Stephen’s Defense of the Gospel
July 10th, 1977 @ 10:50 AM
STEPHEN’S DEFENSE OF THE GOSPEL
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-10-77 10:50 a.m.
The title of the message is The Apologia—The Defense of Stephen. This is one of the great mountain peaks in the ongoing redemptive ministry of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ. And I pray God will bless the truth of the message this morning. On the radio and television, you are listening to the pastor of the First Baptist Church. And the message, In Defense of the Gospel, is an exposition of what this man Stephen says in the long seventh chapter of the Book of Acts, which is the longest address, by far, in all of the volume. Now as a background, I am reading beginning at verse 8 of the sixth chapter of the Book of Acts:
stephanos, crown, garland—
full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.
Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia—
Saul of Tarsus was from Cilicia. Tarsus was the capital of Cilicia, and he was there—
fromCilicia and the Roman province of Asia, disputing with Stephen.
And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spake.
Imagine what a burning humiliation that was to this young firebrand who was a theologue in the school of Gamaliel [Acts 22:3].
Then they suborned men—
they bought them, they paid them—
to say, We have heard Stephen 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 ethos which Moses delivered unto us.
And all that sat in the council looked steadfastly on him and saw his face as if it had been the face of an angel.
Then said the high priest to Stephen: Are these things so?
And he said…
Then follows the long defense of the gospel truth by this godly layman, deacon, Stephen [Acts 7:2-53]. Stephen is so much a martyr [Acts 7:54-60], that we forget he was anything else. He was the first man to lay down his life for the Lord. His life ended in such a blaze of glory that we don’t remember the virtues that kindled the flame. He is so much in our minds the martyr, that we look upon the long address—defense, apologia—that he delivered as being a wearisome and tiresome repetition of Old Testament history, but that is we.
The mind of God is different. Dr. Luke, who recorded this, who wrote the Book of Acts, and the Holy Spirit, who inspired him to write it out, looked upon this address as one of the great high watermarks of redemption—vitally important. To Dr. Luke, this man Stephen is the transition from Aramaean, Galilean, Palestinian, Judaistic Christianity—represented by Simon Peter—to the universal Christian faith—represented by the Hellenistic Greek-speaking Saul of Taursus, Paul the apostle [Romans 11:13] . There is a new turn. There is a new life. There is a new way. There is a new approach when we come to this Hellenistic layman, Stephen. He did not create the confrontation between Judaism and Christianity. The conflict was inevitable. But Stephen precipitated it. This man Stephen sounds the very keynote of foundational Christian freedom. When he recounts the story of God’s dealings with the Jewish race, we are startled by his new interpretation. He is as familiar with the Scriptures as an Alexandrian theologian, and he speaks of them with a philosopher’s insight and understanding. He has a caustic criticism of materialistic religion like that of a Platonic, Greek philosopher. And under his hands, the truth of redemption and salvation and forgiveness in Christ Jesus is doubly and trebly Christian.
So he begins his address, “Then said the high priest, Are these things so?” And he discusses in his apologia, in his apology, in his defense, these castigations that were made against him. First: his accusers said that he spoke against, “this holy place” [Acts 6:13]—referring to the temple; referring to Jerusalem, to which the people came to worship God. So Stephen addresses himself to that accusation. What is the relation between locality and the worship of God? Stephen says there is no relation whatsoever, that any where is a good place to call upon the name of the Lord. Any time is a good time to worship Jehovah God. Stephen says in his address, in his apology, that the externalities, the paraphernalia of religion has nothing to do with its spiritual nature. So addressing himself, “He blasphemes against this holy place” [Acts 6:13]. Stephen says in his apology that in the beginning locality and place had nothing to do with the worship of God. Abraham, he says, lived in this land of promise but owned no part of it except a small burying place to put his dead away [Acts 7:4-5, 16], and his altars were here and they were there and they were yonder, and his worship was acceptable to God whenever he called upon the name of the Lord [Hebrews 11:8-18].
Stephen says that Moses was not in Canaan when the Lord appeared to him. He was on the back side of a Midian Sinaitic desert. “And the Lord said to Moses, Take off thy shoes from off thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” [Acts 7:33]. Holy ground—but that was not in Jerusalem or on the temple site.
And then Stephen speaks of David. David captured Jerusalem, but he was not allowed to build a temple [1 Chronicles 28:3; Acts 7:45-47]. In that meantime, in different places over Israel the tabernacle was cast, and they called upon the name of the Lord. Then he says when Solomon built the temple, Solomon closed his great, beautiful, magnificent dedicatory prayer with the word: “But this house cannot contain Thee, O God; the heavens and the heaven of the heavens cannot contain Thee, much less this house which I have built” [1 Kings 8:27 Acts 7:47-50]. And then Stephen quotes the prophets. 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? Are not all these things the work of My hands?” [Acts 7:48-50]. The worship of God, Stephen says, is never identified solely with any locality, with any one place, in anybody’s house, in any one’s temple [Acts 7:48-49]. These structures in the earth cannot contain the great and mighty God.
So Stephen would say to us that anywhere, any place is good where and a good place to call upon the name of the Lord. A kitchen corner is as good as a cathedral; a tiny teepee is as acceptable as the tallest temple; and the poorest of suppliants is as welcome as the robed, gorgeously arrayed priest. Stephen, in this apology, this defense, is striking the death knell of the very root of the privilege claimed for the temple and the priesthood. His emphasis upon spiritual religion made their pretenses sterile and empty and barren. God does not need a human priest, and a suppliant doesn’t need a temple in order to come into the presence of God; anywhere a man can go to God for himself, can pray in the name of the Lord, and can be accepted by the Almighty.
Stephen is but reproducing that marvelous message of the Savior in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, when the Lord said to that Samaritan woman, “Neither in this mountain”—Mount Gerizim—“nor yet in Jerusalem will men call upon the name of God . . . . For the Lord desireth those to worship Him who worship in spirit and in truth” [John 4:21, 23-24]. And anywhere a man can come into the presence of God just by approaching the Lord in the name of our redeeming Christ—this is a good place to worship God. Your living room is a wonderful place to worship God. Your bedroom is a fine place to pray. Where you work at a desk is a magnificent place to bow your head and ask God’s blessings upon the work of your hands; driving your car to work or back home—breathing a prayer in the name of the Savior, anywhere is a good where, any time is a good time to call upon the name of the Lord.
You are going to find in the eighth chapter, this next chapter of the Book of Acts, that the Ethiopian eunuch is coming to Jerusalem for to worship [Acts 8:27]. Now, he doesn’t need to come to Jerusalem for to worship. He can worship God in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia just as well as he can worship God in the holy mount in Jerusalem. This is God’s great revelation to us through this deacon layman, Stephen.
Will you look again now? His accusers say that he blasphemes by speaking against Moses [Acts 6:11]. What relation does Moses have to the promises and the revelation of God? Did they terminate in him? Is Moses the great end and consummation of God’s purposes of grace? Stephen, in his apology says no. He says beyond Moses there were the kings [Acts 7:45-47], and to David the promise was made that he should have a greater Son, who would sit upon his throne forever [2 Samuel 7:12-13, 16]. Beyond Moses are the kings, and beyond the kings is the great coming Lord pantokrator of the universe [Acts 7:48-51]. And then, Stephen says, beyond Moses and beyond the kings, there are the prophets [Acts 7:52], and the prophets spoke of the coming One: “Behold, thy King cometh unto thee: meek and lowly, riding upon an ass, upon the foal of an ass [Zechariah 9:9]. And He shall speak peace and salvation to the ends of the world” [Zechariah 9:10].
By no means, says Stephen, was the consummation of the revelation of God in the words of the great lawgiver Moses. Then Stephen quotes from Moses himself [Acts 7:37]. Moses pointed to a greater than he who was yet to come. In the eighteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, verse 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 shall ye hearken” [Deuteronomy 18:15]. There is Someone yet to come. Verse 18:
I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren—capital P—I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put My words in His mouth; and He shall speak unto them all that I shall command Him.
And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto My words which He shall speak in My name, I will require it of him.”
[Deuteronomy 18:18, 19]
Moses did not look upon himself as the final consummation of the redemptive purpose of God in the earth, but Moses points to Someone else who is yet to come [Acts 7:37].
I sometimes think of the unusual interpretation that the apostle Paul gives to Moses in the third chapter of the second Corinthian letter. Speaking of the descent of the great lawgiver from the top of Mount Sinai, the story says in the Bible, that “Moses wist not that his face shone” [Exodus 34:29]. Forty days and forty nights in the presence of Jehovah God, he reflected the shekinah glory of the Lord, and when he came down from the top of Mount Sinai his face shined [Exodus 34:28-29]. Then, Paul says, Moses placed a veil over his face for the purpose, in order that, the children of Israel might not behold to the end that which was fading away [2 Corinthians 3:13]. For a moment, for a time, the light shined in the face of Moses [Exodus 34:35]. But, it was a temporary and transitory shining. And Moses put the veil over his face that Israel might not see the fading glory as it passed away [2 Corinthians 3:13]. So, with the purpose of the great lawgiver, the law was a schoolmaster just to bring us to Jesus [Galatians 3:24]. Moses was a great teacher in order to point to Him who was yet to come. His ministry was temporal and transitory. The Eternal One to which Moses pointed is yet to come. And for the people of the Jewish faith in Jerusalem to say that the great revelation of God found its consummation in Moses is to deny what Moses himself did say, and to deny the history of the race; so the apology, the defense of Stephen.
Now third: they said that he spoke, they accused him of blasphemy, because he spoke against God and the ethos which Moses delivered unto us [Acts 6:11, 14]. That word ethos we have taken out of the Greek and it’s a fine English word—ethos. Ethos refers to the peculiar traits of a people, to the usages and customs of a people, how they do if you observe them; the customs that they follow, the mores that they observe; the ethos of a people.
Now, out of all the nations and peoples and families in the earth, there was no race and no tribe, no people who had an ethos, who had customs and usages in worship, in approaching God as unique and peculiar and different and set apart as did the Jewish race and the Jewish people. So they accused Stephen of saying that God was going to change the ethos; the customs, the rites, the rituals, the approaches to God of the Jewish people and the Jewish race [Acts 6:14]. Is that true? What relation has the ethos of the Jewish people, all of those customs of worship of the Jewish race, what relation does that have with the true worship of God?
Now, the great defense and apology of Stephen is that these were but types and pictures and adumbrations of the great truth of redemption that God would one day reveal in Christ Jesus. They are all transitory and they are all temporal [Acts 7:48-51], and they were given to the people that they might be taught the faith that was yet to be revealed in Christ Jesus [Hebrews 9:8-9]. Consequently, all of the sacrifices were pictures of that great and ultimate sacrifice, when Jesus died for our sins on the cross [Galatians 3:24]. These sacrifices in the temple could not suffice to wash away sins [Hebrews 10:1-4]. They had to be repeated again and again, because they were ineffectual. But their purpose was to point to Him who was “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” [John 1:29].
All of the feasts of the Jewish people, such as the Passover [Exodus 12:1-28, 43-49], were but pictures of Him who was offered for our sins in our stead [1 Corinthians 5:7; 2 Corinthians 5:21]. They were adumbrations of Him. They were not an end in themselves, but they were pictures and types of God preparing us for the Great One who was yet to come. So the sanctuary itself; it was but a beautiful picture book of God getting ready for Him. The seven-branched lampstand but pictures Him who is the light of the world [Exodus 25:31-40; John 8:12]. The table of showbread is but a picture of Him who is the manna, the bread of heaven [Exodus 25:23-30; John 6:35, 41, 48, 51]. The veil in between [Exodus 26:31-33] is but a picture of His flesh, and when it was rent, when He was torn, through His death [Matthew 27:51], we have access into the very sanctuary of God [Hebrews 10:19-20].
These things, Stephen says in his apology, are not ends in themselves; but they are adumbrations and pictures of the great truth that God was to reveal in Christ Jesus [John 5:46]. And finally, these subject citizens were—if they refused the Lord—not even to belong to the kingdom of God, but it would be taken from them and given to the Gentiles [Matthew 21:43]—a worldwide faith and a worldwide Christianity. It is an astonishing intuition that this man, deacon Stephen, has into the purposes of God, in the Old Testament covenant.
Then he comes to his final allegation and accusation himself. He says to the people, “You make much of the rite of circumcision given to Abraham, but you yourselves are uncircumcised in heart and in soul” [Acts 7:51]. “You make much,” Stephen says, “of the Mosaic legislation, but you denied Him of whom Moses spake, and you crucified the Just One, the Son of heaven” [Acts 7:52]. And he says, “You make much of the prophets, but you yourselves bear witness that you are children of those fathers who slew the prophets as you persecute God’s witnesses today” [Luke 11:47-49]. And when Stephen had done that address, that defense, they were infuriated. They were seized with implacable anger and bitterness and hatred, and they seized him [Acts 7:54, 57-58].
I think of a like one in Savanarola, a man of tremendous unction and spirit and prophecy. Silenced by the papal again, he continued to announce the truth of Almighty God; then excommunicated. And the messenger of excommunication read the paper before Savanarola, closing it with the words, “I separate thee this day from the church militant and from the church triumphant.” And Savanarola replied, “From the church militant, yes; but from the church triumphant, never; because it is not in thy power to do so.” And they seized Savanarola, they tortured him, they hanged him on a gallows, and then they burned his body with fire.
So did they with this deacon martyr, layman Stephen. They seized him and they cast him out. But they could not separate him from God. They stoned him to death, but they could not blot out his vision of heaven [Acts 7:56, 58-59]. They took away his life, but they could not take away his fellowship in the Lord Jesus, whose glorious face he saw as they stoned him with stones [Acts 7:55-56]. So Stephen died in defense of the faith [Acts 7:60].
I often wonder, when I read the fourth chapter of the book of 2 Corinthians [2 Corinthians 4:7-9], these who stoned him laid their garments down at the feet of a young man named Saul [Acts 7:58]. He was a Cilician and had been in that synagogue, disputing with Stephen, and was humiliated because he was not able to resist the power and the wisdom by which he spake [Acts 6:10]. How did all of this long address of Stephen find its way in the Bible? That Saul, remembered every syllable and every word of it, and told it to Dr. Luke who wrote it down? Saul was there when he saw the face of Stephen, like the face of an angel [Acts 6:15]. And he was there when Stephen, beat to the ground, lifted up his face and saw Jesus, standing at the right hand of the Majesty on High [Acts 7:55-56]. And I have often thought, it was out of that experience that he wrote this incomparable passage in the fourth chapter of 2 Corinthians:
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 made manifest in our mortal body . . .
For which cause we faint not; but though this outward body perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.
For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal way to glory;
While we look not at the things which are seen, but of the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal . . .
[2 Corinthians 4:6-10, 15-18]
The temple and the sacrifices and the priesthood and these murderous faces and the Sanhedrin and the scribes and the elders and the whole unbelieving world, “for the things that are seen are temporal; but the things that are not seen are eternal” [2 Corinthians 4:18]; our vision of glory, the presence of Jesus Christ, the promise of redemption that we have in Him, and ultimately our own home in heaven. In these future sermons, I am going to preach about Stephen’s prayer and witness and Saul’s conversion. He never got over it. He could not escape it. And in his deepest soul, warring against it, the words of Stephen were hammers on his heart. They were barbed arrows in his mind. And the vision that Stephen had of the Lord [Acts 7:55-56, 59-60], this man Saul could never forget, nor can we.
May I close with a humble observation? I haven’t spoken of an apostle this day. As Dr. Luke tells the story, the apostles are blotted out. Everyone else is blotted out except this man Stephen, and his marvelous defense of the faith [Acts 7:1-53]. He’s not an apostle. He was not a pastor. He was not an ordained minister. Stephen was a layman. Stephen was a deacon [Acts 6:3-5]. Stephen represented the great laity that won the Greco-Roman world to the Lord. For us to persuade ourselves that the kingdom of God is dependant upon the paid servant of Christ—the preacher, the pastor, the staff, the missionary—ah, how tragic the persuasion. The kingdom of God moves in the spirit of the laywomen and the laymen who make up the kingdom of our Lord. These mighty witnesses are found among these men and women who are laypeople as beautifully and as powerfully and as gloriously as it is found among the ministry. And to me, it has a deep and everlasting meaning that the first martyr, the first man to lay down his life for Christ is not Peter. It’s not James. It’s not John. It’s not an apostle. It is a layman defending the faith and sealing his defense with his blood [Acts 7:54-60]. That is great. That will make any church great. That will make any witness powerful. When by the side of the apostle, by the side of the minister, there stands that godly man witnessing to the truth of the Lord as he has found Him in his own life. Ah, Master, that there might be an unconscious witness to the Lord in our living, our walking, our working, our coming, our going, our speaking, our uprising, our down sitting, all of it flowing in a beautiful and wonderful way to the praise of Jesus. Stephen was a layman [Acts 6:3-5].
In a moment now, we are going to stand and sing our song of appeal. And while we sing it, a family you to give your lives to the Lord Jesus and to us; a couple you to put your life in the fellowship of our church; or just you, “Today, I take God into my heart and life. I accept Jesus as my Savior, and I am coming now.” On the first note of the first stanza, answer with your life, make the decision now in your heart, and when we stand up to sing, stand walking down one of these stairways. Stand, coming down one of these aisles, “I have decided for God in my heart, and I am on the way. Here I am, pastor.” Do it now. Raise your children here in this wonderful church. Find rest for your souls in our worshipping God together. Come, now. Make the decision now. Do it now. May angels attend you in the way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.