Stephen's Sermon - Part 3

Acts 7:44-60

Copyright © 2004 Jeremy Myers

        E. The Temple (7:44-50)

                1. Stephen has not spoken against the temple (cf. 6:13)

                2. The temple was man's idea, not God's (7:44-50)

        F. The Climax (7:51-53)

III. The Stoning of Stephen (7:54-60)

Over the centuries, many Christians have been persecuted. Most often, this persecution comes from either political rulers who feel threatened by Christianity that it will damage the government in some way, or by religious leaders and rulers who think that Christianity is heresy or will threaten the power that they have over the people.  But Christians know that they must stand up for the truth in the face of persecution, for the truth must be made known. And the Bible has much praise for those who are persecuted for the name of Christ (Matt. 5:10-12; Luke 21:12-13; James 1:2-4). Books like Foxe's Book of Martyrs and magazines like Voice of the Martyrs recounts the stories of some of those who have stood strong for Christ in the face of intense persecution. They follow a long line of such heroes of the faith, and the very first of them was Stephen.

We have been studying the account of Stephen's trial and defense, and come now to the closing words of his sermon. He was accused of four things: blaspheming God, blaspheming Moses, speaking against the Law and speaking against the temple. Stephen's defense has addressed them one at a time. We have already seen his defense against the first three. He now addresses the accusation that he has spoken against the temple.

        E. The Temple (7:44-50)

                1. Stephen has not spoken against the temple (cf. 6:13)

Now remember, Jesus had been accused of speaking against the temple too. He had said that you could destroy the temple, and he would raise it up again in three days. Now what Jesus had been talking about there was His own body. But later he did prophecy that the temple would be destroyed, and that not one stone would be left upon another.  Possibly, Stephen had taught something very similar. But Stephen points out some things in his defense that I found to be very surprising. When we think of Israelite history, we often remember that there were certain things that happened in their history which was not God perfect plan for them, but He allowed it to happen to them because of their stubborn and rebellious hearts.

One example is the Israelites entering the promised land. God wanted them to go right in. But they thought it best to send in some spies to scout out the land. When the spies brought back reports of giants, the people refused to enter, and they ended up wandering in the desert for 40 years. And during that time, they didn't want what God wanted for them. They only wanted to be fed by Him. God granted their request, but sent leanness to their soul (Ps. 106:14-15). They eventually did enter the land, but not when God originally had wanted them to.

King Saul is another example. God did want the Israelites to have a king, but the people wanted a king before it was time for them to have one. Saul was chosen, and he was a disaster of a ruler.  Another of these things which was not God's plan was the temple. Did you know this? It was quite a shock to me when I learned that this is what Stephen is saying here. We always believe that the temple was central to God's work with the nation of Israel, but what Stephen says in his defense is that the temple was man's idea, not God's.

                2. The temple was man's idea, not God's (7:44-50)

According to verses 44-46, God's plan was for a tabernacle. God never gave instructions to Moses for a temple. The instructions were always and only for a tabernacle. Stephen point this out in verse 44.

44"Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as He appointed, instructing Moses to make it according to the pattern that he had seen,

God wanted the Israelites to have a tabernacle, not a temple. The tabernacle was less costly to the people to build and maintain. It was movable. It was more humble. It didn't cause pride. The temple was a pagan form of worship. God gave Moses the pattern for the tabernacle. That is what God wanted.  And that is what they built and used for a number of years.

45which our fathers, having received it in turn, also brought with Joshua into the land possessed by the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers until the days of David, 46who found favor before God and asked to find a dwelling for the God of Jacob.

Stephen points out that the tabernacle worked fine for quite a number of years. The time period from Moses to David was about 500 years. And during that time, God blessed Israel greatly. He allowed Joshua to lead the people in the promised land. He drove the Gentiles out of the land until the days of David.  And David, if you remember, wanted to build God a temple, but God told him no, that He didn't need a house to dwell in (2 Sam. 7). The temple, Stephen suggests, was a royal whim, tolerated by God. God did not jump at the suggestion. Instead, God said that He would allow David's son to build a house for Him (2 Sam. 7:1-13; 1 Kings 8:17-21).  You see, here is something that God allowed, but did not command. The temple was not evil, but it was not God's idea either. And so in verse 27, as we know from history, Solomon built a temple for God.

47But Solomon built Him a house.  48"However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says:

49 ‘Heaven is My throne,

And earth is My footstool.

What house will you build for Me? says the Lord,

Or what is the place of My rest?

50 Has My hand not made all these things?’

This is a quote from Isaiah 66:1-2, and the basic gist of it is that God is not like other false gods. Other religions seem to think that God lives in temples and shrines, and to worship these gods, you have to go to the temple or shrine where that god is. But the only true God is not like that. He has made everything that is. Nothing that is made can contain him. He cannot be put somewhere. He is not a God to be put in a box.

You know, when Solomon built the temple, he recognized this. Solomon says in 1 Kings 8:27 that the temple cannot contain God. In fact, Judaism never taught that the temple contained God, but only that His name was attached to it. And in fact, later in Israelite history, when the Israelites are carried off into captivity, and they worry that they can no longer worship God, God lifts his presence from the temple in Jerusalem (Ezek. 10) to show them that they can worship Him anywhere. He says that he will make little sanctuaries for them (Ezek. 11:16) and eventually bring them all back to Israel. They did not need the temple to worship God.  The point of all of this is not to say that the temple was wrong, or the temple was evil. It was a good desire on the part of David. The temple was good and God was pleased with the temple and blessed the temple and consecrated it (1 Kings 9:1-9).

But God was never so concerned that they venerated the temple as He was that they obeyed and honored Him and His Word. In fact, Stephen only quotes one quarter of Isaiah 66:2. The rest, which his religious audience certainly would have known, says that the one whom God takes care of is the one who is humble and of a contrite spirit and who trembles at His Word.  The religious leaders of the day were not humble and were not of a contrite spirit and did not tremble at God's Word. But they venerated the temple and were overly zealous to make sure that nobody said anything against the temple. 

Stephen is hinting to them that they had their priorities mixed up. Obeying God's Word was more important than venerating His temple. Coming to God through His Word is how you approach God - not through a temple made by human hands.  This is what he author of Hebrews points out also (Heb. 8-9).  Stephen has adequately and Biblically refuted all four of the accusations that were brought against him, and so now he makes some accusations of his own against the Jewish religious rulers. This is the climax of his sermon. They accused him of four things, he accuses them of four things.

        F. The Climax (7:51-53)

His first accusation is that they always resist the Holy Spirit.

51"You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you.

Then he accuses them of persecuting and killing the prophets of God.

52Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One,

Thirdly, he accuses them of murdering the Messiah.

of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers,

Finally, he tells them that though they have received the law, they have not kept it.

53who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it."

Who are the real blasphemers? Not Stephen and the other Christians, but the Jewish religious leaders. They were the ones who were rejecting God, God's Prophets, God's Messiah, and God's Word.

III. The Stoning of Stephen (7:54-60)

Stephen has concluded his sermon, and the results are found in verse 54-60.

54When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.

Stephen's defense and Biblical truths hit a raw nerve with his accusers. They knew he was right, and they knew that they had nothing so far to accuse him of. Gnashing or grinding of teeth is an ancient way to reveal remorse and regret. In this case, there is probably also some anger. But possibly, there were some who were convicted by the truth of Stephen's sermon. Nevertheless, what Stephens says next convinces them that they need to stone him.

55But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56and said, "Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!"

This vision is similar to visions that Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and John saw. There is much speculation as to why Stephen sees Christ standing rather than seated as other writers describe him (cf. Ps. 110:1; Lk. 22:69; Eph. 1:20).  This may show that just as Stephen is standing up for Christ before men, Christ is standing up for Stephen before His Father in heaven (Matt. 10:32).  Or maybe Jesus is standing to welcome the first Christian martyr into heaven.

But of most importance to our text is that Stephen shows his belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of Man (cf. Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69) and is now in heaven at the right hand of God where only God could be (Ps. 110:1; Dan. 7:13-14; Rev. 1:13; 14:14). Such a statement enraged the Sanhedrin. This was blasphemy to them, and they now had the reason they were hoping for to put Stephen to death.

57Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; 58and they cast him out of the city and stoned him.

This is what the Law prescribed for blasphemers (Lev. 24:16; Dt. 17:7), but of course, Stephen had not blasphemed.  Now technically, Jewish law forbade them to stone someone without a trial, but maybe they viewed his testimony as his trial. Furthermore, because of Roman law, the Jewish leaders should not have been able to stone Stephen. But somehow they were able to stone Stephen. And notice who was there.

And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

He was then a "young man" (Gr. neanias, cf. 20:9; 23:17-18, 22), but we do not know his exact age. Since he died about A.D. 68 and since Stephen probably died about A.D. 34, perhaps Saul was in his mid-thirties. Jesus and Paul appear to have been roughly contemporaries. This statement is put here for a reason. There were certainly many young men there that day, but the Holy Spirit chose to mention Saul only. We all know that Saul later becomes Paul in Scripture, but more than that, the words Saul heard today through the lips of Stephen become the seeds that take root in Saul's mind and find their fullest development in the apostle's teachings and writings later.  What Stephen taught is explained and defended in much more detail in Paul's letters later.

59And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not charge them with this sin." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

Stephen died as Jesus did, with prayers being his last words (cf. Luke 23:34, 46; cf. 2 Chron. 24:22). However, Stephen prayed to Jesus whereas Jesus prayed to His Father. Luke probably wanted his readers to connect the two executions, but they were not exactly the same. Stephen's body, not his soul, fell asleep to await resurrection (cf. 13:36; John 11:11; 1 Thess. 4:13, 15; et al.).

Stephen had a very short ministry. And some people might be tempted to think, "What a waste. God could have used him to a much greater degree if he had allowed Stephen to live." But he was placed in this situation "for such a time as this."  I am certain that because of Stephen's words, and because Saul (Paul) heard what Stephen taught and then saw Stephen die for it, this made a lasting impression on Saul who later would expand and defend exactly what Stephen had taught this day. Stephen is the forerunner to Paul. This might have been Paul's first exposure to the truths that he would later lay out with so much conviction and detail.  So was Stephen's ministry short? Yes, but he was willing to be used in whatever way God had for him.

In July of 1885, Edward Kimble felt the tugging of the Spirit to share his faith with a young shoe salesman he knew. At first Kimble vacillated, unsure if he should talk to the man. But he finally mustered his courage and went into the shoe store. There Kimble found the salesman in the back room stocking shoes, and he began to share his faith with him. As a result, the young shoe salesman prayed and received Jesus Christ that day. That shoe salesman's name was Dwight L. Moody, and he became the greatest evangelist of his generation.

But the story doesn't end there. Several years later a pastor and well-known author by the name of Frederick B. Meyer heard Moody preach. Meyer was so deeply stirred by Moody's preaching that he himself embarked on a far-reaching evangelistic ministry.  Once when Meyer was preaching, a college student named J. Wilbur Chapman accepted Christ as a result of his presentation of the gospel. Chapman later employed a baseball player to help him prepare to conduct an evangelistic crusade. That ballplayer, who later became a powerful evangelist himself, was Billy Sunday.

In 1924 a group of businessmen invited Billy Sunday to hold an evangelistic campaign in Charlotte, North Carolina, which resulted in many people coming to Christ. Out of that revival meeting a group of men formed a men's prayer group to pray for the world. They prayed for Charlotte to have another great revival. God sent another evangelist named Mordecai Hamm. Hamm went to Charlotte in 1934 to hold a crusade. Ham's crusade went well, even though it did not have many converts. On one of the last nights under the big tent one tall, lanky young man walked up the aisle to receive Christ. That man's name was Billy Graham.

So was Stephen's ministry short? Yes, but it resulted in Paul. Do you feel like God is not using you to the full extent that He could be? Don't worry about it. Who know? The one person you reach may become the next Billy Graham.