Stephen and the surprising message of salvation.
It is always surprising and even a little shocking to see just how opposite to our ways and our will God works. Our normal reactions, plans, and intentions are often thwarted by the upside-downness of God’s economy, and many times this is seen in visceral ways throughout the Bible. Such is the case in Acts 6–7. The context of this passage is so fascinating to me because right after we read of the increasing, multiplying, and flourishing of the New Testament church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:7), something happens that would rock the world of all these new converts.
The ministry is growing, the church’s success is ballooning, and everything’s looking up. Surely, it would seem to reason, that this success will only continue, right? Obviously, God has our best interests at heart, so he’s going to do whatever he can to see that the church continues to flourish and grow and multiply, right? But this isn’t what happens. In fact, just the opposite occurs. In just a few verses, the entire outlook of the New Testament church would change from one of hope and promise and vitality to one of grisly discouragement.
Stephen rightly accused.
Stephen was one of the 7 deacons chosen to serve the church by the apostles. (Acts 6:1–6) He’s first mentioned in Acts 6:5, where he’s described as a man “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” The Lord quickly blessed his ministry, as we’re told that “great wonders and signs” were being accomplished at his hand. (Acts 6:8) Stephen’s success soon draws the attention of the synagogue of “The Freedmen,” a group of Jews that were part of the Diaspora (the dispersion of Israelites out of their ancestral homeland). These men engage in a confrontation with Stephen over his teaching, rousing up a crowd in the process. (Acts 6:11–12) A council is formed to impeach Stephen, complete with false witnesses and concocted testimonies to accuse and incriminate him. (Acts 6:13–14) The charges they bring against Stephen are for heresy and blasphemy, accusing him of speaking against Moses and against God, claiming that “this Jesus of Nazareth” would destroy the Temple and throw out the Mosaic law. But as Stephen stands before the council, literally facing life or death, he’s given occasion to explain himself. (Acts 7:1) And thus begins one of the strangest sermons ever recorded.
I say it’s strange because Stephen doesn’t do what we’d probably do. Definitely not what I would do. He doesn’t jump right in and try to defend himself. He doesn’t make excuses for his teaching. He’s not looking for a pardon from the council nor is he after any sort of vindication or affirmation from them. No, for the next 50 verses, Stephen launches into a lengthy discourse on the Old Testament history of the nation of Israel (Acts 7:2–53), specifically recalling scenes all those in earshot would know and be familiar with. As he moves from scene to scene, we’re not quite sure where Stephen’s going with this. The council probably wasn’t either. They were actually probably feeling insulted by this blasphemer who’s merely giving them a history lesson, one they already knew. Nevertheless, he begins with Abraham and talks about Joseph and about Moses. He refers to the law and ends by talking about the Temple. His words are pointed and precise.
It’s interesting, though, that Stephen never backs down from his accusations. He never mentions how the council had misunderstood what he had said or how the people had heard him incorrectly. Actually, quite the opposite is true. Stephen basically affirms they’re accusations, essentially saying, “Those things about destroying the Temple? Those rumors about throwing out the Mosaic law? Yeah, those things already happened when you guys murdered that guy named Jesus!” Stephen openly speaks to the very things he’s being accused of speaking against, brilliantly recounting the story of redemption as it is seen throughout the entire Bible, throughout the entire history of man. Stephen harmonizes the story of Israel’s salvation with the story of man’s salvation, showing the beauty and transcendence of God’s deliverance.
Salvation from lesser lords.
But as Stephen proceeds to apply all these things to the present day, we realize what he’s been doing all along. This counter-accusation from Stephen is cutting: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” (Acts 7:51) The council is infuriated, seething with rage! They’re so angry, in fact, they grind their teeth at him, no doubt shaking their fists in the process. (Acts 7:54)
Stephen’s argument, by way of this sermon, is that because of the council’s own misunderstanding of God’s story — that is, the larger narrative of Scripture — and recent rejection and murder of Christ, they’ve misunderstood their own story. In essence, Stephen’s dispute to the council is, “Because I know and understand and believe in Jesus, I understand your story, your life better than you do.” Stephen knew that the Pentateuch and the events of Israel’s history weren’t mere events or historical facts. The stories recorded in the Old Testament weren’t just a bunch of stories compiled together at random. They were there on purpose, all of them directing us to something, rather, to Someone. He understood that in Abraham, in Joseph, in Moses, and all the other Old Testament patriarchs, mankind was given glimpses and flashes of the hope of a Redeemer yet to come. Stephen understood that the facts of the Old Testament weren’t just facts to know, they were promises of the Messiah, of the truer and better One to come that would make “all things new.” He rightly apprehended that Jesus is the Temple of God, the very place where God and man can dwell together; that Jesus is himself the fulfillment of all the law, satisfying all its demands for you.
You see, what Stephen said to this council is still true for us. Regardless of the story we’re living, it’s deformed, deficient, and totally defunct if it doesn’t have Jesus at the center of it. Without Jesus at the center of our story, we’ve got the wrong story. The story you’re made for, the life you’ve been called to, isn’t one with your hopes, your dreams, your wants, or your desires at the center of it. Stephen’s harsh words of judgment before this council are actually words of love. Like a moment of divine intervention, God uses Stephen to jar these men from their spiritual stupor, to shake them from their blindness with the coarse and cutting language of their failure to learn from history and understand the bigger picture. They had made this story all about them. Like their ancestors before them, they had missed the point, they had refused the truth, they had rejected Christ. They had spurned and executed the true and better Lord of all life. Jesus is the one who completes all of our stories. What’s more, Jesus’s death and resurrection rewrites the end of our story, from one of condemnation to one of glory.
The gist of Stephen’s sermon is that Jesus is and ought to be the beginning, middle, and end of everyone’s story. And unless we consciously make Christ the center, the peace and fulfillment and life we long for and crave and fight for will forever be out of reach. This is what Stephen said. More importantly, this what your Bible says. That Jesus is Lord. He’s the one who completes all of our stories. He’s the only one who’s worthy of our trust and devotion. He died to save us from the lesser lords we worship and the lesser stories we live for. All the inferior lords we hold so dear and put so much faith in will never love us or fulfill us like Jesus. Actually, all they do is crush us, leaving us burdened and exhausted, hopeless and hollow, weary and wanting.
I’m reminded of an interview Tom Brady gave a few years ago. I’m sure you’re familiar with this illustration, but the remarkable and biblical truth it reveals is quite stunning. Tom Brady once said the following in an interview for 60 Minutes:
Why do I have three [now four] Super Bowl rings and still think there is something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, “Hey man, this is what it is.” I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think, “God, it’s got to be more than this. I mean this isn’t, this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be.”
Four-time Super Bowl winning QB of the New England Patriots, Tom Brady, said that — a guy who’s wealthier and better looking than any of us ever will be. A guys who’s living the life, so to speak, perhaps the fantasy life of every guy ever. He’s probably the best QB in NFL history, super wealthy, super smart, supermodel wife, kids, has houses and cars and fame and dollars galore! But even with all of that, Tom Brady admits that there’s got to be more than this, that something’s missing. And he’s right, because there is.
There’s more to life than cars and money and girls and fame and success, etc., because God put eternity into the heart of man! (Ecc 3:11) There’s a God-sized hole in your heart and so long as you ignore it you’ll forever be searching, forever be dissatisfied, forever be wandering through life looking for something more. And that’s the point. Those things were never meant to fulfill you, they were never meant to fill that void. Those lords were never meant to be your Lord. They were never meant to be your story. As French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote:
There was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God himself.1
The story of Scripture.
By way of this sermon, Stephen flips the accusations against him on their head, accusing his accusers for the same things he’s standing in court for, showing them how far short they were from God’s glory and how far off-base they were from knowing God’s story. What Stephen’s message and subsequent death show us is that there’s only one story being told throughout all of life, that is, the story of redemption, the story of the gospel, the story of grace!
The story Stephen tells is the story of the Bible, which is, in essence, a recounting of the million ways that God meets us in our fractured, faithless, and filthy condition. The story of the Bible is the story of how God perpetually cleans up the messes we make. The entire account of Scripture, from cover to cover, is nothing but instance after instance of a good God saving, using, and redeeming bad people. From the beginning of time till now, this is what God’s been doing: meeting broken, fallible man where he is — in his brokenness and frailty. The glorious truth of God’s Word is that God himself meets us in the very mess we’ve made! This is what makes Christianity unlike any other religion in the world. Instead of a God who insists that we come up to him and get on his level and work our way into rewards and blessings, God comes down. We don’t serve a makeshift lord that demands we get better before he communes with us. We serve Emmanuel, a God with us!
Of all the names of God, each brimming with eternal truth and significance for us, Emmanuel might be the most important. Emmanuel points us to our Lord’s incarnation, God becoming flesh, the Creator becoming part of his creation, deity taking on humanity. The miracle of the incarnation is worth a lifetime of Christmases. And, indeed, our redemption necessitated nothing less than a divine miracle. Our vileness demanded nothing less than the earthly descent of the heavenly Son. In fact, we might say that the incarnation is the chief cornerstone of the Christian faith. In it, we are made to know that our God isn’t an incomprehensible or invisible abstraction, some mere imagination of the mind, some fairy-God of human conjuring or lesser lord of wishful thinking. In the incarnation, we’re made to know and see a God who comes near, a God who becomes visible, tangible, human.
The incarnation is the truest evidence that the God of the Bible is unafraid of dwelling and communing with sinners. Actually, that’s his prime directive. That’s who Emmanuel is — a God who specifically seeks out sinners for the purposes of showcasing his glorious grace. (1 Tm 1:15; Lk 19:10) The incarnation is all the proof we need to know that God’s economy is different than ours. In his world, the last is first and the least is the greatest. And so it is, that the unlikely message of Stephen is really a reflection of the unlikely message of Scripture. The persistent theme throughout Israel’s story, and ours too, is the amazing grace of God descending to meet our deepest need. The Father accommodates himself to us in order to restore the human-divine relationship. God doesn’t beckon down to us, “Climb!” In Christ, he says, “Believe.”
Grace does not stand upon the distant mountain-top and call on the sinner to climb up the steep heights, that he may obtain its treasures; it comes down into the valley in quest of him, — nay, it stretches down its hand into the very lowest depths of the horrible pit, to pluck him thence out of the miry clay.2
In a manner completely opposite to what we’d expect, God has come near to us. By the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, God has made a way for us to be rescued from the oppression of all the lesser lords and mistaken stories that control our lives. In the incarnation, he has made a way for us to live within his story. The surprising message of salvation is that in Christ, our story has been rewritten by the very blood we drew.
Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, translated by W. F. Trotter (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910), 138–39.
Horatius Bonar, The Story of Grace (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1857), 62.