Chambersburg, PA
Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)

“The First Martyr” Sermon Text

Acts 6:8 – 8:4

The First Martyr

Over the past few chapters in Acts, we’ve seen the intensification of opposition against the church, against believers in Jesus, and against the gospel – from warning (ch 4), to warning & flogging (ch 5), to what we see here in ch 7 – the murder of Stephen; and then the result of that, which we see in ch 8 – a great persecution breaking out against the Church.

Stephen is the first Christian martyr; and Stephen’s death marks a major transition-point in the book of Acts, which propels the church outward from Jerusalem-

if you remember back to Acts 1:8 – which serves as both the main theme of Acts and the outline of Acts: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

This traces the mission of the Church which began – and so far what we’ve seen in Acts – is the apostles being witnesses only to Jews only in Jerusalem; but Stephen’s death changes that; because from this point on, the focus shifts away from only reaching Jews only in Jerusalem to reaching Jews and Gentiles in Judea and Samaria and beyond.

8:1-4 – As a result of Stephen’s Death, there breaks out a Great persecution; which results in a great dispersion; which results in widespread evangelism.

Whereas before they had had little tastes of persecution, this sort of broke open the floodgate of persecution which had been building and mounting, and resulted in their scattering;

and, that despite the attempts to smother the gospel, the gospel spreads further still.

Like trying to blow out a fire but instead only spreading sparks further outwards which spreads the blaze of the gospel to new places and new people.

And so Stephen’s death, was not in vain – but it sprung the church forward in its mission to reach the ends of the earth. . And how could it be – because he died as a bold testimony to Christ; he died for his faith in Christ – and a life lived for Christ; and a life given for Christ, is never a life lived or given in vain.

Paul: “To live is Christ; to die is gain.”

  1. Stephen seized
  2. Stephen speaks
  3. Stephen sees

Acts 6:10 – fulfills the promise of Jesus in Luke 21:15 – & is an example of faithfulness under trial and trusting the Spirit to enable us to be witnesses for Jesus.

He doesn’t waver, he doesn’t apologize, he doesn’t back down; but he stands firm and faithfully for Jesus.

And, in a worldly sense it doesn’t turn out well for him. Because if you are living for this world, this life, what this world offers, you can’t life for Jesus; you won’t live for Jesus; but if your eyes and mind and heart is captivated by Jesus and his glory, the eternal life and hope we have in him – then we will, then we can.

And after arguments fail, they start a “smear-campaign” – we’ll look at the specific charges in a minute, But the important thing to note for now, is that in being lying witnesses, they are breaking the 9th commandment: “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” and so you see the hypocrisy here: that they are accusing him of speaking against the law; while in doing so they themselves are breaking the law!

This is part of the point of Stephen’s speech – that he honors Moses while they reject him – not the other way around.

This displays their hypocrisy in claiming the law as a source of pride while breaking it.

v12 – not surprising to see the elders, teachers of law – but it is surprising to see “the people” – because previously the disciples had the favor of the people – in fact in ch 5 that is in part what prevented the Saduccees from putting them to death then.

And, not very long after, they went from being in the favor of the people to being out of favor with the people – the people flip-flopped from loving them or at least sympathizing with them, to being stirred up against them.

You see, if you are a Christian – you can’t live for the approval of the world -because what is there one minute is gone the next.

And you see in our day how quickly public opinion can change on any issue – things that were accepted in the culture 50 years ago are universally rejected now; and things that were universally rejected in the culture 5 years ago – now you need to accept them as a litmus test of your basic humanity and decency.

Public popular opinion shifts like morning midst – here one minute, gone the next – and if you live as Christian; or if we live as a church; as slaves to the acceptance of the culture or the approval of the culture

It’s common for churches/Christians to be very vocal about social/moral issues – evils/injustices/sins which are universally acceptable to speak out against them – which is good and great but it costs nothing to do that; but it’s problematic if at the same time a church is very vocal about those issues that cost nothing, they are very quiet and vague, about social/moral issues – evils and injustices and sins – for which it isn’t universally acceptable to speak out and stand against – because it costs quite a lot to do that.

Will you – like Stephen – stand for Christ not just when it costs nothing – but even when it costs everything?

That’s the danger of a church that prides itself on relevance and cultural acceptance. All for relevance – in so far as we aren’t adding offense to the gospel; but we can never be for relevance which removes the offense of the gospel.

And that’s exactly what we see here.

Because in Stephen’s speech, we see that he doesn’t back down, he doesn’t apologize, he clearly doesn’t soften the offensive part of his message – and we know that, by looking at the result.

He doesn’t back down but stands courageously for Christ no matter the cost. And in one sense it costs him everything – but in the deeper eternal reality it costs him nothing – only gain.

The reason he’s seized, the reason he loses in a worldly sense; the reason his faith in Christ costs him so much – everything – is because he stands firm for Christ.

He is a bold witness for Christ; and as a result he is honored to be the first of  a multitude who pay the ultimate price for Christ – though in light of the reward it is really no price at all.

Just notice how similar the story of Stephen is to the story of Jesus.

Parallels at nearly every detail – an unjust trial, lying witnesses with false claims (about the temple) who are unable to prove their claims, even including similar words at his death as what Jesus uttered at his – commending his soul to God, and praying for his enemies).

And that is a reminder that those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus follow in his footsteps of suffering and rejection.

Stephen Seized; Stephen Speaks

The Charge – blaspheming God by speaking against the law of Moses and the Temple.

A serious charge – nothing was more sacred, eternal, significant, central, than the law and the temple. Together these things were the source of their national & religious & cultural identity and pride.

To be Jewish meant to have the law and the temple; to honor God, they thought, to honor the law and the temple. And to dishonor the law and the temple meant to dishonor God.

And his response seems a bit odd. You probably noticed it’s long; and you probably noticed he goes way back to the beginning of God’s dealings with the people of Israel – before their was an Israel except in promise form to Abraham;

and it’s odd because it seems like he inexplicably launches into a history lesson that seems to have nothing to do with what’s going on.

And you’re wondering, “Stephen you’re life is on the line – are you aware of that? this is not the time for a history lecture!

It’s seems as though he doesn’t know what to say, but he doesn’t want the trial to come to judgment so he’s just filibustering.

But actually, his response is showing that its not he who is dishonoring the temple and the law and so dishonoring God – it’s them!

When you look closer at his response, you see that at every point, he is responding to these claims about the law of Moses (represented in the prophets of God) and the temple.

And in his response – at every point, he challenges them about their wrong attitude towards their temple,  and their unfaithfulness to Moses and the law.

He turns the tables on them – and shows that he is in line with the true meaning of the temple and the law – but they are the ones guilty of the accusations they’ve leveled against him.

look quickly at both claims and how Stephen defends himself: 

the Temple:

I mentioned that Jesus’ trial involved false claims about Jesus’ words about the temple – that he himself was going to attack and destroy it; but that’s not what he said – what Jesus said was far far more radical than that.

John 2:19 – He replaces the temple in God’s redemptive plan.

And Stephen’s speech is showing that the Temple never was ultimate or eternal in the history of God’s interactions with his people – God’s presence was never confined to the temple – or even the land.

Before the temple was in existence, God went to his people where they were; and he went with his people where they went.

B/C, the eternal home of God, and place of the sacred ground of God, is with his people.

Stott “Long before there was a holy place, there was a holy people, to whom God had pledged himself.”

And, that’s what Stephen’s speech is showing. v2 – God met Abraham in Mesopotamia; And even when was in the promised land -v5 – he had no possession there – but God was with him and God made promises to him.

v9 Joseph was sold as a slave into Egypt, but God was with him even there- to protect him, to deliver him, to bless him.

v20 – God was with Moses in Egypt, and v29 God was with Moses when he fled Egypt to Midian; God appeared to Moses in the wilderness near Mt Sinai, and the place where he met him – v 33 – was holy ground; not because a building was there, but because God was there.

And v44 – God continued to be with them in the wilderness through the tabernacle – which was basically a mobile tent for God to live in; and even after they were in the supposedly “holy land”, God was with them in the tabernacle until finally in the time of Solomon a temple was built.

And, what Stephen is saying in his speech, is that the Temple didn’t come into the picture until late in the history of God’s people – and even then at his people’s request, not his own. But, that didn’t prevent God from being present with his people.

And even when the temple did come into existence – that couldn’t contain him – because – vv48-50

“The God who was with Abraham in Mesopotamia, the God who was with Joseph in Egypt, the God who was with Moses in Sinai, goes with his scattered messengers” wherever they go.

And, so, the temple does not have eternal significance or exclusive sacredness – but points to Jesus – the true embodiment of “God with us” – in the most personal, intimate, and significant of ways – and the Church of Jesus – which houses the Spirit of Jesus.

And on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit is poured out on the Church – God establishes that those who have faith in Jesus are his temple – and his presence is with them in every place and for all time.

The fact that Stephen, the apostles, the believers, have had the spirit poured upon them and display the evidence of the presence of God among them – one the reasons for the religious leaders’ jealousy in the earlier chapter – is proof that they are the true temple of God.

God’s presence isn’t with a building; it’s with a people – His people – the people who have faith in Jesus – who himself was the true temple of God, and who sends his spirit into those who believe to make them the temple of God on earth.

And, so Stephen’s speech not only looks back on the history of the people of God – but anticipates and prepares for the next stage of the history of God’s people.

Throughout the speech, the pilgrim character of the people of God is emphasized. (Not pilgrims like funny-hats and thanksgiving turkeys, but pilgrims as in foreigners, non-citizens, foreigners in a strange land, travelers, those who in this world have no home).

Abraham is described as having no inheritance in the land, but only a promised future possession of it; and he is told that in the future his descendants would be strangers in a country not their own (Egypt – v6); Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt and the Israelites are oppressed their as slaves; Moses in Midian is described as a foreigner (v29); God’s people are described during their times of wilderness wanderings.

They were strangers, aliens, exiles, wanderers, living in foreign lands as foreign residents – they had no home, they had no country, they had not earthly citizenship, but God was with them as they journeyed towards their eternal home and eternal rest – the place where their citizenship lied – in heaven.

Hebrews 11:13–16

[13] These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. [14] For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. [15] If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. [16] But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

And, all of this prepares us for what happens next in the book of Acts:

God’s people scattered. But, they go forth away from the locale of the temple but with confidence that they are not as a result separated from the presence of God because God goes with them – they are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and so they know that wherever this life would lead them – whether by persecution or not – God was with them because God goes with his scattered people.

Wherever this life leads you; wherever this life takes you – whether it feels like part of the plan or a last-minute change of course – whether it takes you near or far or to green pastures or darkest valleys – God goes with you; because you are his temple: he lives in you; he lives in his church; and so (psalm 139) there is no place we can flee from his presence but he is always with us – to the end of the age.

And, Christians don’t put their hope in the circumstances of this life; they don’t find hope in what this world has to offer; they don’t put their hope in a nation or a political power but their hope lies in heaven; and until then they have no home and though they are rejected and oppressed they do not lose hope because God is with them and promises to deliver them into heir eternal rest.

the Law

Jesus, himself said that he didn’t come to abolish the law, but nevertheless brought a fulfillment of it such that it is radically reinterpreted in light of the gospel as to its proper role and function in the lives of God’s people.

And so just as Stephen most likely was teaching that the temple fulfilled in Christ isn’t a diversion from what the temple was always about but rather is in line with is what the temple was always pointed towards, so he was probably teaching that the law fulfilled in Christ isn’t a diversion from what the law was all about but rather the law always pointed to Christ.

And, he gets at this in his defense, by demonstrating that:

God’s people have a bad history when it comes to listening to and receiving God’s law brought by God’s messengers or representatives (as spoken by Moses and enforced by the later prophets); and they stand in line with them because they too resist and reject the prophets of God.

It’s them who are against Moses.

Ironically – Stephen is portrayed in strong similarities to Moses – the very one they charge that he is speaking against:

6:8, 10 – full of wisdom, power in deeds and speech

6:15 – face like an angel

7:55 – saw the glory of God

And, Stephen speaks glowingly of Moses – in fact, he even calls the law of God – which they claim he is rejecting – he calls it in v 38 – “the living words” which Moses passed on to us.

And so it’s not that Stephen has rejected Moses – but they have:

v38 – us; v39 – Our ancestors; v44 – our ancestors;

But then, v 51-53 – he shares with them in the history of – even the failures of Israel – but where he draws the line of distinction between him and them – is that they rejected all the law & prophets pointed to – the Righteous one – Jesus Christ.

But the main point – they have rejected the prophet of God – Jesus – who was promised by Moses himself – v37.

They are in continuity with the pattern of God’s people rejecting his prophets because of their rejection of the prophet – Jesus.

In speech, he shows that God’s people have a history of failing to recognize; and rejecting; God’s messengers.

1) lack of recognition of; and 2) rejection of God’s prophets by his people.

Joseph – rejected by his brothers and sold into slavery;

And, when they were in Egypt seeking help – 7:12,13 – they initially failed to recognize him as their own brother

Moses – Likewise, Moses wasn’t initially recognized as the deliverer of his people – v25 – and so they rejected him and he fled; and even after the great deliverance he brought them out of Egypt through the red sea, v39 – they refused to obey him.

While he was still up on the mountain, they made the golden calf – and the rest of their history was plagued and characterized by idolatry.

similarly, these religious leaders hadn’t recognized Jesus – and they rejected him through betrayal and murder; and he still lives through the ministry of the Apostles and the Church and they are persisting in rejecting him even now when they have a chance to repent – now, they could prove  to stand outside the pattern of the history of disobedient rebellious Israel; but they don’t – they prove to stand firmly in that pattern of not recognizing, and rejecting, the messengers and representatives of God.

Moses & Joseph – pointers to Christ, rejected by people but used by God to bring about great salvation.

But that salvation was temporal, situational;

And they point to Jesus who brought about the greatest salvation – an ultimate and eternal salvation.

rejected by his own; but raised up from death, and able to save even those who rejected him.

“types of Christ – point ahead to him; they are shadows of the reality; sign=pointers to the destination; appetizers to the main course.

Such that if you miss out on what they point to and prepare for, you miss out on their very purpose and so haven’t gotten them at all.

You miss not only the Jesus they point to but the Moses that does the pointing.

Because if you miss Jesus, you miss everything God wants to say to you. Everything in the bible points to Jesus – that was the way Jesus saw it; that was the way the Apostles saw it; that was the way the early church saw it.

But it’s possible that the ears most deaf to the good news of the Gospel in Jesus Christ, are the ears on the most religious of people.

Because the message of the law of Moses – and of all the prophets – is that you need Jesus – you need a savior to do for you what your hands could never do – and that message is not easily embraced by anyone – especially not those who most pride themselves on being good moral religious people quite able to save themselves, thank you very much.

And, so, in rejecting Jesus, they reject Moses – and reject the salvation that God is offering to them.

Stephen seized; Stephen speaks; Stephen sees

said earlier: that Stephen serves as a reminder that those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus follow in his footsteps of suffering and rejection.

But that suffering and rejection only goes as far as the world; and it is exchanged for the embrace of God:

Jesus standing – not what we expect; usually in the NT Jesus is presented as “seated at the right hand of God, or sitting on the throne.”

In fact Hebrews makes a big point of it when OT priests were always standing because their work was never finished; Jesus, the true priest – the great high priest, finished his work and sat down.

But here he is standing – And we can’t be sure why, but many commentators suggest that it is a picture of Jesus being ready to greet his child whom he loves and welcome him into the eternal that far outweighs the temporary suffering and injustice and persecution he must endure.

and his faith gives him this vision of Jesus standing to greet him, enabling him to stand firm and have the peace of Christ until he enters the presence of Christ.

And if we have this vision of Jesus ready to embrace us at the world’s rejection of us – then we will be able to live and die for Jesus – just as Stephen did – no matter what the cost.

And, if you can’t see that Jesus’ embrace is infinitely more valuable than the world’s – then you are a blind fool.

His faith, despite the suffering, enables him to continue to keep his eyes fixed on Jesus –

7:60 – Stephen “fell asleep” –

sleep is “a word pregnant with the hope of a future awakening at the dawn of a new day”

death, for the Christian, is not the end, but they are roused from the captor of death by the victory of Jesus