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Stephen on Trial

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
November 19, 2023 12:01 am

Stephen on Trial

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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November 19, 2023 12:01 am

On trial for his life and surrounded by false witnesses, Stephen gazed toward heaven and saw Jesus. From his sermon series in the book of Acts, today R.C. Sproul discusses the courageous faith and bold message of the first martyr of the ancient church.

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God in His grace gives him a taste of heaven. God shows Stephen His glory. The teeth of men that are being gnashed at him are not worthy to be compared with the blessed vision that Stephen now enjoys as he looks up into heaven. Christians today and throughout church history have been persecuted for their faith, many even giving their lives as martyrs, and today we'll hear the story of the first martyr of the early church.

Thank you for joining us for the Sunday edition of Renewing Your Mind. Today you'll hear a sermon from R.C. Sproul's Acts series, a sermon he preached at St. Andrew's Chapel in Sanford, Florida. This sermon from Acts chapter 6 is one of over 60 that Dr. Sproul preached in this series, and it was these sermons that formed the basis of his commentary on the book of Acts, and today only you can request that hardcover volume at renewingyourmind.org. Well, to take us back to the earliest days of the early church and the trial and death of Stephen, here's Dr. Sproul. Last week we looked at the portion of the book of Acts that told of the decision of the apostles to set apart and consecrate for ministries of mercy and service what are called the seven in the book of Acts, and these seven who were called to Diaconia to service were so chosen so that the apostles could be freed up to fulfill their vocation to labor in the preaching and teaching and teaching of the Word. And Luke tells us the names of those seven who were chosen, and included in that list was Stephen. Now as Luke continues his narrative of the early church, he focuses on that one among the seven whose name was Stephen. And as we read this, Luke said, Luke said, and Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. But as he was doing these marvelous things in the midst of this people, there was a group, a group basically from the Greek-speaking community among them, who raised up in opposition against the teaching and preaching of Stephen, and they entered into a dispute with him.

But Luke tells us they weren't able to resist his wisdom or the spirit by which he spoke. They started, first of all, obviously engaging Stephen in honest debate, but their honesty was short-lived. When they were unable to stop his arguments, they turned to corrupt manners in order to silence him by beginning a program of suborning witnesses against Stephen. And so one by one, these suborbed witnesses came and bore false witness against Stephen and listened to what they accused him of. They said, we have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God. And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him, they seized him, and they brought him before the council. And again they set up false witnesses who said, this man doesn't cease speaking blasphemous words against this holy place, referring of course to the temple and the law. We heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us. Now before I go on, let me just remind you that not a single word of what they said was true, except that Jesus did indeed say He was going to destroy that temple. But the way Jesus' words were twisted in the mouths of these false witnesses was all part of their grand conspiracy against this eloquent spokesman for Christ in their midst.

Now listen to this almost parenthetic footnote that Luke gives to us. And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at Him, saw His face as the face of an angel. The French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre talks about the destructive human situation we experience when we become the object of people's stares. That we know that in polite society, in polite company, there's only so long that we can maintain eye contact with a person before we make them very uncomfortable. You see somebody walking down the street, your eyes meet briefly, you say hello, and then you look away. Where do we find people staring? Well we go to a museum of art and they'll stand there and they'll look at us and they'll stand there and stare at paintings.

Or they'll go to the zoo and stand outside the bars and stare at the monkeys or the elephants or whatever. But if you stare too long at a person, you will get a hostile reaction because, as Sartre said, what you are doing is reducing that person to the status of an object rather than a living subject. Well at this point in his life, Stephen is the object of the hostile stare. As his accusers and the court watch him there, watch him there as he is accused, and we are told they looked at him steadfastly. What they saw was not a monkey in the cage or a picture on the wall. Suddenly they begin to see a certain radiance emanating from the face of Stephen. They looked at him, and he looked as if he had the face of an angel.

One brief comment on that. We've seen that a couple of times before in Scripture. We see it in the Old Testament when Moses goes up to the mountain and speaks with God and asks God if he could see his glory, and God says, no Moses, no one can see my face and live, but I'll tell you what I'll do.

I'll carve out a niche in the rock. I'll hide you there in the rock, and I'll let my glory pass you by. I'll let you get a quick glimpse of my backward parts, literally the hind quarters of Yahweh, but my face shall not be seen. And so Moses gets this instantaneous glance at the back of God, and suddenly Moses' face begins to shine with such intensity that it is blinding to those around him. Now that light on the face of Moses did not come from inside of Moses. It was reflected glory, reflected by his having been in the presence of God. The next one we see is at the Mount of Transfiguration where Christ is transfigured, and now the light that radiates from his garments and from his face is not a reflection from outside, but it comes from within. As for a moment, the divine bursts through the veil of the human, and those in his presence fall on their faces at this sight.

But it's more like Moses than Jesus that this radiance shines from the face of Stephen because he is at that moment reflecting not the ugliness and horror that's being reflected in the faces of his accusers, but they're seeing the grace and loveliness and sweetness of God pouring forth from his countenance. Then the high priest asks the question, Are these things so? You've heard the charges.

Are they correct? Are you speaking blasphemous things about Moses and about God and in the law? Are you guilty or innocent? What do you say? Well, he doesn't just say, Well, I plead innocent, Your Honor. He begins to give them a lesson in redemptive history. I can't help but think that here in volume 2 of the history of St. Luke that Luke is reminiscing on what happened in volume 1 with the so-called Emmaus Congers or Walkers, those people who fell in with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and they don't recognize Him, and they're involved in this animated conversation about all the events that took place so recently in Jerusalem, and Jesus says, What are you people talking about here? And they say, Are you the only person in Jerusalem that doesn't know what's just happened in the last few days? Jesus says, Well, tell me about it. And so they tell him about this Jesus who had many thought would be the Messiah and how He was killed and how now the rumor was running through the city that He had been raised from the dead. And then Luke tells us that on that occasion Jesus, beginning with Moses, takes them through the entire Old Testament and explains to him all that the Old Testament had taught regarding the Messiah. And they're listening to this history lesson until they get to dinner, and suddenly Jesus is made manifest to them in His identity, and then He leaves, and they realize that they had just heard a course in Old Testament history from the Messiah Himself. And they said, Didn't our hearts burn within us when we heard Him open the Scriptures to us?

I mean, how could Luke not be remembering that? When he's sitting down here in the pages, a similar kind of overview, reconnaissance of the entire history of redemption from the lips of Stephen while he's on trial by the leaders of the church, those who have their PhDs in Old Testament history, he takes them back to Sunday school or I should say Friday school for a little training in the synagogue. And he goes back to Abraham. He said, You remember Abraham.

You want to know if these charges are true? Think about Abraham. Don't you remember that God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees and how God made a covenant with Abraham. And in his old age, he was blessed with the son Isaac, and that covenant promise was passed on down to Isaac, and he speaks about that, and then how then it goes down to Jacob and Jacob to his sons, and how the sons of Jacob rose up against their brother Joseph and sold him into slavery where he then became imprisoned, and finally after his release was elevated to the position of prime minister in Egypt.

You remember that? Stephen is saying. He said, And how in those desperate times of famine when Joseph was the prime minister, God told Jacob to go down into Egypt with his family and to reside there where there was plenty of food to eat, and they would be under the protection of Joseph.

And so they went and settled in the land of Goshen. Remember that, Stephen said? Stephen said, and then he called. Recall of course how another Pharaoh came to power who didn't know Joseph, and instead now of treating the people of Israel graciously, he enslaved them, and they groaned under this burden of oppression for so many years until God heard their groanings. And then Stephen reminds them of Moses, who defending his own people became a cast out and an exile into the Midianite wilderness, and it was there that God came to him in the burning bush and said, Moses, you go to Pharaoh, and you tell him, I said, let my people go. And so on he goes through the exodus, and after the people were liberated by God, they began to murmur and complain and want to go back to Egypt.

You know, the same story. God sends in the prophets, and what do they do? They kill the prophets.

And this litany goes on. This rehearsal of Jewish history is set before the leaders in Stephen's defense. And so you would think he would conclude his overview by saying, so you see, your honor, I'm really just trying to follow in the tradition of our fathers. I'm just trying to be an obedient Jew just like them.

That's not what he said. He comes now to the incendiary part of the sermon when he said, you stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears. Oh, I know you're of the circumcision. We know that we have in your body the sign of this old covenant that I've just rehearsed, but your circumcision never went beyond your private parts. It never reached your heart. It never reached your neck.

It never reached your ears. You always resist the Holy Spirit. You know, we have a teaching in Reformed theology that's called irresistible grace, which is something of a misnomer. It doesn't mean that we are incapable of resisting the grace of God.

Beloved, we do that every day. What is meant by irresistible grace is that despite our resistance, the power of the Holy Spirit vanquishes our sinful rejection of Christ and gives us ears to hear and hearts to embrace Him. But that's not the response of those present. He says, you always resist the Holy Spirit.

Now again, let me stop for just a second for just a tiny word of application. Any time a group of people this large meets in a building of this size for an occasion such as this, it's virtually inevitable that there are people sitting here in this room right now who are unregenerate, who are not Christians. They may be members of this church or members and officers of some other church, but they still resist the Holy Ghost, and their necks have become stiff, set in their ways. Their hearts have been calcified. They've become without hearing in their ears for the things of God. Oh, they hear the sermons, but it never gets past the outer canal of their ears. There are people like that right now within the sound of my voice. And I beg you to consider the message that Stephen has given on this occasion.

Let me ask them a question. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? Name one who was well received, and they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, the Righteous One, on whom you've now become the betrayers and the murderers.

Don't you understand? I'm giving you the history of you. I'm telling you that your fathers killed the One who predicted the coming of the One that you just killed, you who have received the law by the direction of angels that have not kept it. Now, in a sense, they were circumcised, but in a strange and different way because Luke tells us that when they heard Stephen speak these words to them, words so inflammatory, so directed at their guilt, that they were cut to the heart. Not in the sense that now their hearts were opened to the Word of God.

No. But here's one of those cases where the Word of God, when it is faithfully proclaimed, cuts between bone and marrow, flesh and tissue. These are stinging words, words with barbs on them, words that so cut through the outward appearances of these people that it cuts to the very heart of their listeners. But instead of repenting, their response is this, they gnashed at Him with their teeth.

What an image. They didn't smile. They didn't show their teeth by smiling, but they started gritting their teeth, clenching their jaw, gnashing their teeth back and forth. They're so angry. They are so furious at this one who's just accused them of killing Jesus unjustly that they're growling at Him like a dog. But Stephen, while they're gnashing their teeth at Him, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

Now, listen to this. I mean, if you have a mob ready to kill you, so furious at you, and they're advancing on you, gnashing their teeth, how can you take your eyes off them? Boy, I would take my eyes off a crowd like that. I'd be looking behind me.

I'd be looking for a place that I could escape from them. Instead, Stephen looks up, and God in His grace gives him a taste of heaven. God peels back the curtain for just a moment and allows this man who's on trial for his life here before this hostile kangaroo court, God shows Stephen His glory. The teeth of men that are being gnashed at Him are not worthy to be compared with the blessed vision that Stephen now enjoys as he looks up into heaven. As somebody told me after the first service, he saw his escape route.

It wasn't back. It was up. But I read rather quickly over what else he saw, which is absolutely astonishing. When he looked up and he saw the glory of God, Luke tells us that he also saw Jesus. He had just been witnessing to Jesus.

You know the word for witness in the New Testament, the Greek word, is the word martyria, from which we get the English word martyr. And this first one to be martyred in the name of Jesus, at the very moment that he's about to be martyred, he looks up and he sees Jesus. But what is Jesus doing? He sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He's overcome with this. He now directs his gaze. I don't know how he could take his gaze off that. He comes back to the group and he says, look it.

Do you see that? I see the heavens open, and I see the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Now this morning, we said the Apostles' Creed, and as it goes quickly in summary form over the life and ministry of Jesus, it says of Jesus he was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, sovereign upon His pilot, crucified, dead, and buried.

The third day he what? Rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven. Then comes what's called in theology the sessio, where he sitteth at the right hand of God. The great honor for the Christ that the Father bestows upon him is that he goes to his coronation. He is enthroned where he has given all authority in heaven and earth, and he goes and sits in the position of rule, and the Son of Man is that heavenly judge. We also read earlier in our prayers about going before the judgment seat of Christ. I don't know when, but I know for sure that every person in this room will someday stand before that judgment seat of Christ. It is absolutely inescapable, as Paul later in the book of Acts tells the Athenians that God has set a date in which He will judge the world by that one.

What one? By Christ. And we are all going to stand there. Yes, if you're a believer you say, but we've passed from the judgment. Yes, you've passed from condemnation, but you're still going to appear before the judgment seat of Christ.

Each one of us is going to go there at some point, and Jesus is going to be the judge. Now, when we have a trial today, who stands in the courtroom? Not the accused. The accused is in the dock, or he sits there at the table next to his lawyers.

Two people stand in the courtroom, the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney. What does the judge do? He sits.

The presiding judge sits on the bench, and he remains seated throughout the trial. And now Stephen is on trial for his life before the highest earthly court of Israel. And he looks up, and he sees Jesus not sitting at the right hand of God, His customary place.

He sees Jesus standing. Now imagine you're on trial for your life, and you come into the courtroom, and you're sitting down there, and you've already made your plea and said you're innocent, but now here comes the opening statement from the prosecuting attorney, and he charges you with everything imaginable for this heinous crime that you've committed. And then when he's finished with his opening statement, he asks for the defense attorney to give his opening statement.

He looks around. There's no attorney, no counsel for the defense. And what would you think if that happened to you when you didn't have anybody to defend you? And then all of a sudden, the judge gets up off the bench, comes down on the floor, looks up at the vacant bench, and says, Your Honor, I am counsel for the defense.

I mean, it doesn't get any better than that in the trial than to have the judge be your defense attorney. And that's what Stephen sees. The heavens open.

Look at that. I see the judge of heaven and earth rising in my defense. Remember Jesus had told his disciples before He left that He was going to send them another paraclete? I asked my seminary students, Who's the paraclete? And they say, Oh, that's the Holy Spirit. That's the main title for the Holy Spirit.

I said, Well, almost. He's the other one. He's Paraclete J.G., the primary paraclete. The first one to be given the title of paraclete who's in the New Testament is Christ, who is our advocate with the Father, who is our defense attorney. And God has appointed Him both judge and defense attorney. If you are in Christ, you have Christ as your advocate before the Father.

If not, you will have Him simply as your judge. After Stephen tells them what he's just seen, they cry with a loud voice, and they stop their ears. Did you ever see a little kid do that? Doesn't want to hear it? Don't tell me that. I don't want to hear it.

I'll stop my ears. And so this crowd stopped their ears, and they rush at him as one person. They grab him, and they take him outside the city.

Pilates probably have already been deposed and brought out of office. We don't know if there was a Roman procurator here at this time, but they're still not allowed to execute the death penalty under Roman rule. But they're so furious, they're kangaroo court, so illegal, doesn't matter. They grab Stephen, drag him outside of the city to the place of stoning where the traditional place was where people were stoned.

And they are so mad, they want to do the job right. They take off their coats, and they lay their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul who was complicit in this godless act. And I'm sure he never got over it, as we will see when we take him up in our next study of Acts. But here's the first introduction of the Apostle Paul in biblical history as part of this mob taking the life of Stephen. So they put down their clothes, and they all grab rocks and stones. And with all their might, they begin to throw these rocks into the face, into the chest, into the head of Stephen. And he's being cut and marred and bruised.

What a horrible way to be executed, one stone at a time. And in the midst of all of this pain, he was praying. And he called on God, and he asked for two things. Just like his Savior before him, he had said, Lord, receive my spirit into your hands. I commend my spirit. And the second thing he asked, just as his Lord had before him, lay not this sin to their charge.

And having said that, he breathed his last. It's been said so many times, it's almost trite, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. This was the first seed that was sown in the apostolic community and was watched over by the Lord Jesus.

Let's pray. Father, how we thank You for the courage, for the faith, for the power that was displayed by this man who was the first one after Jesus to pay for his faith with his life. Let that same faith be a part of our experience, that we may die with our eyes upon heaven. For we ask it in Jesus' name, amen. It's incredible when you consider how Christ's promise to build his church has been realized throughout the world, that the martyrdom of Stephen was not the end of the church, but because of Christ's promise, the beginning of something that man or demon cannot stop.

You're listening to Renewing Your Mind, and that was R.C. Sproul preaching on the trial and death of Stephen as recorded in the book of Acts. You can continue studying Acts and the spread of the early church when you request Dr. Sproul's expositional commentary on Acts with a donation of any amount at renewingyourmind.org. This resource offer ends at midnight and will not be available next Sunday. Only hours remain, so thank you for your support. Next Sunday will be in John's Gospel as R.C. Sproul preaches on Jesus' famous conversation with Nicodemus in John chapter 3. Join us then here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-19 02:40:40 / 2023-11-19 02:51:03 / 10

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