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Stephen Indicts Israel's Religious Leaders

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Accused of saying that Jesus would detroy the temple, Stephen's discourse before the Sanhedrin made two points. 1. Israel was favored by God before possessing either its Tabernacle or two Temples. 2. Isreal was faithless to God after possessing both it Tabernacle and two Temples. They were bound up in the tradition and trappings rather than the God who once used them . God had moved on and what Jesus once called "My Father's house" he would later call "Your house....left to you desolate".

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Setting:
Stephen addresses the council. Jesus appears to Stephen while he is testifying, and the enraged Jewish leaders drag Stephen out of the city and stone him to death. A young man named Saul is one of the official witnesses at the stoning.
Acts 6:10–15 NKJV
10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. 13 They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous 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 change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” 15 And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.
(Acts 7:1-37)
The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Volume 28: Acts If I Had Only One Last Sermon to Preach

Richard Baxter said, “I preach as a dying man to dying men and women as if never to preach again.”

Did Stephen know what would happen to him?

We do not know.
What we do know is that he preached with an incisive power as if he knew intuitively that he might never have another chance.
Certainly he must have known he probably would never again have that kind of opportunity to speak to the highest leaders of Israel.

We wonder about the approach Stephen took when he was given the opportunity to speak.

It would appear that he took an inordinately long period of the precious time:
Recounting the history of Israel and
Telling at great length about personalities of the Old Testament about whom the Sadducees and Pharisees had heard thousands of times since they were old enough to understand.
But had they understood?
Did they have any idea of the deeper meaning, the purpose, the fulfillment, and culmination in the Messiah?
Stephen carefully selected the events he retold, each one to build to the one point he wanted to make.
But Stephen was doing something else.
The Sanhedrin was obviously agitated and filled with anger. How could he sway them except to calm them down with what they had in common?
He also wanted to establish his credentials as a faithful Hebrew scholar who knew his faith.
Further, he wanted to show the faithfulness and goodness of God all through Israel’s history, leading up to the gracious and forgiving gift of His Son.
And don’t miss the way Stephen showed how God’s chosen people had repeatedly resisted Yahweh’s overtures of grace.
We feel the deacon gripped by the Spirit as he picks up pace and power.
He has prepared his audience well for the laser thrust of truth the Spirit is guiding him to preach.[1]
[1] Ogilvie, L. J., & Ogilvie, L. J. (1983). Acts (Vol. 28, pp. 140–141). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.

1. This was a great crisis in Israel’s national history.

A. There had come such a crisis during the ministry of Jesus when He said:

Luke 13:34–35 NKJV
34 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing! 35 See! Your house is left to you desolate; and assuredly, I say to you, you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ”
In the ministry of Jesus, He first spoke of the temple as “My Father’s house”
But at the end He spoke of it as “your house....left to you desolate”

4. Now the second crisis had come in the history of people.

They had been given a pentecostal opportunity.
They had rejected Him in the flesh...
John 15:13 NKJV
13 Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.
Now they were rejecting that proven love and the gift that it purchased.
Now they were rejecting the witness of the Spirit....
The marred body of Jesus was their answer to the first opportunity
The mangled body of Stephen would be Jerusalem’s answer to this new opportunity.
“History is His story, if man can climb high enough to read it.”
Stephen had climbed the heights, and looking back over the history of his people he interpreted it in the light of Divine method, and the Divine overruling.
SECTION OUTLINE SEVEN (ACTS 7)
I. The Message of Stephen to the Sanhedrin (7:1–53): Stephen has been falsely accused of speaking against the Temple. Now he says that the Temple is not necessary for worshiping the true God!
A. Israel was favored by God before possessing either its Tabernacle or two Temples (7:1–38).
1. As illustrated by the life of Abraham (7:1–8)
a. God led him into Canaan (7:1–4).
b. God promised him that his seed would possess Canaan (7:5–7).
c. God gave him the seal of circumcision (7:8a).
d. God gave him Isaac, the heir of the covenant (7:8b).
2. As illustrated by the life of Joseph (7:9–16)
a. God protected Joseph the prisoner in Egypt (7:9): God was always with him.
b. God promoted Joseph to prime minister over Egypt (7:10–16): God gave him favor with Pharaoh.
3. As illustrated by the life of Moses (7:17–38)
a. His first 40 years, in Egypt (7:17–28): God promoted him.
b. His second 40 years, in the Sinai desert (7:29): God prepared him.
c. His final 40 years, en route to Canaan (7:30–38): God empowered him.
B. Israel was faithless to God after possessing both its Tabernacle and two Temples (7:39–53).
1. They rebelled during the Tabernacle period (7:39–43a, 44–45).
2. They rebelled during the first Temple period (7:43b, 46–50).
3. They are rebelling during the second Temple period (7:51–53): Stephen now utterly condemns his audience with a threefold indictment:
a. They are heathens at heart and deaf to the truth (7:51).
b. They betrayed and murdered their own Messiah (7:52).
c. They are deliberately disobeying God’s laws (7:53).[1]
[1] Willmington, H. L. (1999). The Outline Bible (Ac 7). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

The force of the Greek is that the members of the Sanhedrin wailed in erratic, wild, jeering shouts of anger and hostility. The descriptive phrase “cut to the heart” means that they were convicted. The raw nerve had not only been touched, it had been cut to the core. The shift of pronouns to the prophetic “you!” and the attack on the temple were more than they were willing to take. “Gnashed at him with their teeth” means that they ground their teeth at Stephen with a hissing sound, exposing them in a hateful screwing up of their mouths. Not a pretty picture. And in comparison, for Saul to observe, was the radiant face of Stephen. Peace, rectitude, resoluteness, joy.

Stephen’s face was not set against the grim faces of the Sanhedrin but up toward the face of the Lord. And Stephen’s face was magnificently shining because he never took his eyes off the face of His Lord.

Then the rage of the Sanhedrin, pent up so long in repeated trials and confrontations with the followers of Jesus, could be contained no longer. It was as if someone had given a prearranged signal and they all rushed in on Stephen. Mob violence instigated and manipulated by an expert: Saul.

It was no easy feat to arrange a death sentence and assure an execution and not become directly involved. But Saul was no ordinary man. His brilliance, fired by his hatred, worked it all out. Later, near the end of his life, he clearly stated that he added his vote to the Sanhedrin’s death sentence. His task, however, was to assure Stephen’s death while getting no blood on his own hands. After Stephen was beaten, the Jews were in a frenzy. They had to finish what they had started. Since no blood could be spilled in the temple precincts, they dragged the dazed and beaten Stephen outside the city wall for one of the most painful and prolonged methods of execution imaginable. He was pushed over the wall into the pit from which there was no escape from the hurling stones. A blow to the head with death-giving concussion would have been merciful. The crowd that day was not as accurate or precise in aim as an execution squad. Probably the vital death blow was a long time in coming.

And Saul stood by to make sure that everything measured up to the Deuteronomic code for stoning a blasphemer. The witnesses were the first ones to throw the stones. Luke tells us they stripped their outer garments for the task and laid their garments at Saul’s feet. He watched as the first stones plummeted down on Stephen’s body and then his face. How could it be that that face was still radiant? Who was this man anyhow? What was it that gave him that kind of courage?

Stephen’s prayer as the death blow hit revealed to Saul Whom the martyr believed was his sustaining power. A chill must have run through the Pharisee’s heart as he heard the name he had grown to hate so passionately: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (7:59). And as Stephen was dying, he prayed for his executioners. Saul looked at his face one more time. It held the same peace in death as in living. That face was to haunt him until the day he met the One whose love and power it reflected. But in the meantime his hatred was mingled with one more emotion—fear. And that made him more determined and dangerous than ever!

Before we close this phase of Luke’s unfolding drama, we need to pause and reflect on what Stephen’s death did to the church.

First of all, it raised profound questions. What was the Lord doing? How could He allow this to happen to one so faithful as Stephen? Why didn’t He stop it? Stephen was at the height of his power as a witness. Why snuff out so bright a flame? We’ve all asked these questions about tragedies and unexplainable reversals.

The questions about Stephen, however, can be answered only by the reflection of history. The Lord was not finished. Through Stephen’s death the sect of Judaism was forced to flee Jerusalem. The Christians were scattered, and their faith with them. They were to be part of the worldwide movement. They would never have left Jerusalem without the persecution and punishment inflicted on them. The death of Stephen ignited the fire of the pent-up hatred for the followers of Jesus. It exploded with fury. They had to leave. And their deployment in a dispersion throughout the cities of the Mediterranean basin planted the seed which would germinate until it was ready to sprout in indigenous churches.

The saying is true: the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. This is never more true than with the blood of the first martyr. Stephen, whose natural crown of human ability was crowned with gifts of the Lord’s Spirit, then His crown of thorns, and finally the crown of glory, had lived a relatively short life. But he accomplished his purpose. Stephen was the turning point, and eventually the cause of the gnawing questions of Saul of Tarsus that only the Lord could answer.

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