If you saw Stephen on the streets of Jerusalem or in the market, he probably wouldn’t seem very different from you or me. A good man … a good neighbor … a good friend … a hard worker … always ready to help. Maybe a good husband … we don’t know if he was married or not.
Lately he had been hanging out with some new friends … followers of something called “The Way.” These practitioners of “The Way” called themselves “Christians” … followers of a crucified rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they believe to be the messiah.
Stephen was always a kind and descent man, but lately he seemed more at peace … more full of joy … more confident … stronger somehow. He had a certain kind of light about him lately that shone in his eyes. The Shekinah Glory … the “Holy Spirit” he called it.
So it was a shame to hear what happened to him. What could have brought such a kind, helpful, generous man to the attention of the religious authorities? And what was so dangerous about this ordinary, unassuming man that the religious authorities felt that they had to stone him to death? He wasn’t a thief or a drunkard stirring up trouble all the time. He wasn’t a rebel or a zealot like Barabbas. He wasn’t a politician or a philosopher … though he had taken up preaching and debating with the Pharisees and scribes of the law in the marketplace and at the Temple. Why such an extreme reaction towards a good man … a good friend … a good neighbor... and an all-around nice guy?
We don’t know much about this first martyr of the faith. We know that he was an Hellenistic Jew … that is, he spoke Greek better than he spoke Aramaic … that he was more at home and more comfortable in the predominant Greek and Roman culture … but he was, nevertheless, Jewish.
We know that he was one of the seven men chosen to assist the Apostles with some of their leadership responsibilities, particularly seeing to the needs of the widows and the other Greek-speaking Jews in the growing Jerusalem church. We know that he had a powerful ministry in Jerusalem, doing “great signs and miraculous wonders among the people” (Acts 6:8).
As I have seen time and time again in the Bible and in my own life, whenever God is at work opposition arise. Some Jews “stood up and argued with Stephen,” says Luke in Chapter 6, verse 9. And I love this: “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke” (v. 10) … so they had to go out and roust up a few men who were willing to lie and bring false charges of blasphemy against Stephen … which gets everyone stirred up and Stephen is seized and brought before the Sanhedrin (which is like the Jewish Supreme Court).
We tend to see a bit of a pattern when it comes to the Sanhedrin, don’t we? This is the same court and the very same religious judges … including the high priest Caiaphas … who tried to use false witnesses to condemn Jesus of blasphemy. And it is the same group of men who recently tried to condemn Peter and John for doing the same thing that Stephen had been doing. It seems that no matter what they do, however, the Sanhedrin just can’t seem to eliminate or quash this idea that Jesus is the Messiah. They kill Jesus … they try to put a gag order on Peter and John … and now they want to silence Stephen.
The intensity of their desire to silence Stephen shows in their faces. Verse 15 says that “all who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen.” In the Greek, Luke is saying that they were glaring and scowling. On the other hand, says Luke, Stephen was calm and serene “with a face like an angel” (v. 25).
Jesus once advised His Disciples: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in the synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the gentiles. When they hand you over, do no worry about how to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:16-20).
The Apostle Peter challenges us to be ready as well: “Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1st Peter 3:15).
Chapter Seven of Acts is Stephen’s response to the authorities’ charges. He begins, as Peter suggested, with an attitude of gentleness and respect … “Brothers and Fathers” … but there is no mistaking his passion when he commands them: “Listen to me!”
Beginning with Abraham and then moving to Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon … with quotations from the prophets Amos and Isaiah mixed in … Stephen establishes at least three things:
1. God has never been limited to one space or one place … He cannot be boxed in.
2. God’s people have never fully obeyed God.
3. The leaders have always had a ha bit of rejecting and killing those whom God sends.
Stephen’s argument follows a traditional Greek style of rhetorical argument. He has been going around Jerusalem arguing that Jesus is greater than the Temple. Since Jesus is our one atoning sacrifice for all time … and since we can only receive forgiveness, new life, and salvation through Christ alone … then it follows that we no longer need the Temple or its sacrifices anymore. All we need is Jesus.
If you take away anything from Stephen’s message today, it should be this: Jesus is all you need. Say it with me: “Jesus is all I need.” Say it again: “Jesus is all I need!”
If Jesus gives us all that we need, what is the point in searching elsewhere for fulfillment, amen? Answer: None! Makes sense, doesn’t it? Seems pretty obvious. If Jesus gives us all that we need, then there is literally no point in searching for it elsewhere.
Now … let’s get to the heart of Stephen’s argument, which is found in verses 37 through 53 of Chapter 7. If, as Stephen argues, that God is not limited to any one place or location and can’t be contained by any thing made by human hands, then where do you find God? Where should you look for God? Stephen’s answer: Look within. God is to be found in the heart of His believers.
This is not some new or radical or unheard of concept discovered by Stephen. He did not formulate some new understanding of who God is or how God operates that the religious authorities had never heard before. If anything, that was Stephen’s point. “This is how its always been,” he says. Jesus Himself said: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20)
That truth still applies to us today, does it not? Wherever there are believers in Jesus Christ, there is the Church of Christ. The truth that Stephen wants us to see and understand is that the holy place of Jesus Christ isn’t found in some building or cathedral, not in some shrine or historical site. The holy place of Jesus Christ is to be found where? In your heart.
In the words of Stephen: Listen to me. The true desecration of the Christian church is not some graffiti spray painted on the church building or some unholy act performed within the walls of a church. The true desecration of the Christian church is the sin that we harbor within our hears. Respecting the church is not about behaving correctly within the sanctuary … although we have to have manners and respect and reverence, that’s true. But true respect for the church is found in the repentance of sin and the overcoming of sin on our lives because the true Church is not some building. The true church is the heart … your heart.
You see, you have to remember who Stephen was preaching to … the Sanhedrin. There are those who do all the right things in church … such as the religious leaders … but whose hearts were full of sin … coking out the Holy Spirit that dwells within the “Church of the Human Heart.” Stephen’s point is that we will not be judged for what we did in the Temple or church but for what is in our hearts. What we have in our hearts if of far greater interest and important to God than what we did in church.
What Jesus promised His followers came true for Stephen. When the time came for him to give an explanation as to the hope and faith that he had in Jesus Christ, wow, did the Holy Spirit speak through him. Standing before the Sanhedrin he is asked a straight forward “yes-or-no” question: “Are these charges true?” But Stephen doesn’t give them a yes-or-no answer. He gives them a sermon. He takes this opportunity to testify to the religious leaders and the people who came to gawk at the trial and all the excitement. I love it!
When Stephen mentions Abraham … when he talks about how God used Joseph to protect His people … how God used Moses to deliver His people from bondage and led them to the Promised Land … Stephen’s goal was not to give the Sanhedrin or the religious authorities a lesson in Jewish history. Everyone in the Sanhedrin already knew that by heart. What he was trying to do was to establish two basic truths. One: that God was Israel’s God long before there was a Temple. And two: that God’s people had always been a hard-hearted and stiff-necked or stubborn people.
There was no Temple when God first spoke to Abraham, was there? And yet God still appeared to Abraham in Haran and not in the holy city of Jerusalem. There was no Temple when Joseph was old off to slavers in Egypt. Yet God appeared to Joseph there and not in Jerusalem (v. 2). At this point, Stephen notes that Joseph’s brothers … the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel … rejected Joseph as God’s representative … thus providing proof of Israel’s hard heart (v. 9-19). There was no Temple during the time of the Exodus. Yet God still appeared to Moses. … not in the holy city of Jerusalem but out in the middle of nowhere. And, again, the people rejected God’s spokesperson, saying: “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” (v. 27). Even with God’s leader, Moses, and the very Presence of God Himself in their midst, the peoples’ hearts were hard and their necks were stiff. The story was the same with God’s prophets. “Was there ever a prophet,” Stephen asks, “that your fathers did not persecute?” (v. 52). Stephen goes on to point out that there is a pattern … a history … amongst the Hebrew people of rejecting those whom God had chosen to represent Him and speak for Him. So it should come as no surprise, Stephen argues, that they would reject the righteous one of God … Jesus Christ.
While it is true that God met with His people when there was no Temple, Stephen goes on to point out that it was, in fact, God who established the Temple.
Wait a minute!
Did Stephen just contradict himself here? Why would God establish the Temple? Why would God permit a Temple to be built if He could speak with His people at any time and be with them anywhere?
Stephen says that God never wanted a Temple. He only asked for a tabernacle. God didn’t ask His people to build Him a temple in the desert so that He could be with them and they could be with Him. He asked them to make a tabernacle … a portable tent … so He could be with them and they could be with Him as He led them through the wilderness to their new homes in the Promised Land. And for many, many years after they arrived in the Promised Land, God continued to be with them and they with Him without the benefit of a massive temple.
The Tabernacle was designed to be portable for a reason … to remind the Hebrew people that God would go with them everywhere they went and that He existed in the center and in the heart of His people and not just in some immovable building on some fixed location. If they expected to hear God only in the Temple … or hear Him more clearly in the Temple than anywhere else, says Stephen, then they were missing out because God can and does speak to His people everywhere, any time, amen? Whether it’s in the Temple … in Jerusalem … on top of a mountain … down in the valley … on the beach or the shore of a lake ... in the forest … in a city park … in a plane or on a subway … in a homeless shelter or a penthouse … in the middle of the desert or the middle of the ocean ... in your living room, bedroom, attic, or basement .. in your car or when you’re walking through the grocery store, amen?
The Tabernacle was never meant to be permanent … and neither was the Temple. They were never meant to be ends unto themselves but symbols pointing to the One who was to come. King David wanted to build a house for God to replace the Tabernacle. As Stephen saw it, the Temple was not the fulfillment of the house that God wanted to build for Himself. The house that God wanted was one that would be holy and worthy of His name and His Presence.
Verses 49 and 50 are the heart of Stephen’s argument or defense. He repeats the words that God spoke to Israel through His prophet Isaiah: “I don’t need a house … I already have one. Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what kind of house will you build for me,” says the Lord, “or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?” (Isaiah 66:1-2).
Even King Solomon, who built the Temple, acknowledged that no building made with human hands could possibly contain God. “But will God really dwell on the earth?” Solomon wonders. “The heavens, even the highest heaven” he realizes, “cannot contain You. How much less this Temple I build” (1st Kings 8:27).
Though Jewish theology and Hebrew scripture openly and repeatedly state that God cannot be neither contained nor confined, once the Temple was built an attitude developed and took root … an attitude of ownership. They came to believe that God was somehow more prominent in the Temple … which was the epicenter of Jerusalem and, in the minds of most Israelites, the nation of Israel. God was “housed” in Jerusalem, which meant that He was more prominent there than any other place on the face of the earth. If, says Stephen, the history of the Hebrew people and the Jewish scriptures themselves prove that God can, in fact, meet us anywhere, then why do the religious authorities and so many of the Jewish people hold the Temple as the singular, most holy place on earth?
In fact, this is how far afield the Hebrew people had gotten. In Stephen’s day, the function of the Temple was “sacrifice.” In reality, the Temple was meant to be a place, not of ritual, but of prayer. Prayer was to be the first and foremost function of the Temple … a fact that Jesus lamented: “It is written: ‘my house will be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of thieves” (Luke 19:46).
God wants to be with us. He wants to interact with us. He wants to be in a relationship with us. He doesn’t want a relationship based on ritual and sacrifice. “The sacrifice acceptable to God,” says David, “is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17).
In verse 51 of chapter 7, Stephen accuses the religious authorities and people of Israel of being a “stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears!”
Not something that’s going to be well-received by the religious authorities or the people who came to hear his case. The term “stiff-necked” meant that they defiantly refused to accept the yoke of God ‘s authority. In the Old Testament, it was used to describe a person or persons who refused to bow before God. You can imagine how that went over.
But Stephen didn’t stop there. He accused them of having “uncircumcised hearts and ears” (Acts 7:51). This was a pretty rough thing to say. To say that someone’s heart and ears were uncircumcised was to accuse them of being no better than a gentile on the inside. Just because a person was “Jew,” circumcised on the outside, didn’t necessarily mean that he was a Jew on the inside. You could go to the Temple every day … observe every ritual … make all the sacrifices you wanted and have none of it affect your heart. A ritual bath may cleanse the outside of the body, as Jesus once observed, but may have no effect on cleansing the heart. The sacrifice of an animal may cost you a few coins, but it is the animal being sacrificed who is paying the ultimate price for your sins.
Stephen is on a roll and there’s no stopping him now. “You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit,” he accuses them, “just as your ancestors used to do” (Acts 7:51). Pretty direct. Pretty clear. They don’t oppose the Holy Spirit sometimes. They don’t oppose the Holy Spirit once in a while. They oppose the Holy Spirit how many times? Yeah … forever … “all” the time.
That did it!
The religious authorities had heard enough! Luke reports that they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him (v. 54). The Greek word that Luke used for “furious” literally means “to saw asunder” or to emotionally “cut someone in two.” It’s where we get the phrase “beside ourselves” … get it? These religious authorities were so angry that steam was coming out of their ears and they were ready to explode. It was not a matter of a sudden outburst or a fit of rage but a slow boil that had been building and building the whole time that Stephen had been preaching. They were ready to blow a gasket. They were growling and snarling and gnashing their teeth like a pack of crazed, ravenous wolves. “Not one more word!”
And then an amazing thing happens. “But filled with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7:55-56).
Okay … now their heads do explode! As bad as all the things that he had been saying about the Temple were … and in their minds the things he said were horrible … beyond blasphemy … if such a thing were possible … this … this was just too much! Luke say that they covered their ears and with a loud shout … a roar, actually … they all rushed towards Stephen and grabbed him (v. 57). They dragged Stephen out of the city to the Lion’s gate and they began to stone him.
You see, what Stephen had to say about the Temple was bad enough but what pushed them over the top was what Stephen said about Jesus. Stephen claimed that he saw Heaven open and Jesus, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God. When Stephen says that he saw Jesus at the right hand of God it was too much for the religious authorities and the spectators and they were filled with a murderous rage. The place at the right hand of God is reserved for the most favored person in God’s sight. By claiming that he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, Stephen is making the claim that Jesus is the messiah and currently enjoying the unparalleled favor of God! And then Stephen adds insult to injury by referring to Jesus as “the Son of Man” … a very special and significant title that highlights the fact that Jesus not only enjoys immeasurable favor but that He has dominion over all creation.
You may have never noticed this before, but Jesus is always described as “sitting” at the right hand of God. But Stephen said that he saw Jesus “standing” at the right-hand side of His Father. There has been literally volumes and volumes of scholarly discussion about this over the centuries but, in my humble opinion, I think it boils down to this: Stephen is just seconds away from death … which means he’s seconds away from being in Heaven … and Jesus is standing up to greet him and welcome the first Christian martyr into His presence. What Stephen saw is what I believe we’ll see when we die … Jesus standing at the right hand of God, His Father … God, our Father … welcoming us into His presence. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s something to shout about, don’t you? Can I at least get a heart-felt amen?
This is why the discussion about the Temple and the church is so important to us today. The Presence of the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, has opened up a way to God … to Heaven … that is more immediate and more personal and more satisfying than what a temple or church can provide.
On the night that Jesus was going to be arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, He sat and ate the Passover feast with His disciples. Talking some bread, He gave thanks to His Father, broke the bread, and passed it to His disciples, saying: “Take and eat. This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And when the supper was over, He took a cup of wine, gave thanks to God, gave it to His disciples, and said: “Drink from this all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins” … and again He told them, “Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.”
He didn’t tell His disciples that they had to build a special altar or temple to do this. He didn’t tell them that they could only do it in special, designated places. He didn’t tell them that only special people had to be trained to say special words. He simply said that we were to remember Him every time, everywhere that we gather with family and friends and break bread and share good times and love with each other. “Do this I remembrance of me. Do this as often as you sit down together and share a cup of wine.”
The Temple is a place where we can go and pray and be with God … but it’s not the only place. We come to church to be in God’s Presence … but it’s not the only place where we can experience God’s Presence. The Temple … the church ... is not some building in some place. The Temple and the church can be a building made out of stone … but the Temple and the church can also be a place not built with human hands.
The greatest temple … the place where God wants to be found … is in our hearts, amen? We don’t need buildings. We just need Jesus Christ alone. And when we gather, He is there and we are in His Presence. We, as believers, have full and immediate access to God through Jesus.
Luke says that Stephen prayed while they were stoning him … “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit” (v. 59). And then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice: “Do not hold this sin against them” (v. 60). While the religious authorities and the people were stoning Stephen to death, Stephen asked God to forgive the people who were stoning him … and God hears and answers Stephen’s prayer in a very interesting and powerful way. Luke reports that one of the people to witness Stephen’s execution was a man by the name of “Saul of Tarsus,” who went from being one of the most fanatical enemies of the fledgling Christian church to eventually agreeing with and preaching the same things that Stephen preached that day to the Sanhedrin … and more … much more. What began with Peter and John and Stephen was picked up by Paul and spread far and wide and now spans the entire planet.
At the beginning of chapter 8, it says that a severe persecution against the church in Jerusalem began the day that Stephen was stoned to death and what seemed like the beginning of the end was really the beginning of the church. Luke says that “all but the apostles scattered throughout the country side of Judea and Samaria” … and everywhere that they went they told the story of Stephen and they preached the Gospel, like Stephen did, and they faced opposition and arrest and possible execution like Stephen did.
The religious authorities sought to destroy the church in Jerusalem but what they failed to understand is what Stephen was trying to tell them that day … that the “church” is not contained in any building or confined to any one place. It is located in the heart of every believer … and the Jewish authorities would learn this truth the hard way in just a few decades after Stephen tried to teach them this truth. The Temple that was so dear to them would be utterly destroyed by the Romans and the Romans would discover that the Spirit of God dwells in the heart of the people and not in some building.
Let me close with a modern-day example of this powerful truth. Many years ago in Communist China, the party leaders met to discuss the growing problem of Christians in their country. One of the things that concerned them most was the habit that Christians had of gathering together. The government was concerned because they didn’t know exactly what was going on at these gatherings. Sure … they were worshipping, singing, reading the Bible … but what else were they reading and discussing? These gathering could be a way to organize a revolt against the Communist government. So they came up with what seemed like a simple but brutal plan. Simple in that all they had to do was break up the groups and forbid Christians to get together. Brutal in that the Communist government separated families. They would send the husband to one part of the country, the wife to another, and the children to yet another. Isolated and alone, what harm could they do the Communist government now?
They don’t know us too well. As Stephen tells us, the “church” is in the heart of every believer, which means that the persecuted Christians in China took the “church” with them wherever the Communist government sent them. Immediately these scattered Christians began sharing the Gospel and in a very short time began organizing prayer meetings and Bible studies and establishing home churches. To the utter surprise and dismay of the Communist leaders, Christianity, thanks to their polices, spread from largely metropolitan cities to everywhere throughout China. Instead of silencing Christianity, they actually helped God spread Christianity because they didn’t understand what Stephen knew and what we know … that the true Temple of God is not some building but in the heart of every believer.
Is He in your heart?
Let us pray ….