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During the past few weeks we have been breezing through the first few chapters of the book of Acts. In the first sermon on Acts 1 we saw that the disciples were told to wait for the outpouring of the Spirit because the Spirit would usher in a new era during which we need to be very sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit. Things that worked one day might not work the next. This age of the Spirit is one of fascinating possibilities.
However, from Acts 2 we saw that the death and resurrection of Jesus had changed things at a cosmic level. So great was the change that the new era of the Spirit had begun while the old era characterized by enmity to the Spirit was still around. This brings about an inevitable clash because the agendas of the two eras are different. The old era is one ruled by death while the new era of the Spirit is characterized by life in Jesus.
In fact, in the third sermon we saw that healing is possible today precisely because the Spirit works to reverse death of which illness and debilitating conditions are but a sign. However, there is no formula for healing. We can only depend on God’s initiative and hope that he stretches his hand in response to our pleas.
Finally, last Sunday we saw from three stories in Acts 4, 5, & 6 that the Spirit engenders a form of life in the church that is drastically contrary to other forms of life to which we are used. While the old era tells us to seek prestige and look to money for security, the Spirit produces humility and asks us to find security in God. While the old era tells us to make people dependent on us so as to hold on to power, the Spirit asks us to willingly give away our power, to empower others so that he can work through others.
Today we are dealing with the first Christian martyr—Stephen. At the end of the text we will hear today Stephen is stoned. The slide shows stones found at a site where people were stoned to death. Some of these stones were as big as a person’s head. Stoning, being an act of collective murder, allowed the Israelites to kill offenders without any one person bearing the guilt. It was the punishment for blasphemy, idolatry, and various sexual sins.
Now Luke introduced us to Stephen in chapter 6 in connection with the food distribution problem. He was one of the people chosen to handle food distribution to the Greek-speaking widows. He and the other six were chosen because the apostles realize that their first calling was to proclaim the good news about Jesus. Hence, others had to be found to handle the food distribution. Luke tells us that Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit. And right after Luke tells us about the selection of the seven servers, he tells us about Stephen coming into conflict with the Jews. Something about Stephen made him a threat to the status quo. Let us briefly touch on what made him a threat.
We should not imagine that Stephen had discarded his responsibilities with regard to food distribution. Rather, it is probably in the context of fulfilling this responsibility that he found himself to be the channel of miracles. We can learn from this that it is impossible to circumscribe the ministry of a person full of the Spirit. Though he was selected to wait on tables, the Spirit drove him to go beyond this. Luke tells us that Stephen did many signs and wonders—two terms he reserves for the miracles of the apostles. In other words, so full of the Spirit was Stephen that he was empowered to have a ministry as effective and controversial as that of the apostles.
I say that his ministry was controversial because as soon as Luke tells us about the signs and wonders he moves to telling us about the conflict Stephen was drawn into. As with Jesus and the apostles, miracles, far from convincing everyone that they were from God, strengthened the disbelief of those already inclined to disbelieve. These people draw Stephen into a debate but find that his debating skills are too much for them. Luke tells us “they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.” In other words, being full of the Spirit, Stephen had incredible wisdom. The only example we have of this wisdom and spirit is the sermon that Luke records for us in chapter 7. So let us read the text for today and then try to understand what according to Luke were the wise and spirited things that Stephen said. I have asked Joe and Dwi to read for us the text for today.
As usual, there is much that can be said about the passage we have read. But having mentioned Stephen’s wisdom, let us try to see what that wisdom looked like from his sermon.
The first thing we need to see is that Stephen’s sermon is in response to a charge brought against him. When Stephen’s interlocutors were unable to withstand his wisdom, they brought false witnesses who said that Stephen held the view that Jesus would destroy the temple.
Here we must understand what false witnesses are. According to the Old Testament, testimony was to be established through two or three witnesses. The testimony of the witnesses had to agree at every single point. Otherwise the witnesses were said to be false. They may not have been lying. But they were not able to substantiate each other’s accounts.
So from what Luke tells us, it does not mean that Stephen did not say the things the witnesses said he said. Rather, the witnesses were unable to corroborate the circumstances under which and the manner in which he had made such statements. That this is the case is borne out by the fact that Stephen never denies the charge. Rather, given what Stephen says in his sermon, he actually accepts the charge but find nothing wrong with it.
So what does Stephen say in his sermon? He starts, as a Jew would, and as we should, with Abraham and God’s promises to Abraham. This is the background of biblical faith. It is the point at which God selects for himself a people through whom he would accomplish his purposes. Our faith is one that refers constantly to God’s dealings with his people through history. God’s choice of Abraham could be likened to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862. It marked a new era. Keeping the analogy, the life, death, and resurrection could be likened to the end of the Civil Rights movement when the Emancipation Proclamation was fully realized.
After talking about Abraham Stephen merely mentions Isaac and Jacob and then focuses on Joseph. He brings a charge against Joseph’s brothers. God had told Abraham that his descendents would be slaves in another land. Here Stephen tells his audience that it was not as though God wanted them to be slaves. Rather, the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers resulted in the slavery, which admittedly God used for good.
Reminds me of the movie What About Bob? Richard Dreyfuss plays a psychiatrist upon whom is forced a person with agoraphobia, played by Bill Murray. Getting increasingly frustrated with his client, the psychiatrist subjects the client to what he calls death therapy. Though this is actually a ruse to kill Bill Murray’s character, by some strange twist, Bill Murray’s character is cured of his phobia and goes on to write a book on death therapy. Though the death therapy was intended for evil, good came out of it.
That is how God works much of the time in this sinful era. He did not kill Jesus, but used the death of Jesus to bring salvation to the world.From Joseph’s brothers Stephen then jumps centuries to the time of Moses. In response to his killing the Egyptian taskmaster, a Hebrew asks Moses, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?” Stephen mentions this not to justify Moses’ actions but to indicate the blindness of the Hebrews. They were unable to recognize God’s deliverer. And so Stephen tells the audience about the burning bush episode. And he then demonstrates that the answer to the question, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?” is “God!” God is the one who had chosen Moses to be ruler and liberator.
But the guilt of the Hebrews was not just that they did not recognize their deliverer. Even after he had been revealed, they refused to follow him. They forced Aaron to make idols for them. They kept turning from Yahweh to false gods. Though they had the tent of testimony in which was the presence of God, they found the false gods more appealing and indeed more comfortable to worship. Their behavior was like that of an alcoholic who repeatedly resorts to drinking because facing the real world is difficult and causes discomfort.
Finally, Stephen mentions David and the building of the temple by Solomon. In this regard Stephen quotes from Isaiah 66.1-2 to the effect that no physical building of any kind would be a sufficient residence for God.
Then Stephen accuses the Jews of being stiff-necked people like their ancestors. Now from the treatment of Joseph by his brothers, from the failure to recognize Moses as God’s deliverer, and from the repeated ventures into idolatry we can agree that Stephen’s accusation is well deserved. However, why does he precede his accusation with the quote from Isaiah?
There must be something in the Isaiah text that supported some view that Stephen presented that in turn gave rise to the charge that he spoke against the temple. The force of the passage from Isaiah is that God cannot be contained in any human artifice—including especially the temple. The temple, being as it were a spatial structure, could not be an appropriate residence for God. Moreover, humans cannot make anything out of nothing. That ability belongs to God. So anything humans would make for God would be from things already made by God. Therefore, the temple could only have been a shadow of a residence God had already made for himself.
Now the tent of testimony and the temple significantly were always supposed to be among the people of Israel. Hence, the tent of testimony went wherever the Israelites went during their years of wandering. And when God dispersed the Israelites from the land, the temple also had to be destroyed. For when we juxtapose the symbolism of the tent of testimony and of the temple with the words of Isaiah we understand that God dwells wherever his people are.
With this understanding Stephen probably mentioned Jesus’ words about the destruction of the temple. He probably told the Jews that there was a new temple—the church, a community with Jesus at its center. Quite naturally the Jews were ticked off. Here was this Greek-speaking Jew who was doing away with the temple—and with it obviously all the prescriptions in the Old Testament that were associated with the temple.
Because the Jews were unwilling to accept this new phase in God’s dealings with the world, Stephen compares them to their ancestors, who always opposed the Holy Spirit as seen in the examples from Joseph’s brothers, Moses’ rejection, and the repeated idolatry of the Israelites.
That was bad enough. But this upstart claimed that God was doing a new thing through Jesus! But Jesus was crucified. This meant that Jesus was under the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23 “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” How could God do something new through a cursed person? That was unthinkable!
And to top that Stephen calls Jesus the Righteous One. Not only had he said that the temple would be destroyed, but also that Jesus would destroy the temple. And he had the audacity to call Jesus righteous while he was evidently under the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23. It would be as though someone claimed that Dr. Kevorkian was the one who truly promoted life. What Stephen was saying was undermining the very foundations of the Old Testament.
But Stephen does not stop there. He is not satisfied with calling Jesus righteous. That would not mean anything for anyone could say anything about anyone with its necessarily being true. Rather, as he makes his confession that Jesus is righteous, he sees heaven open and sees Jesus standing before God. So he tells his audience what he sees. To say that he saw Jesus standing before God meant that God had substantiated his testimony about Jesus’ being righteous. Stephen and God therefore became two witnesses who brought true testimony that Jesus was righteous.
Now it was one thing to voice a personal opinion about Jesus. It was quite another to call God in as witness. If Jesus was crucified, which he was, then he must bear the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23. How then could God testify in Jesus’ favor? It would mean that God was going against his own words. That was tantamount to calling God a liar. And when Stephen called God in as a witness, it was too much for the Jews to bear. In their view Stephen had moved from disrespecting the temple, to lying about Jesus, to blaspheming by calling God a liar. And for that he needed to be stoned.
So in what way was Stephen wise? Being full of the Spirit, Stephen was open to another realm—that hidden realm we call heaven, in which there is a reality that transcends the reality available to our senses. He does not deny that Jesus was crucified. That would have been absurd for crucifixion was as public an event as one could have had in those days. Contrary to some contemporary faddish theories, no person in antiquity ever denied Jesus’ death on the cross. Everyone concerned agreed that Jesus was crucified. Where the disagreements came in was the meaning that people attached to Jesus’ crucifixion.
And here we have another clue concerning the wisdom of Stephen. When he calls Jesus the Righteous One, he reveals that scripture is not flat writing that has no nuances. On the face of it Jesus seems to be under the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23. The context of Deuteronomy assumes that the conviction of the individual is a just one. However, Stephen calls that assumption into question. He wisely recognized that a group of people could collectively convict an innocent person.Then he says that Jesus is standing in God’s presence. He then calls Jesus the Son of Man, a title that alludes to Daniel 7.13-14. He recognized that Jesus is the one to whom authority over the universe has been given.
With that unconventional knowledge Stephen boldly faced his stoning. But even with his last words he reveals this wisdom that he possessed. He says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Where have we heard such words before? Theophilus, reading Luke’s second volume would recall Luke 23.34 where Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” By saying something similar to what Jesus had said Stephen reveals this insight: the sacrificial forgiving way of Jesus is the way to conquer sin, Satan, and death.
But Stephen is not the only one with wisdom. Luke too reveals, by the way he writes, a wisdom that is unconventional. Right at the end of Stephen’s sermon, Luke introduces us to a person named Saul. He is the one who supervised Stephen’s stoning. Luke tells us, “And Saul approved of their killing him.”
In chapter 5 Luke had introduced us to Gamaliel who had advocated patience. His student Saul, however, was full of zeal and wanted to do away with the follower of Jesus. But in so doing, Saul was exposed to Stephen who died in a manner similar to that in which Jesus had died. In the face of Stephen he saw the face of the man he believed was under God’s curse. But he wasn’t yet open to the realm to which Stephen was open. All Saul could see was the weakness of Jesus reflected in the weakness of Stephen.
But Luke knew that it was precisely this weakness that conquered Saul. After all, Saul would later, as the apostle Paul, write that the power and wisdom of God are made known through the crucifixion of Jesus which is the paradigmatic symbol of what is weak and foolish in the eyes of the present era.
The early church, when it was a minority movement, when it was persecuted, understood this wisdom. The early Christians understood that the power of God and his kingdom consisted in self-sacrificial love, in the willingness to die for the truth without resorting to the violent means employed by the present era. So the church father Origen wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
”So what does God have to say to us through the story of Stephen? The church is not exempt from the charge of working against the Holy Spirit. Like our ancestors in the people of God, we are always testing and resisting the Holy Spirit.
First, we have for too long used the word “church” to refer to a building of some kind. We have lost sight of the fact that God does not reside in any structure. Rather, it is the community of followers of Jesus that is his residence. It is in the gathering of Jesus’ disciples that God is to be found and met. We have individualized God’s presence when Jesus tells us that when two or more of his followers gather in his name, he is there among them.
Second, we have bought into the idea that we can and may solve our problems through violence. We have for much of church history supported all kinds of wars and all sorts of inhumane punitive measures. We have agreed, at least tacitly, that might makes right. We have assumed that God is on the side of those who have won wars.
Yet, Jesus is the one who, at his arrest, refused to resort to violence, who, at his trial before Pilate, told the Roman Proconsul that his followers did not resort to violence precisely because he was a king of a different kind of kingdom. Yet, in the fact of this we have resolutely refused to believe that the way of self-sacrifice is the way to God’s power and wisdom. We have justified our actions of violence by saying that to do otherwise would be unwise. But by so doing we have only said that we are willing to kill others to achieve our ends but are not willing to die for others as Jesus died.
Third, in the midst of all this, rather than repent and change, we lament the fact that the church is not growing or that it is growing lukewarm. We try all sorts of church growth strategies and still wonder why our churches may grow in number without affecting the surrounding culture the way the early church did. We hammer on our bibles and keep assuring ourselves that we are “going back to the bible.” The conservatives condemn the liberals for watering down the truth. The liberals condemn the conservatives for being too judgmental. And all the while the world around us is heading to hell in a hand basket. We wonder why. And we launch all sorts of programs rather than repent—What Would Jesus Do?; Focus On The Family; Campus Crusade. And we barely make a dent in the world around us. And we keep asking why. Why? Why? Why?
How dare we ask why? All the while the answer has been staring us in the face. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” But we have reduced Jesus’ message of the denial of ourselves to some nebulous individualized spiritual realm. We have forgotten the gory life to which Jesus calls us when he says, “Take up you cross.” He has called us to follow him in death. And we cling on to our lives. No wonder then that the church today is making as big an impact on the world as an ant biting an elephant. We are no longer agents of transformation but of irritation. Because we have forgotten or forsaken the truth that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.