Published by Stanley Pouw in 2022 · 22 October 2022
It’s the big picture that we’re after here. To begin with, one of the things that Christians are responsible to do is what is in 1 Peter 3:15, “Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks a reason for the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” We need to be able to defend the faith. The effective Christian is one who can articulate the truth and defend what he believes biblically.
We call this apologetics. Why? It comes from the Greek apologia. It means to speak in defense of. Apologetics is a speech in defense of what we believe, this is why we have to give a reasonable, biblical defense for our faith. In Acts 7, Stephen gives a defense of the faith from his Bible, which was the Old Testament. Like other disciples, he had come to understand how the Old Testament led to Jesus Christ.
The disciples didn’t understand the Old Testament. In the four gospels, they don’t refer to the Old Testament. But in Acts, after Christ has taught them the Old Testament, they just explode with quotes from the Old Testament. And here is Stephen; everything he says is taken from the Old Testament. He is defending himself to Jews, and he starts with the Old Testament.
Paul is the great defender of the faith in the New Testament, but there was a defender of the faith before Paul. Stephen gave a speech in defense and also a confirmation of the gospel. Now, what launched this? Stephen was a foreign Jew, selected along with six other men by the congregation. They decided that food and money should be equally distributed and seven Hellenistic Jews were chosen.
Acts 6:3, “They need to be of good reputation, full of the Spirit and full of wisdom.” Verse 5 gives their names, the two that we know immediately are Stephen and Phillip. The rest of the names never appear again. But Stephen, in verse 5, is a man full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit. In verse 8 it says, “Stephen was full of grace and power.” What an amazing guy!
Verse 9, “Some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen.” Verse 10 says, “They were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. So they secretly induced men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’
But he didn’t speak blasphemous words against Moses or against God. These are lies, false accusation. They then, “Stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came up to him and dragged him away, and brought him before the Sanhedrin.” Then, “They put forward false witnesses who said, ‘This man incessantly speaks against the temple, and the Law.’”
“For we have heard him,” because he says, “this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.” And, of course, they came from God. “And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Sanhedrin saw his face like the face of an angel.” But what he says here is a stunning understanding of the Old Testament. He is defending himself.
Verse 1, “The high priest Caiaphas says to him, “Are these things true?” Have you blasphemed God, Moses, the law, and the temple? They couldn’t cope with his wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking, but they think they’re going to put him on trial before the most elite biblically acute people in the land. They are so angry, they call him a blasphemer and blasphemers are to be executed.
So Acts 7 is more than a defense. It becomes a powerful offensive sermon leading to Christ. It is a masterpiece. And again, it validates the Old Testament. He doesn’t use philosophical or rational arguments. He just marches through the text of Scripture. And everything Stephen says is a New Testament validation of the Old Testament. Objective number one is to get them to listen to him.
He does that by going immediately into their history. He finds points of agreement with them. And he makes clear that the things that are precious in Scripture to them are precious in Scripture to him. He is not a blasphemer because he believes Scripture. So he gains the interest of his hearers by talking about what’s important to them and agreeing with them.
The second thing he does is answer the charge of blasphemy. He makes direct positive reference to every particular accusation from them. The first part is the defense against the blasphemy of God. The second part is a defense against the blasphemy of Moses. The third part is the defense against the blasphemy of the law. Finally, a defense against the blasphemy of the temple.
Now that he has gotten their attention by talking about what’s interesting to them, now that he has answered the charges against him of blasphemy by showing he is not a blasphemer; the next thing he does is turn the table on them and indict them for blasphemy. By declaring to them that they have committed the ultimate blasphemy of rejecting God and God’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus.
It’s powerful, and he says in verse 51, “You men are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fore fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become.”
He indicts the Sanhedrin for murdering the Messiah. “You, who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.” You blaspheme God and God’s Son. You blaspheme Moses, the law-giver. You blaspheme the law by rejecting it. You are guilty of bringing your blasphemy into this temple. These things are specifically the themes that go through this sermon.
They accused him in Acts 6:11, of blaspheming God. He takes the severest accusation first. To begin with, Stephen must establish in their minds that he and all Christians are speaking on behalf of God. The New Testament is not anti-God. The gospel that they had been literally filling Jerusalem with and turning it on its head is not anti-God. So then he must be pro-Israel.
Stephen states his belief in God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God of Israel. He has to establish that God is who He is revealed in Scripture as the Jews believe, that Jesus is the God who called Israel into existence. This is capturing their attention at the point of what interests them and what is sacred to them. So in verse 1, “Are these things so?”
Verse 2, “And Stephen said, ‘Hear me, brethren and fathers!’” Brethren, the majority of the audience would be Jews who had followed this. Then ‘fathers’ refers to the officials of the Sanhedrin. He talks about God and mentions God in the opening 19 times, so we know what the subject is. He gives God His most exalted title, “The God of glory.” That title appears in the Old Testament only once.
But they all knew where it was. Psalm 29 says, “Ascribe to the Lord, O sons of the mighty. Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to His name; worship the Lord in holy array. The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders. The Lord is over many waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful. The voice of the Lord is majestic.”
God is known by many names. He is Jehovah-Nissi, the Lord who heals. He is Jehovah-Jireh, the Lord who provides. He is Jehovah-Rapha, the Lord who heals. He is Jehovah-Shalom, the Lord our peace. Jehovah-Raah, the Lord who shepherds. Jehovah-Tsidkenu, the Righteous One. Jehovah-Sabaoth, the Lord of hosts. Jehovah-Shammah, the Lord omnipresent. Jehovah-Elyon, the Lord most high.
He’s all those names. But all of those make up the God of all glory. The God who is El Hakkavod, the God of glory. Stephen says, “Look, I believe in the God of glory, the God whose attributes are expounded in Psalm 29. That’s the God I believe in. That’s my God.” He ascribes full supremacy, full sovereignty, full glory to the God of the psalmist, King David.
He actually died seeing something of that glory in verse 55. Before they stoned him to death it says, “Being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God.” “Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran.” Notice the personal pronoun, our father. I’m one of you.
Mesopotamia is the Greek term for Chaldea. The city that Abraham came from is the city of Ur, between the Tigris and Euphrates River. Joshua 24 tells us Abraham actually came out of a family of idol-worshipers. He was then a convert to the worship of the true and living God. So God manifested Himself to Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia before he lived in Haran.
In verse 3 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; 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, and I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
In verse 5 when Abraham arrived in the Promised Land, he did not receive any permanent possession, but wandered in the land that was never really his. The land was a promise to Abraham. So he is there living, not on a possession, but living on a promise. Because God said, “I’ll give you an extensive land.” He shows him it’ll be massive land, far beyond what Israel occupies today.
That’s why Paul in Romans says Abraham was justified by faith. Abraham believed God. “But,” verse 6, “God spoke to this effect,” before that promise comes true, “that his descendants would be aliens in a foreign land. They would be enslaved and mistreated for 400 years. It was in Egypt. He promised through the Abrahamic Covenant, but then He said, nothing is going to belong to you.
Then in verse 7, Stephen quotes God, “And the nation to which they will be in bondage I Myself will judge.’ The nation that has held them in bondage, will be judged by God. How were they judged? In the ten plagues. The final of the plagues was the death of all the firstborn in Egypt. Then they were judged by the collapse of the waters of the Red Sea drowning all of his army.
So Stephen is saying, “Look, I’m a full believer in the history of God’s dealings with this people. I believe in the God of glory. I believe in your God and Abraham’s God.” So by this opening, he has captured their interest because he’s talking about their history. He has, secondly, defended himself. Now he needs to turn the tables on them by indicting Israel for their sin.
That’s what he begins in verse 8, “God gave Abraham “the covenant of circumcision.” He said the sign of the promise will be circumcision of the male child on the eighth day. “And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob is the father of the twelve patriarchs.” All Jews are sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Verse 9, “The patriarchs became jealous and sold Joseph into Egypt.” Joseph had a special place in God’s plan. Reuben was the oldest of the twelve, but Reuben forfeited his birthright by a crime. The inheritance was then passed to Joseph. First Chronicles 5 says, “The birthright belonged to Joseph,” It is in Genesis 37. They blasphemed God by selling the chosen one into slavery.
Stephen wants them to see in the story of Joseph an illustration of that nation’s reaction to God’s plans. It culminates in Acts 7:52, he asks, “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” The truth is, Israel as a people, have been set against the plan of God from the start. God rescued Joseph from all his afflictions, and made him governor over Egypt and all his household.”
This is all the working of God. “And when a famine came,” in verse 11, “over all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction with it,” the rest of the family couldn’t find any food. Verse 12, “But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers there the first time. Verse 13, “On the second visit, Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family was disclosed to Pharaoh.”
Verse 16 says, “From there they were moved to Shechem and laid in the tomb which Abraham had purchased for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor. Abraham purchased it. God never gave him anything, but he did buy a burial plot. In Joshua 24:32, it says, “Jacob purchased it.” Abraham purchased it originally, but they were down in Egypt for a long time. So Jacob had to buy it again.
So what is Stephen saying, “I don’t blaspheme God.” He answered their charges that he was not a blasphemer of the true and living God. He indicts them by a historic look at the blasphemy of their forefathers in rejecting God’s chosen one Joseph. That sets them up for an indictment of what they’ve done to Christ for they’ve done it again. They’ve rejected God’s chosen One again.
What are the lessons we can learn from Stephen? Be biblical in your evangelism. Declare God’s sovereignty in framing history, declare God’s faithfulness in His promises to fulfill them. Show that the Scriptures move toward Christ, and demonstrate the blind unbelief and hostility toward the truth. We’ll look at how Stephen defended himself against the blasphemy of Moses next. Let us pray.