This article is part of our weekly series, “The Book of Acts and the Church Today.” You can see all articles in the series here.
How willing are you to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead? How open are you to hearing God speak through his word? How much does God’s will rule you?
Stephen, one of the church’s first deacons, asked his audience these questions (Acts 7:51–53). They answered by murdering him. They resisted the Holy Spirit. They thought they had God figured out. And they weren’t looking to have Jesus disrupt their settled ways. As Gamaliel had warned, the Jewish leaders were defending a faith that entirely opposed God (Acts 5:39). And Stephen’s “trial” and sermon (Acts 6:8–7:53) wouldn’t be in the Bible if we didn’t face the same danger today.
Stephen’s speech is a response to serious charges from Jewish leaders. But the charges themselves reveal the emptiness of the accusers’ religion. Stephen would argue that the Old Testament system was preparing people to trust in Jesus. But the Jewish leaders insisted on maintaining their religion without Jesus; Christ was intolerable because he disrupted the status quo. Ultimately, Stephen was attacked for being too Christ-like. Stephen was a man “full of grace and power” who was “doing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). So was Jesus, and the Jewish leaders killed him too.
In response to the false witnesses’ charges, Stephen told a theological story, surveying Bible history to bring out theological truths. In his sermon, “He brought the theology of Christ down hard on the three great pillars of popular Judaism: the land, the law, and the temple—three false bases for confidence before God.”[i] The Jewish leaders clung to physical signs of promise, like the land. So Stephen reminded them that, even as wanderers, Abraham and his offspring trusted God and looked to him as deliverer and provider. They actually believed in Christ who fulfills all of God’s promises (2 Cor. 1:19–20).
The Jewish leaders also charged Stephen of blaspheming Moses and his law. So Stephen explained that while Moses was a redeemer he was also a massively flawed leader, a murderer, who himself was looking to the coming Christ to reveal God to his people. Stephen wasn’t speaking against Moses. Like Moses, Stephen’s angelic face bore the sign of God’s approval (Acts 6:15; cf. Exod. 34:29–35). Stephen was simply teaching the people to hear Moses’s command to receive Christ (cf. Deut. 18:15).
Finally, the Jewish leaders accused Stephen of speaking against the temple. But why should the temple be ultimate? It was just a sturdier version of the tabernacle. Anyway, “The Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands” (Acts 7:48). Both the tabernacle and the temple were modeled after Christ, who is the uncreated meeting place of God and sinners.
Stephen concluded with a strong accusation: You people are as bad as your ancestors who rejected Moses—worse, because you have rejected and killed the Christ.
Why We Need Stephen’s Speech
Let’s universalize Stephen’s conclusions so we hear him speaking to both the religious leaders of his day and also to us, prompting us to answer our opening questions.
Receive Jesus as Lord.
Consider this question: Does my religion function well without Jesus? Religion that doesn’t get you to Christ and urge you to abide in him is as idolatrous as Christless Judaism. Stephen claimed that Jesus would change Jewish customs (Acts 6:14). What an understatement! Jesus cannot be assimilated into any life system (cf. Matt. 9:14–19). To receive Jesus as Lord is to let him constantly dismantle your ambitions until he is fully centered. The Jewish leaders declined Jesus and refused eternal life. Don’t make that same mistake. Don’t settle for the appearance of godliness while denying its power (2 Tim. 3:5).
Live by faith, not by sight.
The Jewish leaders lived by what they could see. Their lack of true spirituality drove them to find comfort in what their hands had built. They kept rituals like circumcision but closed their hearts to God. They were “uncircumcised in heart and ears” (Acts 7:51). Stephen’s sermon teaches us to live by faith, not sight. Our ancestor Abraham was a pilgrim. The Jewish nation was born in slavery in a foreign land and came of age wandering in the Arabian wilderness. Don’t focus on what is visible; it often tells a different story from what is unseen.
Side with the truth even when it hurts.
Stephen spoke the truth likely knowing it would kill him. Let’s follow Stephen and countless others like him “who have been so true to truth, that they have died rather than violate it in life, or deny it in teaching.”[ii] This sermon hurt the Jewish leaders. It pricked their pride. Their jealousy against the apostles and Jesus (Mark 15:10) was just like the jealously of the patriarchs against Joseph (Acts 7:9). They weren’t ignorant of spiritual truth; they were simply stiff-necked, refusing to obey the Spirit’s lead. Lovers of truth expect sermons and other forms of spiritual correction and training to hurt as a means of healing.
Stephen sealed his testimony with his blood. His death sparked extreme persecution against the early church. But under God’s providence, the persecution of those who received Jesus as Lord, lived by faith, and sided with truth also propelled the church onward.
[i] R. Kent Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 1996), 104.
[ii] G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles, 177.