Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”
As you read this, remember the charges. Remember that false witnesses were secretly told to say that Stephen spoke blasphemous words against Moses and against God; “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.”
2 To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. 3 ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’
Before there was a temple God spoke to Abraham far away from here.
4 “So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. 5 He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. 6 God spoke to him in this way: ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. 7 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’ 8 Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.
9 “Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.
Again, God was at work, far from here.
11 “Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. 12 When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers on their first visit. 13 On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. 14 After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. 15 Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our ancestors died. 16 Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.
17 “As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased.
Note that God kept to his schedule. And think about over those 400 years how much suffering was going on but the clock was ticking, and in the midst of all the pain of slavery; babies are being born, Israel is growing right under Pharoah’s nose; a country growing up in another country… far, far from Jerusalem. All along the Lord saying, “Don’t worry.You just believe in me, the Lord your God. I’ve got this!”
18 Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’ 19 He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.
20 “At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for by his family. 21 When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. 22 Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.
God had all this in mind when he told Abraham to go to a land far from his home.
23 “When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. 24 He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. 25 Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. 26 The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’
27 “But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? 28 Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.
I wonder as I read this: did Stephen know as he was speaking that his day had come? Is he seeing his death approaching? Does he know that he’s not getting away alive? In addition to building a case to answer the phony charges against him, is he reciting the stories he’s learned since childhood; in a sort of fond reverie…? Knowing that this is the last time, on this side of heaven, that he’ll be reciting this beloved history he knows so well? At times, eyes flashing, challenging the Sanhedrin with a narrative that they cannot refute. Looking them in the eye, but at moments looking … out of this world into another…
30 “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. 31 When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.
33 “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.
Again, Stephen reminds them of holy ground and it’s at Mount Sinai, far from the Hall of Hewn Stones where Stephen and the 70 or so men of the Sanhedrin are in at this moment. A hall immediately adjacent to the temple.
I love this stuff.
By the way, in case you’re wondering; this is how I study, if you can call it that. I never really liked school (shhh, there may be children present, I know) so the word study has always struck me to be a little arduous. But with all this cool information literally at our finger tips these days, I can’t read more than a verse or two of this stuff without either being reminded of something I heard long ago, or being curious about something I doubt, or dig, and of course, you know, I do like visuals. Yeah, there’s a lot of bogus junk on the internet. But don’t ever forget that this age we live in gives us all kinds of resources that not that very long ago you’d have had to travel the world to see in sealed vaults of distant libraries and museums.
It’s about 5 am Monday (I have to stay a day ahead of you guys) and I’m on a little retreat with a very good friend; Lisa’s feeling a little better, thank you Lord, and I took my buddy to a hideout less than an hour from my house.
I’m picking gnats off the glowing screen of my mac, here in a cabin hidden on the Columbia river… and I can ramble on to you and then pause… go to confirm what I thought I knew, or learn something that brings it all into sharper focus; makes it come alive for me…
… and now while you’re looking at it, imagine the woman caught in adultery standing there before them. When they took her to Jesus, they’d only have to walk out the door leading inside the temple courts… btw that’s why this room exists; one side provided an entrance for the High Priest so he could come from the holy places without contaminating himself and on the other side a door to the world allowing people to come before the Sanhedrin without going through the temple. Its name distinguishes it from the temple and God’s command that no hewn stone could be used in building his dwelling place. Yup, they had loopholes for most everything.
And they drag that poor woman from this room to Jesus out a few steps away in the temple courts; teaching early in the morning, probably around 7, which was going on ‘the second hour’ in their way of keeping time. They throw her before Jesus and he’s gonna presently stoop and write in the ground. But in this version he looks at the woman and nods to her, says under his breath so only she can hear him, “don’t worry…” then writes in the ground for her to see these words:
Now imagine the boy Jesus, being led into this hall when a young Nicodemus found him drawing on the ground out in the temple courts, explaining to people with his finger and the dust on the stones under foot why the temple was laid out as it was (yup, next musical).
Now imagine Stephen standing there. Standing there now in that same room. If hewn walls could talk.
Back to our regular broadcast:
34 I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’
35 “This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.
37 “This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’ 38 He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.
39 “But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’[i] 41 That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. 42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
43 You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek
and the star of your god Rephan,
the idols you made to worship.
Therefore I will send you into exile’ beyond Babylon.
44 “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.
Sorry, I can’t help it. Imagine Jesus drawing this in the dust to explain to people what the idea of “a shadow of the things to come” means…
45 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, 46 who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him.
Because David had too much blood on his hands.
48 “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.
Remember where we started. Remember the charge about Stephen speaking against the temple. So far he’s said nothing that the Sanhedrin can object to, yet, he’s laying out the truth: God is not restricted to this place! God has been working all along, everywhere, from nearby and faraway. And the truth is, if you really understood it, you’d have a different awesome appreciation for this… edifice… but you’d understand that it’s a drawing in the dust of time; just an illustration from God’s graphics department; a piece of set design to help us mortals understand that God wants to live with us!
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 where will my resting place be?
50 Has not my hand made all these things?’
51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 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— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”
Yeah, I think Stephen knew where this was going the second they brought him into that room. I’m not getting out alive. No one ever has, really.
54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 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. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices,
Were they right? They were offended, outraged; but were they right? We sure don’t think so. But they thought they were.
What might we be wrong about?
Our Saul, and our Paul. I love you, Daniel Kennedy. Thanks for playing.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 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.
He had them for 53 verses. Right up until he started talking about how prophets always get it from you guys in the end; and telling them they murdered the very one the murdered prophets predicted. They listened until that.
And the funny thing, is that while he recited the history of their religion, he was explaining to them what they’d missed all along. They thought they knew as much about it as Stephen did, but they didn’t. They were literally and strategically and architecturally, geographically so so so so… so very close to the Holy of Holies, and yet so far away. Stephen is essentially saying, “you want to accuse me of speaking against the temple? And undermining Moses? Really? You want to go there? Okay. (he puts a cigarette in his mouth, looks around… Iraceus in a rare moment of humanity, knowing he’s about to get the order to off this guy… Iraceus steps over and gives him a light. Stephen takes a puff; says, “i had to give these up, y’know?) Okay. I’ll tell you what I think about the temple, Moses, (he’s smiling, but he’s got tears in his eyes, not because he’s about to die, but because… he’s about to die and these dudes are clueless. He’s about to take a little trip, and before he does, let’s just let it all hang out…) I’ll answer your charges. And then I’ll tell you what I think you really need to know. You’re not going to like it. And I’m not getting here alive. But that’s okay. Here goes.
And after he says his piece… incidentally: longest sermon in Acts and it deserved to be. He’s about to EXIT stage right… permanently… After he says his piece and they rush him, drag him away, and start stoning him, rocks hitting him, he holds up his hands for the first time, emphatically, and says, “wait a minute, wait a minute… would you wait a stinking minute!”
And a funny thing happens. In the midst of killing him, blood trickling down his face, with all seriousness he says, “Look…” and he points.
And… funny thing… they do.
They actually turn around and look up over their heads, behind them, to where Stephen pointed.
Of course they see nothing but then Stephen says… with a shrug… with an absolutely, guile-less shrug…
“I see Jesus.”
And then he laughs.
He did see Jesus, but he just can’t help but crack up with joy and victory. His laughter echoes through the crowd and for one moment you think maybe they’ll all laugh; for one moment they all are maybe brought to see the hideous cruelty of what they’re doing. The laugh echoes and the crowd is silent.
Then a rock crushes into Stephen’s mouth.
Iraceus screams out the hellishly hot air he’d viciously held in his lungs as he hurled the deadly accurate stone that turned Stephen’s mouth into a bloody hole; and then the whole crowd follows suit, unleashing a barrage of shrapnel that drops Stephen flat on the dirt. A further maelstrom of rocks and shrieks and the crowd stops. Quietly they stare at Stephen’s lifeless body.
… the pebbles crunch under his broken bones and he moves again; trying to get his ragged, torn palms under his chest, to push up one more time…
… and so, with one more determined effort, he gulps in a rattling breath of blood drenched air and slowly, stubbornly rises to his knees…
… he falls back, crumpled on his haunches, head cocked, tilted, chin up, on rock broken gristly neck; he tries to lick at his busted lips, but they’re mostly gone; he tries to clear his torn throat to say as loudly as he can… but loudly as he can is now little more than a painful whisper…
…”don’t lay this sin on them, Lord…”
… now squinting through his blood and swollen eyelids, looking up to Jesus, who is standing there beside the throne, waiting on this crazy, smart, boisterous Greek brother to come and join him as his first communion partner in the “new way things are gonna be”…
… before the last hail of stones rain down on him, still squinting, Stephen swallows hard, smiles and… looking straight into the eyes of the Lord … straight into the eyes of Brother Jesus… he says…
“I’ve got this.”