Acts 6:8–8:1 Stephen's Speech Before the Sanhedrin.
Key Notes: The History of Israel as instruction. Kinds of sermons. Stephen martyred. Where religious criticism should be given. The vision of Christ.
6:8–15 Stephen was one of the first seven deacons, a remarkable group that included another renowned church leader, Philip the Evangelist. Stephen was a Hellenist, not born in Israel, and may have been a member of the synagogue of the Freemen--Jews from outside Israel who had returned to Jerusalem.They were probably more zealous than native-born Jews for the three great symbols of Israel: the land, the law, and the temple. They could not contend with Stephen's wisdom, and Spirit-filled life, so they denounced him to the Sanhedrin. They charged him with speaking ill of the temple and the law. They quoted him as saying that Jesus would destroy "this place" (Jerusalem? the temple?) and change the culture derived from Moses.
7:1–8 Stephen started his defense with Abraham's call to Canaan, but he noted that God let him not have any part of it, "not even a foot" (except his grave-plot in Shechem. Gen.23). Then God said that his children would be aliens in another land for four hundred years. He gave him the covenant of circumcision and he became the father of the twelve patriarchs. Later in his address, Stephen will accuse his listeners of being spiritually uncircumcised.
The beginning of the speech is smooth and benign, nothing to ruffle the feathers of his audience except to cast doubt on their permanence in the land. [In another 40 years they would be drivien out.]
7:9–19 The patriarchs sold Joseph their brother into Egypt, but he thrived under God's protection and was the source of food and land for the family of Jacob. The patriarchs' bodies were returned to Canaan for burial.
Comment: the second part of the speech is also benign except for the reference to Joseph's betrayal by his brothers.
7:20–43 Moses was one of the Hebrew babies the Egyptians demanded to be exposed at birth, but his exposure in the bulrushes led to adoption by the princess of Egypt and his instruction in all the wisdom of Egypt. At 40, he tried to defend one of his countrymen, but was "thrust out" and had to go into exile in Midian. At Mt. Sinai, Moses met God in the burning bush and was commissioned to deliver Israel from Egypt. So Moses, previously rejected as ruler and judge, was sent back forty years later. Moses told Israel that God would raise up another prophet after him. But Israel refused to obey Moses, and set up the golden calf.
Then Stephen quoted a prophecy from Amos (5:25,26) denouncing Israel for worshipping Molech, a god that was given infant children as sacrifices and Rephan (Saturn), whose celebrations were wild debauched revels. Curiously, Amos was some 600 years later than Moses but Stephen implied that not much changed over the centuries.
Comment: Stephen did not take anything away from Moses, but showed him as a Christ-like figure rejected by his people. Thus he implied that it was not the Christians that were changing the culture, but Israel that had turned away from God and followed paganism. And they were turning away again.
7:44–50 The tabernacle was Israel's worship focus in the wilderness, and it was replaced by Solomon's temple. But even Solomon in his prayer revealed that God does not live in houses.
Comment: Stephen down-played the temple by implying that God was not necessarily there and could be worshipped elsewhere, as Jesus had said. Jn.4:23
7:51–59 Finally, he denounced the Sanhedrin and the Freemen for complicity in the persecution of the prophets who testified of the coming of Messiah, climaxed by their participation in the murder of Christ. Jesus had said the same to the Scribes and Pharisees. (Matt.23). Stephen said that the law was given by angels but they had not obeyed and Hebrews 2:1–4 repeats the charge.
His final words were that he saw the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God, and prayed that Jesus would receive his spirit.
This is the third time the High Priest has been accused of murder (Acts 4:10, 5:30, 7:52). I am sure he never expected this turn of events.
Stephen did not attack the law but defended it. He did not undercut the prophets but defended their work in spite of Israel's rejection. Thus, he refuted the charges of the Freemen and turned their arguments against them. If Stephen's case had been false, they might have laughed, but what he said was painfully true and their rage shows their conviction. His final exclamations told more than the rest of his story: Jesus is exalted at God's right hand, victorious over death, and receiving believers like him into Heaven.
Stoning could be a brutal and slow method of killing, but if a single large stone was dropped on the chest, death would be viirtually instantaneous. Although thousands of Christians were martyred in NT times, Stephen's is the only one other martyrdom than Christ's whose is death recorded in Scripture. Jesus is the One whose martyrdom we concentrate on.
Stephen's address is one of three kinds of sermon.
Peter's evangelistic message of salvation is one of the most common. Acts 2
Paul's discourses are sometimes apologetic: giving a reason for the hope that is in him.(Acts 22:2–21;24:10–21; 26:2–23). The sermon on Mars Hill is also apologetic, using reason rather than experience. Acts 17
Stephen's discourse is a critique of religion, using Israel's history as his example.
The history of Israel was used for teaching on many occasions. Moses recited their experience in the wilderness (Deut.1–4). Numerous psalms repeat Israel's story. (Psa.68,78,81,95,105,106,136). The New Testament uses OT examples as well. (Acts 13:17–47; ICor.10:1–13; Heb.3:12–19; 4:1–10; 7:1–25). Old Testament history is a political case-study with moral and spiritual applications, and is therefore the most valuable history that we have.
Critical discourse is uncommon. Marxism is a rigorous criticism of western capitalism and religion. Postmodernism is criticism of absolute truth. But Christians are reluctant to attack other religious positions. A critical comparison of Christ and Mohammed is easy to do, but considered explosive and dangerous. (Stephen's speech was dangerous.) Attacks on Vishnu, Krishna or Buddha are not heard. Where does Stephen's sermon fit in church ministry today?
Stephen's speech was given to a devout group of Jews, people zealous to do good and follow God. Jesus similarly spent almost all of his criticism on the group closest to the truth--the Pharisees. He said little to the Sadducees, virtually nothing to Herodeans, Zealots or Essenes. Paul's critique of Corinthians was delivered to believers.
If the pattern is correct, critical speeches should be reserved for the those closest to the truth-- the Church. But critical preaching is not being delivered to the Church. Like the rest of society, the church wants comfort, not cuffing and conviction.