Lesson 16: Stephen's Defense Before the Council/ Stephen Martyred/ Great Persecution
We had to break Lesson 15 right in the middle of Stephen's trial. The charges had been read by the suborned men. The high priest ask Stephen (v. 1)
are these thing so?
In v. 2 of Acts 7 Stephen began a speech that is 52 verses long. The longest single speech recorded in the book of Acts. I believe it would be futile for me to attempt to comment on every single verse of this speech. If I did, the results would be a course in Old Testament history. Stephen began in the 11th Chapter of Genesis and did a marvelous job of outlining the Old Testament down through David and Solomon. So know, you know were to find an inspired outline of that material, if you ever need it, right? His purpose for such a speech was concealed until almost the very end. Every member of that council must have been spell-bound giving attention, until his purpose became clear. The Jews were proud of their ancestry, and every member of that council knew the historical story. It would be equivalent to an American audience listening to a story of the Pilgrims, they like it. Luke used the same words to describe the council at the end of his speech as he did in Acts 5:33 when the 12 had made their defense to the council;
they were cut to the heart.
Let's read Stephen's words. Please follow the text with your eyes. Try to imagine Stephen, the humble, angel-faced deacon saying these words:
Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken; the God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt hi Haran, and said unto him, Get thee out of they country, and from they kindred, and come into the land which I shall show thee. Then came he out of the land of the Chaldeans, and dwelt in Haran: and from thence, when his father was dead, he removed him into this land, wherein ye now dwell. And he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his food on; yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child. And God spake on this wise, that his seed should sojourn in a strange land; and that they should bring them into bondage, and entreat them evil four hundred years. And the nation to whom they shall be in bondage will I judge, said God; and after that shall they come forth, and serve me in this place. And he gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham begat Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat the twelve patriarchs. And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt; but God was with him, and delivered him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favor and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house. Now there came a dearth over all the land ofEgypt and Canaan, and great affliction; and our fathers found no sustenance. But when Jacob heard that there was corn in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first. And at the second time Joseph was made known to his brethren; and Joseph's kindred was made known unto Pharaoh. Then sent Joseph, and called his father Jacob to him, and all his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls. So Jacob went down to Egypt, and died, he, and our fathers, and were carried over into Schechem, and laid hi the sepulcher that Abraham bought for a sum of money of the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. But when the time of the promise drew nigh, which God has swom to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt, till another king arose, which knew not Joseph. The same dealt subtly with our kindred, and evil entreated our fathers, so that they cast out their young children, to the end they might not live. In which time Moses was bom, and was exceeding fair, and nourished up in his father's house three months; and when he was cast out, Pharaoh's daughter took him up, and nourished him for her own son. And Noses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptian, and was mighty in words and hi deeds. And when he was full forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel. And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended
him, and avenged him that was oppressed, and smote the Egyptian; for he supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them; but they understood not. And the next day he showed himself unto them as the strove, and would have set them at one again, saying, Sirs, ye are brethren, why are ye wrong one to another? But he that did his neighbor wrong thrust him away, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us? Wilt thou kill me, as thou didst the Egyptian yesterday? Then fled Moses at this saying, and was a stranger in the land of Midian, where he begat two sons. And when forty years were expired, there appeared to him hi the wilderness ofMount Sinai an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush. When Moses saw it, he wondered at the sight; and as he drew near to behold it, the voice of the Lord came unto him, saying, I am the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Then Moses trembled, and durst not behold. Then said the Lord to him, Put off thy shoes from thy feet; for the place where thou standest is holy ground. I have seen, I have seen the affliction of my people which is hi Egypt, and I have heard their groaning, and am come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send thee into Egypt. This Moses who they refused, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge? The same did God send to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the angel which appeared to him hi the bush. He brought them out, after that he had showed wonders and signs hi the land ofEgypt, and in the Red Sea, and hi the wilderness forty years. This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A Prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear. This is he, that was in the church hi the wilderness with the angel which spake to him hi the Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; who received the lively oracles to give unto us; to whom our fathers would not obey, but thrust him from them, and hi then- hearts turned back again into Egypt, saying unto Aaron, Make us gods before us; for as for this Moses, which brought us out of the land ofEgypt, we know not what is become of him. And they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice unto the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. Then God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of prophets, O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices by the space of forty years in the wilderness? Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, figures which ye made to worship them; and I will carry you away beyond Babylon. Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as he had appointed, speaking unto Moses, that he should make it according to the fashion that he had seen. Which also our fathers that came after brought in with Joshua into the possession of the Gentiles, who God drave out before the face of our fathers, unto the days of David; who found favor before God, and desired to find a tabernacle for the God of Jacob. But Solomon built his a house. Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not hi temples make with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord; or what is the place of my rest? Hath not my hand made all these things? Ye stiffiiecked and uncircumcised hi heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost; as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers; Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.
OK, that's it! May I do a quick paraphrase of Stephen's speech? Lets see if we can get it down into a nutshell. Here is my paraphrase: Brethren, Listen: You know how God dealt with Abraham hi a foreign land, made him say good-by. Yet, gave him no property, but promised this whole country to his descendants, before they were born. Then, they spent 400 years in Egypt as slaves, that's were Moses was born. God gave the law through Moses and showed great kindness to our forefathers, all, during difficult times. Yet, they were rebellious and never really kept the law. Moses was a great prophet, yet he himself foretold of a much greater Jewish Prophet, who would eventually come. God chastised our forefathers, but renewed His promise of the Holy One through David and others. Our ancestors grossly mistreated those prophets. Your unscrupulous brethren have kept that tradition by murdering the Holy One, himself. OK, there you have it. Stephen told them they had murdered the Son of God. The apostles had said the same thing, the same message, on two former occasions, except they did not climax it as Stephen did. Apparently, they didn't see through the design of Stephen's speech until this point. Now, how did the council react to that? It would appear, Stephen was interrupted. Verse 54, let's read.
When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.
Can you imagine that? (Greeeeeer!) Stephen must have know he didn't have a chance before this mob. Where is Gamaliel? Isn't it amazing sometimes how upset people get, when they are cornered and they already have a guilty conscience? Form reason to riot in the wink of an eye. Let's read verses 55 - 56.
But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Sone of man standing on the right hand ofGod.
What's the significance of these two verses? Did Stephen actually see a hole in the sky? Obviously, whatever he saw, was a private vision; so I dare not speculate. At least, you get the picture of the position of Stephen's body as he gazed heavenward with that angel-look on his face. Can you imagine what effect Stephen's words, in v. 55 had on those teeth-gnashing mad-men? It was obvious to them he spoke of Jesus. He said he saw Jesus with God. Can you see? That makes Jesus equal with God, the very concept they were objecting to. Jesus is standing, i.e. he is alive. Thus you see, there is a resurrection from the dead, contrary to the concept of the Sadducees. Now the rest of Chapter 7; let's read verses 57 - 60.
The they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, Lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he feel asleep.
Can't you just see the mob violence as you read those verses. They put their hands over their ears, so they couldn't hear Stephen's words. This was probably more symbolic of their feeling than anything else. Some screamed out with a loud voice. They ran upon him with one accord. You surely have a good idea of what that one accord was! Can't you just see the crowd just groping to get their hands on him? Reaching for him? They rushed him out of the city, dragging him maybe each limb in the grip of a different rioter. The witnesses had to cast the first stone, according to the law of Moses. So, in the midst of mob violence, those suborned men go through the ceremonial formality of removing their outer garments, so as to do greater damage with the very first rock that was thrown. Apparently, Stephen continued to look skyward as they threw him down and as the stones began to whiz by and pelt his body. He continued to speak, heavenward:
Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
And then as the rocks began to come from all directions at once he kneeled down and with a loud voice, as to distract just a little pain, he cried out,
Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.
And then falls to a more prostrate position as the rocks, large and small continue to thump his body and the bloody spots, no doubt, could be seen from all sides and the body showed no sign of life. He fell asleep.
That is, he died. The first Christian Martyr, many more to come, but he was the first. He kept the faith unto the end.
be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)
As Stephen takes his last breath, we are introduced to a young man in v. 58 named Saul, that held the garments of the witnesses, as they cast the first stone. We do not know if he got in on the act after the first stone was cast; but in the first sentence of the first verse in Chapter 8 it says;
And Saul was consenting unto his death.
Try to imagine the mood of the crowd. It must have gotten quiet as Stephen's body showed no more signs of life and the stoning stopped. A time for reflection. What a terrible thing to think upon, as the crowd straggled back into the city. Surely no one was proud of his actions. What about the passers by and the bystanders? Nobody! Nobody with a conscience like that wanted to admit he did wrong. Inwardly, they must have been tearing at themselves. They had just accomplished their goal, but. .Oh! what a miserable feeling, to recognize that the animal instinct about us, just overthrew our reason. We find reason to believe later in this book, it is an impression that this young man, Saul never forgot until his dying day. Violence breeds violence, and wickedness spurs on more wickedness. What if they recognized more disciples on their way back into the city? I'm sure they didn't shake hands and tell them about the brave deacon of the Jerusalem church they just saw die. They hated the very thought of meeting a disciple, for they knew what they represented.
Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.
Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:39)
Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages. (Luke 3:14)
Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. (Matthew 5:44)
Meeting a disciple, living with themselves, they couldn't do it. The last part of v.l says,
And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
Do you get the picture? They made it so difficult the whole Jerusalem church had to scatter and leave town. Did you notice those last three words?
except the apostles. What did Jesus tell them?
that they should not depart from Jerusalem.
I doubt if this still applied, but they felt obligated to stand their ground and comfort the less courageous. Let's read verse 2.
And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.
Great lamentation, how sad, and how heartbreaking it is to stand over a coffin and see the results of such a senseless act. But the war raged on, let's read v. 3,
As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and hauling men and women committed them to prison.
The prisons were full. The woods were fall of refugees. Who are the leaders? Quote,'religious people.' Somebody had blasphemed their holy temple! Really? Well, that's what they say. But they couldn't prove it WITHOUT suborned men. And, they couldn't prove it WITH suborned men. No vote was taken in the council that day. Could there be another problem?