Based on Acts chapter 6, verse 8 to Acts chapter 8, verse 4.
We’d been prayed for and commissioned to look after believers who were in need so that the apostles could concentrate on teaching the people about Jesus and on prayer. But that didn’t mean that the likes of Stephen and me, Philip, gave up telling people about Jesus ourselves! We got on with what we’d been called to do, making sure everyone was treated fairly and had what they needed. But, when we had the time and opportunity, we also told people about Jesus, the Messiah, the risen Lord, ascended and seated at the right hand of God.
You know, Stephen was a man filled to the brim with God’s grace and power. In fact, it wasn’t only the apostles who performed healings and miracles. Filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom, Stephen performed amazing and miraculous signs and great wonders. (P) Maybe that’s where the trouble started? I don’t know! But, as Stephen travelled around the various synagogues, the meeting places for Jews from various different areas of the world when they arrived in Jerusalem, he talked to them about Jesus, the Messiah. However, when he started to talk to one particular group in a synagogue called 'The Synagogue of the Freedmen', some of them started to argue with him. At first, it seemed good-natured as they talked about God and what the Bible meant, but then a group of them got a bit hot under the collar in their discussions, which soon turned nasty! But, as I said before, Stephen was filled with wisdom and the Holy Spirit and, because of that, they couldn’t argue against him – the Holy Spirit helped him to show them where they’d got it wrong. But they were proud men and, instead of admitting they were wrong, they started to think of Stephen as their enemy and tried to find ways they could make it look like he was wrong – even if that meant resorting to lies!
That’s when things got out of control, as Stephen’s enemies persuaded some men to tell tales about him. ‘We heard that man Stephen say lies and evil things about what Moses taught and about God!’ they whispered to the people.
The more the lies were uttered, the more stirred up the people became. And, in no time at all, the lies were whispered to the elders and the teachers of the Law. (P) Almost immediately, Stephen was arrested and brought before a meeting of the high council – the same high council that had arrested and punished the apostles. But this time, even though God was still in control, the outcome wasn’t going to be what we’d hoped for. (PAUSE)
Stephen’s enemies wanted him out the way, they wanted to stir up hatred against him, and so, as the council started, the liars were called forward to give their ‘evidence’.
For the Jews, everything to do with God is sacred. So, as the false witnesses stood to speak, they looked at the leaders and deliberately lied to get Stephen into maximum trouble. ‘This man never stops speaking against the Temple and against the Law!
They said this because Stephen taught the same things Jesus had, that both the Temple and the Law were really signposts that pointed to Him. (P) The Temple in the heart of the capital city was a symbol that God was with His people. But, now that Jesus was in heaven and had sent the Holy Spirit, no matter where God's people went, Jesus would always be with them through the Holy Spirit, and there was no need for the Temple any more. And the Law? God is perfect, and if we want to see Him, we must obey His Law and be perfect too – something none of us can do! But Jesus came and obeyed the whole Law and opened a new way for us to see God, not by obeying all the rules, but by loving and trusting Him. Jesus met all the requirements of the Law when He died on the cross as a sacrifice to God to take the punishment we deserve for our sins. And, because of this, the sacrificial and the ceremonial requirements of the Law had been satisfied in Jesus.
The charges against Stephen were serious. And yet, I think Stephen understood that, no matter what he said, most of the people in the room hated Jesus and would never accept the truth that he was telling them – that the Temple and the Law both pointed to Jesus. I think he also understood that these people would stop at nothing to silence him.
As he stood to speak in his defence against these serious charges, God showed the people that what Stephen taught was the truth. For, as they looked at him, his face shone like that of an angel or, maybe, like the face of Moses after he came back from receiving the Law of God on Mount Sinai? Whatever it was, they should’ve taken notice. Yet their hatred for Jesus and anyone who followed Him made them ignore this miracle. So, Stephen answered these charges, although he didn't speak to save himself. (PAUSE)
He spoke of Abraham - who was called by God when he lived in another land that wasn't Israel! Of the people of Israel loved by God when they lived in Egypt. He then reminded them of Moses who was spoken to from a burning bush – which God Himself called 'holy ground' – but, again, not in Israel but in another country. He pointed out how the Lord had travelled with the people of Israel in the wilderness. And then how He’d come with them into the Promised Land, living with His people in a tent! Stephen finished this section by pointing out that, even though a Temple had been built for Him in Jerusalem, nothing can hold God, for He is the creator of all things. (P) They thought of their Temple in Jerusalem as evidence that God was with them, but Stephen showed them that God was always with His people, no matter where they were.
And then, having shown them that God is Lord of all the earth and goes with His people wherever they may be, Stephen spoke the words that sealed his fate. They were words that needed to be said, words that confronted the leaders of Israel with their own sin of forever listening to what God wants, but never doing it. 'You stubborn people!' he exclaimed. 'Even though you say you’re good, you’re evil inside and refuse to listen to the truth! Must you keep on ignoring what the Holy Spirit is showing you forever? Was there a single prophet that your ancestors didn't mistreat? They even killed the prophets who predicted the coming of the Righteous One! And, just like them, now you have killed the Messiah, you have betrayed and murdered Him. You have deliberately disobeyed God's Law, even though you received it from the hands of angels!’
Everything Stephen said was true. But these men had no interest in truth, only in trying to make everyone else think they were holy and wonderful! So, on hearing Stephen’s words, the leaders became furious beyond reason. Grinding their teeth in wordless rage they seemed more like wild animals than men, like wolves circling their prey, intent only on killing it. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed up, and God gave him a wonderful vision of heaven - where he saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right-hand side of God. Unable to hold back the joy of what he saw, Stephen shouted out, 'Look! I see heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’
This was probably the worst thing, humanly speaking, that Stephen could ever have said. And yet it was the right and proper thing to say. The leaders of Israel had thought they'd brought Stephen to the council to condemn and judge him. However, through Stephen, the Holy Spirit had turned the tables on these so-called judges. It was now Stephen who condemned them as people who refused to believe what God had said and as people who were condemned by God for what they’d done to Jesus. For it was to these same people that Jesus had said, 'You will see the Son of Man seated at the right-hand side of the Father in glory’. Words for which they’d condemned and executed him! And now, here was Stephen, proving that what Jesus had told them was true, as he shared his vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father, no doubt standing to welcome His faithful servant Stephen home.
The leaders could take no more. Their refusal to believe both Jesus and Stephen boiled over as they covered their ears and, screaming as loudly as they could to stop themselves hearing another word, they all rushed at him and violently dragged him out of the city. Then, leaving him a little distance away, they started to hurl stones at him in their rage, intending to do away with him and the message about Jesus once and for all.
Meanwhile, those who were doing the stoning were so keen not to let anything hold back their rage that they took off their coats and left them with a young man named Saul for safekeeping. This 'Saul' had probably been part of the 'Synagogue of the Freedmen' who'd argued with Stephen. Now, he watched the stoning of Stephen, giving his full approval to what was happening to this follower of Jesus!
It was only a matter of time as the rocks and stones found their mark again and again. But, even as he stood there being battered by the rocks, Stephen prayed. In this time of immense danger and imminent death, Stephen prayed, just like Jesus had prayed to His Father when He was on the cross. ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,’ Stephen asked. While Jesus had prayed, ‘Father, into Your Hands I entrust My Spirit’. And then, falling to his knees he cried out, ‘Lord, don’t hold them guilty of this sin.’ Again, just like Jesus had prayed, ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.’ And then … and then … Stephen went to be with Jesus, because this was the time Jesus wanted to call him home. For Jesus was going to use Stephen’s death, the death of a dearly loved child, to continue what He had called His people to do – to take the good news of Jesus to all peoples everywhere.
Of course, us disciples, we didn’t understand any of that. Because, to us, it seemed that everything was falling apart. Stephen had been killed! And that very day, a terrible persecution of the disciples – of the new and young church - spread like wildfire right across Jerusalem and nearly all of us ended up fleeing for our lives! I found myself no longer with all my friends and the other believers, but running away to the north of Israel.
It seemed like Satan had won a great victory. That young man Saul - the one who’d looked after the coats – steamed with hatred and did all he could to devastate the church, to ruin it, to destroy it once and for all. He even went from house to house arresting and dragging away both men and women to throw them in jail – and even to face death! Of the whole church, a massive number of people, only the apostles managed to stay in Jerusalem! The rest of us ran, thinking at first that it was a failure and only slowly realising that this was God’s plan to build His church. (PAUSE)
Godly men buried the broken body of Stephen at great personal risk and mourned deeply for him. But even though it looked like all was lost and that Satan had won, we were to discover that God was still fully in control. For, as we ran from Jerusalem, just like Stephen had said about God always being with His people, Jesus went with us! And, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we preached the Good News of Jesus everywhere we went. After all, hadn't Jesus said that we'd be His witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea, Samaria until the ends of the earth? (P) Jesus had allowed this attack of Satan to happen. And, in His love and grace, He was using it – using it as if it was the trigger of a massive cannon, firing His disciples out from Jerusalem and into the world. And as we were fired out of Jerusalem, we took the Good News about Jesus, unable to stop talking about all the wonderful things God had done through Him. The end result was that many more, who wouldn't otherwise have had the chance to learn about Jesus, heard the Good News that Jesus saves sinners, just like you and me.