"Easter 05: The Stoning of Stephen"
by Tim Suttle
2017.05.10 – Easter 05
Martyrdom of Stephen – Acts 7
There have been, over the course of the last 250 years or so, a handful of
important speeches made by leaders in our our society.
- Speeches that have been remembered & repeated down thru the yrs.
- Speeches that had a deep impact on how we see ourselves.
- Most of them are by men (that’s who got to do all of the talking).
- Many were made by presidents, although there are a few exceptions.
- I’m talking about Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or give me death”
- George Washington’s farewell address … dramatic not only for the
speech itself, but for the fact that nobody could ever remember a legit
world leader stepping aside like that.
Have you ever heard of a man named Edward Everett? He was a leading
academic & considered the greatest orator of his time.
- He once gave a speech that was over 13,500 words long, and lasted two
- And when he finished he was followed to the podium by a gangly,
awkward, & by all accounts less talented public speaker who uttered a
mere 270 words… that began:
- "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this
continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the
proposition that all men are created equal.”
The urban legend is that Lincoln wrote his 10-sentence Gettysburg address
on the back of an envelope during the train ride from DC (which is not true).
- He actually went thru several drafts, & put a lot of planning into it.
- The four-score and 7 years, when you count it off, doesn’t refer the U.S.
Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence…
- Which he also quotes from in that first line.
- At the time, his address was largely ignored, although the Chicago
Tribune took to time to slam it as, “dishwatery.”
- A few years later it was revived, & given its proper due.
Then there was FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself…” speech
- Most people think was about WWII, but it was actually about the GDep.
- He gave the speech in 1933—three years into the crisis.
- 11,000 out of 24,000 banks in America had failed.
- Millions were unemployed… the Dollar had collapsed.
- Roosevelt’s Massive New Deal was already planned, & this speech was
essentially an assault on the Psychology of the G. Depression
JFK’s “Ask Not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your
country,” stands as one of the most effective calls to public service in history.
Bobby Kennedy had his own… “There are those that look at things the way they
are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
A contender for greatest speech of all-time by an American would have to be
Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech. (ROLL Video, no sound)
- It was Aug 28, 1963… People had been marching all day in the hot sun.
- It was late afternoon when he took the stage, & still sweltering hot.
- The crowd of over 250k people packed into the mall.
- At this point in his life, Dr. King had already been through a lot.
- His house had been fire bombed during the Montgomery bus boycott,
endangering his wife & infant daughter.
- As a crowd gathered that night on his lawn he told them, “I want you to
love our enemies,” so his life held to a high standard.
He was an extraordinary leader & public speaker; but that day on the mall he
didn’t seem to have his mojo.
- It was hard to hear; he was nervous & sticking close to his notes.
- The speech was kind of falling flat & he knew it.
- He had gotten about halfway through when a gospel singer named
Mahalia Jackson, called out to Dr. King, saying:
- “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”
- She appeared at many rallies & had heard him do a riff several times…
about his dream of equality.
- Dr. King was in the middle of a sentence, & he glanced over at her for a
moment when he finished his sentence… looked down at his speech…
- Then he took his papers and shoved them over to the left side of the
lectern, and he grabbed the sides w/both hands.
- Delivered one of the most powerful speeches ever heard.
Great speeches have this power to motivate & inspire. One of the keys to a
great speech is: the speaker has to tell the truth about the way things are…
- They need to describe the current reality for the people.
- And, for better or for worse, they need to do so accurately.
- They can’t sugar coat it, but they can’t make it seem worse than it is.
EX: another one of FDR’s great speeches was the “date that will live in infamy
speech…” he just calmly & clearly laid out the situation our country was in.
- That’s a big part of a great speech… tell people the truth!
- Name the anxiety of the system … & do it accurately or it won’t work.
And I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about it, but it’s actually a privilege to
be able to tell the truth.
- The truth … can get you into lots of trouble.
- There are often powerful forces who don’t want to hear it.
- They don’t want the truth to be known because it might change things.
- But still some people have the courage to stand up & speak, & tell the
truth, even if they are killed for it… which many of those men were.
PT: It’s actually a privilege to be able to tell the truth. Some people can’t do it,
either because they can’t see the world truthfully … truly (all they know are lies).
Some people can’t tell the truth because if they do they’ll be fired, rejected,
persecuted, or killed. It’s a gift to be able to see the truth… and talk about it. That’s
something we shouldn’t take for granted.
Stanley Hauerwas was asked recently what the greatest contribution is that
Christians can make to any society, he said: “To tell the truth. Very simple. Just
tell the truth and see what kinds of tensions that produces.”
He goes on to explain that the reason it’s so important for Christians to tell
the truth is because we know things about the world that the world itself doesn't
know—chief among these being that we are all sinful.
- By sinful, Hauerwas doesn’t mean you’re a naughty boy/girl…
- He means we’re part of a world that is no longer rightly ordered,
- So there’s no peace, there is no shalom:
- There is way too much pain, and not enough flourishing.
- Christians are meant to be the one people who have been taught how to
tell the truth about the way things really are.
- We understand why the world is a mess & this knowledge is a gift, so:
- 1 of our greatest contribution to the world is ability to tell truth about it.
And most people in the world are unable to tell the truth because they don’t
know the story of God, so they don’t know their place in the world.
- Since they don’t know their place in the world, they think they can
choose their own place.
- How they choose their own place is by listening to the culture tell them
stories about what makes for a meaningful life.
- These stories end up doing a lot of damage & destroying a lot of lives.
PT: Christians have been shaped by a story that is true! So we have the ability to
tell the truth about the world… without blushing, or apologizing. And then to live in
faithfulness & allegiance to that story & truth… in front of a watching world.
Our scripture today is from Acts 6, and the story of the martyrdom of
Stephen. And it is actually one of the most famous speeches in all of Christian
Stephen had actually come into prominence & a position of leadership in the early
church because the church had a big problem:
- “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the
Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews
because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of
food.” Acts 6:1
The church was growing so fast the infrastructure couldn’t keep up, and
some of the widows were being overlooked.
- Hellenistic Jews and Hebraic Jews were previously rival sects who did
not exactly get along.
- The Hellenists were Jews who were culturally Greek.
- They read a Greek version of the bible called the Septuagint.
- They spoke Greek, their dress, manners, & customs were largely Greek.
- And the Hebraic Jews were culturally Jewish.
- They spoke Aramaic, they read the bible in Hebrew, & their dress,
manners, & customs were Jewish.
- And for a long time this had caused a lot of friction.
PT: But here in Acts that is actually not the case. Because this little group of Christ
followers were living in a completely different way. Hellenistic Jews and Hebraic
Jews were all living as part of one community … sharing a common life of worship
centered on Christ.
They were breaking down barriers that had been around for a long time.
- And when you bring two communities together like this, there are bound
to be some problems.
- One of those was that they spoke different languages.
- And this was making the distribution of food to the needy ineffective.
- (probably because all the disciples spoke only Aramaic).
- They just weren’t as communicative w/the Greek speaking part of this
So the disciples asked the Greek speaking Jews to select 7 of their own men
who followed Jesus, who could take responsibility for this issue.
- And Stephen was the first man chosen; he was wise & respected.
- And over time, he became a powerful witness for JS … v.*
- “Stephen, brimming with God’s grace & energy, was doing wonderful
things among the people, unmistakable signs that God was among them.”
Which is how he came to the attention of the Temple leaders.
v.9 “Some men from the meeting place whose membership was made up of freed
slaves, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and some others from Cilicia and Asia, went up
against him trying to argue him down. But they were no match for his wisdom and
spirit when he spoke. So in secret they bribed men to lie: “We have heard Stephen
speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
“So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They
seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false
witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place
and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will
destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
- So they accuse him of three things:
- 1) blasphemy against Moses and against God.
- 2) Saying Jesus will destroy the temple
- 3) and change the customs of Moses
This first charge is a bit odd, cuz blaspheming against Moses is not illegal,
- And they mention that before they mention blaspheming against God,
which is illegal.
- And all of this meant to signal that the charges are false.
- The real issue isn’t even the orthodoxy of Stephen’s theology.
- The real issue is their religious & political power that comes through
control of the temple & obedience to the law.
- And then Luke (who wrote Acts), adds this detail:
- “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they
saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” Acts 6:15
Apparently it was obvious to everyone that Stephen was innocent.
- Luke tells this as a parallel to the trial in which they convicted Jesus.
- And while falsely accusing Stephen of breaking the law that prohibits
blasphemy against God…
- …the Jewish Leaders break the law that forbids bearing false witness
against a neighbor.
- All the while … Stephen’s face is shining like the face of an Angel.
The High Priests looks & Stephen… “What do you have to say for yourself?”
PT: And Stephen launches into one of the most incredible passages in the Bible.
It’s really long, so we can’t read the whole thing. Let me read some of it…
“Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor
Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3 and said to him,
‘Leave your country and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you.’ …
6 And God spoke in these terms, that his descendants would be resident aliens in a
country belonging to others, who would enslave them and mistreat them during four
8 Then he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father
of Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac became the father of
Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs. 9 “The patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold
him into Egypt; but God was with him, 10 and rescued him from all his afflictions, and
enabled him to win favor and to show wisdom when he stood before Pharaoh, king
of Egypt, who appointed him ruler over Egypt and over all his household…
Stephen goes on to tell the story of Moses in great detail.
- …how Moses was raised by Pharoah’s daughter;
- …how he ran away after killing the Egyptian slave driver;
- about the burning bush & Moses’ fight with Pharaoh, & the Red Sea.
- How the people had been unfaithful, worshipping a golden calf.
- Begging Moses to take them back to Egypt.
- So God led them into the wilderness; and patiently taught them to trust
him for everything.
PT: Now, up to this pt. everything he said has been a faithful recitation of Jewish
history. The temple rulers were probably looking all smug. Stephen was doing
exactly what he was supposed to do. He’s celebrating Jewish history & telling the
story of God, all that’s left is to praise the temple.
But then he says, “Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as
God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the
pattern he had seen.
- Tent of testimony = portable temple they carried in wilderness.
- So their ears perk up… this is the crux move.
- Stephen has reached the moment for his plea bargain.
- All he has to do is say a few flattering words about the temple & the high
priest & they will probably just let him go.
45 Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the
nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of
David, 46 who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling place
for the house of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him.
- So far so good… but he better tread lightly.
- The high priest thinking, “This is where that brigand from Nazareth
used to start in on us.”
- Stephen, much like his rabbi JS, makes this brilliant move.
- He quotes from the prophet Isaiah — v.48
48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the
prophet says, 49 ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of
house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not
my hand make all these things?’
Now this is a brilliant tactical move; he’s calling them out but there’s nothing
they can do about it because he’s quoting the prophets.
- “The Most High does not dwell in houses made w/human hands.”
- And I imagine at this point, a really long pregnant pause…
- The High Priest who started out smugly eyeing Stephen from his throne
of power… now he’s on the edge of his seat… glaring!!
- Stephen is staring him down…
- I imagine this long pause ; 2 of them facing off; & Stephen has a choice
… he can either tell the truth & face the consequences, or back down.
He says, 51 ”You stiff-necked people,” Which is what Moses called the pple when he
caught them worshipping a golden calf… they would’ve caught the reference
You know those scenes from movies, usually a courtroom scene where
someone’s about to accuse someone powerful of corruption;
- And when they do, the crowd starts to yell & scream & protest.
- But the protagonist just shouts over the top of them?
- That’s the way I imagine this scene: “you stiff necked ppl” …
- And they all jump to their feet & start yelling.
51 ”You have uncircumcised hearts & ears [circum. only on outside] you are forever
opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.
They are all yelling now, calling for Stephen’s hide, he has to shout above
52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors NOT persecute? They killed those who
foretold the coming of the Righteous One, [the Mess] and now YOU have become
his betrayers and murderers. 53 YOU are the ones that received the law as
ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” 54 When they heard these
things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the
Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at
the right hand of God.
56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the
right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed
together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone
him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin
against them.” When he had said this, he died. [same way JS did, btw, asking God
to forgive those who were putting him to death].
How about that for a story of courageous truth telling? And ever since that
day, Xians all over the world have found in Stephen’s life, the strength to
stand up & tell the truth about the world in which we are living.
- It’s just what Hauerwas was saying:
- The church’s job is to ”just tell the truth, plain & simple… and see what
kinds of tensions that produces.”
You see, I think there will be times when each of us face a similar situation in
which we know the truth, & we’ll be tempted to keep our mouths shut.
- We won’t be facing death—but it’ll really cost us if we speak up.
- But we’ll face a person, peer group, narrative, cultural convention that’ll
shame & punish us if we deviate from the norm.
- I’m not talking about Facebook… I’m talking about real life.
PT: A time in which we know that those we are facing are telling the wrong
story—a story that will add to the disorder under which we already suffer. And
because we know the story of God, we will be the only ones who can see it. And we
have a choice: Will we tell the truth? Will we go along with the crowd?
The real danger is that once we tell the lie… or even let the lie be told & keep
our mouths shut… we run the risk that we’ll have to live w/it.
- Have you ever told a lie & then had to live w/it for a long time?
- It’s like the high school kid whose friends all have girlfriends.
- And he tells them he’s got a girlfriend in Canada… shows you a picture of
his cousin … (does this still happen w/social media?)
- Once you tell the lie, you are stuck living with it.
- Stephen gives us another option.
- Take the HS dating thing: what would it mean for a HS boy who is getting
ripped on for not having a girlfriend said:
- Why are you guys so afraid to just be yourselves w/out a girl? I’m not…
PT: That’s the kind of thing that unleashes the power of a different story, a story
that is true, told right after a lie? That’s powerful!
- Stephen had this moment where he could’ve pulled his punches.
- Just tickle their ears a little bit … even give a measured critique…
- But that’s not what he does.
- He says, “you stiff necked people…” translation… this is the same
problem we always bump into as the people of God.
- Will we look out for our own interests, more $, more power, more security
while ignoring injustice, poverty, and discrimination?
- Or will we have the courage to tell the truth about our lives & change & in
so doing… worship God w/all our heart, soul, mind, strength?
It is the church’s great privilege to tell the truth. Especially in a time when it
seems like the ability to discern the true story of Redemption is all too rare.
- When the world says “War” we say “peace!”
- When the world says, you gotta watch out for yourself first.
- We say, you gotta watch out for your brother & the least of these.
- When the culture says despair, we say hope.
- When they say “win at any cost” we say the last will be first.
- When the world says “revenge” we say “forgiveness”
- When the world says more, more, more, we say enough.
- When the world says bigger, better, stronger, higher, faster, we say
slow down … pay attention to the small things & be faithful!
And this is important not just because we want to be able to feel good about
ourselves. This is important because the future of the gospel depends upon our
ability to learn how to tell the truth to a world that has fallen for every lie in the
book. We have to tell the truth because most of our culture simply cannot see it!
- They’re too worried about keeping what they’ve got… getting more.
- These are not things the Christian cares about.
- Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God.” (again)
- And you’ll find your everyday human concerns will all be met.
- Our world has it totally backwards.
- It says, “See first your everyday human concerns…”
- And the kingdom of God will take care of itself… NOT SO WITH US!!!
PT: We are supposed to be the one group of people on the planet who have the
courage to tell the truth… & refuse to tell the lies that threaten to become our entry
point to a story that just not our story. We realize that it is a gift to be able to tell the
truth about the world & about our lives & about our God.
Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the 21 st Century, lived thru 2 World
Wars, railing against a church that was powerless to resist the futility of WWI and
the insanity of the Nazi regime.
He said: do theology w/the bible in one hand & the newspaper in the other.
- With as much as I trash cable news, I need to explain this.
- Cuz I’m not saying you should watch cable news.
- Barth clarified saying: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and
read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
- Stephen’s speech was so powerful because, first and foremost, he knew
the story of Israel well enough to tell the story… it defined him.
- And then he had the courage to tell the truth about what was happening
in the present day… that’s our role in the church.
Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation. If we contend for
the gospel & the least of these we cannot expect to be greeted w/flowers.
- We are going to find ourselves at odds w/powerful forces who don’t
want the truth to be known.
- There are many who call themselves Christians but who have never come
in contact w/the truth of the gospel.
- So we have got to find a way to speak into our world.
- To bear witness to the way of Jesus.
- To let love win in our lives personally & our common life as Xians.
One of the things & love about Redemption Church is that it’s a place where
we take this call seriously
- We can speak on behalf of those on the margins of culture, because they
are our neighbors… they are our members… they are us.
- We can speak for the rejection of individualism, consumerism, &
nationalism …rival gods that threaten to turn us against each other.
- We can do this because we are part of a different story…
- A story where Jesus is Lord of all creation… starting w/our hearts & the
common life of this community.
- When this puts us at odds w/the culture … we will be called to speak.
- We will be called to ”just tell the truth, plain & simple… and see what kinds
of tensions that produces.”