Summary: Although Stephen’s life seems to be wasted from an earthly perspective at least, his martyrdom has long term ramifications for the growth of the church. From this point on the gospel begins to spread.
You’ll gather from the title of this sermon that one question that arises from this passage is, why did God let all this happen? Why allow someone as gifted as Stephen to be wasted like that? I guess it’s the sort of question that we often ask when something like this happens. We asked it 15 years ago when David Penman died of a heart attack. Why did God let him die just when his ministry seemed to be making a difference? Well often we don’t get an answer do we? But let’s look at this passage and see if there are any clues to why this happens here.
It would have been a simple thing for Christianity to remain a sect within Judaism wouldn’t it? The early Christians were well respected by the people. After a while the situation might well have calmed down to the point where they were accepted by the majority and Christianity would have remained centred in and around Jerusalem. But God had other things in mind. He wanted to see it spread to the ends of the world. So he used the opposition of Satan as well as the work of his own Holy Spirit to begin the spread of the gospel beyond the confines of Jerusalem to the rest of the world.
What we find in the next few chapters of Acts is how the foundation for this process is laid by 2 remarkable men, Stephen and Philip, followed by 2 significant conversions.
It’s interesting to see how Stephen comes to prominence so soon after being appointed to the role of deacon. Notice, by the way, that both Stephen and Philip are just ordinary men. In the previous passage Stephen’s role is simply to share out the donations to those in need. But the next thing we find is that this ordinary man is doing great wonders and signs among the people. Clearly the Holy Spirit is at work in him in an impressive way. And it isn’t just miracles that he’s doing. It seems that he’s also teaching the people from the Scriptures, explaining them in a way that upsets the leaders of one of the Greek speaking synagogues.
In fact as they begin to argue with him they can’t match the wisdom with which he speaks, a wisdom, notice, that shows the presence of God’s Spirit within him. We’ll see in a moment the sorts of things that he was teaching, but for now we’re just given a summary in v11: "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." Now we’ll say a bit more about that in a moment, but for now let’s just notice that he appears to be reinterpreting Moses, that is the law, particularly as it related to temple worship and I guess he’s telling them that Jesus is God, which was interpreted by them as blasphemy.
Do you remember how, when we began this series on Acts, I commented on the fact that the Holy Spirit was to be given to Christ’s followers so they could continue Christ’s work on earth? Well I want you to notice how what happens to Stephen here echoes what happened to Jesus. First he interprets the teaching of the Old Testament in a new way that threatens the religious hierarchy. Second when they arrest him they have to resort to false witnesses to get him convicted. The graciousness and wisdom of his speech is such that the only way they can convict him is to get someone to lie about him; to exaggerate their claims so they can get a conviction. And thirdly, when he’s being stoned to death he prays the same prayer that Jesus prayed on the cross: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." "Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing."
Notice too, that as he appears before the council, all who look at him are struck by the way he looks. His face is like that of an angel. There’s something about him that seems to radiate God’s presence with him. Actually it’s interesting when he’s being accused of speaking against Moses, that the description of him looking like an angel is so close to the way Moses was described when he came down from Sinai after receiving the 10 commandments from the hand of God (Ex 34:29).
Well, let’s think about what it is he says in his defence.
His defence, if that’s what it is, consists of a recital of the history of the people of Israel, but it’s a recital with an edge to it.
As he recites the history of Israel there are two major themes that repeat themselves over and over and over again.
The first theme is the realisation that God’s blessing is given wherever his people happen to be. The Jews thought they were blessed because they lived in the promised land. They thought because they had God’s temple that God was with them; that the Temple was the place where God had chosen to dwell on earth. But from the beginning God had been with his people wherever they were. Whether it was in Mesopotamia, or Haran in Syria or Egypt, God was with them, making them into his people.