Wisdom Speaks for & Suffers with Christ (Part 1)
Topic: Persecution Passage: Acts 6:8–7:60
The next two weeks, we’ll focus on the ministry of Stephen that stretches across chapters 6 and 7. Today will be a broad overview of these 68 verses. Next week we’ll get into further application. But it all hangs together as one piece.
Stephen comes at the climax of a larger section, where we see rising hostility against the church. In 4:21 it was only threats. In 5:18 it increased to imprisonment and a beating (Acts 5:33, 40). Now it’s murder; and Stephen becomes the church’s first martyr.
I remember reading a gospel tract in college. At the top it read, “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” I initially thought to myself, “Oh brother, another one of those cheesy tracts that skew the gospel.” Beneath the title, though, I was surprised to find a sketch of the Jews stoning Stephen—the ground around him red with blood, but his face shining with glory. All of sudden, the message, “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” wasn’t so cheesy. The picture sharpened the call of the gospel to take up my cross and die, and in so doing find true life in Christ.
God’s wonderful plan for our lives is that we know Christ and make him known at all costs. We see that plan transpiring in the ministry of Stephen. As I said, we’re doing a broad overview. I’ve broken the passage down into three movements: Stephen’s ministry, his message, and his martyrdom. Let’s start with Stephen’s ministry.
Stephen’s Ministry: Spirit-filled, Holistic, Suffered Opposition
8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Notice several aspects to Stephen’s ministry. To begin, it was Spirit-filled ministry. Stephen was a man “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). Verse 8 now says he was “full of grace and power.” As we’ve observed elsewhere in Acts, that power is the direct result of God’s Spirit filling his people (Acts 1:8).
Verse 10 says that “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” This is precisely what Jesus said would happen for his disciples in Luke 21:12-15. When the persecution came Jesus said, “Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” That happens with Stephen. Jesus gives him the words by the Spirit.
That’s huge, because Stephen isn’t one of the initial, twelve apostles: Jesus’ promise is good for disciples beyond the Twelve. It’s good for us. Sometimes when we read about characters like Stephen, we place them on an untouchable pedestal. But we need to understand that these guys are normal men like us. The Spirit made them great. And if we’re in Christ, we have the same Spirit. The Spirit will enable us to accomplish great things for God. We do not need to fear.
Stephen’s ministry was also holistic ministry. Remember, he was one of the seven chosen to serve tables (Acts 6:2-5). But that didn’t mean he never opened his mouth about Jesus. The Spirit leads him not only to meet tangible needs within the church, but to announce the good news to people outside the church. He even disputes with Jews from parts of northern Africa and what we know today as Turkey (Acts 6:9).
The Lord uses him to spread the name of Jesus while also serving tables. His ministry is holistic in that it faithfully represents Christ in both word and deed. We’d do well to imitate this ministry. We care for people by tending to their needs, especially their need for Christ. That takes words. The old saying, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary use words,” is not true to the pattern of the New Testament. Our ministry includes deeds, but it must include words, gospel words, or nobody gets saved.
Stephen’s ministry also suffered opposition. In verse 10, they can’t withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen was speaking. So they resort to lying about him. “If you can’t win the argument, start throwing mud,” is their approach—though it should never become ours. They say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” Verses 13 and 14 then clarify that to blaspheme Moses was to speak against “the law.” To blaspheme God—at least here—was to speak against “this holy place,” that is, their temple and all it signified.
Keep in mind, though, that these are false witnesses. Very soon, it’ll become clear that Stephen’s attitude toward both the law and the temple is rather positive. He just sees their true meaning in Christ, versus his opponents who miss Christ altogether.[i]
Before we turn our attention there, however, let the opposition sink in. Once again, we’re seeing that a Spirit-filled ministry will not be sunshine and roses. A Spirit-filled ministry will be hated by the world. The world will intentionally lie about us, in order to shut us up. But during these moments, we need not fear. The Spirit will also give us strength to suffer well; the ministry of Stephen illustrates that. It gives us confidence that in the same way Jesus strengthened Stephen, he’ll strengthen us too.
Let’s turn our attention now to Stephen’s message, starting in 7:1. We’ll read the whole message, and then come back to tackle his argument.
1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” 2 And Stephen said: “Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ 4 Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. 5 Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. 6 And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. 7 ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ 8 And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.
9 And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him 10 and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11 Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. 13 And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. 15 And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, 16 and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.
17 But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt 18 until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. 19 He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. 20 At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, 21 and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds. 23 When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ 27 But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons. 30 Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. 33 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’ 35 This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ 38 This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us.
39 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: ‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 43 You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’ 44 Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. 45 Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 46 who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, 49 ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?’
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Stephen summarizes over two-thousand years of Israel’s story and links it to Jesus. Folks, this is a glimpse at true wisdom. Wisdom involves knowing your Bible frontwards and backwards—and how it all points to Jesus. Wisdom speaks by the Spirit of God to reveal the Son of God from the word of God.
Stephen’s message covers four epochs. They’re easy to identify, because each of them introduces a key figure in Israel’s story: you get Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and then David and Solomon. Stephen’s message is a response to the high priest who says in verse 1, “Are these things so?” What things? “These two things—you blaspheming Moses and the law; and you blaspheming God and his temple. Are you doing this?” is the idea. Stephen then lays out his defense by recounting God’s dealings with Israel from the Scriptures. Let’s see what he says about both of these charges.
The temple: God is greater than the temple; God’s glory in Christ was the goal
First, what does he say about God and his temple? The Jews show some level of trust in “this holy place.” Their identity and worth are bound up with the temple. It’s their “precious.” As long as the temple stands, they believe God’s favor automatically belongs to them. That’s why they get so peeved at Jesus when he calls the temple a den of robbers, or question his authority to replace it.
Stephen, following Jesus, never speaks against the temple itself. In fact, in verses 44 and 47 he acknowledges that the tabernacle and the temple were part of God’s plan. They were copies pointing to the heavenly reality.[ii] But as he retraces Israel’s story, it brings some much needed perspective on the temple as God’s dwelling place.
Notice the pattern. Verse 2, “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia.” Verse 9, “the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him.” Verse 33, at the burning bush in Sinai the Lord says, “Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Again and again, God wasn’t constrained to a place or building. He revealed his glory wherever he so pleased. He’s relativizing the temple’s importance.
Verses 44-47 then speak about the tent in the wilderness and the temple under Solomon. Yet, verse 48 says, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’” In other words, if God made the universe, it’s laughable to limit him to a hunk of bricks in Jerusalem.
So part of Stephen’s argument is to relativize the temple. It’s to teach them from their own history that God is greater than that temple. He never needed a temple, in order to dwell with his people. He dwells with his people wherever they are, wherever they call upon him. But something else he does is point beyond the temple to the ultimate place where God reveals his glory supremely, in the person of Jesus Christ.
He starts with the God of glory appearing to Abraham in verse 2. But notice what happens in verse 55—we have to jump ahead to see this: “But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and [or even] Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” In context, the point is that God no longer reveals his glory in that temple over there, but in the person of Jesus. Jesus himself said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up;” and he was talking about the temple of his own body (John 2:20-22). Jesus replaced the temple.
He is where we see the glory of God manifest (John 1:14-18; 2 Cor 4:6). He is where we meet with God, have access to God (Acts 7:59). He is where we find the forgiveness of our sins—even Stephen will pray for Jesus to not hold this sin against them in verse 60. Meaning Jesus is the place where we find forgiveness. These things aren’t to be found in a holy place, but in a holy Person.
God’s appearing to Abraham, his presence with Joseph, his deliverance through Moses, his revelation to Solomon—it was all serving the much larger trajectory that culminated with all the fullness of God dwelling bodily in Jesus. They missed the goal of the temple being Jesus Christ. You tell me who’s blaspheming God and his temple. They are, by failing to see the temple as part of God’s much larger plan to dwell with his people in Christ and reveal his glory through Christ. They wanted the temple for their own glory; but the temple was just one small step toward the revelation of God’s glory in Christ.
The law: rejecting Moses led to idolatry; Moses himself pointed to Christ
Second, what about Moses and the law? That was the other false charge they brought against Stephen. Was he blaspheming Moses and the law? It doesn’t seem so. Verse 20, “[Moses] was beautiful in God’s sight.” Verse 25, “God was giving them salvation by [Moses’] hand.” Verse 35, “God sent him as both ruler and redeemer.” This doesn’t sound like blaspheming Moses. It sounds like honoring Moses.
Who are the ones actually blaspheming Moses? Well, it’s rather ironic that those accusing Stephen of blaspheming Moses and the law are themselves setting up false witnesses. Perhaps they missed that commandment about bearing false witness.
But in addition to that, what does the Scripture say? Stephen goes back to Abraham. God promised to rescue a people to worship him. Verses 6-7: “[Abraham’s] offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years.” That’s Egypt. “‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’”
The whole point of the deliverance by God was the worship of God—that was to Abraham. The Joseph story then tells us how they got into Egypt. The Moses story tells us how they got out of Egypt. Eventually, he goes up the mountain to receive living oracles from God. Everything is in place. Now we’re waiting for Israel to worship God for their deliverance. And they don’t.
Verse 39 says that they “refused to obey Moses, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him.’ And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.”
The goal was the worship of God. But they rejected the words of God’s appointed redeemer, Moses, and it thrust them into idolatry. They didn’t worship God for the work of his hand; they worshiped themselves for the works of their hands. They worshipped their accomplishments, their works, their god-replacements.
That was the pattern for Israel, and it went all the way up through their exile, rejecting the prophets (Acts 7:52). Now Stephen tells them, “Nothing changed.” He turns the story on them. “Moses told you that God was going to raise up for you a prophet like him (Acts 7:37). That was in your Law—Deuteronomy 18:15. He was going to be a Redeemer who would deliver you. Moses said you better listen to him (Acts 3:22-23). Guess what? You didn’t listen to him; you crucified him. You killed the Righteous One.”
There was a little note back in 6:15. It says that when Stephen was giving his defense, his face was like the face of an angel. Why’s that significant? Because of verse 53: “you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” Stephen is mediating God’s revelation to them, just like angels mediated God’s revelation to Moses (Acts 7:35, 38; Gal 3:19). He’s another special messenger sent by God; although this time he interprets the law in light of its fulfillment in Jesus. But they still reject him.
You tell me who’s blaspheming Moses and the law? Stephen can’t be blaspheming Moses if he’s preaching the Christ that Moses promised. It’s the unbelieving Jews who blaspheme Moses. That’s Stephen’s defense. They raised two charges: you’re blaspheming Moses and you’re blaspheming God. Stephen takes them to Scripture and basically says, “Actually, it’s the other way around. The reason I know it’s the other way around is that you killed Jesus, the one Moses and the temple were always pointing to.”
Stephen’s gospel didn’t oppose the law and the temple, but revealed what the law and the temple always pointed to in the first place, God’s glory revealed in Jesus Christ. They weren’t to trust in the temple for their salvation, but Christ. They weren’t to trust in the law for their salvation, but Christ. And the same is true for us. We cannot trust in anything to save us except Jesus—no church activity or our own law-keeping. It must be Jesus alone. The Righteous One died for the unrighteous like us, that he might bring us to God. He alone must be our salvation. He alone is our access to God’s glory and forgiveness.
Of course, these Jews don’t like Stephen’s message at all. Have you ever seen those cartoons when the characters face turns red and smoke comes out of his ears and a train whistle sounds off in the background? That’s basically what happens with these unbelieving Jews in the next part of the story. Which brings us lastly to Stephen’s martyrdom.
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Stephen not only speaks for Christ; he also suffers with Christ. In fact, Stephen images the sufferings of Christ. If you compared Stephen’s trial and martyrdom with that of Christ, you’ll see all kinds of similarities. Both are accused of blasphemy (Matt 26:65; Acts 6:11). Both are attacked by false witnesses (Matt 26:59-60; Acts 6:13). Both stand before the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:66; Acts 6:15). Both announce the Son of Man in glory from Daniel 7:13 (Luke 22:69; Acts 7:56). Both get killed outside the city (John 19:17-20; Acts 7:58). Both ask the Lord to receive their human spirit (Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59). And both ask God to forgive those who mistreat them (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60).
When we observe the martyrdom of Stephen closely, he becomes a window through which we see Christ. The Spirit-filled person will look like Christ and him crucified. That may not sound like God has a wonderful plan for your life; the cross means death. But when the believer takes up the cross, he does so to gain glory.
What a gracious God we have. Right in the middle of Stephen’s darkest moment, God gives him a glimpse of his glory in Christ. Which tells us something important, right? How do we endure affliction? How do we endure injustice? How do we keep extending mercy to enemies that hate our message? What could possibly get us through the pain and loss of everything, when the terrorist group kills your daughter and has a knife to your throat saying, “Deny him!”? The answer is beholding God’s glory in Jesus.
Stephen says, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” You know where that comes from? It comes from Daniel 7:13: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” Daniel foresaw it; Jesus secured it; and now Stephen was witnessing it.
You hear the message behind Stephen’s vision: “You’re body is about to be destroyed by rocks. But look at my Son, Stephen. He is reigning with all power. His kingdom will not be destroyed. He stands at God’s right hand, ready to judge. You hold fast, Stephen, because this Son of Man is yours. Unless a grain of wheat dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it will bear much fruit. You will not bleed in vain. My kingdom will cover the earth one day.”
Jesus is heaven’s Joy, the one before whom myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of angels prostrate themselves in adoration and praise, the only Savior who spilled his blood for us and washed us clean that we might reign with him forever. Is there a higher gift, a more glorious person to have than the Son of Man? There’s not! Nothing in this world compares to him. That’s what will get us through our affliction. It’s Jesus. That’s how precious he is! It allows us to say, “Bring your rocks, your swords, your guns—you may do your worst—but this glorious Son of Man is more! I’m not letting go of him.”
Stephen is not losing joy by choosing death with Christ over life in this world. He is pursuing unspeakable joy at God’s right hand in Christ. His martyrdom is not a tragedy; it’s a triumph. It’s a triumph, because it displays the value of Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection to set us free from the fear of death. Stephen’s life didn’t end at his stoning. Rather, Jesus received his spirit. He will receive ours too when we remain faithful to him in our ministry and our message. God has revealed Jesus’ glory to us in the word. Are you beholding his glory?
[i]In that way, Stephen followed the teachings of Jesus (Matt 5:17; John 2:20-22).
[ii]Heb 8:5; 9:23.