And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.
Thus begins the account of Stephen, a man whose life, after his conversion, showed forth the character of God himself; a man so full of the holy spirit, so pure in motive, that his face was like the face of an angel; a man martyred for his faith. Yet it was not even for his faith that he was killed, but for the public testimony of the gospel.
He died to make the gospel accessible to his generation.
Most of the scriptural record of Stephen’s life is in Acts 7. This chapter records the speech he gave in legal proceedings, after being brought up on charges. In this real-life courtroom drama, his defense strategy got him killed. But in reality, it wasn’t a defense strategy. He chose to use his last moments, not to try to save his own life, but to deliver the missing key that could unlock the gospel for his generation.
Stephen’s life before the trial was characterized by his faith in God and his obedience to the holy spirit. Act 6 tells us exactly that. He preached the gospel when it was convenient and when it was inconvenient. He gently chided, sternly rebuked, and patiently exhorted his countrymen to receive the truth concerning Jesus Christ. As he spoke, God confirmed Stephen’s message with miraculous signs and wonders, none of which are specifically recorded.
His powerful presentation of the gospel stirred great opposition. When his enemies found they could not win the debate against him, they sought other means, any means, by which they might stop him from continuing to deliver the message of Christ’s saving grace.
So they riled up the public, the political leaders, and the legal specialists. They arrested him and brought him up on false charges of blasphemy.
He did not blaspheme God. Stephen spoke by the spirit of God! The accusation of blasphemy was false, as was the perjured testimony used to support it.
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 customs which Moses delivered us. And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.
His actual offense was to break with the political correctness of his day, as Jesus did before, and declare that his fellow countrymen were, by nature, wicked men in need of radical repentance and forgiveness. The “gods” which he blasphemed were the idols of their pride and self-righteousness.
And when they bring you unto the synagogues, and unto magistrates, and powers, take ye no thought how or what thing ye shall answer, or what ye shall say: For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say.
When Stephen began his response to the charges brought against him, he gave his fellow Jews a lesson in their own history. This was history which they knew very well, but which they stubbornly refused to learn the lessons of.
Throughout the history of Israel, God reproved them, over and over again, for their unfaithfulness, their disobedience, and their hard-heartedness. God frequently used intentionally provocative language to try to jar the Israelites out of their prideful rebellion. One example is this prophecy spoken by Jeremiah against Israel:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh—Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.”
God used the language of circumcision, which was to be a sign of Israel’s humility and submission to God, to provoke the Jews. He said they were no different from the heathen nations around them. This would be very offensive to a self-righteous Jew.
The temptation was always present for the Jews to think that God’s favor towards the Jewish people was because of their own inherent goodness, even though God repeatedly told them this was not the case. This is not a Jewish trait, by the way, this is a human trait. If you think you’re better than that, it’s clearly one of your own traits.
Here is Stephen shortly before his death:
Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers:
This is how Stephen imitated the heavenly father. This is how he greatly offended his countrymen. This is why they killed him.
After giving the history lesson, he summarizes, and shows that his own generation was no better than their disobedient ancestors. Their sinfulness reached even to murder.
Jesus said the same things.
“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs.
Luke 11:47-48 (NIV)
As long as a person (or a whole generation) clings to the lie that they are not guilty before God, they can not be saved. God’s plan of salvation requires an acknowledgment of sinfulness. That’s why God talks about sin so much. It isn’t so that we’ll fix ourselves. He tells us that we can’t possibly fix ourselves. He does it so that we will receive the savior.
If the truth about human sinfulness is keeping our generation from receiving the savior, let’s tell it like it is. We’ll be in good company.