Event(s): Stephen’s address
Today’s Text: Acts 7:1-53
Tomorrow’s Text: Acts 7:54-8:3
The leadership team the apostles had put in place to minister to the need of the neglected was now up and running. Stephen, one of those seven leaders, stood out from among the rest because of the density with which he operated in the Spirit. This confirms that the works of the Holy Spirit were not just limited to the initial apostles, but the gift, power and authority is given to any of Jesus’ followers. This of course also made Stephen, a target.
Towards the end of chapter 6, we read “there arose some disputes” from among the people of the Synagogue of Freedmen (Acts 6:9). This was a synagogue that was primarily made up of people who had once been enslaved by Rome. It wasn’t that they weren’t free to worship with the rest of the believers, but just like in our churches today, synagogues back then tended to attract people with similar backgrounds.
We can’t be totally sure why, but the men in this congregation took issue with Stephen when they heard him defend the gospel. When they couldn’t prove him wrong through intellectual debate, they resorted to fabricating lies and falsely accusing him of blasphemy. Much like had been done with Jesus.
Stephen was quickly arrested; and as we open up the pages of Acts chapter 7, he is standing before the religious council as Peter and John had before. Our author, Luke, with such attention to detail, can’t help but point out that even his appearance was marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:15). His confidence, his composure, and his courage – visibly evident on his face, as though he was a messenger (angel) sent by God.
Acts 7:1 “are these things so?” Stephen’s response is quite interesting. It’s the longest speech actually, recorded in the book of Acts. Yet, he didn’t rush to defend himself; instead, he defended the message of the Gospel.
Bible scholar William Neil writes, “On the surface this appears to be a rather tedious recital of Jewish history which has little relevance to the charges on which Stephen has been brought to trial. On closer study, however, it reveals itself as a subtle and skillful proclamation of the Gospel which, in its criticism of Jewish institutions, marks the beginning of the break between Judaism and Christianity…”
Because Stephen was a Hellenist Jew (we explained what that meant yesterday), he had a broader world perspective. Because he was what some would have once considered an “outsider” who had experienced the work of God in his life, he had a personal revelation of the big-picture plan of God to bring together all nations, all tribes, and people from all walks of life.
What we can so beautifully gather from this entire passage is that the message of our faith, while it is rooted in Jewish history – that history is our history, as children who have been adopted in (Ephesians 1:5, Romans 8:15). There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. We are all one in Christ Jesus. Which by the way, that comes from Galatians 3:28, which interestingly enough was written by the Apostle Paul who we later learn was standing here, listening to Stephen’s speech (this of course was prior to his conversion).
Abraham’s history and all that God did, is our history (vs 2-8). It’s our heritage. The patriarch’s history is ours as well (vs 9-16). Moses’ history and the way God showed Himself mightily? That’s our heritage too (vs 17-36). And yet even if the nations rage against God’s plan and some rebel (vs 37-43), the plan all along was that God’s presence would be made available to all. Not limited to dwell in temples any longer, but we – those who believe – whether Jew or Greek, whether slave or free, whether man or woman, would become His dwelling place (vs 44-50).
Acts 7:51 “You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you.” As Stephen brings his message to a close, he turns his attention back to the people in front of him. And now it is up to them to choose how to respond.
Following ritual, or practicing religion, or proclaiming to have faith just because our fathers did and we “grew up in church” is not what it means to have a personal relationship with God the Father. Outward behavior modification, or keeping rules is not what brings us in right standing with God. It is a change of heart. Not “stiffening our neck” but being flexible to turn towards God when He calls us. Not hardening our hearts, but being responsive, and repentant. Not ignoring the voice of God when He speaks, but being quick to listen and obey. These are the real signs of relationship and they result in a transformed life. The more we respond to the Spirit, the more we grow and the more we see righteousness mark our lives.
Let’s go back to a point we made at the very start of our study. When we ask Jesus to be LORD of our lives, the Holy Spirit comes and dwells on the inside of us. The Bible says His ways are written on the tablets of our hearts. This means, we can instinctively know God’s ways because the Holy Spirit makes them known to our hearts. We can hear His voice, because He abides within us. We can act and respond when He speaks or gives us directions, because the Holy Spirit enables us to do so. Today, let’s just spend some extra time in prayer thanking God for this truth and asking Him to make us even more aware of Him and more sensitive to His promptings. Remember, the Holy Spirit is not a subject to be learned about; He’s a Person to be embraced.