|Create Date||August 16, 2018|
|Last Updated||August 16, 2018|
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THE DEACON WHO WAS DEVOTED TO JESUS
Acts 7:57-60; 8:1
Redhill. 12 August 2018. Presented by Gordon Green
The Church was about to face their greatest trial - the martyrdom of one of their members, Stephen. Stephen was “A man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people’’ (Acts 6:8). He was out there on the streets, on the front line, sharing the Gospel. All kinds of accusations started to be thrown at him by jealous, proud Jewish leaders. There were certain key things - symbols (the temple, the law, their identity, their land) and it was absolutely vital that all Jews stuck by them no matter what. Anyone who started saying anything different about them was immediately attacked and accused. But there was something that was being overlooked by them. The God of their ancestors, was now doing a new thing.
Stephen, the apostles, and later Paul were not saying that all the things that happened in the past were bad things. The temple, the law etc were good things that God gave - they were all part of a great story. But the story had now reached a new point. But the religious leaders did not want to hear about anything new. The religious leaders saw Jesus as a threat to their whole way of thinking and living. Stephen had a passion for Jesus and he had the courage to preach the gospel. So opposition arose. The religious leaders began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. He was a powerful preacher. They had no answers. They plotted their revenge by secretly persuading some men to twist what Stephen said. They said he spoke against Moses and God - how dare he! Stephen was attacked just as Jesus was.
They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin and produced false witnesses, who testified, "this fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law.” What Stephen was saying was that the temple was old news: animal sacrifices used to pay for sins in the temple were no longer needed because Jesus’ sacrifice was once-for-all. Forgiveness comes through Jesus. The rules had changed! This was radical preaching! In other words he was saying “Your sacrifices have become obsolete. You may as well just shut this temple down. The temple sacrifices have ended. A new age has dawned. The age of the Spirit. The age of the Messiah. The New Covenant had been established; the old was passing away.
This was incredibly threatening for the Sanhedrin. They had to stop what was going on. Priests were turning to Christ. Stephen was also saying “The law is fulfilled in Christ.” We are no longer under the law; we are under grace. We are not saved by keeping a bunch of do’s and don’ts, but through faith in Jesus; (Ephesians 2:8-9). There is nothing you can do to save yourself. Jesus did it all. People sometimes say, “God can’t forgive me. You don’t know what I’ve done.” But it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, it only matters what Jesus did. He died for you. You must let him save you. This is the age of God’s grace. So Stephen was standing before the Sanhedrin (the top legal body) teaching that everything they stood for was wrong. God was finished with the temple and the law is not the way of salvation but faith in Jesus alone.
In chapter 7 Stephen launches into the longest speech in the book of Acts (almost 50 verses!). He surveys almost the whole bible and takes them from Abraham to Jesus and covers 2000 years of Jewish history. He said that they always rejected God and his message. Joseph was rejected. Moses was rejected. Jesus’ death was just one more example of Israel’s rebellion against and rejection of God. He was showing them the truth and convicting the Sanhedrin with their own scriptures. He talked to them about what God is like. It was all about what God had done. God is not a passive god. He is proactive. He is the great initiator. Stephen was saying: “The God I’m talking about is not a different God from the one made known to your ancestors, but precisely the same one doing precisely the same thing, that is rescuing his people - but he’s doing it in a brand new way.” He was also saying: You can’t put God in a box. You’ve tried to put him in a box – you can’t do that! “You think by building this magnificent temple to keep God in, you have tamed God. You have made God into your own image. God is doing an extraordinary work here. You need to get on board. God doesn’t need your little temple - He fills the universe. God can’t be localized. No temple can contain him.”
The Sanhedrin didn’t like what they were hearing. The temple was the pride of the people; it was the house of God. But Stephen didn’t stop there. "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: you always resist the Holy Spirit” (v51). Stephen’s speech was astonishing. He accused them of rejecting the Messiah – a rebellious behaviour set by their ancestors. The whole story should be one of salvation but it’s really about rebellion. Verse 54-58: When they heard Stephen’s accusations “they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him 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. Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. At this they covered their ears (Wilful rejection – they didn’t want to hear it) and yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.”
3 Life Lessons from the story of Stephen
We are not all going to be martyrs. Not all of us are going to be murdered. But all of us are going to get stoned. What do I mean? All of us will have to endure the stones of criticism. When you get criticised by enemies it doesn’t go too deep but when criticism comes from friends, family and fellow Christians that’s when the wound can reach deep into your soul. It’s very painful. 1 Peter 4:12 has helped me over the years. Peter says we are sharing, participating in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. These words will give you a whole new perspective. It will take a lot of the pain and bitterness away.
Pride is something we underestimate. It’s a frightening thing. CS Lewis had a lot to say about pride. He wrote “there is one vice of which no man in the world is free”. “The vice I am talking of is pride or self-conceit. According to Christian teachers the essential vice, the utmost evil, is pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through pride that the devil became the devil: pride leads to every other vice.... Pride, he says, has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began and pride “can snuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life.” The opposite to pride is humility and Lewis wrote; “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.”
Think of your traditions, your beliefs, your habits, your culture. Why do you believe what you believe? Why do I? Many of religious leaders were defending a worldview, a way of looking at things which coloured their whole life. And they saw the preaching of Jesus as a threat to their whole way of thinking and living. So is there anything you are choosing to reject because of your worldview....because of your pride?
The religious leaders of the time did not want to hear about it. They didn’t want to hear anything new. There are people who just don’t want to hear anything new. We shouldn’t change just for the sake of change but we must also be willing to be open minded, to think outside the box. An extremely powerful prayer is to ask God to allow you to see Him and people and God’s creation the way He sees them and ask Him to allow you to see in the way God sees and participate in what He is doing.
So Stephen let go of his life. He even let go of his anger and everything else, and clung to Jesus. He even imitated the last words of Jesus, “Father, forgive them.”