Acts Lesson Sixteen: Acts 7:44-60 – Stephen’s Sermon Part 3
44 “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the testimony in the wilderness, just as He who spoke to Moses commanded him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Our ancestors in turn received it and with Joshua brought it in when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers, until the days of David. 46 He found favor in God’s sight and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built Him a house. 48 However, the Most High does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands, as the prophet says:
49 Heaven is My throne,
and earth My footstool.
What sort of house will you build for Me?
says the Lord,
or what is My resting place?
50 Did not My hand make all these things?
51 “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit; as your ancestors did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They even killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. 53 You received the law under the direction of angels and yet have not kept it.”
54 When they heard these things, they were enraged in their hearts and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God’s glory, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, 56 “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
57 Then they screamed at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and together rushed against him. 58 They threw him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They were stoning Stephen as he called out: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin!” And saying this, he fell asleep. (HCSB)
In this lesson, we conclude Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin and his subsequent martyrdom. I’ll be breaking this passage into three sections.
- God’s real tabernacle – verses 44-50.
- Resisting the Holy Spirit – verses 51-53.
- The First Christian martyr – verses 54-60.
God’s Real Tabernacle – 44-50
This section begins with reference to the “tabernacle of the testimony,” which may seem out of place but is connected back to the quote from Amos regarding the tent and star worship. The closer connection revolves around the ideas of the rejection of God, idolatry, and false worship, the primary themes in the wilderness section of the sermon. Those themes are still present here, but Stephen focuses on the object that has resulted in false worship and rejection, the temple.
While Israel lived in the wilderness, the tabernacle was the place of worship. The term “testimony” referred to the stone tablets of the law that were kept in the ark. The tabernacle was provided by God, to His precise guidelines, and the pattern given to Moses. The tabernacle was the place of worship from the time of Moses until the time of David. A change in fortunes occurs once David desired to build a “dwelling place” for God. We know that David didn’t build the temple; he only made known his desire to build it. We read in 2 Samuel 7:1-17 that God didn’t want a dwelling place; He was perfectly content with the tabernacle. Solomon built the temple, and the trouble began as Stephen states in verse 48, “However, the Most High does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands.” Stephen follows it with a quote from Isaiah 66:1-2. The passage from Isaiah shows that it is folly to build a house for the creator of the universe since God made all things.
Theologians have debated whether Stephen was rejecting the temple or offering a critique of what the temple had become due to the religious leaders’ failed leadership. From a contextual analysis of Stephen’s entire sermon, it seems he is critiquing the practices and not the location. Stephen is not rejecting the temple as a place of worship. Instead, he is pointing out the abuse of the temple by making it into something other than a location to worship God. By stating in verse 48 that the temple was “made with hands,” he was connecting it to the golden calf in the wilderness. The temple had become an idol to the Jewish religious leaders, and in so doing, the temple had become a replacement for a living relationship with God; the man-made house is worshipped, not God.
We know from Scripture that God is not confined to a specific location.
- God revealed Himself to Abraham in Mesopotamia.
- God revealed Himself to Moses in the wilderness by Mt. Sinai.
- God delivered the people from Egypt.
The tabernacle was a representation of what true worship should look like. God was with His people wherever they might be; He was not tied down to a parcel of land or a place. In contrast, the temple was intended to be a house in Israel, a place for them to express their devotion and submission to God. Stephen points out that it had become not a house for worship but a house for God. A place where Israel attempted to imprison God and manipulate Him according to their desires and concerns. At this point in Israel’s history, the temple had become a symbol of Jewish exclusivism and a rallying point for nationalism.
His point was ignored, and the nationalistic movement became so strong that it eventually led to the temple being destroyed in A.D. 70. The warnings issued by both Jesus and Stephen had been ignored.
Resisting the Holy Spirit – 51-53
In these verses, Stephen applies a classic rhetorical methodology where the speaker applies the lessons from the previous sections of his speech in a direct and often emotional appeal to the listeners in an attempt for them to act. In the case of Stephen’s speech, the purpose was not to “beat up” his Jewish audience; it was an attempt to move them to repentance.
- He accused them of being “stiff-necked…, with uncircumcised hearts and ears.”
- They were behaving like pagans.
- They were always resisting the work of the Holy Spirit.
- They resisted and, in some cases, killed the prophets who brought God’s messages.
- The prophets they resisted were the ones who brought the message of the coming Messiah.
- They were responsible for killing the Messiah.
The purpose of Stephen’s speech becomes more apparent. The historical presentation illustrated Israel’s continuous rejection of the leaders God appointed.
- Moses – rejected.
- Stephen – rejected.
- Prophets – rejected or killed.
- Theoretically, it would seem that Israel had learned some painful lessons through their struggles over the years. Stephen points out that no lesson had been learned; they were still just as stubborn and rebellious as ever.
- Jesus – killed.
It is quite possible that Stephen realized his trial was hopeless without him compromising the faith. Therefore, Stephen used this one last chance to share his beliefs in the hope that the religious leaders would finally repent and submit to the lordship of Jesus. Stephen’s speech was a defense. It was one final chance to share the truth of the Gospel message.
The First Christian martyr – verses 54-60.
The directness of Stephen’s speech in the preceding three verses set off the Sanhedrin. The terms “enraged” and “gnashed” in modern interpretation fall short of the depth of the emotions that fill the Sanhedrin. In their minds, the person on trial, Stephen, had attempted to flip the table and accuse them of acting against God. In addition, Stephen’s response in verse 56 infuriated the Sanhedrin even further. One point needs to be discussed regarding the term “standing” in verses 55 and 56.
- Is it just a variation in expression instead of saying Jesus was seated at the right hand of God?
- Does it represent Jesus rising from His seat to welcome the martyr?
- Does it represent Jesus as the defense counsel, indicating that Stephen is innocent?
- Is it a connection to Daniel 7:13-14, where the Son of Man stands before the Ancient of Days?
- Does it represent Jesus in the role of the judge in the case?
Any or all of the options are possible.
The ramifications of the vision were not lost on the Sanhedrin. In the Sanhedrin’s mind, there were only two conclusions to the vision.
- If it was true, they were condemned.
- If it was false, Stephen was committing blasphemy.
The result is that mob-like action now occurred. The irony is that to complete their unholy actions, they took Stephen outside Jerusalem to preserve its sanctity, to execute the stoning. There is strong debate about whether Stephen was the victim of a “lynch mob” or a formal verdict from the Sanhedrin.
- Formal verdict.
- Stephen was on trial before the Sanhedrin.
- He was killed by stoning.
- Lynch mob.
- The Sanhedrin didn’t have the legal right to carry out executions during the Roman occupation; John 18:31.
- The stoning didn’t fit the pattern of Jewish execution by stoning outlined in the Mishna.
- Stoning was conducted outside the city.
- The stoning was done by those who were witnesses against the condemned person.
- A formal stoning followed specific procedures.
- Victims were stripped.
- They were pushed over a 10 to 12-foot cliff.
- They were then rolled over on their chests.
- The first witness would push as large a stone as they could over the cliff onto the condemned.
- If the condemned survived the first stone, the second witness repeats the stoning. This would be repeated as long as necessary, but often the condemned didn’t survive the first stone.
- The picture of Stephen’s stoning doesn’t fit this pattern.
- Stephen wasn’t stripped.
- The witnesses were partially stripped.
- It is doubtful that Stephen could’ve knelt or offered prayers if a large stone fell on him from ten feet above.
- The picture here is of an angry mob throwing any stones they could find at Stephen.
- Instead of his death being swift, it was likely a long, drawn-out, and horrifying experience.
Stephen appears to follow the same pattern as Jesus as he faced death. His words “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” echo what Jesus prayed as He was on the cross. Those words are also part of an ancient Jewish prayer based on Psalm 31:5. Stephen then became the first Jewish martyr.
Finally, the next main character appears on the scene, Saul. We can only speculate whether Saul played an active role in the stoning or was an observer to the proceedings.
- Do we understand what true worship is and is not? The Sanhedrin tied it to a thing (temple) instead of a relationship. Christian worship is not confined to certain times of the week or a specific location. Worship is how we live our lives and how we shine the light of Jesus. When we make worship anything other than our relationship with God, we are engaging in some form of idolatry.
- We should live in the power and control of the Holy Spirit. It is evident from chapter seven that Stephen was empowered and calmed by the Holy Spirit. This is in stark contrast with the actions of the Sanhedrin, who acted like an out-of-control mob and disregarded their own doctrinal instructions.
- Some of us may be called to be a martyr. This is a sobering reality of being a Christian. In some locations, it may be a bigger reality than in others. Not only should we prepare ourselves for the possibility, but we should also pray for our brothers and sisters in those parts of the world; first, that their faith does not waver, and second, for their protection.