Stephen’s Defense of the Gospel
July 10th, 1977 @ 8:15 AM
STEPHEN’S DEFENSE OF THE GOSPEL
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-10-77 8:15 a.m.
On the radio of the city of Dallas and on the radio of KCBI, we welcome you to the services of the First Baptist Church. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Apology, the Defense, of Stephen. In our preaching through the Book of Acts we have come to the last part of chapter 6. And the reading of the Scripture is this:
And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.
Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the Synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia—
Where Saul of Tarsus is from—
and of Asia, disputing with Stephen.
And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spake.
Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.
And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the Sanhedrin,
And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law:
For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the ethē which Moses delivered unto us.
And all that sat in the Sanhedrin, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.
Then said the high priest, Are these things so?
And he said…
Then follows the longest address in the Book of Acts; by far the longest, and the longest chapter in the Book of Acts [Acts 7:2-53].
Stephen, the wonderful first mighty Christian martyr, Stephen is so much that—a martyr—until we hardly remember that he is anything else. His life closed in a blaze of glory [Acts 7:54-60]; so much so that we are inclined not to remember the virtues that kindled the flame. We are so engrossed with the wondrous climactic consummating martyrdom of this deacon until we are inclined to look upon his address as being tiresome, and tedious, and repetitious of the history of Israel. But not so, Doctor Luke, who wrote the Acts, and not so the Holy Spirit that inspired the words that are contained in the volume [2 Peter 1:20-21]. To Doctor Luke and to the Holy Spirit, this is one of the most important of all the addresses of all time. And the apology and defense of Stephen is looked upon as the great watershed between Judaistic religion and the Christian faith [Acts 7:2-53].
Doctor Luke presents this martyr, Stephen, as the new turn, and the new interpretation, and the new life, and the new revelation that we see in Christ Jesus. Heretofore we had known Judaistic, Galilean, Palestinian, Ebionitic, Judaism, Christianity, represented by Simon Peter. But beginning with Stephen we have a new turn, and a new day, and a new preaching, a new apology; and it finally is represented by the Hellenistic preacher, Saul of Tarsus, the apostle Paul. Stephen did not create this confrontation between Judaism and Christianity, but he precipitated it. Stephen sounds the glorious call of Christian freedom and Christian liberty. He takes the story of Judaism and gives it a startling turn: he is acquainted with the Holy Scriptures like an Alexandrian theologian, and he interprets it with a philosopher’s insight and understanding. Stephen is like a Greek Platonist philosopher: he is warring against materialistic religion. And his interpretation of redemption and God’s purposes of grace are altogether and doubly Christian.
So he speaks this long address in this book of splendors, the Word of God [Acts 7:2-53]. And our message this morning is a summation of Stephen’s apology, his defense of the faith. First of all, his accusers said that he blasphemed because “he spoke words against this holy place,” referring to the temple [Acts 6:13]. Stephen therefore addresses himself to the subject: what relation is there between locality and the worship of God? And the defense and apology of Stephen is this: that there is no relationship between true spiritual religion and locality. And he defends it with the avowal that in the beginning, locality, place, had nothing to do with the true worship of God.
He illustrates it in the life, first of Abraham. Abraham had no possession in the land of promise, only a place to bury his beloved dead. And yet the worship of Abraham, here, and yonder, and there was acceptable unto the Lord [Acts 7:2-19]. Then he speaks of Moses [Acts 7:20-44]. Moses is not in Palestine; Moses is in the Sinaitic-Midian desert. And yet the Lord said to Moses, as He spoke to him out of the burning bush [Exodus 3:1-4], “Take off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” [Exodus 3:4-5; Acts 7:33]. Then he speaks of David, who conquered Jerusalem, but had no opportunity, because of the interdiction of God, to build a temple [Acts 7:45-46]. But the people worshiped in the tabernacle, which was in differing places in Israel. Then he speaks of Solomon [Acts 7:47], and refers to the glorious prayer of dedication on the part of Solomon [Acts 7:48]. And Solomon closed that prayer with this word
But there is no house that could contain the glory of God;
behold, the heavens and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee; much less this house that I have built for Thee.
[1 Kings 8:27]
Then the great martyr speaks of the prophet who said, and he quotes Isaiah 66:1-2:
Thus saith the Lord, Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool:
What house will you build for Me?
And where is the place of My rest?
There is no house, Stephen said, that could contain the majesty and the mightiness of Almighty God; nor could God and His worship ever be confined to one place and one locality [Acts 7:48-49]. Therefore, would Stephen say, any place is a good place, and any time is a good time, to call upon the name of the Lord. A kitchen corner is just as fine a place to worship God as the greatest cathedral. A tiny tepee is as acceptable in God’s sight as a place to call upon the name of the Lord as the tallest temple. And the poorest suppliant is as welcome in the sight of God as the most gorgeously robed priest.
What Stephen is doing here in this mighty address in the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts is this: he is forever sounding the death knell of privilege, place, and priest. Anywhere is a marvelous where to call upon the name of the Lord. And his presentation of spiritual religion shows the emptiness and futility of the professions of those who said only in Jerusalem and in the temple could they call upon the name of Almighty Jehovah God. That is in keeping with the teaching of our Lord, who said in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John: “The time is coming, and now is, when neither in this mountain,” speaking of Gerizim, “or in Jerusalem will they worship God. . .for they that worship God must worship Him in spirit and in truth” [John 4:21-24].
And that is anywhere a man has it in his heart to call upon the name of the Lord. That is in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts: the Ethiopian eunuch “has come up to Jerusalem for to worship” [Acts 8:27]. From all over the Greco-Roman world did the Jew turn his face to Jerusalem, there to call upon the name of the Lord. Now no longer does that Ethiopian eunuch need to make that trek, that journey, that pilgrimage, to a sacred Mecca. He can worship God just as well in Addis Ababa as he can in holy Jerusalem; and thus it is with all of our people today. This is the defense, the apology of Stephen: you can erect an altar, wholly separate and apart, to come before God in your bedroom, in your living room, in your study, in your library, in your office, anywhere that you are. Anywhere that you live, any place you happen to be is a marvelous place to call upon the name of God.
Second: they said that Stephen spoke against Moses [Acts 6:11, 14]. Then his address follows after [Acts 7:2-53]. What relationship does Moses have to the promises and the revelation of Almighty God? Does the purpose of God find its termination and its consummation in Moses? Is there anything beyond Moses? Or is the epitome of all God’s revelation and mind found in the Mosaic legislation? The answer of Stephen is certain and magnificent. He says that beyond Moses there were the kings [Acts 7:45-47]. And God said to David the king that he should have a son who should sit upon his throne forever, pointing to the Son of God [2 Samuel 7:12-13, 16]. And Stephen says beyond the kings there are the prophets, and the prophets spoke of the great coming One, who should be the Savior and Redemptor of this sinful earth [Acts 7:52]. By no means would Stephen say that the revelation of God and the purposes of God find their end and consummation in Moses.
Then the martyr quotes from Moses himself. Moses spoke of Someone who was to follow him [Acts 7:37]. And Moses pointed to a greater than he that was yet to come. Deuteronomy 18:15:
The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet—capital “P”—
a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto Him ye shall hearken—
then again in verse 18—
I will raise them up a Prophet—capital “P”—
from among their brethren, like unto thee; and will put My words in His mouth; and He shall speak unto them all that I command Him. And it shall come to pass that whosoever will not hearken unto My words which He shall speak unto My name, I will require it of him.
[Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19]
Moses points beyond himself to Somebody else [Acts 7:37]. The revelation and the great consummation of the purposes of God did not find their terminus, their end, in the great lawgiver Moses. For them to look upon Moses as the epitome and the consummation of the revelation and purposes of God is to deny what Moses himself said and is to deny the history of the Jewish race. Moses always is pointing to Him who is yet to come [Deuteronomy 18:15; Acts 7:37].
I think it is one of the most interesting interpretations in the Bible, when you read in the third chapter of the second Corinthian letter Paul’s saying that Moses put a veil over his face when he came down from the mountain[2 Corinthians 3:13]; remember the Bible says, “He wist not that his face shined, that it shone” [Exodus 34:29-35]. In the presence of God his face shined, when he came down from the mountain. And Paul says Moses put a veil over his face, and then Paul says that the children of Israel might not behold to the end the vanishing glory on the face of the great lawgiver [2 Corinthians 3:13]. For the shining was temporary, it was transitory, it was just for the moment. And he covered his face, that the people might not see the shining glory fade away [2 Corinthians 3:13]. So Paul says about the Mosaic economy, it was transitory, it was temporary [2 Corinthians 3:6-14], and Moses himself pointed to Someone greater who was yet to come [Acts 7:37].
Then third, they said that he spoke against God and the ethos. We have taken that word out of the Greek and have placed it in our own English language. They said he spoke against God, and “the ethos which Moses delivered unto us” [Acts 6:11, 14]. Ethos refers to the traits of a people, the usages of a people, the customs of a people; all of those things that people do that make them distinct and separate and apart. And of course, out of all the tribes and peoples of the earth, there never has been a race that had an ethos so distinct and so separate and apart as the Jewish faith, and the Jewish, race and the Jewish religion. So these accusers say of Stephen that he has spoken against the usages and the customs of the Jewish race. Then he addresses himself to the third question: what is the relationship between the Mosaic legislation, all of those economies, all of those feasts, and sacrifices, and rituals, by which the people came before Jehovah God? What is the relationship between the customs, the ethos, the peculiar way that the Jewish people were taught to come before Jehovah, and the final promises and revelation of Almighty God in Christ Jesus? The great martyr Stephen says that all of these things that characterize the Jewish approach to God were temporary and transitory [Acts 7:48-51]. They were but types and figures that pointed to Jesus [Galatians 3:24]. The sacrifices were temporary. They had to be repeated because they were not able, they did not suffice to wash away sin [Hebrews 10:1]. All of the feasts were but adumbrations of our breaking bread at the table of the Lord [1 Corinthians 10:16; Hebrews 10:5, 10]. And the Passover itself was but a picture of the atoning Lamb of God [1 Corinthians 5:7].
The sanctuary itself was but a picture book of the glory of the Lord Jesus: the seven branched lampstand [Exodus 25:31-40], He is the light of the world [John 8:12]; the table of showbread [Exodus 25:23-30], He is the bread of life [John 6:35]; the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place [Exodus 26:31-33] is His flesh [Hebrews 10:20], and when it was rent apart, when He was crucified [Matthew 27:46-51], we had direct access to Almighty God [Hebrews 10:19]. And the sanctuary itself would soon be destroyed [Mark 13:2], and the very kingdom should be given to the Gentiles [Matthew 21:43]. All of the ethos, those customs by which the Jewish religion came before the Lord, were temporary and transitory and but taught us the way to the Lord Jesus. Then Stephen concluded his mighty address. He declared, “You make much of the rite of circumcision, of the patriarch Abraham, but you are uncircumcised in heart and in soul. You make much of the prophets, but you yourself are persecuting the true witnesses of Christ and show yourself the sons of those who have slain the prophets. You make much of the Mosaic ethos, but you deny the Just and Holy One to which Moses gave tribute and prophecy; and you crucified Him and nailed Him to a tree” [Acts 7:51-52].
And when Stephen said that, they were infuriated with an implacable hatred and anger. And they seized him [Acts 7:54].
I think of a like scene in the life of the great morning star of the Reformation, Savonarola. Having incurred the bitterness of the papal legate, he came before Savonarola and read to him the paper of excommunication, closing it with these words, “I hereby separate you from the church triumphant and from the church militant.” And Savonarola replied, “From the church militant, yes; but from the church triumphant never: for it is not in thy power to do so.” And they seized Savonarola, and they tortured him, and they hanged him in chains from a gallows, and they burned his body with fire. But, the great glorious truth that Savonarola represented marched on, until it consummated in the great scriptural and scripturally inspired Reformation.
So with Stephen: when he spoke those words of mighty and enduring truth, they were filled with hatred and they seized him. And they could cast him out [Acts 7:57-58], but they could not separate him from God. They could stone him, but they could not blot out the vision of the Lord Jesus. And they could take away his life, but they could not take away his fellowship in the glorious risen Savior and Lord [Acts 7:59-60]. And as they looked upon Stephen, his face was as the face of an angel, bright and glorious [Acts 6:15]. “And as they beat him to the ground, he looked up, and saw the Lord Jesus standing at the right hand of the Majesty on High, ready to receive the soul, the spirit, of His dying” [Acts 7:55-56], the Greek is martyr, the translation is “witness.”
I have often wondered as I read of the martyrdom of Stephen [Acts 7:54-60], and as I read of the glory that shined in his face [Acts 6:15], and as I read of his vision of the heavenly throne and the abiding enduring King and Savior [Acts 7:56], I often think, “Wonder if Paul, who watched him, who debated with him in that Cilician synagogue, who heard this address” [Acts 7:2-53], that’s why it is so meticulously repeated here in the Bible, he never forgot it; he heard every word of it, and he told it to Luke word by word, and Luke wrote it down here in the Bible; as Saul of Tarsus found himself unable to cope with the wisdom by which Stephen spoke, and as he saw the face of Stephen like the face of an angel, and heard him speak of the glorious vision of Christ in heaven as they stoned him to death [Acts 7:59-60], I’ve often wondered if that lies back of this incomparable passage in the fourth chapter of the second Corinthian letter:
For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, but not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be manifest in our mortal bodies. . .For which cause we faint not; but though this outward body perish, yet the inward soul is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more eternal and exceeding weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal,
The temple, and the priesthood, and the sacrifices and all of the ethos of the race:
for the things that are seen are temporal; but the things that are not seen, the eternities of God, abideth for ever.
[2 Corinthians 4:6-10, 16-18]
This is the Christian faith. And this is the call of the true martyr witness to us today: to embrace the faith, to see the vision beatific, to lift up our eyes beyond this vanishing and passing world, and to see the eternities of God in Christ Jesus.
That is the apology and the defense of God’s first martyr, Stephen. Isn’t it a wonderful thing? He was not an apostle, he was not a preacher, he was not a consecrated minister of the church; he was a layman, he was a deacon [Acts 6:5]. Ah! The Lord bless his wonderful understanding to our hearts, and encourage us, not just the pastor and the minister, but to encourage us to be like knowledgeable in the faith and like given to the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ [2 Corinthians 4:6].
We must sing our song of appeal, and while we sing it, a family you, a couple you, a one somebody you, to give your heart to the truth of God, to the faith of Christ, would you come and stand by me? Out of the balcony round, a family you, a couple, or just you, in the press of people on this lower floor, into the aisle and down to the front, “Here I am, pastor, I have decided for God. I’m giving my heart to Christ, and here I come.” Or, “I am putting my life with you in this dear church.” On the first note of the first stanza, come. Make the decision now in your heart, and when you stand up, stand up walking down that stairway, coming down this aisle, “Here I am, pastor, I give you my hand; I’ve given my heart to the Lord [Romans 10:9-13]. I’m on the way.” Do it now. Come now. Make it now, while we stand and while we sing.
DEFENSE OF THE GOSPEL
A. Stephen so much a
martyr we forget he was anything else
B. Luke regards his
address as vitally important
C. The apology of
Stephen sounds keynote of Christian freedom
II. Accused of speaking against “this holy
place” – the temple, Jerusalem
there is no relation between locality and the worship of God (Exodus 3:5, 1
Kings 8:27, Isaiah 66:1-2)
is the Presence, not the place
Stephen struck at exclusive privilege claimed for temple and priesthood (John
4:21-23, Acts 8:27)
III. Accused of blaspheming against Moses
A. Consummation of
revelation not in Moses (Zechariah 9:9)
1. Stephen quotes
Moses himself (Deuteronomy 18:15)
B. Interpretation of
Paul (2 Corinthians 3:13)
IV. Accused of blasphemy against God and
ethos of the people
customs, rites, rituals were but types of redemption revealed in Christ (John
1:29, Mark 13:2, Matthew 21:43)
Uncircumcised in heart and soul (Acts 7:51)
V. They could not separate Stephen from God