The Expository Files


Stephen’s Life, Sermon & Death

Acts 7:1-53


{Reading Recommendation: Acts 7:1-53}

One of the good men who came on the scene not long after the Lord’s church was established was Stephen. He is introduced in chapter six, right before his sermon in chapter seven – concluding with his murder! What can we learn?

Here is a good starting place: Stephen was a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” (Acts 6:5). His “faith” was the result of the attention of his heart to God, to what God had done and what God had revealed. In all the activity of his faith, he was guided by the Holy Spirit. There is good evidence that in his preaching and teaching, he enjoyed very direct guidance by the Holy Spirit, enabling him to speak God’s Word in a time before the New Testament writings were assembled (see Acts 6:8b). He was, therefore, not a religious charlatan; not a fanatical militant of a Jewish sect or a party loyalist. He was a good man, “full of faith and power,” (Acts 6:8). As we will see below, he simply wanted to tell people the truth about God and about themselves.

Members of the powerful Jewish Synagogue arose “disputing with Stephen.” These local religious leaders were not believers in Christ, and they sought out opportunities to fire up debates with gospel preachers. But truth was not on their side. They were “not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which” Stephen spoke. See, Stephen was right! He spoke the truth and his message was confirmed by wonders and signs from heaven. Opposition arose from those who rejected the gospel, but they could not stand up against the truth (therefore they killed the messenger, but more about that later).

At some point in the dispute the opponents of Stephen “stirred up the people – seized him, and brought him to the council.” Unbelieving Jews who remained loyal to their Jewish system took this dispute to high level of agitation and even “set up false witnesses.” They were so determined to destroy the good work of gospel preaching, their attitude was, “whatever it takes” to preserve our system and get Stephen and his kind out of the way. Even when it was visibly obvious that Stephen was a man of God (see Acts 6:15), they persisted in bringing the event to crisis.

Stephen’s opportunity to respond came after the High Priest said, “Are these things so?” Stephen, under attack and facing likely death, spoke the truth (recorded by Luke, Acts 7:2-60). Look through Stephen’s sermon and you will see clearly what he wanted the people to know.

Stephen wanted the people to remember their heritage (vss. 2-8). The existence of the Jewish nation was no coincidence or human contrivance. God had a plan and one of the first steps He took was to call Abraham, gather those people together, form a covenant with them and eventually build a nation. One part of the rebellious unbelief that rejected Jesus was, the leaders lost a good sound perception of their past with God. They grew closer and closer to the world and farther and farther away from God. They constructed a religious empire that was not a function of God’s plan; it was by men and for men. Stephen was inspired by the Holy Spirit to take them back to their roots (a journey that, if pursued objectively, can always yield good results). His sermon establishes that Israel failed to respond to God’s purpose and that “the religion of the Jews had lost its soul” (FF Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles).

Stephen wanted the people to understand, God never abandoned His righteous people. When Joseph may have thought there was no hope, “God was with him, and delivered him out of all his troubles,” (v.10). In all that God did with the patriarchs, He blessed the righteous and responded justly toward the wicked. God had not changed. Even after the patriarchs died, the nation continued and God carried out His plan to send the Savior to die for all. Through all their history, God had been faithful to His people and faithful to His plan, providentially moving history toward His holy end.

Stephen wanted the people to see, back through their history, the destructive consequences of rejecting God. God not only chose the patriarchs and worked through their lives, He chose Moses. The people soon rejected him, and their “hearts turned back to Egypt.” They made a golden calf, offered sacrifices to the idol, “and rejoiced in the works of their own hands.” God responded to their apostasy. He “turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven…,” (see Acts 7:42-43) and eventually carried the nation away to Babylon! Preachers are charged with the duty to tell people where they are headed; to use the written Word of God to wake people up to the future consequences of their present behavior. It is the concept of sowing and reaping that Stephen wanted the people to consider, in the reality of their rejection of Christ.

Stephen wanted the people to know of God’s real presence. “The Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands.” They had misunderstood the function of the temple (vss. 44-50). God cannot be confined to a place. As the Creator, it can be said, the universe is His seat and the earth a mere footstool. Good preachers always speak clearly to the people the truth about God. {Interesting note from John Phillips: “Amid a growing uproar of fury and dissent, he hammered home his conclusion. The had accused him of reviling the holy place. He accused them of resisting the Holy Spirit. They had accused him of slighting Moses, the man of God. He accused them of slaying Jesus, the Son of God. They had accused him of blaspheming the Law. He accused them of breaking the law. Stephen took the charges leveled against him, picked them up, and flung them back in the faces of his accusers,” – from p.#348, EXPLORING THE PEOPLE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT by John Phillips.}

Stephen did get visible results! Truth faithfully presented and applied may yield negative results (as seed put into bad soil). “When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But 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, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ They they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their wars, and ran at him with one accord.” (Told you this was visible!) “…and they cast him out of the city and stoned him . . . and Saul was consenting to his death,” (Acts 7:54-8:1).

Stephen’s life didn’t last very far after his sermon. But the truth Stephen lived by and delivered lives on today, and we ought to deliver it with the same devotion. Stones taking the life from his body not only did not kill him spiritually, he lives beyond the moment of his death in a peace his murderers did not comprehend. His godly life witnesses to us today. Stephen won that debate! The truth and the church continues today.

Supplement: “The death of Stephen was an event of most thrilling interest to the young Church, and well deserves the large space allotted to it by the historian. The disciples had embarked, with all their interests, both temporal and eternal, in the cause of one, who, though he proved himself mighty to deliver, while present with them, had now gone away beyond the reach of vision, and no longer held personal converse with them. They had struggled on faithfully thus far, and, amid many tears, some stripes, and much affliction, they had still found a deep satisfaction of soul in his service. It was demonstrated that their faith could sustain them in life, even amid very bitter trials; but it was not yet known how it would sustain them in the hour of death. No one of their number had yet tried the dread reality, and no man can now tell how much their spirits may have wavered in the prospect, and inclined backward toward the faith of their fathers, distrustful of the new arm of salvation. How great the strength, therefore, and how sweet the consolation imparted to every heart, when the first who died was so triumphant in the pangs of death! After witnessing the scene, they could go onward in their tear-dimmed course of suffering, without one fear or care for that within the grace, or beyond it. At the late day in which we live, which has been preceded by the happy death of millions of Christians, and which is often yet made deeply glad by their triumphs in the trying hour, we are not able to appreciate the eagerness with which the first disciples drank in the consolations of this glorious death. It was a fortuitous and most fitting preparation for the fiery ordeal through which the Church were immediately afterward called to pass.” J.W. McGarvey

By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 17.7; July 2010