By Dr. Mark Scott
The second internal challenge that the church faced (certain widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food) caused the church to select seven men to handle this oversight (Acts 6:1-6). One of those seven men was Stephen.
Even though Stephen was not an apostle, he gave the longest speech in the book of Acts. It is hard not to overestimate the significance of his speech. God used it to:
• Challenge the Jewish authorities about misunderstanding their identity and mission.
• Thrust the church into all Judea and Samaria (Acts 1:8; chapters 8–12).
• Prick the conscience of Saul of Tarsus (7:58).
Stephen attempted to answer these criticisms: that he spoke against Moses and God (6:11), against “this holy place and the law” (v. 13), and against its customs (v. 14). Notice what gets equated in these charges. God is associated with one place, and God’s law becomes no more than customs. There are major misunderstandings of sacred space and holy places. Stephen would stand firm against this misunderstanding. That stand would earn him strong opposition.
Stephen’s sermon is a classic example of an inductive sermon (where the big idea comes toward the end). In many ways it moves like the book of Amos. (“Yes, God, punish Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. Wait—punish Judah?”) The Synagogue of the Freedmen (6:9) could “amen” their way through the telling of their story—until the end. In rough mob action, they killed Stephen. What brought about such animosity? It was hearing their story and this time not neglecting significant little details.
Stephen began their story with the God of glory appearing to Abraham in Ur of the Chaldeans. Then God moved Abraham to Haran. God commissioned Abraham to be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:1-3). But only then did God bring Abraham to the Holy Land. The point that Stephen was trying to establish is that God did not call Abraham first from the Holy Land. God called Abraham from a pagan land.
We also do not need to overly emphasize one place over another. God can work anywhere.
Acts 7:8-10, 17, 33, 34
The Abraham narrative bleeds into the stories of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. “Bleeds” is the right word because God used circumcision as a sign of his agreement with Abraham and his family. The irony is that the patriarchs were jealous of the very brother who would later serve as their savior.
This irony continued in Egypt (another place outside of the Holy Land—God’s people always come out of exile). But what did Israel do while multiplying in Egypt? They persecuted the one who would be their deliverer, namely Moses (Acts 7:35). Israel’s tragic pattern is that they rejected the ones who functioned as their saviors. This would be especially true of the one whom the Lord would raise up like Moses (v. 37).
Acts 7:45-47, 52, 53
Moses did deliver and lead Israel. Moses gave Israel the Ten Commandments. Moses endured Israel’s faithlessness in the wilderness. Moses finally passed the baton of leadership to Joshua, who led Israel into the Holy Land. From the time of Joshua to the time of Solomon was about 500 years. All during that time God was on the move with his people. The tabernacle (the symbol of the presence of God) would move when God’s people would move. Solomon would permanently locate the presence of God in the temple in Jerusalem, even though he knew that the heavens could not contain God (1 Kings 8:27).
God’s people had his presence close by, but they continued to live in idolatry and continued to reject their leaders. Stephen went for the jugular by saying that the people were stiff-necked, uncircumcised, and always resistive to the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). Their fathers killed the prophets and they murdered Jesus. They received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.
Someone once said, “It’s one thing to have salt rubbed in your wounds; it’s another thing to be billed for the salt.” Stephen got more than a bill for salt. He became the first martyr of the church (vv. 59, 60). But he stood firm against the opposition. In his honor Jesus stood to welcome him home (v. 55).
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College and has held preaching ministries in Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado.