Christ-like Man Preaches Christ-like Sermon
When the Jews could not answer Stephen’s arguments as a disputant, they prosecuted him as a criminal, and brought false witnesses against him. And it is next to a miracle of providence, that no greater number of religious persons have been murdered in the world, by the way of perjury and pretense of law, when so many thousands hate them, who make no conscience of false oaths. Wisdom and holiness make a man’s face to shine, yet will not secure men from being treated badly. What shall we say of man, a rational being, yet attempting to uphold a religious system by false witness and murder! And this has been done in numberless instances. But the blame rests not so much upon the understanding, as upon the heart of a fallen creature, which is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Yet the servant of the Lord, possessing a clear conscience, cheerful hope, and Divine consolations, may smile in the midst of danger and death.
Let us not be discouraged at the slowness of the fulfilling of God’s promises. Suffering times often are growing times with the church. God is preparing for his people’s deliverance, when their day is darkest, and their distress deepest. Moses was exceeding fair, “fair toward God;” it is the beauty of holiness which is in God’s sight of great price. He was wonderfully preserved in his infancy; for God will take special care of those of whom he designs to make special use. And did he thus protect the child Moses? Much more will he secure the interests of his holy child Jesus, from the enemies who are gathered together against him. They persecuted Stephen for disputing in defense of Christ and his gospel: in opposition to these they set up Moses and his law. They may understand, if they do not willfully shut their eyes against the light, that God will, by this Jesus, deliver them out of a worse slavery than that of Egypt. Although men prolong their own miseries, yet the Lord will take care of his servants, and effect his own designs of mercy.
Stephen upbraids the Jews with the idolatry of their fathers, to which God gave them up as a punishment for their early forsaking him. It was no dishonor, but an honor to God, that the tabernacle gave way to the temple; so it is now, that the earthly temple gives way to the spiritual one; and so it will be when, at last, the spiritual shall give way to the eternal one. The whole world is God’s temple, in which he is every where present, and fills it with his glory; what occasion has he then for a temple to manifest himself in? And these things show his eternal power and Godhead. But as heaven is his throne, and the earth his footstool, so none of our services can profit Him who made all things. Next to the human nature of Christ, the broken and spiritual heart is his most valued temple.
Nothing is so comfortable to dying saints, or so encouraging to suffering saints, as to see Jesus at the right hand of God: blessed be God, by faith we may see him there. Stephen offered up two short prayers in his dying moments. Our Lord Jesus is God, to whom we are to seek, and in whom we are to trust and comfort ourselves, living and dying. And if this has been our care while we live, it will be our comfort when we die. Here is a prayer for his persecutors. Though the sin was very great, yet if they would lay it to their hearts, God would not lay it to their charge. Stephen died as much in a hurry as ever any man did, yet, when he died, the words used are, he fell asleep; he applied himself to his dying work with as much composure as if he had been going to sleep. He shall awake again in the morning of the resurrection, to be received into the presence of the Lord, where is fullness of joy, and to share the pleasures that are at his right hand, for evermore.
[From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary]
- Can you see how God’s sovereign, abundant grace was revealed in Israel’s history? We may not know how the sovereignty of God works but we do know that God sovereignly chose Abraham and poured out His grace on him. God’s sovereign hand was on Abraham, Joseph; Moses. Why would God do that? As John Calvin explains, it was to show that “that time is most fit for God to work in, when there is no hope or counsel to be looked for at man’s hands” [Calvin’s Commentaries]. But in spite of God’s sovereign, abundant grace, Israel rebelled against God and His servant Moses in the wilderness. They turned back to Egypt in their hearts (Acts 7:39) and worshiped the golden calf. God gave the nation up to their idolatry, so that later they worshiped the false gods of Canaan (Acts 7:42-43). Even so, in His grace God had given them the tabernacle, and later the temple, as the place where He met with them, although as Stephen reminds them by quoting Isaiah 66:1-2, God is not bound by a man-made dwelling, since He made all things. Thus, all through his message, Stephen emphasizes God’s sovereign, abundant grace shown to the nation of Israel in spite of her repeated sins. God’s sovereign grace is abundantly shown to rebellious sinners, but we must take heed to the danger of hardening our hearts against His grace. Even though Israel had a history of spiritual privilege unlike any nation on earth, she rejected her Savior and incurred God’s judgment. The temple that she boasted in was destroyed in A.D. 70, and Israel was scattered among the nations for 19 centuries. How can we apply Stephen’s sermon to ourselves? All of us who have experienced God’s salvation know that it was in spite of, not because of, anything in us. Like Abraham, if God had not sovereignly called him by His grace, he would have lived and died as a pagan in a pagan land. Do you rejoice daily in God’s grace to you, the sinner? If you do, you will want to tell other sinners about His grace toward them.
- Are there situations that come up where you resist God’s purpose for you? Are you struggling on who’s will directs your life — your will or God’s will? God often works in ways that confound even the logic of His saints. To sacrifice a man of Stephen’s caliber after such a short ministry seems inefficient and illogical. To allow a scoundrel like Caiaphas to rule as high priest over the Jews for 18 years seems wrong. Why not strike that wicked man dead and allow Stephen and other godly men to have long and fruitful ministries? God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform! Through Stephen’s death, the first the church was scattered through persecution, resulting in a more widespread witness. Whether the godly die young by violent deaths, and the wicked live long and prosper, is God’s sovereign business. Our business is to be faithful to His Great Commission and leave the results to Him. You can only be full of faith if you believe in a sovereign God who uses even the wicked deeds of people to accomplish His eternal purpose. If God’s predestination means, as many say, that God looked down through history and saw in advance who would believe in Him, and put them on His list of the elect, then man’s will, not God’s will, is the sovereign determiner of what happens. Can you imagine, God seeing that I would choose Him, so He says, “Well, good, that’s what I wanted anyway!” Or, when Israel stoned her prophets, God saying, “Well, I’d really rather they wouldn’t do such things, but I guess I’ll have to work it into My plan somehow!” How could we trust a God who did not work all things after the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11)? When we join Stephen in understanding how God is sovereignly working our suffering and perhaps even our martyrdom into His plan, we will be full of faith. Are you being a godly, courageous witness and leaving the results up to God?
- What can we learn from the qualities and humility of Stephen? While we should not pray for martyrdom, we should desire to imitate the bold witness of those who have given their lives for the sake of the gospel. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, left us an example of a godly, courageous witness. His name means “victor’s crown.” Often brand new believers are the best witnesses for Christ, in spite of their spiritual immaturity, assuming that they have truly repented of their sin. But what is most important is that godly character gives the most solid foundation for powerful witness, especially when the witness is persecuted. God often uses the person’s godly character under fire to convict those to whom he is bearing verbal witness. Stephen’s wisdom and spirit in arguing with these Jews came from his being full of the Holy Spirit. Biblically, the main evidence of being filled with the Spirit is the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Those qualities are not produced overnight or by an ecstatic experience, but over months and years of walking in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16). Being full of the Spirit does not imply sinless perfection. No one achieves that in this life. Even the most godly of saints have their areas of imperfection and weakness. Even after a lifetime of walking in the Spirit, a godly man or woman can fall into sin, even into serious sin (King David is a solemn warning!). The fullness of the Spirit is a matter of progressive maturity. A new believer may be as yielded to the Holy Spirit as he knows how to be, but he will not demonstrate the fullness of the Spirit in the same manner as a man who has walked with God for many years. The main thing is daily to walk in submission to and dependence on the Spirit of God. As we do that, He grows His fruit in our hearts and lives. He will give us the power to bear witness of Christ to those who are lost. Our godly character, as seen in the fruit of the Spirit, will back up our verbal witness. A person who claims to be a Christian, but whose character is ungodly, should keep quiet about being a Christian, because the enemy will use his inconsistent life to mock the name of Christ.
- Are you working on the character quality of wisdom like Stephen had? Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Thus, wisdom comes from knowing God and Scripture reveals His wisdom. Wisdom comes from a Hebrew word meaning “skill.” It is used of the craftsmen who had the skill to make the tabernacle and the furniture that went in it (Exodus 36:1-2). Thus, it has the nuance of the skill to live a life that is truly beautiful. It refers to right conduct in obedience to God’s will, not just to mastering a body of knowledge. God’s wisdom is summed up in Jesus Christ and the cross. To those who are perishing, the cross is foolishness, but to those who have been called by God, Christ is both “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 1 Corinthians 1:24). To be people full of wisdom, we must grow in our understanding of the cross of Christ, where human pride is humbled and God’s grace is exalted. Every system of salvation that mingles human good works with God’s grace nullifies the cross and is opposed to God’s wisdom. Faithful witnesses, like Stephen, will refute the wisdom of this world and will extol the wisdom of Christ and the cross. For a person who understands and lives God’s grace as seen in the cross also becomes a person who uses his wisdom to show grace to others. An inward experience of grace flows outward into a gracious spirit toward others. Stephen’s being full of grace means that he was a gracious man. He did not curse his persecutors as they threw stones to crush his bones, but rather blessed them by praying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). The most effective witnesses have a clear understanding of the gospel of God’s grace and they are gracious toward others, even to those who are rude, offensive, or do them harm.
- Why couldn’t these men see what Stephen saw, that Jesus Christ is God’s Messiah and Savior? Why weren’t they persuaded by the great wonders and signs that Stephen performed? Why weren’t they convinced by his superior logic and debating skills? The biblical answer is, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). They are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Ephesians 4:18). Jesus asked the Jews who did not believe in Him, “Why do you not understand what I am saying?” He answered His own question, “It is because you cannot hear My word” (John 8:47). He also said, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). Thus, when we talk to people about the Lord, we must pray that He would open their hearts to respond to the message (Acts 16:14). Does God’s grace and patience have limits? Is there ever a time when we cannot offer His grace to rebellious sinners?
- How can we guard against outward Christianity? How can we keep our hearts genuinely close to God? Like Israel, we have had great spiritual privileges. We live in a nation founded upon biblical principles. We have a history of great spiritual opportunity. We have the Bible in our language in multiple translations. We have freedom to worship without persecution. We can hear the Bible taught on Christian radio or through many other resources. And yet it is easy to fall into the trap of going through the outward motions of Christianity, but not walking in reality with the living God. The building that we meet in is not God’s house. Our bodies are the temple of the living God, and so we must walk in holiness before the Lord, beginning in our hearts. To offer worship to God when we have not repented of our sins is an offense toward Him (Mark 7:6-8, Mark 7:20-23).
1) FREEDOM FROM WRATH (By Chrysostom): This is the boldness of speech that belongs to a man who is carrying the cross. Let us then also imitate this. For although it is not a time for war, it is always the time for boldness. “For I spoke,” he says, “in your testimonies before kings, and I was not ashamed.” If we happen to be among Gentiles, let us silence them likewise, without anger and without harshness. For if we do this with anger, it is no longer boldness but appears rather as raw passion. If, however, it is done with gentleness, that is true boldness. For in one and the same thing success and failure cannot possibly go together. Boldness of speech is success; anger is failure. Therefore, if we should aspire to boldness, we must be free from anger, in case anyone should attribute our words to the latter. For no matter how just your words may be, when you speak with anger, you ruin everything. This is true no matter how boldly you speak or how fairly you admonish—in short, no matter what you do. See how free from anger this man was when he spoke to them. He did not treat them with any harshness but reminded them of the words of the prophets. Notice that there was no anger, for in his terrible suffering he prayed for them, saying, “Do not hold this sin against them.” Thus it was not in anger that he spoke these words but in grief and sorrow for their sakes. As indeed it says of his appearance, “they saw his face that it was the face of an angel,” so that they might believe. Let us then be free from anger. The Holy Spirit does not dwell where anger is and cursed is the wrathful. Nothing wholesome can proceed from where anger issued forth. [From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture]
2) THE PERFECTION OF CHARITY (By Augustine): He showed his love for his murderers, in that he died for them.… That is the perfection of love. Love is perfect in him whom it makes ready to die for his brothers; but it is never perfect as soon as it is born. It is born that it may be perfected. Born, it is nourished: nourished, it is strengthened: strengthened, it is made perfect. And when it has reached perfection, how does it speak? “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. My desire was to be set free and to be with Christ; for that is by far the best. But to abide in the flesh is needful for your sake.” (Philippians 1:21-24). He was willing to live for their sakes, for whom he was ready to die. [From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture]
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