It’s been rightly said that every good sermon should take its hearers on a journey that starts somewhere, goes somewhere, and in the end, gets somewhere. With this morning’s text in the Book of Acts we are going to start somewhere but, today at least, we aren’t going to get somewhere. We’ll still be going there next Sunday, but we won’t be getting there until two weeks from today.
Why will it take so long to get there? Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin (the Council) will take us through the history of God’s chosen people from Abraham to King Solomon, and on to Jesus. Stephen will present his defense over the course of fifty-three verses. That fills three full pages in my edition of the Scriptures. So we won’t be wrapping anything up and tying it with a neat little bow today. Rather than a point or two that you can take with you I’m hoping a larger concept and principle will emerge as we listen to Stephen as he defends himself, goes on offense, and stands up for God’s unchanging truth and the Lord Jesus.
Stephen’s defense will become a history lesson and such a powerful sermon that when he is finished, his hearers will kill him. What he says and the impact it has will take time for us to sort out. We won’t do what we usually do by going verse-by-verse through Acts 7. Rather, we will try to ferret out the “big picture” and understand what God is doing with Stephen, what He will accomplish, and where the church will be going after this man of God is mar-tyred for his faith.
Who was Stephen? We met him in Acts 6:5 when he was chosen as one of the seven men the apostles put in charge of caring for the needs of the church. He was a man “…of good reputation, full of the (Holy) Spirit, and of wisdom (Acts 6:3).” He was a man “…full of grace and power (Acts 6:8).” In short, Stephen was a man of God. As such he knew who Jesus was, he knew who he was, he knew what he was called to do, and he set about to do it.
In Acts 6:9-10, Stephen, who had been performing great wonders and signs among the peo-ple (v. 8), was challenged by the religious leaders. But v. 10 says that “they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” Since they were power-less to attack Stephen’s words, they attacked him. They arrested him, accused him of blas-phemy against God, His Law, and Moses. And they accused him of claiming that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah. And as Stephen stood before the men of the Council, an amazing thing took place before their very eyes.
15 And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face
like the face of an angel.
All of a sudden this man, accused of blasphemy, began to radiate the glory of God. God had done this once before. He did it when Moses brought God’s Law down from Mount Sinai.
29 And it came about when Moses was coming down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses’ hand as he was coming down from the moun-tain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because of his speaking with Him.
30 So when Aaron and all the sons of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.
Wouldn’t you think that one of the learned and religious leaders would have recognized what he was seeing on Stephen’s face and would have made the connection to Moses? Ste-phen wasn’t blaspheming God. On the contrary, God was putting His “stamp of approval” on Stephen’s face. But in Acts 6:15 we are told that though his accusers saw it, they were blind to the truth. That is spiritual blindness! And that brings us to this morning’s text.
A few minutes ago I said that Stephen knew who Jesus was, he knew who he was, he knew what he was called to do, and he set about to do it. You and I know who Jesus is. We know who we are in Him. But I sometimes wonder if we know what we are called to do. We say, “We know what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to tell others about Jesus.” That’s right! But it’s more that simple evangelism. It’s defending the faith. It’s defending the faith! In fact, if you think it through, you’ll quickly come to realize that you cannot effect-tively present the gospel if you cannot defend the faith.
In other words, it is one thing to tell someone what you believe. Lots of Christians do that. But it’s entirely another thing to tell them why you believe it. Sadly, few Christians do that. They don’t understand why they believe what they believe. That was one of the realities that drove the founding of Lighthouse Bible Church. The founders were convinced that the main reason so many Christians knew so little about their faith was because they knew so little about their Bible. They could say they believed in Jesus, but they couldn’t say why. Thus, they could not defend their faith. But it is God’s will that His children know how to defend their faith. That’s why “To Know God’s Word – To Do God’s Will” became LBC’s motto.
The Apostle Paul speaks to this issue in his letter to the church at Ephesus. In doing so, he tells us why we need pastors and teachers. They have been given…
12 …for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;
13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the full-ness of Christ.
14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, (and) by craftiness in deceitful scheming;
15a but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him…
Now listen to the writer of Hebrews…
12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.
13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe.
14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.
6:1 Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,
2 of instruction about washings, and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
Peter certainly knew the importance of believers being able to defend their faith.
1 Peter 3:15
15 …sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.
This defense of the faith is called apologetics. That word is transliterated from the Greek “apŏlŏgia.” We think of an apology as something for which we are sorry, but Christian apologetics has nothing whatsoever to do with sorrow. It’s about defending the faith.
But there are two sides of Christian apologetics. Defense is only one side. Paul confirms that in Philippians 1:16 where he says, “…I am appointed for the defense of the gospel.”
Offense is the other side of apologetics.
6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.
7 For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you are all partakers of grace with me.
“…confirmation of the gospel!” That is going on offense. That is evangelism. So do you see it? Apologetics encompasses both the preaching of the truth of Christ (offense) and the protecting of that truth from attack (defense).
Apologetics – the confirmation of the gospel and the defense of the faith! This is what Stephen was all about. Understanding that will make it much easier to understand why, when asked if the accusations against him were true, he began by giving his accusers a lesson in the history of the faith – apologetics!
We will hear Stephen answer the charges of blasphemy against him; we will hear him indict his accusers for the rejection of their Messiah; and we will hear him present the Lord Jesus for who He is. Over the next few weeks I hope we’ll all learn quite a bit about apologetics.
So let’s go to the text. The accusations against Stephen have been made.
*Acts 7:1-16 (Please stand with me in honor of reading God’s Word.)
1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?”
2 And he (Stephen) said, “Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran,
3 and said to him, ‘Depart from your country and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you.’
4 “Then he departed from the land of the Chaldeans, and settles in Haran. And from there, after his father had died, God removed him into this country in which you are now living.
5 “And He (God) gave him (Abraham) no inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground; and yet, even when he had no child, He (God) promised that He would give it to him as a possession, and to his offspring after him.
6 “But God spoke to this effect, that his offspring would be aliens in a foreign land, and that they would be enslaved and mistreated for four hundred years.
7 “‘And whatever nation to which they shall be in bondage I Myself will judge,’ said God, ‘and after that they will come out and serve Me in this place.’
8 “And He (God) gave him (Abraham) the covenant of circumcision; and so Abra-ham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.
9 “And the patriarchs became jealous of Joseph and sold him into Egypt. And yet God was with him,
10 and rescued him from all his afflictions, and granted him favor and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and he made him (Joseph) governor over Egypt and all his household.
11 “Now a famine came over all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction with it; and our fathers could find no food.
12 “But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers there the first time.
13 “And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family was disclosed to Pharaoh.
14 “And Joseph sent word and invited Jacob his father and all his relatives to come to him, seventy-five persons in all.
15 “And Jacob went down to Egypt and there passed away, he and our fathers.
16 “And from there they were removed to Shechem, and laid in the tomb which Abraham had purchased for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.”
This is Stephen’s answer to the high priest’s question in v. 1? Didn’t he hear the question? Wasn’t he asked if the accusations of blasphemy against him were true? The high priest wants to hear a plea. He wants to hear “Guilty!” or “Innocent!” He doesn’t want a history lesson about Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph.
Richard Longenecker, in his commentary, “The Acts of the Apostles,” says this:
“The defense of Stephen before the Sanhedrin is hardly a defense in the sense of an explanation or apology calculated to win an acquittal. Rather, it is a proclamation of the Christian message in terms of the popular Judaism of the day and an indictment of the Jewish leaders for their failure to recognize Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah or to appreciate the salvation provided in Him.”
Although answering a direct question in such a manner as Stephen begins to do here is unu-sual to our modern way of thinking, it was not at all that unusual to the first century Jewish mind. Nehemiah had done the same thing in his great prayer. In Nehemiah 9 he recounted Israel’s history in order to acknowledge the Abrahamic covenant, Israel’s sin, and God’s sovereignty. Psalms 78, 105, and 106 do essentially the same thing.
So Stephen goes back to the roots of OT history and theology to set the stage for where he ultimately intends to go. His objective will be to show that Jesus and His gospel can be seen – even proven – by what God has done in the past. Stephen intends to show that Jesus and the gospel he is defending is the ultimate fulfillment of our sovereign God’s plan for Israel from the day He called Abraham out of Haran.
Let me give you an example of how telling someone about Jesus can require you to know something about your faith and defend your position. Let’s say you’ve told someone that Jesus died for their sins. What if they ask you to define sin? What if they ask you to explain why we’re born in sin and why everyone is a sinner? You may need to take a trip back to the Garden of Eden in order to stake out and define your position. That’s an example of both sides of apologetics. You are both presenting the gospel and defending the faith – the truth and the facts about the truth. That’s what Stephen is doing in Acts 7.
In Acts 7:2 Stephen refers to the men who are accusing him as “brethren and fathers.” By the use of the word “brethren” he reminds them that they are all Jews, sons of Abraham. In using the word “fathers” he acknowledges their role and position as the legitimate leaders of the Jewish people.
Then Stephen establishes his position by referring to “the God of glory.” This term encom-passes God’s great attributes of omnipotence, holiness, and sovereignty. It is found in only one other place in the entire Bible. David uses it to describe God in Psalm 29.
1 Ascribe to the Lord, O sons of the Mighty, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name; worship the Lord in holy array.
3a The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders.
After acknowledging God as the source of everything, Stephen refers to Abraham, God’s choice as the human father of the nation of Israel. In Acts 7:2 he recognizes the sovereignty of God and the fatherhood of Abraham. And in those two things he neither blasphemes God nor denies his own people. Thus Stephen answers the charges against him. In v. 1 the high priest asks, “Are these things (charges) so?” In v. 2 Stephen answers, “No, they are not!”
Stephen’s focus then shifts to Abraham. His greatest asset was that he believed God. Abra-ham was a man of faith. He left his home in Haran by faith. When he arrived in Canaan God gave him nothing except a place to be buried. But God also promised Abraham that He would give him both the land and more descendants than he could count (Acts 7:5).
*Genesis 12:1-4a, 7a
1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you;
2 and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing;
3 and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4a So Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him; and Lot went with him. (they arrived in Canaan)
7a And the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” (…and Abram believed God.)
14 And the Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward;
15 for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever.
16 “And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered.
17 “Arise, walk about the land through its length and breadth; for I will give it to you.” (…and Abram believed God.)
*Genesis 15:1-6, 18
1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great.”
2 And Abram said, O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”
3 And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.”
4 Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who shall come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.”
5 And He took him (Abram) outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”
6 Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
But God also told Abram something else. He told him of something that would come to pass many years in the future (Acts 7:6-7).
13 And God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.
14 “But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions.”
Here is God’s prophecy of Israel’s bondage in Egypt. But on the same day God also reaf-firmed His promise about the land that Abraham’s descendants would receive.
18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descen-dants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates…” (…and Abram believed God.) (back to Acts 7:8)
It is here – in Acts 7:8 – that Stephen shifts his focus from Abram to Isaac, Jacob, and the time of the Patriarchs, Jacob’s twelve sons who would become the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. But first God reaffirmed His covenant with Abram, established circumcision as the sign of the covenant, and changed Abram’s name to Abraham. (Abram = great father / Abraham = great father of many)
Why aren’t the twelve tribes of Israel called the twelve tribes of Jacob? The answer is found in Genesis 32:28 where God tells Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob,
but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.”
Remember that Stephen is engaging in apologetics. He is defending the faith.
In Acts 7:9-10 he refers to Genesis 37 where God singled out Joseph, Jacob’s youngest son, for a special blessing. But Jacob’s other sons, Joseph’s brothers, rather than being pleased for him became jealous. They hated him and sold him into slavery. It is precisely here that Stephen begins his indictment of the Sanhedrin, the leaders of Israel, because they have done the same thing with Jesus.
Simon Kistemacker, in his “New Testament Commentary – Acts,” says this:
“The parallel between the sale of Joseph and the betrayal of Jesus is obvious. The patriarchs sold their own brother to foreigners; the Jews delivered Jesus into the hands of the Romans.”
In Acts 7:9-10 Stephen says that despite the Patriarchs’ rejection of Joseph, “God was with him, and rescued him from all his afflictions.” The heads of Israel sold Joseph into slavery, but God rescued him. Now the religious leaders of Israel have murdered Jesus, but God has rescued Him from death. Stephen’s point is that just as the Patriarchs were guilty, so too is the Council that is accusing him of blasphemy. He is not guilty – they are!
Apologetics! Offense and defense! While Stephen has not yet openly claimed that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, he is laying the groundwork for doing so. So ask yourself this: Could he do any of this if he was unfamiliar with, or didn’t understand the Scriptures (the OT)? The answer should be clear to all of us. “No, he could not!” Then how can you and I ever hope to be effective witnesses Christ if we don’t know our Bibles and can’t defend the faith?
In Acts 7:11-14 there’s a wonderful picture of Israel’s future and her national salvation.
The parallels are fascinating. In Acts 7:11-12 Stephen says that after Joseph was sold by his brothers, “…a famine came over all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction with it; and our fathers (the Patriarchs) could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers (the Patriarchs) there…
Most of you know the story. By the time Jacob’s sons arrived in Egypt Joseph had risen to great power and authority. He provided the physical food they needed, thereby saving his sinful brothers from physical death. Similarly, Jesus had come to provide the sons of Israel with the spiritual food they needed to save them from spiritual death. And just as their rejec-tion of Joseph had sent Israel into a physical famine, so too, had their rejection of Jesus sent Israel into a spiritual famine.
Is that not exactly where the nation of Israel finds itself today? But there’s more. The paral-lels continue. Finally, in Genesis 42 the Patriarchs of Israel recognized their sin.
21 Then they said to one another, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us.
22 And Reuben (the eldest brother) answered them, saying, “Did I not tell you, ‘Do not sin against the boy’; and you would not listen? Now comes the reckoning for his blood.”
But Joseph did not take revenge; he sent them away with instructions to return at a later date and bring their father Jacob and their youngest brother Benjamin with them. When they came the second time Joseph revealed himself to them, and he forgave them. Both their physical and spiritual famines were over. Once again, the parallel is unmistakable.
Immediately before the Second Coming, Israel will recognize her sin and her rejection of her Messiah. Jesus will reveal Himself to her, and she will repent.
10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jeru-salem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look upon Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him, like the bitter weeping over a first-born.”
They will know, they will repent, and God will save them.
26 And thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written (in Isaiah), “The Deliver-er will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.”
27 “And this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.”
In all of this we can see that God is in absolute control of everything.
What can we learn from that? We can strengthen our faith! Abraham believed God and obeyed Him even though he had no idea what God was going to do. But, over the course of time, he came to see and understand what God was doing. Likewise, Joseph believed God and obeyed Him even though he had no idea that God would eventually use him to sustain and preserve the twelve tribes of Israel. Both men displayed great faith. Both men were used by God. I hope you will take that principle with you today.
And I hope you can take this too. Stephen understood his faith. And because he understood it, he could defend it. Thus he was able to answer the charges against him. He was not guil-ty of blasphemy; his accusers were. He was not guilty of undermining the Law of Moses; his accusers were. He was not guilty of murder; his accusers were. They had already killed Jesus, and they would soon kill him.
Stephen has defended himself, and in the process, he has indicted them. Soon he will be pre-senting Jesus as He is, the Son of Man, the Messiah, the Christ, in heaven at the right hand of God. But first, He is going to tell his accusers about Moses. He will give them another lesson in the Scriptures they claim to revere, but do not begin to understand. But that’s for next time.
We are in the last days. All around us we are watching as governments weaken and col-lapse, basic and fundamental morality is ridiculed and ignored, and millions who claim to be Christians abandon the faith and embrace the world’s systems. We need to know God’s Word and we need to be able to defend it. Yes, we need to tell others about Jesus, but that isn’t enough. We need to be able to tell them why we believe what we believe about Him.
Let me close with the words of the Apostle Peter. He said, “…sanctify (revere) Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15).”
I don’t know specifically what the Holy Spirit has for each one of you today. But whatever it may be, it’s my prayer that you learn it well.