Acts 7: 44 – 60, 8: 1 Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin – Part 4
Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favour and asked that he might provide a dwelling-place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him.
‘However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?”
‘You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: you always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.’
The stoning of Stephen
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul approved of their killing him.
* * *
Stephen had been seized and taken before the Sanhedrin, charged with preaching that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple and change the customs established by Moses. In his response to these charges, he summarised the story of the Israelites from Abraham to Moses. He referred repeatedly to the scripture to show he was preaching an orthodox faith.
However, the account given in the scriptures showed that the Israelites repeatedly rejected those sent to them by God. Despite Moses’ anointing by God as the Israelites leader, despite the signs and wonders that God worked through him, the Israelites returned to idol worship.
Stephen now addressed the charge of preaching that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple. Once again, he approached this through the scriptures.
He described how the original holy place for the Israelites wasn’t a temple but a tabernacle. At God’s direction, Moses had the tabernacle built to carry the covenant law, and this went with the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness and then settled in Canaan. He related that it wasn’t until the reign of King Solomon that a temple had been built for God.
Then he immediately added, ‘However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?”
This is almost an exact quotation of a passage from Isaiah:
“This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?’ declares the Lord.”
What Stephen meant here is that the temple is unnecessary. It hasn’t always existed, and it isn’t essential because God is everywhere – and can thus be worshipped anywhere.
The temple was central to the worship of the Jews of Jesus’ day. Every adult male was supposed to go there for the major festivals, and many did. At Passover, for instance, tens of thousands would flock to Jerusalem and the temple. And they brought sacrifices and offerings. This was where the wealth and power of the chief priests and teachers of the law came from. Custom, reinforced by self-interest made the abandonment of temple worship unthinkable for the Sanhedrin.
Stephen then concluded his speech by denouncing the members of the Sanhedrin. He told them their hearts and ears were uncircumcised, by which he meant that although they had the physical sign of circumcision, spiritually they were not circumcised. Spiritually they were not included in God’s covenant. Stephen told them that, like their ancestors, they were resisting the Holy Spirit. He pointed out that their ancestors persecuted all the prophets, including those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One (the Messiah; Jesus of Nazareth). And, finally, he charged them with the betrayal and murder of Jesus.
The anger of the Sanhedrin rose to fever-pitch.
But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’
For a mere mortal to claim to see God was intolerable. It outraged everything the members of the Sanhedrin had been taught, every value they had lived by.
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.
How revealing. They covered their ears. They yelled at the top of their voices. This is what children do when they don’t want to hear something. The members of the Sanhedrin didn’t want to hear the message of Jesus, they didn’t want to be obedient. They wanted their own way.
I find this scene quite appalling. These men, leaders of the nation, wealthy, powerful, and learned were transformed into a murderous mob. And that the transformation was triggered by a desperate urge to reject the message of Jesus is absolutely chilling.
Stephen, as he was being stoned, commits his spirit to Jesus, and he forgives the men who are murdering him.
We shall see later that God did indeed forgive that sin, for, “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
We shall be meeting that young man again.
You created human beings in your own image, and you gave us the potential to overcome the sinful and selfish urges that too often drive our actions. I confess that I am selfish. Please forgive me when I act selfishly, and please help me to be more loving and generous.
In Jesus’ name, Amen