The Book of ACTS
James J. Barker
STEPHEN, THE FIRST CHRISTIAN MARTYR
- My message this evening is entitled, "Stephen, the First Christian Martyr." Some say John the Baptist was the first Christian martyr.
- However, Stephen is usually referred to as the first Christian martyr because he died after the cross of Christ.
- Stephen's message here in Acts 7 is the longest recorded sermon in the book of Acts, and chapter 7 is the longest chapter in the book of Acts.
- I say the first "recorded" sermon, for there were probably other sermons that were longer. For example, in Acts 20:9 we read that Paul was "long preaching" in Troas, and he was preaching for so long that a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in a window fell into a deep sleep, and as Paul kept preaching, Eutychus "sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead."
- "And Paul went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him" (20:10).
- I assume this what caused Paul to finally stop preaching. Acts 20:7 says that Paul "continued his speech until midnight."
- There is an interesting contrast with Peter's sermon in Acts 2. Both Peter and Stephen were filled with the Holy Spirit. In both instances, the listeners were convicted by the Holy Spirit (2:37; 7:54).
- But Peter's listeners repented (2:41), and Stephen's listeners killed him (7:57-60). Holy Spirit conviction does not always lead to conversion.
STEPHEN BEGAN WITH ABRAHAM (7:1-8).
- Stephen began with Abraham for the same reason Matthew began with Abraham. Matthew 1:1 says, "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham."
- All Jews revered Abraham. The Jews in John 8:33 bragged, "We be Abraham's seed."
- All Jews revered Abraham, and to Abraham was the promise given concerning the land, as well as the preservation of his seed (7:2-6).
- Abraham is often referred to in Scripture as "Father Abraham" (Acts 7:2) because he is the father of Israel as well as "a father of many nations" (Genesis 17:5).
- Stephen continued his message chronologically, referring to the Jews' bondage in Egypt as well as the birth of Isaac, Jacob, and "the twelve patriarchs" (7:7, 8).
- We often hear Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and other Old Testament believers referred to as "the patriarchs." Here is the only mention of that word in Scripture, and it is used in reference to Jacob's twelve sons (7:8, 9).
JOSEPH IN EGYPT (7:9-16)
- The first part of Stephen's message emphasized divine election. God chose Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and "the twelve patriarchs." Here in the next part, Stephen emphasized divine providence (7:9, 10).
- Joseph was hated by his brothers because he was their father Jacob's favorite. "And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt..." (7:9, 10).
- Joseph was a picture and type of Christ. Mark 15:10 says Pontius Pilate "knew that the chief priests had delivered him for envy."
- Joseph was rejected at first, but a day came when his brothers repented and bowed down before him and acknowledged his authority.
- And likewise, the Lord Jesus Christ was rejected by Stephen's accusers, but a day is coming when they will repent and bow down before Him and acknowledge His authority.
- Zechariah 12:10 says, "And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn."
- Philippians 2:10 and 11 says, "That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
MOSES THE DELIVERER (7:17-41)
- A large part of Stephen's message deals with the life of Moses (7:20-44).
- Deuteronomy 34:7 says, "Moses was an hundred and twenty years old when he died." Moses' life divides into three sections of forty years each.
- In the Bible, the number forty represents testing and trial. Jonah preached, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown" (Jonah 3:4).
- There were forty days between our Lord's resurrection and ascension.
- "Forty years" signifies the full period of testing and trial (7:36, 42; cf. 13:17, 18).
- Moses spent his first forty years learning "all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (7:22).
- Then he spent his next forty years in the wilderness. Or as one preacher put it, "Moses spent his first forty years learning to be somebody, and the next forty years learning to be a nobody. And then he spent his final forty years trying to help everybody."
- Back in Acts 6, the council brought false charges against Stephen. Acts 6:11 says, "Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God."
- Acts 6:14 says, "For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us."
- Stephen told them that Moses had originally been rejected by his own people (7:17-29). It is easy to see Stephen's emphasis. Joseph was rejected at first, and Moses was rejected also -- "Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?" (7:27, 35).
- Stephen's point was they had rejected Jesus (cf. 7:52).
- Joseph was rejected, and Moses was rejected, and to Jesus they said, "We will not have this man to reign over us" (Luke 19:14).
- All throughout Israel's history the Israelites rejected God's messengers (cf. 7:51, 52).
- Stephen also pointed out how Moses had prophesied concerning the Messiah who was to come (7:30-37; cf. Deut. 18:15). And this Messiah they rejected and crucified.
- Stephen emphasized their continual backsliding -- "and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt" (7:39).
- Moses tried to help his fellow Israelites but they would not obey him, and while he was up on Mount Sinai, the backslidden people made a golden calf (7:39-41).
THE ISRAELITES CONTINUED TO BACKSLIDE (7:42-51).
- The backslidden, idolatrous Israelites worshipped the host of heaven (7:42).
- Stephen quoted Amos 5:25-27 (Acts 7:42b, 43). Moloch was a popular heathen deity, to which demon-inspired worshippers barbarously offered their own children in human sacrifice.
- Backslidden Jews worshipped all the detestable heathen gods, even Moloch and Remphan. The "star" (7:43) could be a reference to what is known today as the "star of David" (hexagram).
- This cannot be proven, but some things can be proven:
- There is no mention of the star of David in either the Old Testament or the New Testament.
- The six-pointed hexagram was popular in occultism (e.g., the Kabala, " Jewish Mysticism").
- The star of David did not become popular until the 19th century, when the early Zionist movement adopted it as their symbol for the Jewish people.
- Because of their idolatry, the LORD threatened them, "I will carry you away beyond Babylon" (7:43b). The people of Israel were carried away into Assyria, and into the cities of the Medes. The people of Judah were carried away into Babylon.
- After spending considerable time with the history of Israel from Abraham up to Moses and Aaron, Stephen moved more quickly from Joshua (Jesus is Greek for Joshua in 7:45) to King Solomon -- from theocracy to monarchy.
- Part of the charge brought against Stephen was that he spake "blasphemous words" against the temple ("this holy place" -- 6:13), so he directly responded to the accusation. Stephen referred first to the tabernacle in the wilderness, and then to the temple built by King Solomon (7:44-47).
- David "desired" to build the temple in Jerusalem, but it was the LORD's will for Solomon to build it (7:46, 47).
- Stephen had been accused of blaspheming the temple (6:13). He reminded his accusers that "the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands" (7:48).
- "As saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest? Hath not my hand made all these things?" (7:48-50; cf. Isa. 66:1, 2). Another reminder that God is our Creator!
- In verses 51 and 52, Stephen made it personal -- "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye..."
- King Hezekiah said, "Now be ye not stiffnecked, as your fathers were, but yield yourselves unto the LORD..." (II Chron. 30:8).
- "Stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears...resist the Holy Ghost" -- this describes stubborn unbelief; obstinate, pigheaded, disobedient, unteachable, haughty.
- Jeremiah 17:23 says, "But they obeyed not, neither inclined their ear, but made their neck stiff, that they might not hear, nor receive instruction."
- "Circumcised in heart" means being born again. "Uncircumcised in heart" means unregenerate and full of sin.
- "As your fathers did, so do ye" -- their fathers were stiffnecked. Exodus 32:9 says, " And the LORD said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people."
- They are still stiffnecked today, and will soon be deceived by the antichrist. Jesus said, "I am come in my Father's name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive" (John 5:43).
- Stephen charged that the law was supernaturally given to the nation Israel -- "by the disposition of angels," but the Jews had not kept it (7:53). It appears that at this point, that Stephen's message was cut short (7:54). "They gnashed on him with their teeth" (7:54).
- In the Bible, gnashing the teeth signifies fierce rage. Job said, “He teareth me in his wrath, who hateth me: he gnasheth upon me with his teeth; mine enemy sharpeneth his eyes upon me. (Job 16:9).
- David wrote, “they gnashed upon me with their teeth” (Psalm 35:16).
- But “gnashing of teeth” can also refer to the anguish of eternal damnation. Whenever Jesus spoke of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” He was referring to the torment of eternal hellfire (cf. Matt. 24:51).
- It appears that Stephen may have intended to speak longer. Perhaps the angry mob interrupted him after his remarks in verses 51 and 52. In any event, they were gnashing their teeth and determined to silence him (7:54-60).
- This is the first mention in Scripture of Saul of Tarsus (7:58; cf. 8:1; 22:20).
- Stephen's murder is a vivid picture of religious apostasy, fanaticism, depravity, and persecution. It has always been this way (e.g., the Inquisition, Muslim beheadings, etc.). "As your fathers did, so do ye" (7:51).
- Notice Jesus is seen standing on the right hand of God (7:55, 56). Normally He is seen seated at the right hand of God the Father. In Matthew 26:64, Jesus said, "Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power." This infuriated the high priest, who rent his clothes, and said, "He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy" (Matt. 26:65).
- Hebrews 1:3 says, "When he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high."
- Hebrews 10:12 says, "But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God."
- Charles Ryrie said, "Christ's work of redeeming is finished -- thus in this respect He is seated; but His work of sustaining His own goes on -- in this respect He is standing" (The Acts of the Apostles).
- Stephen called on God and prayed to Jesus, because Jesus is God (Acts 7:59, 60).
- Stephen's last prayer was similar (Acts 7:60) to our Lord's, who prayed, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
- There are several warnings in the Bible about sinning against the Holy Spirit. These warnings teach us that the Holy Spirit is a Person, because you can only sin against a person; you cannot sin against an inanimate force.
- For example, Ephesians 4:30 says, “And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God.” It is a terrible sin to grieve the Holy Spirit.
- In Acts 5:3, Peter told Ananias that he was guilty of lying to the Holy Spirit. This too is a terrible sin because as Peter says in Acts 5:4, lying to the Holy Spirit is lying to God.
- Furthermore, the Holy Spirit can be quenched. First Thessalonians 5:19 says, “Quench not the Spirit.”
- Here in Acts 7:51, we see that the Holy Spirit can be resisted. Way back in Genesis 6:3, the LORD said, “My spirit shall not always strive with man.”
- Hebrews 10:29 refers to sinners who have "done despite unto the Spirit of grace.”
- Stephen concluded his message by charging his listeners with opposing the work of God (7:51, 52). They “always resist the Holy Ghost” (7:51).