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Learning from a martyr - Stephen's last sermon

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

This is a talk on Acts 7 and the last sermon and martyrdom of Stephen. You can watch the talk (timestamped) or read it below with a few edits and details that I wasn't able to fit in my talk. I prepare my talks in the style that I speak so please forgive any poor grammar that I've missed in posting here!

Good morning, my name is Phil Duncalfe, [edit...sadly I no longer attend this church]

If you had 5 minutes to summarise the story of Christianity, what would you say?

If you are unfamiliar with Christianity and just tuning in, don’t worry we aren’t testing you, but you can join in with the question anyway. What do you think Christianity is about and how would you summarise it?

It is a common process in Christian circles to discuss models, simple diagrams, or neat acronyms to help share what the message of the gospel is. Many of them are helpful but all of them will miss out some aspects of the Christian story and prioritise others. In the book of Acts, there are several sermons and moments where the first Christians share the message of Christianity, and they seem to miss bits out that we’d put in or focus on parts that seem odd to us. We’re going to look at one of these sermons and see what we can learn from it.

We’re currently working through a series on the book of Acts, looking at the early church and what church looked like for the first Christians.

We are in chapter 7 today which is the longest sermon in the book of Acts. I’ll try not to make this the longest sermon in the series though…

It is a pivotal moment in Acts as most of the action so far has been in Jerusalem. After the story we read today, the Christian movement goes further out from Jerusalem to the nations.

The text is quite long so instead of reading the whole thing this morning I’m going to summarise with a few passages shown on the screen as we go. If you’d like to read Acts 7 before you listen to me, feel free to hit pause now and join me after you’ve read it. The joys of technology!

Last week we heard a little bit about Stephen, one of 7 men who were chosen to look after distributing food to widows in the community.

In chapter 6, Stephen is said to be a man filled with God’s grace and power. He is able to perform great signs and wonders, which generally means people are being healed, a sign that God is working through Stephen. Another group of Jews begin to oppose him and argue against him though they find they can’t handle Stephen’s arguments. Remember that at this point in the early church, all the Christians are Jewish and are working out what it means to follow Jesus while attending synagogue and following Torah. The message that the kingdom of God arrived in Jesus and that Jesus fulfils the scriptures was causing tension between various synagogues in the city.

Stephen was taken before the Sanhedrin, a council that dealt with issues between Jews. Luke, the author of Acts is pointing to growing tension between Christians and the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leaders. This is the third time the apostles have been called in front of the Sanhedrin. The first time in chapter 4 was just a warning for preaching the gospel, the second in chapter 5 led to the apostles being flogged because they wouldn’t stop. Today we’ll see this escalate further.

The accusations against Stephen are in chapter 6:11-15:

Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

Stephen has been accused of blaspheming against Moses. If you know of Moses, he also had a glowing face after speaking with God in Exodus 34. Part of reading scripture is looking for patterns. Luke is wanting you to make note of connections to the Old Testament, especially Moses, showing that Stephen is standing in a long line of prophets calling Israel to follow God.

Stephen’s sermon is a well structured and reasoned response, so we’ll take a moment to get an idea of what is going on in it.

Stephen is answering the charges against him and therefore focuses on

1. His shared heritage with the Jews he is speaking with

2. the promised land that they occupy

3. the law given through Moses

4. and the temple.

Stephen is not on the defensive and he ends up accusing the Sanhedrin of doing what Israel has always done, rejected or disobeyed God’s prophets. Luke, the author of Acts, has recorded the ending of the sermon purposefully to highlight several core pieces of Christian theology which I’ll get to at the end.

Stephen starts with their common heritage - the father of the Jews, Abraham. God promised the land to Abraham, but Abraham’s nearest descendants, up to 4 generations, did not get to the land and suffered, even as slaves, until the promise was fulfilled.

Stephen goes on to talk about Abraham’s descendants, first Isaac, then Jacob and then the 12 patriarchs, that is Joseph and his brothers who are all the fathers of the tribes of Israel. Joseph is the focal point as he is the one that is rejected by the patriarchs, sold into slavery but eventually brings his family out of famine into the safety of Egypt.

Egypt is not the promised land and Israel becomes enslaved in Egypt.

We then get to Moses. Stephen focuses on three things:

1. Moses was called by God to rescue the people of Israel but was rejected multiple times.

2. Moses promised that another prophet would be raised up from among them.

3. The people of Israel forgot about God, disobeyed Moses and worshipped idols and other gods.

There is then a transition away from Moses but so far Stephen has not said anything controversial.

Stephen goes on to say that Israel, “our ancestors”, as he is still aligning with their heritage, had the law and the tabernacle, the tent of meeting where priests could meet with God, and with it they entered the promised land. David wanted to make a house for God but it was Solomon who actually built the temple.

It is here that Stephen’s speech becomes more a proclamation of the gospel and antagonistic to the Sanhedrin. Stephen quotes Isaiah 66 to say that God is bigger than the temple and then accuses the Sanhedrin - lets read this bit from verse 51:

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”

Stephen has used his time in front of the council to preach that God is fulfilling the kingdom that Isaiah was pointing to. God was bigger than the limitations of the temple and the Sanhedrin’s way of working by focusing on the law. Not only was God bigger than that, but the Sanhedrin have also followed in the footsteps of the people of God who disobeyed Moses and the prophets, he was making them responsible for killing the promised messiah.

This whole last paragraph of language with Stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears as well as the question regarding who of the prophets have they not persecuted – is filled with allusion to the prophets.

As I said already, Luke has recorded Stephen’s sermon in such a way that you are meant to connect him to the prophets. But not only to the prophets, the remaining verses are written in such a way that you are meant to see someone else.

"Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said,

“Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep."

Stephen’s death is meant to remind you of Jesus’.

Luke 22 is Jesus’ trial. Jesus is in front of the council, the Sanhedrin, and they say,

‘If you are the Messiah, tell us’.

“Jesus answered, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.’

They all asked, ‘Are you then the Son of God?’

He replied, ‘You say that I am.’

Then they said, ‘Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips.’

Stephen repeats a phrase that possibly some of the council members would have heard during Jesus trial. They know this idea of a Son of Man seated at the right hand of the mighty God because it is a fulfilment of a vision from the prophet Daniel. If you look back on our Youtube channel you’ll see we have a sermon on Daniel 7 but very quickly it is a vital vision for understanding this phrase. In the vision, Daniel sees ‘one like a Son of Man approaching the throne of God and led into his presence. 7:14 says,

“He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

Stephen’s proclamation of this vision is stating very clearly that the early Christians believed that Jesus was this son of man. This means they believed Jesus was the messiah, the anointed one, the suffering servant that the Torah and the prophets point to. That by dying, Jesus was exalted to the throne of God and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

In Luke 23, when Jesus is about to die on the cross he cries out:

“‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’”

Notice that while Jesus calls out ‘Father’, Stephen cries out ‘Lord Jesus’. Stephen is repeating the very early, within the first few years of Christianity, belief that Jesus is one with the father. Stephen dies proclaiming that Jesus is God, that he receives our spirit when we die.

Also in Luke 23, while the soldiers are dividing up Jesus’ clothes beneath the cross, Jesus says

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’.

While not as obvious as the first, by calling ‘Lord’, a term for Jesus, Stephen is saying that Jesus can forgive sins and as we see in the gospels, this is both the very thing Jesus’ mission was about but also that the Jews believed only God can forgive sins.

Luke is showing you in this record, not just the story of Israel in the promise of the covenant relationship with God, the land, the law and the temple, but also that Jesus was the better Abraham, the better Moses, the better David, he was not just the righteous one that was killed but the Son of Man who is part of God’s throne. He will receive our spirit, he will forgive sins, ultimately, Jesus is God.

Stephen’s death was a major turning point in that the persecution of Christians escalated in Jerusalem and many fled the city. As they did so, they shared the gospel of Jesus with anyone and everyone they could.

So where do we go from here. This passage in Acts may raise several questions and several challenges. I’m going to focus on three:

1. Do we know Jesus?

There are many claims in our culture about who Jesus is and why he is important. Many are quite content to think of him as just a good man and a teacher, many on the internet question his existence, other religions think of him as merely a prophet or even a god among many.

The earliest Christians thought of him as equal to God and worthy of worship, a concept that was blasphemous for Jews. They believed that Jesus brought the kingdom of God to earth and that by following him through the power of his spirt the church would continue bringing God’s kingdom through powerful signs and wonders and healings. Their mission was to go to all the nations fulfilling Jesus command to make disciples in the name of the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit.

Stephen died because he saw Jesus as the messiah, one worthy of worship even to death because he fulfilled the scriptures Stephen grew up with. He died claiming that the messiah was God who alone can forgive sins and receive our spirit when we die. This rules, out many other claims from religions regarding Jesus as just a man or a prophet.

So, what do you think of Jesus?

There are a few different things that you can do depending on how you answer that.

If you aren’t even sure he existed or have no idea what I mean by fulfilling the scriptures and it all seems a bit alien to you, I’d love for you to get in touch. There are valid reasons for thinking that Acts is both a historical document alongside all of the theological points I’ve discussed today. We’d love to chat to you about who Jesus is, why we believe he existed and even why we think there are good reasons to think he rose from the dead. Basically, if you have a bunch of questions or even disagreements about who Jesus is, we’d love to chat with you!

If you have been listening in for a while but have never made a commitment to follow Jesus, well get in touch by joining on the welcome desk this morning. The details will be on the screen at the end of the service. We’d love to share what it means to follow Jesus and how to support you at the beginning of a life-long adventure!

If you have been in the church for a while, reflect on what it means for the kingdom of God to be already here in our midst. What does that mean for our church? Even in the midst of the pandemic I saw a beautiful community working out what it means to follow Jesus together, praying for each other, supporting each other practically, going for walks, making time for Zoom despite spending the whole day on it. Those day-to-day actions of loving your neighbour in the church and out, are the bedrock to following Jesus and being a part of his kingdom. Keep going.

Is Jesus worth giving your life to? We believe he is and would love to talk to you about him.

2. Do we know the bible story and your place in it?

Stephen used his last moment before his death to proclaim the gospel with the hope that his fellow Jews, the people who he shared his heritage with, would see Jesus as the one that the scriptures point to so that they might turn to him. He knew the scriptures and he was ready for a response to show why Jesus was who he claimed to be.

Over the course of this series, we have been seeing what it means to be a witness, to share what you have seen and experienced as a Christian. This is a powerful starting point and all Christians, old and new, should spend time working out their story in relation to Jesus and all that he has done for us. But as you grow as a Christian, it is only natural that you deepen that story and work out where you fit into the story of the movement of God’s kingdom.

I asked at the beginning if you were asked to summarise the bible in 5 minutes, what would you say? There are several frameworks out there for summarising the bible, especially the gospel, but each will miss some details. Remember Stephen tailored his message for his audience and each of the apostles in their sermons have different angles on pointing to Jesus so don’t get caught up on the ‘correct’ way of sharing it.

Here is one that I hope you find helpful:

  • Creation - God makes all things and calls them good

  • Curse - a broken relationship between humanity and God brings death and sin into God's good world

  • Covenant - God partners with humanity to bring his kingdom through his people, Israel, to bless the nations but the curse continues to break the relationship between humanity and God

  • Christ - breaks the curse, defeating death and reconciling humanity to God and to each other

  • Church - the new covenant between humanity and God through the power of Jesus

  • New Creation - the hope that all things will be made new, that we see glimpses of new creation in the church but we long for Jesus to return, to totally restore the earth to that 'very good' state in the beginning.

You are part of the story of the church and as you grow in your walk with Christ, dig deep in to the wealth of resources we have to work out why the bible is so relevant to us now, even with its tricky and dare I say it, boring bits. Ask questions, don’t ignore the tricky bits, and continue to pray for God’s spirit to reveal truth to you as you read. Also work out where and how this story can be tailored for the people you are speaking to like Stephen did.

3. Do we count the cost?

Following Jesus isn’t going to be easy. Jesus called is followers to ‘take up their cross’ and that is what Stephen did. Luke, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wanted to show you that as a martyr, Stephen looked like Jesus. In suffering for Christ, we suffer with Christ. Jesus stopped Saul from persecuting Christians with the question,

“why do you persecute me?"

Paul later wrote these words,

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)

While in the west we are not facing the threat of death for following Jesus, we do have fellow believers across the world who do.

Here in the UK we should not seek out persecution and offending people does not necessarily mean we’ve shared the gospel well, but we should also not be surprised when we are faced with opposition. Share truth in love, continue to show Jesus’ love even to those who hate you or insult you or even misunderstand you, but be prepared that it might also cost you.

The cost may also be the way you live and there may be things you need to change when you start to follow Christ, but that is also for another sermon and another conversation.

As we go back into worship, lets focus back on what Stephen showed us about what Jesus did.

Through his death, Jesus defeated death, was given power and a kingdom that ruled over death. After his ascension his spirit is working through his church bringing about healing and reconciliation between humanity and God and we pray that is what we see through the church here in Guildford.

As we worship, lets pray for one another, that we will be a community of believers, seeking the kingdom of God here on earth no matter what it costs us. Amen.

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