Dearly loved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
This passage is uncomfortable. I think the reason it’s uncomfortable is because it’s hard for us to identify with anybody in this situation really closely.
Obviously we are rooting for Stephen in this situation. We agree with his claims. We admire his whirlwind tour through the OT. And we love to cheer for the underdog – the courageous person who stands on his convictions despite standing alone in a semi-circle of 40-50 of the brightest minds and best respected Jewish scholars of his day.
We are aware that he is bringing the good news of deliverance. We know that it is being resisted and rejected. Stephen is being persecuted. He dies because of his faith.
But not many of us can relate. Oh, sometimes our faith and convictions make us stand out in the crowd. We feel that we’re out of step with neighbours and friends or we’re swimming against the tide of our culture. But we don’t face criminal prosecution for our faith. We don’t face persecution for our confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Perhaps that freedom should make us bolder. Perhaps we should speak more openly about our faith. Proclaim the gospel message, even if it stirs up opposition.
But I think there’s a call here that hits us even more deeply. The gospel, if we’re open to its message, cuts us even more deeply. It can cut us to the heart and make radical changes to us.
See, Stephen is speaking to Pharisees, Sadducees, and Teachers of the Law who know God’s Book of the Law inside and out. You can ask them how many times hornets are mentioned in the OT and they can tell you – probably even chapter and verse. They’ve got the laws memorized. They’ve interpreted and applied them to a thousand different situations and scenarios.
Stephen is speaking to them in their own language. He too knows Scripture very well. His quotes from the Greek OT are pretty much word-for-word. He’s tracing the history that he has with these Jewish leaders. He calls them, “Brothers and Fathers.” Yet the message that he has for them is simple and basic: “You’re going the wrong way.”
You know the Scriptures, but you stand in the tradition and heritage of people who hear but don’t understand. You are a generation of people that see but don’t perceive.
Our sins and short-comings are like antibiotic-resistant bacteria and anti-viral resistant viruses. You’ve heard of those in the news, haven’t you? So-called Super-bugs like C-difficile, which seems to thrive in hospital environments. Nothing seems to be able to touch these sicknesses, because they’ve developed resistance to regular exposure to medication that should kill them.
The same thing happens in the church. We get blind spots and sins that are gospel-resistant. We’ve been exposed to the gospel of grace, forgiveness, and righteousness so much that it doesn’t grab us the way it once did. We’re not convinced of sin, we’re not surprised or overwhelmed by God’s love and forgiveness. We’ve developed resistance, kind of like the Sanhedrin.
Stephen is sad to say it, but he has a charge to bring against the Sanhedrin. He has come to the conclusion: “You always resist the Holy Spirit.” He supports that charge from Scripture, reminding them from history of the blindness and resistance their fathers have shown to the grace and deliverance of God.
So he retells the stories of their nation, stories they’ve heard since Sunday school:
· Joseph – persecuted and sold as slave by his brothers, yet used by God to deliver the family and many nations from starvation in a time of famine
· Moses – rejected by God’s people as ruler and judge, yet sent by God to deliver them from slavery in Egypt
· The Righteous One – betrayed and murdered by the very Sanhedrin who now has Stephen on trial
Is there any way that they can hear about deliverance from sin and guilt through Jesus Christ?
Already they have had Peter and John on trial in the book of Acts. They’ve tried to silence the twelve earlier in the book. Now they have put Stephen on trial as well. Is there any way that they can hear and enjoy deliverance from sin through the greatest prophet: namely Jesus?
This is an alarming scene for us, and I’ll tell you why. You and I have heard the gospel message a thousand times. We’re pretty sure we know the doctrines and teachings of Scripture.
When we read a passage like this, we are somewhat resistant to God’s Word. We don’t imagine that it could be pointing a finger at us. Oh sure, there is certainly an application in this passage for him or for her, and I hope they’re listening, but I’ve got my ducks in a row. I don’t need to change my assumptions, my actions, or my understanding at all.
That’s a very dangerous stance to take when reading Scripture. We come from a long line of God’s chosen people who have trouble hearing God’s prophets, hearing God’s Word, and taking it seriously.
Now don’t misunderstand: prophets and sermons need to be tested and evaluated against Scripture. Is this really God’s Word? If it truly is God’s Word, we need to listen, even if it cuts deep.
See, when God’s Word cuts deep, it refines, renews, and revitalizes us. God calls us to his paths of righteousness, providing food and deliverance for his people. He did it through Joseph, through Moses, and again through Jesus: food and deliverance.
When we read this passage of Scripture, everything is turned on its head:
It looks like the rulers of the Jews are in control instead of Jesus. It looks like Stephen is on trial and like he dies for resisting the teaching of the Jewish teachers of the law.
But that’s not the case. Jesus is the ruler; Stephen is an ambassador of the Kingdom of God. As he stands in front of the Sanhedrin, Stephen catches of glimpse of the heavenly court.
He’s not on trial. No, as a representative of God, he brings God’s judgement against the Sanhedrin. Stephen has eternal life through Jesus; he speaks of the death sentence facing the judges who are persecuting him. Stephen is another in a long line of prophets from God who’ve been rejected when announcing God’s deliverance.
I’m not trying to paint myself as a prophet with a radical new understanding of the gospel. Any attempt like that would quickly and rightly be viewed as heresy, I’m sure. As I read this passage, I faced the question of where we are in the story. Are we standing up beside Stephen or are we sitting in the benches with the experts in the Sanhedrin.
Are we open to the Holy Spirit? Can God speak to us through the gospel? Can we hear his voice, or are we resistant to the deliverance through Jesus Christ?