Standing Firm In Your Faith: The Accusation
Passage: Acts 6:18–25
Ok, so we are back in our Acts series. Many of you know that I don’t have the patience to walk through a book like Acts for two years, so we walk through the book from August to Advent and the next August, we pick up wherever we left off. I also believe that it is important to walk through different genres throughout the year. We just finished Proverbs, we looked at two books of the Bible at a high level, and now Acts.
In God’s providence, we are jumping back in at more or less the beginning of Stephen’s story. To catch you up a bit, Acts is written by Luke and he’s answering a question posed by a man named Theophilus. We don’t know exactly who Theopholus is, but he is a man of clout in Rome. I like to think he is Paul’s defense attorney. It seems like Paul is very important to Luke and this letter is a lot about Paul...who knows. Whoever Theophilus is, he is asking this question: How did this small Jewish sect called Christianity become this new religion that is taking over the whole empire. And Luke’s answer is simple: because Jesus said so. Acts 1:8 . 8 But you will receive npowerowhen the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and pyou will be qmy witnesses in Jerusalemand in all Judea and rSamaria, and sto the end of the earth.” - Acts 1:8
And that is what this letter does. We see the gospel go to Jerusalem, then to all Judea and Samaria, and then to Rome. And once you are in Rome, you are going out to the ends of the known Greek speaking world. We first met Stephen when he was chosen to serve the church by helping to oversee the distribution of food to the Hellenisitic Jewish Widows. What many consider to be the first deacons in the church. But Stephen’s quiet behind the scenes ministry quickly becomes public. The pressure rises against Stephen, and he eventually becomes the very first Christian martyr. He is killed for his faith in Jesus Christ.
I’m often fascinated how God guides where we are in scripture at certain points in time. I decided in December of 2020 that we would be in this passage today. As the world’s attention is on Afghanistan where the Taliban have taken over and hundreds if not thousands of Christians face what looks like imminent death. I read stories this week of Christians being slaughtered for their faith in Jesus. Some of them even had opportunities to recant their faith and turn to Islam, but they refused and died. These are just the first of what could be so many more.
What makes someone that sure of Jesus and what awaits us after this life that they would willingly give their life? That’s what we want to look at over the next three weeks in the life and death of Stephen. This week, we are going to look at the false accusations that instigated this persecution against him. We are going to look at the false accusation itself, the real truth, and why it matters today.
- The false accusation
So, what do we know about Stephen? Besides what I have already said, we see in verse five that he was full of faith and the Holy Spirit. Verse eight tells us that he was full of grace and power. Stephen was doing great works in Jerusalem. Luke says he was doing signs and wonders. This is important because this is the first time we see someone in the New Testament who was not Jesus or his apostles performing signs and wonders. Then, verse ten tells us that he is full of wisdom.
Put it all together and this is obviously a great threat to the Jews because the followers of Jesus are spreading this message that Jesus has resurrected and is the fulfillment of the scriptures and that message is accompanied by miracles. Sure Jesus had done some miracles and his disciples had done some miracles, but here is a regular Joe who proclaims Jesus and now he’s doing miracles. Not your average deacon! What we are seeing is special and unique and not something prescriptive for all deacons or even all believers.
So, some of those who belonged to different synagogues came together and disputed with Stephen. And Luke goes to great lengths to show us that these are Jews who are visiting Jerusalem, but do not live in Jerusalem. The Greek speaking Jews, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and Jews from Cilicia and Asia. Luke doesn’t say this, but I suspect that the reason for this is that sometimes people who are not surrounded by their culture become more strict about their culture. Not many Brits in Great Britain still drink tea at tee time, but Brits living outside of Great Britain often do. When Angela and I speak at Christian conferences in very...let’s say blue areas of the country... the crowd tends to be more theologically and politically conservative than they are in the Bible Belt. Americans overseas who would never eat McDonalds here will stand in long lines at train stations to get a greasy, plasticy taste of home.
I think something similar is happening here. These are Jews who live far from Jerusalem and because of that they take their customs even more seriously. And two of the customs they take most seriously are the Mosaic Law and the Temple. So they are challenging Stephen on his claims. And it appears that the Holy Spirit gave much wisdom to Stephen because no matter what these accusers said, Stephen had an answer to. And this is exactly what Jesus said would happen 14 Settle it therefore in your minds bnot to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for cI will give you a mouth and dwisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or econtradict. - Luke 21:15
You have to pause here and ask what exactly they were afraid of. All the Jewish leaders who misunderstood this teaching to be some kind of new sect or religion. Some kind of major shift away from what their scriptures taught not realizing that this was no shift, it was the logical progression of what God has been working on since the beginning of time. The last trip I went on, we had to go to the Orlando airport to Panama City. Then we had to leave the main airport and go to a smaller airport to take a plane into the jungle. Then we were taken by boat to where we were staying. Each leg wasn’t a change in destination, they were the next part of one comprehensive well laid out plan. The Jews thought Jesus was a change in destination when he really was not only the next part, but the culmination to a very well laid out plan.
The Pharisees and Saddusees in Jerusalem, they looked at Jesus and they were afraid of losing their religious power, but these Jews in other countries had no real power over society. They were afraid of losing their worldview. They were afraid of losing what had been comfortable to them all these years and because of that, they were missing out on God’s great gift to them. Let me ask, are there ways God might be asking you to let go of what might be known and comfortable for something that is uncomfortable, maybe even scary, but so much better?
These Jews can’t do that and they can’t argue with Stephen, so they decide to make up false accusations and have them spread around. They stirred up people who had more power than they do with two specific false allegations. First, they claimed that he was saying that Jesus would destroy the Temple. Second, they claimed that Jesus would change the customs of Moses. Remember the two most important things to them? The Temple and the Mosaic Law. The false accusation is that Jesus came to destroy both. Just think about how scary that would have been. These Jews are living outside of Israel and the only thing they had to hold on to to feel like Jews was their customs and their pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. And here you have people saying that Stephen is claiming that Jesus will destroy both.
But, we need to see that they are breaking the very Mosaic law they think they are trying to protect. So you can see they care more about their agenda than what God actually wants them to do. d“You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wickedman to be a emalicious witness. 2 You shall not fall in with the many to do evil,nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, - Exodus 23:1, 2
Before we move on, I want to make a few observations about false accusations from this text. First, false accusations are something that we resort to when we are mad and have lost the argument. That is certainly what is happening here. John Stott writes, “When arguments fail, mud has often seemed an excellent substitute.”
Second, false accusations are things we bring to people in secret. These accusers had done their best to argue in the light of day with Stephen, but when that didn’t go their way, they persuaded others to their cause in secret. Accusations that are spoken in secret and not directly to the accused are gossip at best and slander at worst. And you don’t always know the difference.
This brings me to the third thing. I want to look at these people who took up the offenses others brought to them. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they genuinely believed what was brought to them. But, even if you believe the accusations to be true, you should not take them up yourself and spread them. Have you ever seen the ESPN 30 for 30 called Judging Jewel. Richard Jewel was the security guard who found the bomb at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. He cleared out the area and likely saved hundreds of lives. He was a national hero. That is, until word got out that he might be suspected of actually placing the bomb himself. Word got leaked that the FBI MIGHT be looking into him and the Atlanta Journal Constitution published an article saying that Jewel was all but guilty. He was completely innocent! But the whole world jumped on this bandwagon and declared him guilty before the investigation was even complete and it ruined him for life. Even after he was cleared, this man who should be honored as the hero he was couldn’t even find a job. This was all because people took up these accusations willingly without ever waiting to see if they were even true.
What was a theological conversation, turned into gossip, then slander, then, as we will see in two weeks, violence. So, if that was the false claim, what had Jesus really said?
- The real truth
Jesus said some things about the Temple and the law, but they were totally different. Jesus didn’t say he would tear down the Temple, he said he would replace it. At Jesus’ trial a similar accusation was made. 58 e“We heard him say, f‘I will destroy this temple gthat is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, hnot made with hands.’” - Mark 14:58
But, what did Jesus actually say? John records the incident that this accusation came from. 18 So the Jews said to him, y“What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, z“Destroy this temple, and in three days aI will raise it up.” 20 The Jewsthen said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple,3 and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about bthe temple of his body. - John 2:18-21
It’s timely that we are looking at this text. Last week we looked at the whole book of Exodus and we talked about the Temple system. The Temple is God’s meeting place with man. I said last week, it’s not like it’s this little home where God lives and isn’t threatened by the sin in this world. It is the place he has chosen to meet with us in this sinful world so that his holiness doesn’t obliterate us. Remember, every place in scripture where the holiness of God and sinful man meet, people die. That is unless it is in the temple system. The first temple was the Garden of Eden where God and man communed with no problem because we had yet to sin. After the fall, the next temple was the Tabernacle that we talked about last week. Once the Israelites had taken the promised land, they made a permanent Temple in Jerusalem. This is the Temple they were accusing Stephen of claiming Jesus would destroy.
But Jesus wasn’t even talking about the great Jerusalem Temple. A new temple had already come! Jesus! God’s presence left the Temple during the ministry of Ezekial and did not come back. Jesus is the new Temple. Jesus is the new meeting place between God and man. This is why Jesus says in Matthew 12 6 I tell you, dsomething greater than the temple is here. - Matt 12:6 So you can see why Jesus would say, “Destroy this temple (his body) and I will raise it up in three days. Which is of course exactly what happened!
This is why at Jesus’ death, the curtain in the center of the Temple was torn in two. God did this to communicate that Jesus is taking the place of all the Temple functions. Jesus became our only high priest who intercedes for us at all times - no more need for a Temple. Jesus was the once and for all sacrifice for our redemption - no more need for a Temple. Jesus made himself the mercy seat - no more need for a Temple. Jesus is where you go to see the glory of God - no more need for a Temple. This why John in his visions in Revelation 21 says, 22 And oI saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. - Rev. 21:22
John Piper points out that Acts 6:7 says that ‘a great number of priests became obedient to the faith’ which really means that they realized they were all out of jobs. There’s no more need for them. Jesus does it all and Jesus does it much better. That’s the temple, what then did Jesus really say about the law?
Remember, they were accusing Stephen of teaching that Jesus would change the customs delivered to the Jews by Moses. But, again, Jesus isn’t changing anything, he is the next step in a divinely laid out plan for the salvation of God’s people. Matt 5: 17 p“Do not think that I have come to abolish qthe Law or the Prophets; I have not cometo abolish them but rto fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, suntil heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished - Matt 5:17
So these accusations were a false twist on a true statement. Isn’t that true of most false accusations? They aren’t totally off base, they just skew what is actually true. Stephen and Luke knew that Jesus was going to radically disrupt the lives of the Jews, but none of this was ‘against the customs of Moses and the Temple.’ It wasn’t against the Jews. It was the fulfillment of the customs of Moses and the Temple and it was the global expansion of what God had been doing in Israel.
And here we see a pattern started by Jesus, continued by the apostles, and now Stephen. They are deeply rooted in the Old Testament and teaching the Old Testament as the roadmap that leads to Jesus and the religious hate it. This is why they can never find ground to really accuse them...all they can do is resort to false accusations. How can these uneducated men know the Scriptures so well? Because Jesus taught them.
And if that were not enough, there is this cherry on top at the end of the passage in verse 15 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face iwas like the face of an angel. - Acts 6:15 I can’t tell you how many people I have heard read this and begin to wonder what an angel’s face looks like. And I’d love to know the answer to that as much as anyone, but that’s not what this verse is supposed to make us think about. It’s supposed to make us think about someone else. Do you remember someone else who met with God and whose face shined as a result? Moses. Moses who brought the law. This is deliberate that the person who was accused of denigrating the law would shine in the same way as the one who was given the law.
The real truth is that Stephen is preaching a gospel that is not of man, but from God. A gospel that is not in contradiction to the Jewish faith, but fulfills it and God is affirming that at this very special juncture in time through signs and wonders. So, why should this matter to us?
- Why it matters
It matters because we are now the temple. Answer this question: What made Stephen so sure, so wise, so powerful, and so full of grace? Stephen can speak with wisdom because he is full of the Holy Spirit and he is full of the Holy Spirit because he is the new Temple. Jesus resurrected and ascended so His Spirit could be with all his people. We are now the temple. 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for hif I do not go away, ithe Helper will not come to you. But jif kI go, lI will send him to you - John 16:7 This is what made Stephen so sure and so bold. Paul writes this to the Corinthians: 16 cDo you not know that you3 are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? - 1 Cor. 3:16
This is why Stephen was full of grace, wisdom, and power. This reoriented all his priorities, even the priority of living. Stephen knew at a supernatural level that Jesus isn’t going to ask us for anything he is unwilling to do himself. Jesus was falsely accused and called to change his message or die. And he willingly chose death because he knew his death meant our life. He knew that the destruction of the temple, his body, would make us all temples. All of us a meeting place between God and man.
I don’t think we can understand Stephen over the next few weeks without understanding that he has become the very thing the Jews are scared that he will take down. They are holding on to this big pile of stones that no longer has any power and resisting the power that God now brings inside all his people. And we do the same thing.
What are some of the things we hold on to that God wants to take from us that we might have something so much better? I can’t answer that question for anyone, but me. But each of us knows what that is. If we are believers in Jesus Christ, we have the Holy Spirit inside of us which means we have access to the same power that Stephen did.
The Spirit inside of him made him sure that there is no challenge in this life that will not be made right in the next. The 20th-century missionary Jim Elliot, whose life was taken by the people he was trying to reach, famously wrote, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Only the Holy Spirit can give someone that kind of insight.
So, are you walking in the power of the Holy Spirit? Are you confessing your sin continually and turning to Jesus? Are you giving yourself to the changes he wants to make in you? If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you are a temple of God and you will be changed in every conceivable way. This is why Stephen was full of grace, wisdom and power. This is who reoriented all his priorities, even the priority of living.