Kill The Preacher! (Acts 7:54—8:8)

Anyone who preaches long enough is going to have some experiences where his words are not appreciated for some reason – fair or not. I have had a couple of those experiences. Years ago in New Jersey I had a Mother’s Day sermon go awry. I forget the point of application, but it was not a warm and fuzzy one like what was expected, and there was an outcry of insensitivity among the women of the church! Maybe I deserved it. I remember another occasion where I had a group of people up front patting me on the back for a passionate and pointed sermon on some other topic I’ve since forgotten, while a different group in the foyer was gathering a posse to get elder authority to run me out of town. It happens, but I have never had one with quite the reaction that Stephen received … “Let’s just kill him now!” His message hit them so heard and with such accusation that their rage was immediate and deadly.

So Stephen becomes the first martyr of the Christian Church, though certainly not the last. We tend to be oblivious in the West that this happens regularly to our brothers and sisters in Christ in other parts of the world. An example currently is in Egypt, involving the persecution and deaths of Christians in that country. It is a horrible thing for sure, yet today’s passage demonstrates the glories of heaven that await those who pass from this life to the next – to real life with Christ.

A literary devise that Luke uses in writing Acts is to give prominent characters (who appear later on in the account) an opportunity for a brief “walk-on” role. And so, he notes that a young fellow named Saul was there and in hearty agreement with all that was happening. As well, the brief mention of Saul’s energetic engagement in going house to house to drag off Christians sets the later stage for why Saul/Paul would not find a warm welcome in Jerusalem … hence his growth and discipleship and evangelism would occur far beyond – in places like Antioch, Corinth, Athens, Ephesus, and even Rome.

The final words of Christ during his ascension announced the great commission of the Gospel to be spread by witnesses from Jerusalem – to Judea, Samaria, and far beyond. A positive outcome of the persecution against all the Christian community on this day was the expansive widening of the message of the Gospel, as the people were forced to scatter in every direction of the ancient world. The picture could be of a boot coming down upon a fire, only to see the sparks fly in every direction and set multiple other fires in surrounding dry timber.

Tertullian – the 2nd Century church father – famously said that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”  This has been a truism throughout all the years since. Millions have given their lives for the faith, and wherever this has happened, the faith has grown, not shrunk. We could look to the Republic of China for the modern era illustration. The house church movement with millions of adherents testifies to the power of the Gospel over what Martin Luther famously penned as “this world with devils filled.”

We have lived in a unique time where our faith has been accepted by the surrounding culture. And though we see the very clear and troubling erosion of this undergirding cultural foundation, we are still freer of persecution and hatred than the average Christian has experienced over the past two millennia. Will it take persecution in our town squares and upon our doorsteps to live as the witnesses we are called to be by our faith in Christ? Or will we be faithful to use even times of peace to be “Matthews” who bring our friends to meet the Savior?

The Stoning of Stephen – Acts 7:54—8:8

54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 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.

8:1 And Saul approved of their killing him.

The Church Persecuted and Scattered

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

Philip in Samaria

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.

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The Long History of Wrong Choices: Acts 7:1-53

On the day that I am writing this, there is a video that has gone viral on the web of a Baptist preacher in the south somewhere who verbally “went postal” on this congregation. He mocks and berates them, saying, “Son, don’t you go to sleep while I’m talking. Hey, hey, hey don’t you lay your head back. I’m important. I’m somebody.”  To another person sitting near the front he says, “You’re one of the sorriest church members I have. You’re not worth 15 cents!”  It is pretty bizarre to be honest.

But there are times when the person charged with being the spokesman for God is in a situation where he has to say what is really the truth. And today we see Stephen flat-out giving the world’s most in-your-face sermon to the religious leadership of Israel. It proved to be the proverbial Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that knocked over the lantern that burned down the city. So let’s get a quick summary of what was so incendiary about his remarks.

Recalling our reading yesterday, we remember that Stephen has been accused of speaking against the traditions of Moses and of inciting the destruction of the Temple. He is hauled before the same Sanhedrin council who warned John and Peter to shut up – having them flogged also. And of course, this same group condemned Christ as well.

So Stephen goes into a rather extended speech/sermon – beginning with Abraham and the events that took the nation to Egypt. Of course it was in Egypt where Moses rose to prominence, ultimately leading the nation out of bondage. Of this favorite and most venerated figure in their heritage, Stephen reminds them of the nation’s rebellion against his leadership. This is the first instance of a long pattern of such insolent behavior.

And regarding the Temple, Stephen recalls to their attention that God instituted the Tabernacle that travelled with them and contained the Ark of the Covenant down through David’s time. It was David’s passion that brought about the Temple – ultimately built by Solomon. It is not like God needed some place in which to dwell, since he is the creator of everything. Stephen is essentially telling them their fascination was too much upon a structure and not enough with pure hearts tuned to obedience to the God honored by the structure!

As the sermon is getting a bit long – not unlike some of my own where I spent maybe too much time on the introduction – Stephen lands this baby really fast – like a 747 on a dirt airstrip!  It builds to a climactic moment where he asks which of the prophets their ancestors did not persecute – even killing some of those who predicted the coming of the Messiah! And now, this generation – YOU GUYS – have done them one better by betraying and killing the Messiah Himself!

In seminary, we were taught to seek to bring sermons to an ultimate point of conviction and application. A question to ask is what the preacher wants the audience to think, feel, and do. Well, Stephen’s audience thinks he is a heretic, feels overwhelming hatred, and acts as a mob to kill him on the spot.

Standing for the truth in the face of power and opposition is difficult to do, but sometimes it becomes the calling of God upon our lives. Could you do it?

Stephen’s Speech to the Sanhedrin – Acts 7:1-53

Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”

To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’

“So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. God spoke to him in this way: ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’ Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.

“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the good will of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.

11 “Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. 12 When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers on their first visit. 13 On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. 14 After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. 15 Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our ancestors died. 16 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.

17 “As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. 18 Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’ 19 He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.

20 “At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for by his family. 21 When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. 22 Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.

23 “When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. 24 He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. 25 Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. 26 The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’

27 “But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? 28 Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’  29 When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.

30 “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. 31 When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’  Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.

33 “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 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.’

35 “This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.

37 “This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’  38 He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.

39 “But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’ 41 That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. 42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:

“‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
43 You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.

44 “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. 45 After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, 46 who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.  47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him.

48 “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: 49 “‘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?50 Has not my hand made all these things?’

51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”