B. It was recognized by Jesus 1. One of the first mega church pastors in America was the fiery preacher from Fort Worth, TX, J. Frank Norris.
2. In 1924, Norris had the largest protestant church in America, and was as well-known a figure as any American celebrity of his day.
3. On July 17, 1926, a man came into Norris’ office and threatened him, at which point Norris shot and killed the man, who was unarmed.
4. Norris was tried for murder, and acquitted. He testified at his own trial, and according to those present in the courtroom, he did well on the stand, though some said his performance was just that – a performance; like a skilled actor.1 5. In Acts 7, we read the testimony of Stephen, who was on trial for heresy and blasphemy in the first century religious court of Jerusalem.
6. The trial began back in chapter 6, with the witnesses for the prosecution. They alleged that Stephen had spoken blasphemous words, specifically against Moses and Temple, claiming that Jesus would destroy the temple and replace the laws and customs that Moses had delivered to the people.
7. In chapter 7, it was Stephen’s turn to speak, and when the high priest asked him, “Are these things so,” Stephen essentially answered with a long sermon.
8. That’s what happens when you give a preacher the floor; he is just liable to preach.
9. Stephen would answer the charges leveled against him, but he would do it by pointing to Jesus, and turning the real trial onto those who were accusing him.
10. Stephen’s sermon/testimony is well over 1,100 words, the longest recorded speech in the book of Acts. Obviously, the Holy Spirit thought it was important for us to consider.
11. In the end, his testimony would cost him his life, but Stephen did not lose his case. The gospel for which he died would only grow further and faster after his murdered, martyred body was laid to rest.
12. Stephen’s testimony on the stand, as well as under the stones speaks to us as followers of Jesus today. He challenges us about our understanding of the Bible, and our commitment to the story that Bible tells.
13. Let’s take our seats in the courtroom in Acts 7, and listen to the testimony of this preacher. As we do, we see first of all that:
I. STEPHEN’S DEFENSE WAS BIBLICAL 1. In verse one, the high priest, who presided as the judge in this hearing, turned to Stephen and essentially said, “You’ve heard the charges against you, sir. How do you plead?”
2. Rather than just saying, “I’m not guilty,” Stephen launched into a retelling of Israel’s history, starting all the way back with the “God of glory” and his call to Father Abraham.
3. It might seem at first that Stephen was being evasive, but in reality, Stephen was using the Scripture itself to defend himself.
4. In a courtroom where the Word of God was supposed to be the rule of law, that’s a pretty good line of defense.
5. Think with me about Stephen’s defense, and consider first of all:
A. His focus on the story of Scripture 1. Rather than taking on the twisted testimonies of his accusers directly, Stephen went to the story of Scripture and began to draw a line from the beginning right up to himself, and the truth for which he was being tried.
2. We can’t cover every single detail of Stephen’s message this morning, but we can see the basic outline.
3. Stephen started with Abraham, and God’s call to him while he was still a pagan, living in the land of Mesopotamia.
4. He told of how God had promised Abraham descendants and a dwelling place in the land of Canaan.
5. He then told the story of Abraham’s descendants, the children of Israel, focusing especially on Joseph, and how, though his brothers rejected him, he ultimately was used by God to deliver them all.
6. He then moved on to Moses, and how God had raised up Moses in Egypt. Though initially rejected by his own people, he would eventually lead them out of their slavery in Egypt.
7. From there, Stephen spoke of the tabernacle in the wilderness, which gave way to the temple that David had planned and Solomon had built.
8. There are certain parts of the story that Stephen was trying to emphasize, and we will look at those in a moment, but first, just notice that all of this was completely biblical.
9. Everything Stephen said could be backed up in black and white on the temple scrolls from which his accusers and the court would read every day.
10. I think there is a reminder here that while there may be other apologetic arguments that we could make for our faith and the gospel we proclaim, in the end, we must stand solely on the Word of God.
11. All our arguments must be rooted and grounded in what “Thus saith the Lord”. We stand upon the Bible, or our footing is faulty, and our arguments are empty.
12. As we think about Stephen’s defense, consider not only his focus on the story of Scripture, but think also about:
B. His familiarity with the story of Scripture 1. These religious leaders may not have liked Stephen as a preacher, but for at least the first 50 verses of his sermon, they could not argue that he knew the history of God’s people.
2. On one level, Stephen’s testimony simply reveals a man who knew the story of Scripture very well.
3. Though he did not necessarily quote it word-for-word, He obviously knew the Word. He didn’t have a Bible in his hands that day, but he had it hidden in his heart, and like water from a well, he could draw it out when he needed it.
4. According to a 2014 survey by the American Bible Society, 88% of American households own a Bible, with an average of almost 5 bibles per home. Yet, only 37% of Americans said that they read the Bible at least once a week.2 5. We are a nation with many copies of the Bible, but with very little care for the Bible. Few people really know what the Bible says, for few people actually take the time to read it and study it.
6. Just ask yourself this, if you had to stand up today and give the sort of Old Testament survey that Stephen did, with all the facts and names that he gave, could you do it?
7. I’ve quoted key passages of Scripture to people who’ve been in the church their whole lives, only to have them look at me as if I made them up. They had honestly never heard them.
8. Some of the blame for our biblical illiteracy falls on the shoulders of the preachers who, week after week talk politics, psychology, and popular culture, but never open the Bible enough to give more than a verse or two from the Word of God.
9. But we can’t blame the preachers completely. You have a Bible. You can read it for yourselves.
10. Charles Spurgeon once said, “[There is enough] dust on some of your Bibles to write ‘damnation’ with your fingers.”
11. Stephen’s defense ought to be indictment upon those of us who do not know the Scriptures for ourselves, and they ought to challenge us to turn off our televisions and smart phones for a while, and pick up our Bibles.
12. In Acts 7, we see that Stephen’s defense was biblical. We see also here that:
II. STEPHEN’S DECLARATION WAS BOLD 1. As you read through Stephen’s defense, keeping in mind the charges against him, you start to realize that Stephen wasn’t just defending himself; he was confronting those who had accused him.
2. As Stephen’s line of argument develops, you start to see that he was heading toward a point – specifically a knifepoint with which he would prick his hearers in the heart.
3. Stephen was actually on the attack, and when you see what he was saying, you realize just how bold his statement was.
4. Think through his argument with me, and consider:
A. What Stephen illustrated 1. The two main charges against Stephen were that he had blasphemed the temple, and he had belittled Moses and the Law that Moses had delivered.
2. As Stephen began to retell the history of Israel, he answered those charges carefully, by illustrating that the temple was nothing to be worshipped, and that the Law of Moses wasn’t something they had ever really followed anyway.
3. As for the temple, at each point in Stephen’s story, he pointed out that God was not confined to any particular place, much less a building.
4. He pointed out that the God of glory (an important title) had first appeared to Abraham, not in Jerusalem, but in Mesopotamia.
5. And where did God deliver his people through Joseph? Not in Canaan, but way down in Egypt?
6. Where had Moses administered the Law and ministered in the Tabernacle? It was out in the wilderness, not in the land of Promise.
7. Stephen was illustrating the point he would clearly state toward the end of his sermon in verse 48. Referring back to the words of King Solomon who built the temple, Stephen said, “…the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands…” 8. Moreover, Stephen pointed out that far from honoring the Law and the God who gave it, the children of Israel had constantly rejected it and rebelled against God.
9. The brothers had rejected Joseph. Moses too had been rejected, and even after he led the people out of Egypt, they complained against him, and turned to idols.
10. And even when God had given them the tabernacle, they still worshipped everything but God.
11. Stephen was illustrating that the blasphemy he had been accused of was not really blasphemy at all, and that the real sin was not what he had been preaching, but the stubbornness the people had continued to practice, in the same way their ancestors had.
12. You see the boldness of what Stephen declared when you see what Stephen illustrated in his speech. But lest anyone should miss the illustration, notice also:
B. Who Stephen indicted 1. Stephen built his message to a crescendo, and after reminding them that their precious, sacred temple was not the permanent dwelling place of God, Stephen launched into them with full force.
2. Notice verses 51 and following. Stephen said, “Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in 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 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.”
3. One writer said, “This is turning the tables indeed. It isn’t Stephen who has been a heretic, blaspheming the true God and the Temple; it is the Jewish rulers, following their idolatrous ancestors!”3 4. On one level, Stephen reminds those who think they have the corner on the religious market that perhaps their sacred cows and holy places are really nothing more than idols.
5. It is possible for you and I to sit in this courtroom and think we are on Stephen’s side, only to find out that his indictment strikes us as much as it did the Jewish religious leaders.
6. You see, we can think that our Baptist heritage, with GA badges and Discipleship Training classes is a sort of testament to our own righteousness. We can think because we sit in this building each week that somehow we must be the people of God.
7. But there is one thing and one thing alone that defines who really belongs to God. What have you done with Jesus?
8. These religious leaders were specifically indicted for their rejection of Jesus. They had shunned Him, and crucified Him in favor of their own righteousness, one built around a temple and a tradition that He surpassed and fulfilled.
9. I plead with you this morning! Don’t take church over Christ! Don’t take your religion, regardless of how long you’ve had it, over the redemption that comes from genuine repentance and faith in Jesus.
10. I boldly say to you today that if you continue in your sin, pridefully telling yourself you are surely going to heaven because of some level of religion or tradition in your life – you will perish, and your religion will perish with you!
11. Stephen turned the tables on his accusers who thought they were in the right and he was in the wrong. Maybe we need the tables turned on us at times to remind us that Christ alone can save us, and we really need the saving that He alone can give.
12. As we look at this preacher on the witness stand, we see not only that Stephen’s defense was biblical, and Stephen’s declaration was bold, but we see also thirdly that:
III. STEPHEN’S DEATH WAS BEAUTIFUL 1. Stephen didn’t get any “amen’s” at the end of his sermon. In fact, the whole place blew up on him.
2. As he started accusing them of actually being the ones who had blasphemed and rejected God, verse 54 says that they were “cut to the heart”, and they started grinding their teeth at him in anger.
3. Within minutes, Stephen would be dragged from the courtroom, outside of the city, where this crowd would hurl stones at him until he was dead.
4. Stoning was a brutal method of execution. One writer said, “Stoning somebody to death, [especially] somebody as young and healthy as Stephen, is not easy. You do not get the job done with the first few rocks…even after you get the man down, it is a long, hot business.”4
5. On one level, the stoning of Stephen is brutal. But it is also beautiful. There is something touching and poignant about the way this first martyr for the gospel died.
6. See Stephen crumpled up in that pit outside of Jerusalem. See the stones crashing into his head and crushing into his body. See the bruises and the blood. But see also that:
A. It was reminiscent of Jesus 1. They carried Stephen outside of the city, just as they had his Lord, and there they stoned him, verse 59 says, while he was “calling on God”.
2. See Jesus hanging in the darkness of Calvary, calling out to His Father. Here Stephen did the same.
3. And what did Stephen say? He said what Jesus had said. Stephen cried, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” just as Jesus had cried, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
4. And though the angry mob had covered their ears, so as not to hear anything else he would say, Stephen, like his Lord, would pray for them when they would no longer listen to Him.
5. Notice verse 60. I cannot get over this verse! It says, “And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge…” 6. What kind of grace is this! What mercy is this! Why, this is nothing less than the grace and mercy of Jesus, who first prayed for His enemies!
7. What makes a brutal death like this a beautiful death? It is the reflection of Jesus in it!
8. Would to God we would live like Jesus lived. And would to God, that if called upon as Stephen was, we would die like Jesus died, and like Stephen died.
9. How could he die like this – so full of faith and grace? We see not only that his death was reminiscent of Jesus, but we realize also that:
B. It was recognized by Jesus 1. Don’t miss the sequence of events in Stephen’s death. Back in the courtroom, when Stephen was finishing his sermon, the crowd began to grit and grind their teeth in anger.
2. Suddenly, Stephen stopped preaching to them, and looked up. Specifically, verse 55 says that, “…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.” 3. Stephen, so captivated by this vision of glory, told the crowd what he was seeing. He said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man, standing on the right hand of God.” 4. Perhaps Stephen didn’t realize what was about to happen, but heaven did. Jesus knew that just as this crowd had killed Him, they were about to kill the man who had just powerfully preached about Him.
5. And the Lord Jesus, who is said to be “seated” at the right hand of the Father, stood up from His seat to acknowledge the man who was about to die for Him.
6. How do you go to the stone pit praying for those who are about to stone you? How do you go to your death with faith in where are you are going when you die?
7. When you look up and see Him who first entered into death for you, ready to receive you into the glory He has prepared for you, you can die a beautiful death, even when it is a brutal one.
8. When Jesus stands on the other side of death, this side of it is not nearly so frightening.
1. I love what G. Campbell Morgan says about this text. He wrote, “The story ends with the mangled body of Stephen. No, it does not so end! It ends with a brief word…to suggest something still to come.”5
2. Did you catch that brief word? Look at verse 58. It says, “…and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.” 3. Who is this young man? Luke will tell us much more about him in the chapters to come, but we already know. This is Saul, who will be Paul the Apostle.
4. The blood that Jesus shed for Stephen was not in vain, and the blood that Stephen shed for Jesus would not be either.
5. If we know who our Lord is, then we know that our life given for Him will not be in vain.
6. The text says in verse 60 that Stephen “fell asleep”. What a word! What a statement!
7. If we know that our lives given for Christ are not in vain, when we come to our death bead, even if that happens to be under a pile of rocks, we can lay our head down like a child in the arms of his mother, close our eyes in sleep, and know we will awake in the presence of Him who does all things well, and will say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
8. Let us witness for Jesus as Stephen did, boldly and biblically, and if we must die as Stephen died, let our lives inspire those standing around us, and further the kingdom of which there shall be no end. Amen.
1 Stokes, David R., The Shooting Salvationist, (Steerforth Press, Hanover, NH, 2011), Amazon Kindle edition
2 “American Bible Society’s State of the Bible”, 2014, www.americanbible.org, accessed 3/5/15, http://www.americanbible.org/features/state-of-the-bible-research-2014
3 Wright, N.T., Acts for Everyone, Part One, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2008), p. 118
4 Hughes, R. Kent, Acts: The Church Afire, (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 1996), Amazon Kindle edition
5 Morgan, G. Campbell, The Acts of the Apostles, (Fleming H. Revell, New York, 1924), p. 193