God Will Send a Prophet
Dear Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
A prophet is a person who receives the Word of the Lord and proclaims it. God’s Word usually reveals God to those who listen. His Word reveals God in all his holiness and in his love; the Lord’s justice and his mercy.
Stephen is a prophet who brings the Word of the Lord. The Gospel, delivered in Word and Deed, by Stephen has aroused opposition by people who do not recognize God’s Word, by people who have not responded to God’s grace.
This opposition has brought Stephen to trial on some serious charges. He is known as a follower of Jesus, so there is some guilt by association. After all Jesus had been tried by this court and found guilty of blasphemy. Eventually, Jesus had been put to death for his teaching.
Like Jesus, Stephen is facing a charge of blasphemy. He faces the death penalty if convicted. In his defense, Stephen refers to the history of how God’s Word was brought to God’s chosen people through their history. His focus is on the five books of Moses, the most respected texts in the Jewish Scripture.
Perhaps it is ambitious, but I’d like to look through Stephen’s defense in the sermon this morning. As we do so, we’ll notice that there is a conflict going on. God’s Word is revealed, but there is resistance to God’s Word.
The sinful nature of this world and the stain of sin among God’s people cause them to resist God’s call to holiness and righteousness. They feel threatened by God’s presence among them, and have trouble hearing and responding to the Word of the Lord. Nevertheless, God’s grace prevails.
Stephen’s defense highlights the ministry of three prophets, people used by God to bring God’s Word and demonstrate God’s grace and redemption for his people.
I. Abraham (Acts 7:2-8)
II. Joseph (Acts 7:9-19
III. Moses (Acts 7:20-50)
I. Abraham (Acts 7:2-8)
[When] the high priest asked him, “Are these charges true?”
[Stephen] 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. 3 ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’ a
The Word of God came to Moses, with a call to service, but also a promise of love, a promise of land and descendents to inherit that land. Abraham responded in faith:
4 “So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. 5 He gave him no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. 6 God spoke to him in this way: ‘Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 7 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’ b
The sinful forces of the world will resist God’s will. But God knows in advance how things will God. His grace will prevail.
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.
God’s promises, are sealed to Abraham and his descendants through the bloody sign and seal of circumcision. It is a seal of God’s promise to be their God, and they will be his people. God’s Word of grace will not fail.
But opposition to God’s Word will arise. Sinful thoughts and actions will arise that resist God’s plan of Grace. Fear and evil will crop up on the field of God’s grace. We see that in Jacob’s family.
Stephen respectfully refers to them as the patriarchs, but not all was well in Jacob’s home. Jacob was guilty of favouritism, Joseph may have been guilty of lording it over his brothers, and the other patriarch succumbed to jealousy and evil.
So starts the account of God’s grace revealed through Joseph:
II. Joseph (Acts 7:9-19)
9 “Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt; so he made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.
God’s gift of wisdom and care follow Joseph through his trials in Egypt. As a slave in a foreign land, Joseph hears God’s Word and proclaims it both in prison and in the throne room. He became the means by which God saved the descendents of Israel, and revealed his grace among the Egyptians and all nations.
11 “Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our fathers could not find food. 12 When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers on their first visit. 13 On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. 14 After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. 15 Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our fathers died. 16 Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.
17 “As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt greatly increased. 18 Then another king, who knew nothing about Joseph, became ruler of Egypt. 19 He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our forefathers by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.
This other king knew nothing of God’s care and grace demonstrated to the Egyptians and Israelites when the Word of the Lord came through Joseph. This king’s fear and insecurity cause him to deal harshly with God’s chosen people. The sinful nature of this king brings him in conflict with God’s promises. Yet Pharaoh and all his army cannot hold back God’s grace.
God’s Word of grace, holiness, and love is revealed through the prophet Moses. In fact, God’s Word is revealed as clearly through the service of Moses as at any other time in the OT. His ministry points ahead to the work of God’s Word become flesh, namely, Jesus Christ.
Like many prophets when they bring God’s Word, Moses faces resistance and rejection. Like many prophets, Moses needed to learn to follow God’s plan and timing, rather than his own.
III. Moses (Acts 7:20-50)
20 “At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. c For three months he was cared for in his father’s house. 21 When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. 22 Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.
23 “When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. 24 He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. 25 Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. 26 The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’
27 “But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ d 29 When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.
Fear for his own safety and resistance among God’s people drive Moses away. Yet God’s Word calls him back, so that God truly would use Moses to rescue his own people – but according to God’s plan and timing.
30 “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. 31 When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to look more closely, he heard the Lord’s voice: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ e Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.
33 “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals; the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 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.’ f
God’s grace is revealed. He will not permit his people to remain slaves forever. Because of his great love for his people, God will rescue them.
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. 36 He led them out of Egypt and did wonders and miraculous signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea g and for forty years in the desert.
37 “This is that Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.’ h 38 He was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.
God’s Word through Moses revealed that another Redeemer would come and proclaim God’s grace and salvation from captivity. A prophet like Moses was foretold, and he came to proclaim release to those held captive in slavery to sin and death. Jesus leads his people out of slavery, through the wilderness, and into the promised land.
God’s grace does not just bring people out of captivity, he gives his Word to reveal his holiness and call us to reflect his holiness as a guard against being enslaved again. Although God’s Word came with mighty signs on Mt. Sinai, God’s people resisted his Word. Their inclination to sin burst forth again.
Stephen identifies with those who resisted God’s Word, he calls them “our fathers.”
39 “But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’ i 41 That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and held a celebration in honor of what their hands had made. 42 But God turned away and gave them over to the worship of the heavenly bodies. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:
”‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
forty years in the desert, O house of Israel?
43 You have lifted up the shrine of Molech
and the star of your god Rephan,
the idols you made to worship.
Therefore I will send you into exile’ j beyond Babylon.
44 “Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Having received the tabernacle, our fathers under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, 46 who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. k 47 But it was Solomon who built the house for him.
48 “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. 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 where will my resting place be?
50 Has not my hand made all these things?’ l
Remember, the charges laid against Stephen?
They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
Stephen was probably heard preaching Jesus’ words from John 2:19
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
In the time that passed the Jewish leaders did not understand Jesus’ words any better. When Jesus first said this:
20 The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
The Jewish leaders still fail to understand the Word of God, they still fail to see the grace that God offers through his prophets. God does not live in houses built by man, but through Jesus, God offers to forgive sin, making people pure and holy to live forever in God’s presence.
Stephen, the prophet of God, confronts the Jewish leaders for their resistance to God’s Word. Initially he sounds harsh, but God’s Word of grace is offered again.
IV. Stephen (Acts 7:51-8:3)
51 “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 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— 53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.”
54 When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 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. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Stephen confronts the religious leaders of the Jews with their resistance, but the Word of judgment is not God’s final Word to them.
Stephen accuses his accusers of being deaf to the Word of the Lord, and then God’s Word breaks through with Grace.
Right among them, the risen Redeemer and Lord appears. The Word of God is revealed, God’s glory, holiness, and mercy is revealed. Stephen sees it, but the others who are there are unable to receive God’s Word, unwilling to hear of his grace.
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 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.
And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
That resistance to God’s Word is very strong. Every believer wrestles within himself to respond to God’s grace and faithfully receive the Word of the Lord. But as we wrestle within ourselves, God’s grace proves the strongest. In the end we will see God face-to-face and all inclination of sin, all rebellion against his good, perfect, and pleasing Will, is going to be taken away forever.
In the meantime, even the world’s resistance to God’s Word is turned to profit the kingdom of God. The persecution of the church in Jerusalem meant that God’s Word was spread throughout Samaria and Galilee, to Antioch, all around the Mediterranean Sea, and around the world.
We have heard God’s Word, and his grace through Jesus Christ has welcomed us into the people of God.
a Gen. 12:1
b Gen. 15:13,14
c Or was fair in the sight of God
d Exodus 2:14
e Exodus 3:6
f Exodus 3:5,7,8,10
g That is, Sea of Reeds
h Deut. 18:15
i Exodus 32:1
j Amos 5:25-27
k Some early manuscripts the house of Jacob
l Isaiah 66:1,2