By Adrienne Crist
Today I heard about a news story that involved Stanford University Law School. A conservative group invited an Appellate Court Judge to speak. The Appellate Court is the second highest court in the nation, Supreme Court Justices are selected from this pool of judges. The judge was a conservative Trump appointee. This group of future attorney’s, who might one day sit in his court spent over half the allotted time was taken up by a group of protesters who were in the lecture hall. Carrying obscene signs, they disrupted the event with their shouting and yelling. To add insult to injury, the schools appointed “Diversity Officer” took to the podium to scold the judge. The judge did not take the abuse lying down. He stood his ground and disputed them. These displays of outright disrespect and persecution reminded me of what we are studying today.
Anyone who does not agree or go along with the current woke culture of our society are being silenced en masse. If you don’t want to get into the political fray of our time, I understand. However, there is a subject that we should never shy away from, Jesus the Messiah.
At the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said.
Matthew 5:10-12 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Last week we were introduced to Stephen in Acts 6:5 Steven was a blessed man according to Jesus. We are told that he was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. He was appointed as an overseer of distribution to the Greek Jewish Widows. Based upon his name alone we know that he was a Greek or Hellenized Jew. In verse 8 - 9 we read:
8 And Stephen, full of [ b ]faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. 10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.
So Stephen in addition to his position as an overseer was a Spirit filled believer. Also important to note: the followers of Christ are really only about 1 year out from Jesus’s death and resurrection. If you are a new Christian here today take note; The Holy Spirit can use you if you are willing and obedient to His calling. We see essentially, a new believer in Stephen, yet because of the Holy Spirit combined with his faith and obedience he had amazing boldness. He went to the Freedmen Synagogues, which were a congregation of Jews who had lived in the Hellenized areas who were free citizens. They spoke Greek and they were accustomed to living amongst Gentiles. The number of Greek Speaking Believing Jews was obviously significant as we learned last week. These believers became instrumental in the movement of the Gospel to Gentiles. This was why the New Testament was written in Greek, not Hebrew, in part to reach a larger audience. Note that there were men from Cilicia arguing with him in the synagogue. Saul of Tarsus, or the apostle Paul, was from Cilicia. Tarsus is a region in Cilicia. I will get a chance to teach more on Saul’s beginnings when we get to Chapter 9 in a few weeks. So, these Hellenized Jews were irritated with Stephen.
Acts 6 V11. 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.
So Stephen is brought to the Sanhedrin, the same council that Jesus was brought before and that we saw Peter and John testify before. Was Paul there? Most likely because Paul was a disciple of Gamaliel and based upon Paul’s own testimony he was a Pharisee.
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.”
To summarize this is what the Hellenist Jews accused Stephen of;
- Blasphemy against Moses, subsequently against God
2. Radical and revolutionary statements against the Temple and the Law
First, these are recycled accusations. They are similar to ones leveled at Jesus, and we see in the Gospels Jesus counter their false accusations over and over.
When someone hurls accusations against you and they are complete lies, it’s very easy to dispute them. What is more complicated is extracting the truth out of the lies, especially when they have been twisted together.
Have you ever heard the phrase about guilty people; they always accuse you of what they are doing? While it may not seem that the accusers were specifically doing what they accuse Steven of, they are guilty of behaviors that ultimately are blasphemous against Moses, God, the Temple and the Law. Stephen's defense upsets the Sanhedrin to the point that they are seeing red and act impulsively to the detriment of Stephen and the benefit of the Church of Jesus Messiah.
15 And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.
Just as Moses' face shone when he descended the mountain because he had been in the presence of Adonai, so too Stephen’s face is shining with luminousness, like the face of an angel. The Holy Spirit must have imparted this physical manifestation so that his audience would be captivated by his testimony, or terrified since fear and reverence was a typical response to the appearance of angels.
I don’t know about you, but I imagine I would be so nervous and afraid. Jews are a tough crowd, especially self-righteous ones. Whenever spiritual topics come up around my Jewish friends or family I immediately become nervous. I then have to remember that God will give me the words and ask the Spirit to take over.
I also struggle with the fear of man. I do not think I am alone. The fear of man is a snare, but whoever trusts the Lord will be safe Proverbs 29:25 Most of you probably already know this, but I want you to visualize it. A snare is a trap for a small animal, It typically involves a noose. When we are afraid of what others think it's like we are trapped, we are left to their mercy, we essentially feel like we have a noose round our neck, if we speak we may lose our lives. God wants us to trust Him when we are in situations where we may be afraid of the responses or the consequences imposed on us when we speak truth.
Acts 7:1 Then the high priest said, “Are these things so?” In Matthew Chapter 10 Jesus informs the disciples how they should respond in this exact situation
19 When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. 20For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Stephen’s response is long, it’s historical and some of the examples may not be very clear upon first reading. Because of the length of this Chapter I am not going to read line by line. However I want to give you a very, very distilled summary of what Stephen said, then we will pick apart his closing argument, which was scathing. We will look at Stephen's arguments, the scriptures and the words of Jesus on those particular issues.
Here is a great summary I found:
In his speech, Stephen reminded them of their faithful patriarch, Abraham, and how God had led him from a pagan land into the land of Israel, where He made a covenant with him. He spoke of the journey of his people, through Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt to their deliverance by Moses 400 years later. He brought to mind how Moses had met God in the wilderness of Midian in a burning bush, and he explained how God had empowered Moses to lead His people from idolatry and slavery to freedom and times of refreshing in the Promised Land. Throughout his speech, he repeatedly reminded them of their continual rebellion and idolatry, in spite of the mighty works of God to which they were eyewitnesses, thereby accusing them with their own history, which only irritated them until they did not want to hear any more.
Stephen highlights their inability to be obedient. They are the ones who reject the messengers God sends, they rebel against God’s authority and they want to take the commandments and use them to prop themselves up, but they want to look like they’re doing things God’s way. Jesus criticized them in Matthew 23
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
I imagine that after the history review all the self-important people were
Nicole and I discussed earlier this week how the holy spirit moves in the hearts of everyone differently, even right now some of you will be moved by scriptures differently than others. I don’t believe that the most scathing passages I am about to read would have stirred up so much fury alone. Jesus had accused each one of that when He was alive. There was something in the re-telling of the history that affected them. Maybe they were remembering Jesus’s teachings as the Holy Spirit working through Steven went point by point. Either way, this became a watershed moment for the church.
Here we go.
51 “You stiff-necked and 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 foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, 53 who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”
Let’s break it down.
You stiff necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears!
They were very familiar with being called stiff-necked it's all over the Old Testament. Is this where I can claim “I can’t help it, I was born this way?”!!! If you look at my family, we are a chain of broken family relationships due to stubbornness. Proverbs 28:14 Blessed is the one who always trembles before God , but whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble
After Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on the donkey John in chapter 12 states;
37 But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him, 38 that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke:
“Lord, who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
39 Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again:
40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts
Pride is at the root of stubbornness. I have been there. You travel so far and so long down a road that admitting you might be wrong, or forgiving someone feels impossible to do. That means your heart is hard. That is a miserable place to be.
The charge of uncircumcision.
After Abraham’s obedience God seals his covenant by instituting circumcision.
Abraham again obeys’ s God’s command and circumcises his household.
Circumcision is a big deal in the Jewish Culture. We have parties around Circumcisions, they are called Bris’s. I recently heard Dennis Praeger (a Jewish radio host and conservative activist) state that when his boys were circumcised it was one of the most meaningful days of his life. It’s the tradition that symbolizes that the Jews are God’s Chosen people. But the physical circumcision was just the physical reminder that God desires that our hearts be circumcised. We must be willing to cut away the flesh that surrounds our hearts. Those sins, attitudes and emotions that keep us from doing God’s will.
“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord
And remove the foreskins of your heart,
Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
Or else My wrath will go forth like fire.
And burn with none to quench it,
Because of the evil of your deeds.”
Circumcision of the heart is spoken of all throughout the Old Testament. The Sanhedrin knew exactly what Stephen was saying.
Paul alludes to our own circumcision of the heart performed by the Messiah.
Paul writes in Col 2:11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self-ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ,
So, what is an uncircumcised ear? It’s when people refuse to listen, or they listen but do not do what is commanded.
To whom shall I speak and give warning,
That they may hear?
Indeed, their ear is uncircumcised,
And they cannot give heed.
Behold, the word of the Lord is a reproach to them;
They have no delight in it.
These comments regarding being uncircumcised must have really cut them to the core. Circumcision is their birth-rite, but now they must contend that the external means nothing without the internal commitment of being exposed and in full submission to Adonai.. May we all submit our will, our hearts, and our ears to circumcision.
Stephens second argument: 51 You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him, Stephen is referring to John the Baptist.
In Acts Chapter 7 Stephen uses Moses as the example of the persecution. Remember, Moses after his death is regarded as the greatest figure in the history of the jews, second to Father Abraham. But when he was alive he was often rejected. V35 states 35 “This is the same Moses 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.
Stephen is reiterating that Moses was indeed a Prophet, but he was also a deliverer, and a Priest. Still, he was rejected. Of course we know, that it’s not the man that they are rejecting, it’s the One who sent the man.
You! Who received the torah as having been delivered by angels - but did not keep it.
V 37 “This is Moses who said to the children of Israel, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren, Him you shall hear”. This is the same scripture Peter used when he preached at Solomon’s Portico in Acts chapter 3, but Peter included the next verse “Everyone who fails to listen to that prophet will be removed from the people and destroyed”.
In the Jewish New Testament Commentary, David Stern writes:
But what if the nation as a whole fails to listen? Then this becomes the kind of Torah violation which leads to the Curses of Deuteronomy 28:15-68 (I will not read this to you because it is overwhelmingly terrible). The destruction of the Temple, the expulsion from Jerusalem and the centuries of exile typify the punishments suffered by the Jewish people not directly for rejecting Yeshua but for violating the Torah’s injunction to listen to the prophet like Mose, who is Yeshua, “The goal at which the Torah aims” (Romands 10:4) Clearly Israel has suffered collectively for this violation.
This is serious. The nation of Israel has been suffering for centuries not because of their unbelief, but because of their breaking of the law. Israel and every other non-believer of Christ is still under the law. Their disobedience has had serious consequences.
But we have good news! Let me read a more familiar version of Romans 10:4, For Christ is the culmination of the law, so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
Praise Jesus! He fulfilled all of what the Lord requires so that we are not under His wrath.
At the end of Matthew 23 Jesus excoriates the Pharisees and Scribes in the most scathing rebuke which also was a prophecy.
31 “Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt. 33 Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? 34 Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, 35 that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
This is very sobering. This generation of Jews set the course that we still see today. These men derailed the entire Jewish faith.
Pray for Israel and the Jewish people diligently. The end-times are upon us and specifically upon them.
54 When the members of the Sanhedrin 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.”
God was with Stephen.
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 coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
i. “The fires… in the olden days never made martyrs; they revealed them. No hurricane of persecution ever creates martyrs; it reveals them. Stephen was a martyr before they stoned him. He was the first martyr to seal his testimony with his blood.” (Morgan)
The vision that the Holy Spirit gave him probably overwhelmed any fear he had with His Joy and Peace.
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.
Stephen forgave while he was being sinned against, just like Jesus. Again we see the Holy Spirit at work here, moving Stephen to forgive the mob.
How do you endure persecution? With the help of the Holy Spirit. We do not need to fear man because God will be with us. Death is the door to heaven for us. We have nothing to fear.
1Peter 4:12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.
Stephen was not ashamed, and neither should we be.
And now we come to chapter 8:1
Now Saul was consenting his death. Saul was not just standing by nodding his head, this implies that Saul was in complete agreement with his peers of the Sanhedrin.
Stephen and Saul were linked for eternity, I look forward to sharing about Paul and his amazing testimony in a few weeks.