Today we consider Stephen’s martyrdom and his message to the Jewish leaders, that might be boiled down to the simple quotation from Isaiah: “Heaven is my throne and earth is my footstool, what house will you build me?” (Acts 7:49, Is. 66:1-2)
The Jewish leaders hated God, and this means that they used fastidious religious traditions to attempt to keep Him at bay. And so we too must be aware of this tendency in the Christian church. It is not enough that we be around the Word of God. We must listen and obey. We must humble ourselves and worship Him alone.
The Text: “Then said the high priest, are these things so? And he said, Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken: the God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charan…” (Acts 7:1-60).
Summary of the Text
The charge brought against Stephen was that he was speaking blasphemies against Moses and God, the temple and the law (Acts 6:11, 13). The high priest asked Stephen if this was true, and Stephen answers the charges with a lengthy summary of Jewish history, beginning with Abraham’s call in Mesopotamia, in the land of the Chaldeans (Acts 7:1-4). The overarching point of Stephen’s message is that God has never been bound permanently to one place: God spoke to Abraham before he lived in the Promised land, before he owned a single square foot of the land, and yet He gave him the covenant of circumcision and foretold the four hundred years of sojourning, including slavery in Egypt (Acts 7:5-8). Stephen traces the story of Joseph, envied by his brothers, but God was with him, all the way down into Egypt, providing for his family, according to the promise made to Abraham (Acts 7:9-17).
When another king arose who dealt harshly with Israel, God raised up Moses who was rejected by his own kindred, but God spoke to him by an angel of the Lord in the burning bush, which was holy ground and he brought them out of Egypt (Acts 7:18-36). Moses foretold another prophet and spoke many good things, but the Jewish fathers rejected him, demanding the golden calf and worshiping other gods, turning away from the tabernacle that he built that was with them even unto the days of David (Acts 7:37-46). Solomon finally built God a temple, but God does not dwell in temples made with hands since He made all things (Acts 7:47-50). At this point, Stephen drives the point of his message home, calling the Jewish leaders stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears and like their fathers, persecutors of the prophets and rejectors of the law (Acts 7:51-53). When they gnashed their teeth and Stephen had a vision of Jesus standing at God’s right hand, they hauled Stephen out of the city and stoned him, laying their clothes at Saul’s feet, while Stephen prayed for their forgiveness (Acts 7:54-60).
The Necessity of Debate and Collision
Stephen’s short ministry was characterized by debate, dispute, and controversy (Acts 6:9-10). It can be tempting to think that Stephen was being needlessly confrontational, but we should remember that the ministry of Jesus was much like this: three years of controversy, concluding with an early death. The gospel smells like death to those who are perishing, and those who bring that gospel are covered with that aroma (2 Cor. 2:15-16). And at the same time, controversy and debate is where the truth of the Word shines, confounding and infuriating some, but also softening and piercing others: it is the aroma of life for those who are being saved. There is even a hint of that here with Saul witnessing the murder of the first martyr.
Resisting the Holy Spirit?
Here, Stephen charges the Jewish leaders with resisting the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). And that may strike some as a strange thing to say. Who can resist the Holy Spirit? Isn’t this like saying they are resisting God? But this highlights the doctrines of predestination and reprobation. In fact, in our sinful state, all men resist God, suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18), and it is only those whom God mercifully chose before the foundation of the word to save who cease resisting (Eph. 1:4ff). This doctrine is a stone of stumbling and rock of offence to those who are disobedient, “whereunto also they were appointed” (1 Pet. 2:8). To which the objection comes again: but if they were appointed to be offended and disobedient, who can resist God? And Paul answers this elsewhere: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and who he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” (Rom. 9:18-20) This is a doctrine of high majesty, clearly taught by Scripture, which shuts the mouths of men in humility or else drives them to gnash their teeth in fury.
There’s a marked contrast between Jesus standing in Heaven and Saul standing outside the city overseeing the stoning of Stephen. It has been pointed out that in the apostles’ creed and many texts, Jesus is described as “sitting” at God’s right hand (e.g. Mk 16:19, Heb. 1:3, 10:12, Rev. 3:21), but here, at the climax of this story, Stephen sees Him “standing,” in a posture of intercession, like an attorney in a courtroom. The Jews thought they were conducting a trial of Stephen, but it was actually God who was conducting a trial of them. While they condemned Stephen in their sham hearing (thus condemning themselves), Jesus exonerated him while condemning the Jews. And yet, even then, at least one of those guilty Jews would become the answer to Stephen’s prayer, that God not hold their sin against them (Acts 7:60).
The sovereignty of God is what crushes the pride of man. The rejection of the sovereignty of God is ultimately an attempt to wrest some part of that sovereignty from God. The exhaustive sovereignty of God is the theological doctrine that destroys all totalitarianism. And it does this by humbling man in worship.
It is precisely this humility that listens to the Word of God and obeys. It is this humility that tells the truth even when the truth will offend and infuriate. A Christian is someone who lives coram deo: before the face of God. But because of the mercy of God, this is a great joy and relief. Whatever the Father has for us is for His glory and that is our highest good.