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STEPHEN’S GLORIOUS DEATH

Acts 7:1-7:60
Key Verse: 7:60

In chapter 6 we learned that when a problem occurred in the church because of the matter of waiting on tables, the apostles set a clear direction not to neglect the ministry of the word of God by giving their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. Then the word of God spread and the disciples of Jesus increased rapidly even with a large number of priests becoming obedient to the faith. The opposition arose from members of the Synagogue of Freedmen. When they could not stand up against Stephen’s wisdom in their argument with him, they brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses and accused Stephen of speaking words of blasphemy against Moses and against God and speaking against the holy place and against the law. He was standing before the Sanhedrin as an accused, but he was not gripped in fear and disgrace. Rather he was so bright and glorious that his face was like the face of angel to the eyes of all the Sanhedrin. Today’s passage is Stephen’s defence against the false accusations. In his speech for the defence his correct and consistent knowledge of God’s history and the temple and the law was revealed. It well showed who God is and how the work of God has been done until the coming of Christ. Because of his truthful defence he was stoned to death. Yet his death was a glorious one as a martyr that displayed his love and commitment to Jesus and his true love for his people.

Look at verse 1. “Then the high priest asked him, ‘Are these charges true?’” So far the apostles stood before the Sanhedrin two times. Yet, they were not falsely accused. But Stephen was accused by false witnesses. His charges were speaking against Moses and against God, and against the holy place and against the law. These charges were very serious ones. Stephen knew that these charges were completely wrong and also knew that the Sanhedrin was not there for him, but against him since he was alongside with the apostles. So his defending testimony against the false accusation before the Sanhedrin would be certainly of no use. Yet, Stephen spoke not to win the court but win the souls of some in the Sanhedrin. Let’s see his testimony.

Look at verses 2-3. “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 Haran. “Leave your country and your people,” God said, “and go to the land I will show you.”’” Stephen said of God as the God of glory, and the God of glory is the first word he spoke. Who is the God of glory? He is the God who created the heavens and the earth and revealed his power and glory. How majestic and glorious his creation is! The God of glory appeared to Abraham while he was in Mesopotamia. At that time Abraham who has been considered as the father of the Jewish nation was nobody living in a land far from God’s promised land. Rather he was an inglorious person who was old and whose wife was barren. The God of glory appearing to him was by God’s grace alone. Yet, the preciousness of Abraham was his obedience. When God said, “Leave your country and your people and go to the land I will show you,” he obeyed it, even though he did not know where he was going. God sent him to Canaan. God trained him in faith, giving him no inheritance there, not even a foot of ground. While Abraham had no child, God promised that he and his descendants after him would possess the land. God really wanted Abraham to live by faith in him alone, who is faithful and keeps his promise. Although Abraham had no child, God had the future of his descendants, who would be slaves in a country not their own four hundred years and then come out of that country by God’s punishment on that nation and worship God in the promised land. How could the promise of God be fulfilled, while Abraham was just one person with no child? Yet, God is the God of history, and he would work out for it. He has the future of his people. But here God would make his chosen people suffer, being enslaved and mistreated. There would be many reasons why God let them suffer. One reason was that because they were salves the race could not be mixed with the Egyptians even after so many generations. Then God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. So the Jews were to be called circumcised people, in which they took pride as the holy people of God. And Abraham became the father of Isaac. Isaac the son of promise was Abraham’s fruit of faith, and Abraham circumcised him eight days after his birth according to God’s instruction. This one son of promise would be a nation. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs. In the fourth generation the number became 12.

In verses 9-16, Stephen’s speech tells how the patriarchs would come down to Egypt and the whole family began to live in Egypt. Through the patriarchs’ jealousy Joseph was brought to Egypt as a slave, but God made him ruler of Egypt. Then through famine and Joseph’s position as the ruler of Egypt, the whole family of Jacob, seventy five, came to Egypt.

They all died, but God’s promise continued. Look at verse 17. “As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt greatly increased.” According to Exodus 1:7 “…Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them.” A knew king who knew nothing about Joseph had the policy of stopping the increase of the Israelites by oppressing them with forced labour and ruthless treatment. But “…the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.” (Ex 1:12). This was the way God was fulfilling his promise given to Abraham, and no one could stop it. Here one important thing is that God prepared his people who became numerous before preparing the holy land. They were slaves but circumcised chosen people in God’s promise and providence.

Then how could this exceedingly numerous people come out of Egypt for the further fulfillment of God’s promise? For this God prepared a man Moses. How God prepared Moses and how he led the people out of Egypt is a long stroy written in verses 19-38. It is a very interesting and dramatic story. So there came to be a movie called, “Prince of Egypt.” The story is this. The new king issued an edict that every Hebrew baby boy would be thrown into Nile, when his policy of stopping the increase of Israelites failed. Moses was born in that circumstance. Moses was thrown in a basket into Nile after three months of being cared for in his father’s house. Then Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. What an irony that Moses was thrown into Nile because of the king Pharaoh’s command but he was drawn out of the river by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as her son! That’s what the name Moses meant, “I drew him out of the water.” The king was ruthless, but his daughter had sympathy. God used both of them so that Moses would grow in the Egyptian palace. He Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and surely in martial arts too and was powerful in speech and action. At that time Moses was forty and he thought he was ready to help his people. At first he rescued one fellow Israelite who was mistreated by an Egyptian by killing the Egyptian with one punch. But with his physical strength and power of speech he could not reconcile two Israelites who were fighting the next day. Rather, he was accused of what he had done with an Egyptian and had to flee to Midian. What a life that one day he showed a power of punch and the next day he fled to a desert with no promise to return! In a day his life destiny seemed to be entirely changed. In the Midian wilderness he settled as a foreigner and had two sons. This description showed that Moses was a mere man and could end his life as an ordinary man without God’s intervention. He lived in Midian wilderness for forty years and he became eighty. He may have thought that his life was almost gone. Yet, in fact it was God’s divine training for him. For God had a definite plan for him, which was about to be unfolded.

Then what happened? An angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai, and the Lord revealed himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with whom Moses was familiar. Then the Lord said to him, “Take off your sandals; 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” (33-34). Moses must have never thought that the Midian desert where he had fled would be the holy ground. He must have thought that he was all alone there over all the forty years. But the Lord had been watching over him during the entire time of those forty years and now appeared to him. Certainly, where God is present is the holy ground whether it is desert or any other place. The Lord watched not only over Moses in the desert, but also over the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt, whom he called now “my people”. He heard their groaning and came down to set them free. This is God’s immeasurable mercy and grace. He wanted to rescue his people from the oppression and set them free. For this he wanted to send Moses. So he said, “Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.” After God’s wilderness training in Midian, now God was sending him back to Egypt to use him as his servant.

Moses had been once rejected by his people. But now he would be accepted because he was sent by God. Look at verse 35. “This is the same Moses whom 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 through performing wonders and miraculous signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea. In this way God brought them out of Egypt as God had promised to Abraham. Moses also did wonders and miraculous signs for forty years in the desert to lead them to the promised land.

And verse 37 says, “This is that Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.’” Stephen clearly said that Moses was anticipating for the coming Christ. And Moses was in the assembly in the desert and received living words, the law of God, to pass on to his people. So they became the people with God’s law in the world.

So far Stephen’s speech wonderfully revealed that the God of glory was so gracious to the people of Israelites that had begun with Abraham. He was so faithful to them, keeping his promise. What can be more beautiful story than this? Stephen had eyes to see the beautiful history of God despite his people’s poor human conditions.

In this beautiful history of God among the Israelites, there is a transition. Stephen did not just speak the beautiful and bright part of God’s history. He had to also reveal the dark and sad part of the history. Look at verse 39. “But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.” What a terrible response! While it took time for Moses to receive the living words from God on Mount Sinai, they made an idol in the form of a calf and celebrated it. It is noticeable that when they rejected God in their hearts, they right away made an idol and became idol-worshippers. Throughout their history they served and worshipped man-made gods, when they rejected such a glorious and faithful God, the LORD. Their idol worship was accompanied by materialism and sexual immorality. Then God turned away from them and sent them into exile beyond Babylon. When they forsook God and abandoned the law, they became a miserable people in exile. Stephen wanted the Israelites, especially the Sanhedrin to know the whole history of theirs.

In verses 44-50, Stephen talked about the tabernacle and the temple. Here tabernacle is called the tabernacle of Testimony, that is containing the Ten Commandments, which is primary to the tabernacle. And tabernacle shows God’s earnest heart desire to dwell among his people. It was made movable. Wherever they went, the Israelites carried it. Then David felt sorry that while he lived in palace, God lived in a tent (2 Sa 7:2). So he asked that he might provide a dwelling place for God. God was pleased with his heart, and let David’s son, Solomon built the temple of God. However, Stephen’s point is that the infinite invisible God whose throne is heaven and whose footstool is the earth cannot be confined in a finite visible temple. He cited the words of Isaiah. As we have seen in this study, God is a pilgrim God. Without the temple, God called Abraham, while he was in Mesopotamia. He was with Joseph when he was sold as a slave into Egypt. God was with the Israelite when they were oppressed in Egypt for four hundred years. He was with Moses in the Midian desert. What is more important than the land or the holy place of the temple is the people. When the people who have a right relationship with God gather in the temple and worship him praising and praying to him, God is pleased to dwell among the people in the temple. Then the temple is pleasing to God and a blessed place to his people. But if the people are not right with God, God cannot dwell in the temple and it is nothing, even if it is a magnificent building. But the Jews were only proud of the holy temple, at that time Herod’s temple, ignoring the right relationship with God. It is interesting that in Acts there is no mention of visible Jerusalem church building. Believers in Jerusalem gathered sometimes, in Solomon’s colonnade, sometimes in houses, or in any other places. In church history there is no record of official church building until the 2nd century.

Now Stephen severely rebukes the Sanhedrin members in the hope of leading them to repentance and to God. Look at verse 51. “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!” The Jews were so proud of their being circumcised people. But the important circumcision is the circumcision of heart, inward circumcision (Dt 10:16; Jer 4:4 Ro 2:29). When the hearts are not circumcised, physical outward circumcision is nothing. Stephen rebukes them further: “Was there ever a prophet your fathers 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 put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” Here Stephen pointed that their fathers killed even those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One, the Messiah. And when Christ Jesus indeed came, the Jews betrayed and murdered him. Jesus once said that he was greater than the temple (Mt 12:6). The Jews should have honoued Jesus more than the temple itself. But they murdered him. They were proud of the law as God’s living words, condemning Stephen of speaking against the law, but they did not obey the law. Paul says of them in Roman 2:23 “…You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?”

In this way Stephen made his defense before the Sanhedrin against the false charges of his speaking against Moses and God and the temple and the law.

How did they respond? They were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit, while they resisted the Holy Spirit. He 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.” His relationship with God was right and true. His spiritual eyes were widely open to see the glory of God. He even saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. This showed Jesus was very pleased with Stephen that he was not sitting there but stood up to welcome him. They condemned him for his blasphemous words, but his life was a true and glorious one recognized by God and honoured by Jesus who had come to this world to replace the temple and fulfill the law and was exalted to the right hand of God. Stephen’s life was more than cherishing the holy temple and the law, unthinkable of speaking against the holy place and the law.

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. In their blindness they remained unrepentant and became irrational and crazy. 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. This last moment of his life was like that of Jesus (Lk 23:46; 23:34). How one dies shows he has lived. Stephen’s death showed that he was a true disciple of Jesus, trusting and loving Jesus and loving his people. Jesus knew the spirit of the law and taught his disciples to love their enemies. Stephen prayed for those who stoned him to death, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” and breathed his last. He truly obeyed and kept the law, following Jesus, who is the fulfillment of the law. His life of faith was true and his death was a glorious one. When he followed Jesus as a disciple of Jesus, the God of glory made his life glorious. His death, as the first martyr in Christian history, bore good fruit. It became a seed (a powerful catalyst) for the conversion of Saul who became Paul, and his blood, a fertilizer for the expansion of the gospel outside Jerusalem.

In this study we see that God is the God of glory and he is the God of grace. He is a faithful God who keeps his promise. He finally sent his Son Jesus into this world according to his promise to be our temple and as the fulfillment of his law. He is with his people in Jesus wherever they are and whoever they are, and he dwells among them. He wants us to have a sense of God’s history and follow Jesus loving and trusting him and obeying his words and serve his will of soul salvation and world evangelization so that our life be a glorious one like that of Abraham, Moses and Stephen.

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