that the world gives. Regardless of how painful the sermon or Bible study words may be, we should know better to acknowledge a truth spoken in love. Stephen’s words were harsh— but life-giving. These people should have denied their pride or self righteousness. They should have shown some sorrow and turned to God for mercy. In this case, they should recognize Jesus as their rejected and crucified Lord and Savior. And they should have committed their lives to live as useful shepherds and Bible teachers for all people rather than useless pleasure seekers. But of course, it did not happen. They were furious. They decided to kill him.
Read verses 55 and 56. “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’” Stephen did not look at their angry faces. He didn’t want to struggle with them. Instead, he wanted to do as he had done all his short Christian life. He wanted to struggle with God and for God. He only wanted to see the face of God. How could he when there were so many angry faces? By faith! When he didn’t give in to emotion and forgave them in love and trusted God by faith. So with faith, Stephen looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God. Usually, the beautiful face of Jesus always overcomes the murderous face of anyone else, even an angry rabble. For him, faith helped him see death as the gateway to home to see his beloved Jesus and to be with him forever.
One last thing. Read verses 59 and 60. “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.” These are the last words of a real Christian. He didn’t say: God will pay you back. It’s possible to be like Jesus in one’s heart. Stephen didn’t begin his Christian life like this. He was changed into the man he became. It was Bible study and prayer, the work of the holy Spirit and God’s grace working in him that molded him into a Christ-like man— a real Christian. The first Christian martyr in history, a man whose spirit of martyrdom to serve the gospel at the cost of his life, and a true Christian we will never forget as long as the gospel is preached in this world— someone we pray to be like someday.