To die for (Acts 6:8-7:60)
This passage stands at a pivotal position in the book of Acts, and there are three important things to note about it.
- It introduces Saul. Saul of Tarsus - later known as Paul - is the major character in the rest of the book of Acts. We meet him here in verse 58, watching and approving of Stephen's execution.
- It marks the end of the Jerusalem phase of the book of Acts. We return to Jerusalem for brief visits, but from now on, the focus of the book of Acts is elsewhere. This underlies an incredibly important Biblical concept. The Christian faith is not rooted in any geographical location. There is no such thing as a Christian land or a Christian country. The Church takes root in a place, but over the years, God's Spirit moves on, and the former heartlands of the Church - Jerusalem, Turkey, North Africa - have no Christian witness. All the evidence is that we are living through a similar period in the life of the Church in our part of the world.
- Persecution is seriously ramped up. Up till now there have been a few imprisonments and beatings - bad enough in their way - but now we see the first martyrdom of the Christian era. Serious suffering and persecution were to be the lot of the Church for much of the next three hundred years.
Trumped up charges
The first thing to notice here is that Stephen was obviously a fine man. It isn't just that he was a fine character, but he also worked signs and wonders just like his saviour. But this sort of thing didn't go down well, and brought opposition. However, the opponents couldn't stand up to Stephen in argument because of his own wisdom and the power of the Spirit working through him.
Jesus promised that the Spirit would help us when we are in this sort of situation:
'When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.' (Luke 12:11-12)
People sometimes read Jesus words as saying that if we are brought before the authorities the Spirit will prove our innocence and we'll get off. Of course, Jesus never said such a thing. Stephen's story shows us that there is no guarantee of an easy ride. Far from getting off, Stephen was executed - and years later we can still learn things from what the Spirit did in Stephen's life. God's purposes go beyond our own comfort.
So Stephen finds himself in front of a bunch of bent witnesses, to answer two charges: (verse 14)
- Jesus would destroy the temple
- Jesus would change the customs that Moses handed down
Stephen Tells a Story
So the high priest asks Stephen if the charges against him are true. And Stephen, with all of the skill of a cabinet minister facing John Humphries, does not give an simple answer to a simple question, but starts to tell a story.
The first thing to notice about Stephen's story is that it is about God. Reading from the human standpoint we might think that it is a story about Abraham, Moses and David. But no - as you read carefully it becomes clear that the main actor all the way through the story is God himself.
Let's run through the story briefly to make sure that we are aware of what's going on:
1-7 God Starts to Build a Nation
God calls Abraham (who lived somewhere in modern day Iraq) and tells him to move with his family to what is now Israel. God promises Abraham that his descendants will have a series of setbacks, but eventually they will own the land that Abraham settles in. On the face of it, this was a ridiculous promise because Abraham didn't own any land in the new country. To top it all, he was an old man and didn't have any children. Not an inspiring start.
8-16 Egyptian Exile
Abraham's grandchildren start to become a powerful force in the land, but one of the younger brothers, Joseph, is a prophet (read about this in Genesis) with a God-given talent to understand the meaning of dreams. His brothers don't like this, so they sell him as a slave to Egyptian traders. But God is with him. You can't derail God's plans as easily as all that. Joseph eventually becomes the prime minister in Egypt, and is able to prepare the country for a famine. His brothers eventually have to come down to him to trade for grain. Joseph welcomes his family to Egypt where they settle.
There are a couple of things to note in passing:
Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our fathers died. Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money. (verse 15-16)
- Stephen talks about 'our Fathers.' He is including himself and his accusers in the story.
- Jacob was buried in the land promised to Abraham. Even though he settled in Egypt and his descendants lived there for many generations, it was never their home.
When the time came for God to lead his people back to the land he had promised to Abraham, he prepared a leader - Moses - with the intellectual and social background to do so. God was preparing Moses to take leadership of the people:
Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. (verse 25)
But they rejected him and, for fear of arrest as a criminal, Moses had to flee to another country. After forty years in Midian, God powerfully appeared to Moses and told him that he was to go back to Egypt and lead the people out of slavery:
'Then the Lord said to him, 'Take off your sandals; the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.' (verses 33-34)
There is a real irony here (verse 35). Moses had been chided by asking him who made him leader over Israel, and here we have God clearly making him the leader!
Moses led the people of Israel through the desert for forty years, and performed miracles (verse 36). He also promised the people that God would send another greater prophet, and he was the one who received the Ten Commandments and other words from God on Sinai (verse 38).
But - despite God doing all these things through Moses - the people turned their backs on him and turned to worship an idol of a Golden Calf (verse 40)
God directed Moses to make a tabernacle, or tent, to serve as a place of worship in the desert. Years after settling into the land of Israel, David asked God for permission to build a temple, but God denied him, and it was David's son, Solomon who eventually made the temple.
48-53 Summing Up
Stephen now gives his own summing up of the evidence that he has presented. Firstly, quoting Isaiah 66:1-2, he gives his thoughts on the temple.
However, the Most High does not live in houses
made by men. As the prophet says:
'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?' (verse 48-50)
In other words, he is saying that the Temple isn't that important in
the great scheme of things. People built the temple, but God built
the universe. He doesn't need our houses.
And then he turns the tables on his accusers. Stephen is supposedly the one on trial, but he finds his judges guilty!
'You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him - you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.' (verses 51-53)
Down through the centuries, the Jewish leaders have rebelled against God and killed his prophets, and the current generation of leaders had carried on in that tradition by killing Jesus. They are guilty of breaking their own laws.
So Stephen finds his accusers guilty - and they become enormously angry with him. Stephen then makes things even worse, by calling out that he is seeing a vision of God and Jesus standing with him. That is bound to make a bunch of orthodox Jewish leaders very, very angry, and Stephen is taken out quickly and stoned to death.
It is worth noticing the calm way in which Stephen meets his fate, and also noting that he, like his master, prays for forgiveness for those who killed him.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' Then he fell on his knees and cried out, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' When he had said this, he fell asleep. (verses 59-60)
What Do We Make of It?
There are two fascinating things about Stephen's defence speech:
(1) He doesn't try to save himself
Reading through Stephen's speech, especially the last three verses, it almost seems as though he is urging on his accusers to find him guilty. It's remarkable. The simple explanation is that for Stephen the opportunity to speak up for his saviour is more important to him than his life. He has an unrivalled opportunity to speak up for Jesus and he grabs it with both hands - at a huge risk to himself.
This speaks powerfully to us about our willingness to speak up about our faith, and I won't belabour the point.
(2) He tells a story
This may seem like a small thing, but it's very significant. Stephen didn't try to string together a logical argument to make his case for Jesus being the Messiah. He didn't come up with clever sound bites, he simply told a story.
We know from the opening section that Stephen was a good debater, and also had a reputation as a miracle worker, but he does none of this - he tells a story.
That being said, the story was a very significant one. Let's just think about what he said:
A story is worth dying for
Stephen's story showed that God is at work in time and space. He traced God's activity over thousands of years, from Abraham to the death of Christ. This is reality, truth. Stephen was not talking about some abstract philosophical principle or a new religion. He was talking about something that really happened, the latter stages of which had touched him directly.
This is important. Christianity is not an abstract faith or set of concepts. It is a historical reality, rooted in God intervening in the life of the people of Israel. It is this reality that makes it worth it for Stephen to give up his life.
It is a story that his hearers know already
There is nothing new or surprising in this story. The people listening to it could probably have told the same story just as well, or perhaps even better. They all knew about Abraham, Moses and David, and the details were extremely familiar.
The effect of this is that the people listening could not really argue with what Stephen was saying. Most of what he said was commonly held by everyone in the room. He started off by finding common ground.
He draws his audience in
I've already quoted from verse 15:
Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our fathers died.
Stephen draws both himself and his hearers into the story. This isn't just something that they know about, but it is something that they are involved with. They can't turn their backs on it and pretend that it's nothing to do with them.
He tells a story about their ancestors and predecessors, and then finishes off by telling them that they are acting in exactly the same reprehensible way as their forefathers. Stephen uses the story to tell them things about themselves that they don't want to hear - and in a way that doesn't allow them much of a defense. It's no wonder that their reaction is one of fury and anger - they've got nowhere else to go.
Such is the power of a good story well told.
We can tell stories
Every one of us has a story to tell. We don't have the dramatic background that Stephen had, but if we are Christians we all have stories that tell about what God has done in our lives.
Let's face it, witnessing to people is dreadfully difficult. Most of us find it almost impossible. So why not find a way to make it slightly less difficult? Part of our difficulty lies in our own inherent ability to complicate things and to make evangelism difficult. We think we have to have well reasoned arguments to defend the faith. We want to be sure that we are knowledgeable about evolution or Islam or whatever issues are currently in the press. All of that is good and well, but it is more important that we can tell a good story. You don't have to have everything sewn up, you don't have to pretend you are perfect - people know you are not anyway - but you can tell a story about what God has done in your life.
Too many Christians take this to mean that they should have their 'testimony' prepared. The story of how they come to faith. If you've come to faith recently, that's fine, but most people aren't particularly interested in hearing what happened five, ten or fifty years ago. They want to know about what is happening now.
Tell people your story!