In our study of Acts chapter seven, we see the cost of sharing the truth in the midst of jealousy and persecution. We see here the struggle between religion and the Holy Spirit. It is because of this struggle that Stephen is killed. This same struggle goes on to this day and this study can help us to understand it and stand strong in the face of persecution.
Then the high priest asked him, '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 Haran. "Leave your country and your people," God said "and go to the land I will show you."
Stephen is being interrogated by the high priest because he was speaking about Jesus. When asked if the charges are true, Stephen does not defend his actions. He begins to talk about the Jewish heritage. This may not make sense to us as our natural inclination is to defend ourselves but, when led by the Holy Spirit, it is possible to remain fixed on God and his work. We have the same power as Stephen displays in this passage. The question is do we rely on God and use it?
'So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. 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 a foot of ground. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child.'
Stephen is continuing his speech to the Sanhedrin by reminding them of their heritage. He reminded them of Abraham's obedience even when he did not understand what God was doing. Stephen's speech is a good reminder for us today as well in that we can stand on the Word of God even when we do not understand what He is doing.
God spoke to him in this way: 'Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.' 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.
Stephen is still giving the Sanhedrin a history lesson. Think of the faith that it took for Abraham to obey when God told him that his descendants will be enslaved for four hundred years.
'Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt; so he made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.'
As Stephen continues to recount the history of the Jewish people, we see the faithfulness of God. Imagine being Joseph and sold as a slave but then God blesses you and in effect makes you ruler of the land. Now that's got to be a serious "God moment". Today, we can take comfort in the fact that God takes care of his people no matter what others may do. God is in control.
'Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our fathers could not find food. When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers on their first visit. On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph's family. After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our fathers died.'
Stephen is still recalling Jewish history as he speaks to the Sanhedrin. Here, he is reminding them about how God used one of his people to save them all from starving. In spite of his brothers selling him into slavery, Joseph was where God wanted him to be at just the right time to be used to save his people. The same is true of us and Jesus Christ. Both Jesus and Joseph were obedient even when it was difficult and because of that God was able to use them to save his chosen people.
'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. As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt greatly increased. Then another King, who knew nothing about Joseph, became ruler of Egypt. He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our forefathers by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.'
Stephen is reminding the members of the Sanhedrin about the history of Israel. He is reminding them what reliance on their ancestor had brought the people. You see, in Egypt at the time that Stephen is describing, the Israelite people had become used to the favor granted them by the ruler because of Joseph. But, when the ruler was replaced, their favor was removed and they were enslaved. In a way, that is happening in the church today. People are attending services because their ancestors did and hoping for favor with God because of that. We know that, in the end, the relationship with God through Jesus Christ is what saves us and not whether our ancestors had a right relationship with God.
'At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for in his father's house. When he was placed outside, Pharaoh's daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.'
Stephen continues with his review of Jewish history. Here, he recounts the story of Moses and how God was in control even then as Moses should have been killed at birth. It was no accident or coincidence that Moses was taken in by the Pharaoh's daughter. God is in control of all things and that is still true today, tomorrow and for eternity. That same God has a purpose for each of us and has prepared works for us to serve him.
'When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. 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?" But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, "Who made you ruler and judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday?" When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.'
As Stephen continues his discourse on Jewish history, we see Moses emerge as God's tool to save His people. Moses knew that God wanted to use him but he didn't have the direct communication with God yet. He tried to help the people through his own actions and not through God's plans. He killed an Egyptian and his fellow Jew had seen it. When Moses found out that the man knew what he had done, he fled into the desert. As we will see later, Moses was the chosen instrument of God just like he had thought but he hadn't sought the direction of God in the matter. Do we each do the same thing and try to make our plans fit into God's or do we wait on Him and seek His instructions?
After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mt. Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to look more closely, he heard the Lord's voice: 'I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.' Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.
Moses heard the voice of the Lord and trembled with fear. Aren't you thankful for Jesus? Because of His sacrifice, we can hear the voice of the Lord, through the Holy Spirit, every day and we do not have to be afraid as this passage says Moses was.
'Then the Lord said to him, "Take off your sandals; the place where you are standing is holy ground. 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."'
Can you imagine the thoughts going through the head of Moses? God spoke to him and said that He was going to send him back to Egypt. Remember that Moses left because he was afraid that the authorities would find out about him killing an Egyptian. Just like Moses, God may put us in difficult circumstances to further His plan but we must remember that He is always there with us and in control.
'This is the same Moses whom 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. He led them out of Egypt and did wonders and miraculous signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the desert. This is that Moses who told the Israelites, "God will send you a prophet like me from your own people." He was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mt Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.'
Stephen continues his recap of Jewish history in his speech to the Sanhedrin. He reminds them of the rejection of Moses by the Israelite men who were fighting. He also reminds them that, after that time, God sent him to be the deliverer of Israel. It did not matter if people did not like it, God had appointed him. The same is true of when Jesus came down to the earth. It did not matter what the Jewish rulers said because God had appointed Jesus to be the deliverer of His people. The same thing happens today, in that many of the established "churches", are pushing God out and replacing His word with their rules. Jesus came to set us free and we should not then rush back into the bondage of priests and their rules or traditions.
'But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 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!" That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and held a celebration in honor of what their hands had made.'
Stephen is now reminding the Sanhedrin of the time in the desert that the people of Israel turned away from God. Instead of waiting on God and His commands (Moses was on the mountain getting the stone tablets from the very hand of God), the people had a golden calf made. Then, as Stephen said, they honored what their hands had made. That is called idolatry and was #1 on God's list of commandments. Even so, many "churches" as well as individual Christians today honor what their hands make.
'But God turned away and gave them over to the worship of the heavenly bodies. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets: "Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the desert, O house of Israel? You have lifted up the shrine of Molech and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon."'
Stephen continues his talk before the Sanhedrin and explains that God turns away from idolatry. He quotes the prophet Amos in the last part of this passage. Amos was an Old Testament prophet that was from Judah but was sent to the kingdom of Israel to prophesy against them. The nation of Israel had turned from God to worship false gods and Amos warned them of their coming punishment for doing so. Stephen is explaining to the Sanhedrin that, once again, the Jewish people had turned from God. It was true then and it is now that God does not tolerate idolatry. We, as Christians today, must ask ourselves are we truly putting God first in deed as in words. God never changes and He will not share the throne with anything or anyone. He didn't share it during Amos' time or Stephen's time and He will not tolerate it today or tomorrow.
'Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. Having received the tabernacle, our fathers 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, who enjoyed God's favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built the house for him.'
Stephen continues his history lecture to the Sanhedrin as he remembers when the people of Israel had the tabernacle with them. He reminds them that the making of the tabernacle was all according to God's plan and His pattern. Stephen recalls how the nations were driven out before the Jewish people and how David was chosen of God. He then reminds them that David wanted to build a temple for God but God chose Solomon to build it instead. As Christians today, we also can forget about what God has done for us in the past. It is good for us to stop and remind ourselves how God has been with us in the past. That is what Stephen is doing with the Sanhedrin here. It is good to also be reminded that it is not our will that matters but God's, just as Stephen reminded them of the example of David's desire to build the temple.
'However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says: "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? Has not my hand made all these things?"'
Stephen now explains to the Sanhedrin that God does not live in houses. He quotes Isaiah in trying to get them to see that God does not need us to build Him a temple. We too at times can get to thinking that God needs us to accomplish His will. Really, it is not that God needs us to do things it is that He gives us the opportunity to do things out of Love for our Savior and our God.
'You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him- you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.'
Now, Stephen turns from his recalling Jewish history to the situation at hand. He recounts the fact that their forefathers had persecuted those who foresaw the coming of Jesus. Then, he reminds them that they even had Jesus crucified even though he did nothing wrong. By doing so, they violated the law that they held so dearly.
When they heard this, 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,' he said 'I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.' At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, 'Lord Jesus receive my spirit.' 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.
Now, it gets down to the problem and the Sanhedrin is furious at Stephen. Stephen told them of how he saw heaven open up and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. This infuriated the religious leaders so much that they took him out and stoned him to death. A young man named Saul was there giving approval for the action. This same Saul would soon meet Jesus and be changed but for now he was still one of the biggest persecutors of Christians. Even while he was being stoned, Stephen asked the Lord to forgive the people that were doing it. This passage, though it seems to be full of defeat, contains a lot of inspiration for us, as Christians. First of all, Stephen saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He is there in the position of power interceding on behalf of us with God. Secondly, we see forgiveness. Just as Jesus did on the cross, Stephen asks for forgiveness for those that were killing him. We too are called to have that same attitude. From the smallest of offenses even unto death we are called to forgive those who wrong us.