Stephen's Defense: Telling the Story the Right Way

Last week, we began telling the story of Stephen, one of the seven newly appointed deacons of the Church, as he began his ministry with signs and wonders that attracted the attention of the Jewish leaders. They remain so blinded by hate that they ignore the miraculous proofs of Stephen’s divine authority, and instead they bring him up on charges that he is speaking against the law and the temple.

The heart of Stephen’s defense against these two charges is a story. Stephen recounts the history of Israel in such a way that it becomes clear to all who have ears to hear that the worship of God is being attacked, but not by Stephen. In one of the most rhetorically powerful sermons in the whole book of Acts, Stephen, empowered by the Holy Spirit, utterly destroys the trumped-up charges, and reverses them against his accusers.

Two Errors: Idolize God’s Gifts, Persecute His Prophets

Throughout the message, Stephen develops two main themes, two things that Israel has always done: first, they idolize God’s gifts (especially the land and the temple) instead of loving God, and second, they always persecute the prophets that God sends to instruct them. They will not obey and will not listen, and so their rebellion is complete.

The Temple is Not Enough

Stephen uses three main examples to attack Israel’s temple idolatry. Neither Abraham, nor Moses, nor David experienced the full worship of God that was to come later through land, tabernacle, and temple, and yet their worship was still acceptable to God. Stephen shows that the category of “faithful worshipers without a temple” not only exists, but it is filled with the fathers of Israel. But it might be replied that these men aren’t good examples, because they are all unsatisfied worshipers with unfulfilled hopes, wanting something more. They were all grieved by not being able to worship in the temple.

But this plays right into Stephen’s hands – his whole argument is that if you were really sons of Abraham, Moses, and David, then you would be a discontented worshiper too – you would want something greater than the temple! This was the gospel that Stephen preached, echoing Jesus in Matthew 12 – something greater than the temple is here! But instead of the personal indwelling presence of God, the Jewish leaders chose an organized pile of metal and stone. So who really hates the temple, the place where God dwells?

Persecuted Prophets:

When confronted with her idolatry, Israel regularly chooses to persecute the prophet rather than to tear down the idol. Stephen makes this point with Joseph, and then again with Moses – Israel keeps rejecting her deliverers! And while Jesus has not yet been named, it is painfully clear to everyone that Stephen’s whole point is all about Jesus. By killing Jesus, the Jewish leaders were writing themselves a new chapter along the exact same plot lines: they were turning the law and the temple into idols, and when Jesus came and attacked their idols, they broke the law by persecuting and killing Him.

Whenever a prophet is put on trial, it always ends up that the jury are the ones convicted. The two charges are not only shown to be false concerning Stephen, but painfully true about the Jewish leaders. Unfortunately, instead of humbling themselves and calling on God’s mercy, they fully embrace the role and proceed to kill this prophet, too. Stephen becomes the next prophet in a long line of persecuted prophets. Since the story he told was true, his faithful rebuke of Israel’s idolatry ensured his death. But as we will see next time, Stephen loses his life in order to save it. By sharing in Christ’s death, Stephen is assured of a glorious resurrection. Israel may always persecute the prophets, but the God who raises the dead always saves his prophets.

Posted on Wednesday, November 06, 2013 by CJ Bowen