Acts 8: The Aftermath of Stephens Death
As Stephen continues his sermon of both defense and indictment against the leaders of the Sanhedrin in Acts 7 he addresses the issue of his so-called blasphemy of the temple. Stephen talks about the tabernacle built according to the pattern and blue print given to Moses. This portable tent and the furniture and items that went within were carried from place to place as they wandered in the desert.
When you study scripture, you realize God will let us know what is more important to Him by the amount written about something. For example: In Genesis 1 we are told: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. ( 10 words) Regarding stars, God simply states: He made the stars also.( 5 words) Yet there are over 50 chapters devoted to the specifics of the Tabernacle and its furnishings and how it was to be carried, set up and how the tribes of Israel were to set up their camp with the Tabernacle in the center. The tribe of Judah with its standard being a lion always camped on the east. So the first light of day struck the Lion of Judah. Did you know Jewish scholars say the encampment formed the Star of David? Why was there so much detail and space allotted to this special tent? Because its every component spoke of the elements of salvation and the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, and the coming again of the Lion of Judah. To create the heavens and the earth, to set the stars in the sky was no effort at all for Our Heavenly Father- but to save our souls and make us whole it took the death of the Son of God. The Tabernacle represented the Glory of God present in the midst of His people. His presence is to be the center of our daily lives!
Finally Joshua brought them into the land of Canaan they took from the nations that God had driven out before them. There the tabernacle remained until the time of David. This history was known by all present. David wanted to build a temple to replace the tabernacle, but God would not allow David to build it but his son Solomon instead.
Now it is interesting this temple built by Solomon was the temple God ordained. However it was destroyed in 586 BC and then came the temple built by Zerubbabel in 515 BC. However, 500 years later, the temple was in such a state of disrepair, that Herod the Great began a large scale restoration project which was the temple in which Jesus taught, cast out the money changers, etc. This would be destroyed in 70 AD- and there has been no temple in Israel since that time.
Stephen then makes this statement: The Most High does not live in houses built by men. Stephen quotes from Isaiah 66 Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? Says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? You cannot put God in a box. God is bigger than this temple. God made all things- He made the materials with which they built the temple, He created the men who built it. God Himself has said what kind of house can you build that will contain me? There is no such building. I am afraid if we observed some who call themselves Christians, we would see they live their lives as if God only lives in the church building. We do not see God in their homes, their work place or evidence of His Life in their life.
So as we come to the ending of Stephens sermon/defense let us look at what he has done:
*He has defended himself Scripturally.
*He has held their attention by speaking of what interested them most- their heritage.
*He shows them how their forefathers, the patriarchs have constantly rejected the redeemers and prophets sent by God the first time.
* In closing Stephen will indict them of the same sins as the patriarchs as they have rejected the Lord Jesus.
* He will present the Lord Jesus as the Messiah.
Stephen is telling them instead of following the great men of faith, Abraham, Joseph, Moses- they have identified themselves with the godless idolatrous forces that opposed these men of faith all through the history of Israel. The word of God confirmed this time and time again.
Now having accomplished factually what he set out to accomplish, Stephen moves to his climax. You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered Him- you who received the law that was put into effect through angels, but have not obeyed it.
The agitation of those in the Sanhedrin has been building as they cannot answer Stephens charges. It comes to a boiling point and agitation creates anger which quickly becomes hatred. The truth is painful to these proud arrogant men. They begin to gnash their teeth. Gnashing of teeth is a picture of anger, hatred, pain and frustration.
Listen to these verses:
There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. ( Luke 13:8, Jesus speaking.)
And again in Matthew 24:51- He will cut them to pieces and assign them a place with hypocrites where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Revelation 9: 20,21: The rest of mankind that were not killed by the plagues still did not repent.. Hearts so hardened they will not repent- only become angrier.
At work here is a principle that is very frightening. When you willfully reject Gods love, mercy and forgiveness and the gift of salvation there comes a time when God will harden your heart, close your ears and blind your eyes so that one cannot see or receive the truth. Remember God wants our attention and uses several methods by which to get our attention. He demands our awe, or respectful fear. He wants us to surrender our hearts and obey Him. (Proverbs 29:1 says: A man who remains stiff necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed without rememdy.)
Do you see what has happened? Once again God gets their attention through His Word spoken with power by Stephen. They have heard the truth from Moses and the prophets. They heard John the Baptist and heard Jesus remarkable teaching, his miracles that confirmed he was the Messiah. Next came those apostles who amazed them with their wisdom and ability to rightly divide the Word of God. And now here stood Stephen with this powerful sermon, defense and accusations which they could not answer. They did not give their hearts to God, instead they hardened their hearts. And God will give them over. Light has come into the world- but they preferred darkness.
Look at the contrast- they are red-faced with anger and hatred, gnashing their teeth while Stephen is filled with Holy Spirit and thus in perfect peace. His eyes are on things above and he is allowed to see into heaven and proclaims: Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man STANDING at the right hand of God. Remember what Jesus said in Mark 14 at his trial when asked point blank: Are you the Messiah? I AM. AND YOU WILL SEE THE SON OF MAN SEATED AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD.
The Lord Jesus sat down at the right hand of God after the work of Redemption, but Stephens exclamation indicates that when His followers are in trouble He stands as our High Priest to intercede.
The members of the Sanhedrin respond like spoiled children, they cover their ears and yelled at the top of their voices to drown out Stephen and dragged him out of the city to stone to death. Laying their clothes at the feet of Saul of Tarsus. Stephen prays for his attackers and asks God to forgive them. He then falls asleep. I like that description of death for a believer. Falling asleep. Paul said to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. He stands to receive us into His waiting arms. There is no gap- no grave- no darkness just falling asleep one instant to awaken the next in the presence of the Lord.
Augustine says the church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen. One thing we can all do is pray. And our prayers continue to work even after we have gone to be with the Lord.
Lets take a look at this young man, Saul of Tarsus. He would of course go on to become the great apostle- Paul. Here is what Saul/Paul said of himself: Phil .3. He was very proud of his heritage and was an intelligent, ambitious young man. Possessing not only intelligence and ambition- but also possessing a Roman citizenship. Educated under Gamaliel, this was a young man who at one time was the chief persecutor the early Christian church. His writing reveals a common and very dangerous condition that resulted in sin. Look at Roman 7:7 and then Titus 3.
Lets look at this sin of covetousness and what it arises from and leads to:
To covet means to wrongfully desire for that which is not yours or currently attainable. It is associated with discontentment.
Jealousy is a fear of loss of something you possess.
Envy is a desire for what is not yours and begrudging the one who has it. This condition arises out of coveteous. It is closely connected to malice which is the desire to inflict pain or suffering on another. So with this kind of anger, envy, coveting and malice in his heart, young Saul begins to persecute the church or as he referred to it as the Way.
In looking at Sauls life what we see is a young man who is searching for something to fill the hole in his life. He saw in the life of Stephen a contentment and completeness and peace that he lacked. Have we not all searched for that something or someone who would make our lives complete?
Chapter 8 represents the movement of the church. In the early days the work that had begun in Jerusalem and Judea was primarily among Jews. This was according to Jesus instruction to be His witnesses in Jerusalem then into Judea and Samaria and the uttermost parts of the world. The stoning of Stephen was the beginning of the persecution of the church. Saul of Tarsus was instrumental in leading the attack on the church as we read of his efforts to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he(Saul) dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
So with the exception of the apostles who remained in Jerusalem, believers were scattered into Judea and Samaria. Dr. Lukes account follows Phillip to Samaria. Dont miss this process: Phillip went down to Samaria where he proclaims Christ. Persecution ends with proclamation of Christ. God uses the persecution and death of Stephen to spread the Gospel and move out to Samaria and the uttermost parts of the world.
Listen as Luke describes the impact of Phillips preaching: When the crowds heard Phillip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. So there was great JOY in that city. What started with persecution ends with great joy. We cannot help but see the connection- persecution led by this young man, Saul of Tarsus was used by God to accomplish His will the spreading of the Gospel. James writes in James 1 to consider it pure joy whenever you face trials. Adversity is to our faith what exercise is to our muscles. James tells us adversity and trials develops patience or perseverance which matures our faith. Adversity purifies, enlarges and proves our faith. As far as trials go, Peter said as Christians you should not consider them unusual.
Lets look at Phillip for a minute. He started out waiting on the tables, helping with the distribution of goods to the Greek widows. He who is faithful in little will be given more. But look at the three earmarks of genuine ministry, a work of the Holy Spirit.
- The ring of truth. The crowds paid close attention to what he said. They knew they were hearing the truth. Just as when Jesus taught- people listened and even commented-never did any man speak as this man(Jesus) speaks. Jesus said you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.
- Genuine ministry is accompanied with power. Power that is a higher power, a power that comes from God.
- The third mark of genuine work of God is joy. There was great joy in the city. This is the power of the Gospel- the power to break the chains of sin to set people free and fill them with joy. The programs that society and the government develop to bring relief from suffering in our cities can only deal with physical problems- housing, food, clothing, medicine, education. But even society realizes these programs are band-aids- they do not address the real problem. Yes they address injustice and prejudice but nothing can bring the type of joy the Samarians enjoyed but the power of Gods word when it leads to salvation. Then we can have an internal, eternal spring of joy within.
Now we know we have a relentless enemy who goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. He is called our adversary. An adversary is an enemy or rival. When ever and where ever a genuine work of the ministry is going on as was in the early church- it will attract attention of the enemy and attacks will follow.
First we saw the apostles arrested and threatened and beaten. This only served to encourage them as being counted worthy to suffer for the Lords sake and name. We are about to meet a man named Simon, who practice sorcery in the city of Samaria and amazed all the people. Let us consider the attacks of the enemy upon the church so far:
- Direct attack, threats and punishment of apostles. Told not to speak in the name of Jesus.
- Next the attack within the church- Ananias and Sapphira and the seed of hypocrisy is sown with their lies to the Holy Spirit.
- An attack resulting in dissension among believers- quarreling, hurt feelings that Greek widows were not being treated fairly. This was also an attack to distract the Apostles from the work of the ministry- prayer and the ministry of the word.
- Another attack of those in the Synagogue of the Freedman( Greeks) upon Stephen over doctrine. They accused him falsely of blasphemy against- the law, Moses, the Temple and God. This resulted in the persecution of the church and the scattering of believers.
- And now another powerful work has begun in Samaria. Do you see the pattern? When there is the work of the Holy Spirit- when lives are being changed, the Gospel proclaimed it attracts the attention of the enemy. This attack is the epitome of the saying: if you cant beat them- join them.
Simon will be a tare among the wheat. He identified with the believers. He was baptized and joined the church. But he was unchanged. He was a fraud. He was a tare- he looked like wheat on the outside- but was empty on the inside.
There have been tares among the wheat from the beginning and there are tares among the wheat today, right here in WJBC. Jesus warned us about tares among the wheat in His parable in Matthew 13. We will look at that parable and this man known as Simon the Sorcerer and Phillips encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch next week as we continue our study of the Acts.