Contending for the Faith (Acts 7:1) | Jared Betts

Always Ready to Give a Defense

Before us is a beautiful picture of someone who was not intimated by men, but one who had sanctified Christ as Lord in their heart, and was ready, with great gentleness and reverence, to give a defense to anyone who asked them for the hope that is within them.[1] It is an account of a man contending for the faith in the face of formidable opposition and contention.[2]

We are eventually going to be gazing at the whole of Stephen’s sermon in its brilliance and attempt to capture the essence of what he is saying to his contentious critics who have charged him with serious matters. We do not want to get lost in the details of his discourse and miss the forest through the trees.

To be honest, this has quite possibly been the most difficult portion of Scripture for me to figure out how to best expound upon. Yes, we can clearly see that Stephen take his audience through common history. He is not passing on new information to his hearers, but rather attempting to reason with them over that which is familiar and uncontested. He knows that he is engaging in debate with the supposed trained and educated in the Scripture, so he engages with them over it. It is as if he says as God says in Isaiah, “Come, let us reason together.”[3] “Hear me, brethren and fathers!”

Again, we can clearly see that as his listeners fix their critical gaze upon him as an object in need of inspection that he directs his listeners through Jewish history. He begins with Abraham, and the moves to Joseph and Moses, and finally David and Solomon. The question, however, is why does he take them to these particular portions of Scripture to defend himself from their accusations?

Remember that after they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking that they:

11 Secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” 12 And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came up to him and dragged him away and brought him before the Council. 13 They put forward false witnesses who said, “This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.”[4]

According to these men, the tenets of Christianity make one guilty of speaking evil against: Moses, The Law, the holy place, which specifically referred to the temple, but also in a broad sense to Jerusalem and the entirety of the holy land of Israel. Since Stephen stood against these things, he above all stood against God. They essentially pitted the gospel against God Himself and made Stephen out to be His enemy.

It seems that much of their accusations revolve around Moses and the temple, so the question is: Why does he begin with Abraham, and how does Joseph fit into this, or David and Solomon? It is not a matter of not being able to see the truth he teaches, but a matter of understanding why he sees fit to reinforce these truths.

When one considers the accusations brought against him, his entire sermon appears somewhat odd. Some have even gone as far to say that:

“It is a lengthy recital of history, discussing in detail what appear to be insignificant points…it is not clear what the theological point of the detail is.”

Others have suggested that:

“The most striking feature of this speech is the irrelevance of its main section…How are we to explain the fact that Stephen does not really speak to the charges brought against him?”

People view Stephen’s sermon as if it is an insignificant and irrelevant non-sensical diatribe with no point. They view his sermon as if he is some rabid badger that dodges the question at hand and abruptly ends being overcome with emotion.

I would say that these men forget that this sermon is delivered by a man full of faith and full of the Holy Spirit. This sermon is the product of a mind saturated with the Scripture, and a heart that yearns for people to see the glory of God in the face of Christ.

It was the renowned commentator, J.A. Alexander, that refers to this sermon as “a rhetorical sublimity”. In other words, it is a work of profound persuasion and grandeur that should leave people in awe, and, therefore, rank it “with the noblest specimens of ancient eloquence.” Stephen is not killed at the end of this sermon because he spewed forth insignificance and irrelevance. He is killed because he masterfully and meticulous defends His position from Scripture, and they hate it. They are cut to the heart, because Stephen proves from the Scripture that they are the ones who are against Moses and God, not him.

The Key to Stephen’s Sermon

I believe that the key to understanding the point of Stephen’s sermon is found in the accusation that he was teaching that “this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.” This is the sum of speaking against the holy place and the Law, and against Moses and against God. This is the lens through which to understand Stephen’s words.

We should realize that not a single word these men say is true, except for the fact that Jesus did teach He would destroy the physical temple that they cherished.[5] Jesus prophesied of its destruction in His Olivet Discourse, and that prophesy was later fulfilled in the year 70 A.D.

The True Temple

It is imperative we understand that in Jewish society the physical temple in Jerusalem was everything. It was the very heart and center of their theocratical and ceremonial system. To them it was the God ordained sacred place of worship. It is where the Law of God was preserved. It is where God revealed Himself to His people and was relational with them. It was where sacrifices were offered, and forgiveness for sin experienced.

The teaching of Christianity, however, and undoubtedly what Stephen was espousing to the crowds, is that Jesus Christ is the true temple, and there is therefore no longer any need for the physical one. It was Jesus that said, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.”[6] What is greater than the temple? He is! The physical temple served as a type of Christ. In Him, it finds its fulfillment.

Prior to the building of the temple, God’s glory dwelled in the tabernacle that He designed and had the children of Israel construct after He brought them out of bondage to the Egyptians. All of these things were translated to the temple after it had been built. It was the representation of God’s dwelling place among His people. It is where people when to meet with God. It is where God manifested His glory under the Old Covenant.

The teaching of the New Covenant, however, is that Jesus Christ is the true temple in which God exhibits His shekinah glory. God has chosen to dwell among His people in Jesus, the Word that took on flesh:

14 And dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”[7]

In other words, God pitched His tent among His people in the Person of Jesus. God’s true dwelling is Him! He is the radiance of God’s glory. All the fullness of God dwells in bodily form, not in temples made with hands, but in Jesus Christ.[8] He is the true temple. He identified Himself as such when He said in John 2:19:

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Everyone thought He was speaking about the physical temple, but His disciples later understood after His death, burial, and resurrection that He was speaking about the temple of His body.[9]

            Since Jesus is the temple of God, so are those who make up His body, the church. Consider Ephesians 2:19-22:

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.”

Listen to the temple language in Peter’s words to the church in 1 Peter 2:4-5:

And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

As Paul emphatically says to the Corinthians, “We are the temple of the living God.” We are a dwelling of God in the Spirit because we are in Christ through faith, and He is the new and true temple. The veil of the physical temple was torn in two after He rendered Himself as an offering for sin on behalf of His people signifying that the glory of God had departed from it. Ichabod had been written on its walls. The temple had been entirely abandoned by God both spiritually and physically, but God, however, was not without a temple for the true temple is Jesus. This is what God had always purposed.

These men took Stephen’s teaching and twisted it as if it were antagonistic to Moses and to God. They did not understand that Christ did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.[10] They did not know that the Law was a tutor designed to point people to Christ.[11] They did not realize that all the ceremonies, and sacrifices, and structures were mere shadows of things to come, with the substance belonging to Christ.[12]

What is it that Paul says about the Old Testament Scriptures? He says to Timothy that they are able to give one:

“The wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ.”[13]

What did Jesus do with the two men on the road to Emmaus after His death, burial, and resurrection? Luke says:

“Beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”[14]

Jesus said to His critics:

39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me… 45 Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me.”[15]

I appreciate the words of Sam Storms when he says:

“The temple of the Old Covenant was a type or foreshadowing of the glory of Christ. It was the place where the Law was preserved, of which Jesus is now the fulfillment. It was the place of revelation and relationship, where God met with and spoke to His people. Now we hear God and see God and meet God in Jesus. It was the place of sacrifice, where forgiveness of sins was obtained. For that, we now go to Jesus. Israel worshipped and celebrated in the temple in Jerusalem. We now worship in spirit and truth, regardless of geographical local.”[16]

This is the beautiful truth that Stephen was proclaiming.

The Purpose of Stephen’s Sermon

Again, he is being accused of teaching things hostile to the very heart of their theocratical and ceremonial system. He is being charged with altering the customs handed down to them. He is questioned by the high priest, which was most likely Caiaphas, the one who was instrumental in killing Christ:

Are these things so? Is it true that you are speaking blasphemous things against Moses and God, the holy place and the Law? Have you been teaching that Jesus will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down?”

We will look more closely at what he says next week but know that Stephen proceeds to show them that all of God’s dealings with his chosen people throughout history pointed to the very changes he is teaching, and that this is seen within God’s relations with Abraham (2-8), Joseph (9-16), Moses (17-44), and David (45-46). He shows that God had deep relations with His people outside of the holy land, before the ceremonial law was given, and without the agency of the temple. His final point calls their attention to the fact that the physical temple was non-existent until the time of Solomon, that its very existence was to be but a temporary one, and that God Himself not only made no rush to have it constructed with David (46-47), but He had also expressed having no need of it (48-50). Are they going to charge God with speaking against His holy place?

Once he proves his point, he draws their attention to the narratives he had intertwined throughout his sermon showing them that they did just what their fathers did throughout the course of Israel’s history (51-53):

  1. Just as Joseph’s brothers rejected him and sold him into slavery, so had they rejected Jesus and killed Him. They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good to preserve many people alive.
  2. Just as Israel rejected Moses their deliverer from the bondage of Egypt, so had they rejected their deliverer from the bondage of sin, Jesus the Nazarene.

Stephen shows them that Moses not only typified Jesus, but spoke of Him (37). This is what Jesus alluded to when He said:

“If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me.”[17]

            Throughout this sermon, Stephen displays a profound understanding of the Scripture, and proves that he is with Moses and God, and they are the ones who are not. He contended for the truth of Christ at the cost of His life.

Called to Contend

Friends, like Stephen, we too are called to fight for the faith which has been once for all delivered to the saints.[18] We must be men and women who are able to defend and confirm the gospel clearly, carefully, courageously. Are you able to give a reasonable and logical defense of the faith as Stephen was? Are our minds saturated with the Scripture as his was, and do our hearts yearn as his did for people to know the glory of God in the face of Christ no matter the cost?

May we prove to people through the Scriptures that Jesus Christ is the new and true temple. It is through Him that we see and hear and meet with God. It is in Him alone that there is true forgiveness for sin and hope for eternal life for all who turn from themselves in repentance and cling to Him through faith. We worship God in spirit and in truth, not in temples made in hands, but Him in whom all the fulness of deity dwells in bodily form, Jesus Christ, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us.

[1] 1 Peter 3:13-15

[2] Jude 4

[3] Isaiah 1:18

[4] Acts 6:11-14

[5] Mark 13:1-2

[6] Matthew 12:6

[7] John 1:14

[8] Colossians 1:19

[9] John 2:21

[10] Matthew 5:17

[11] Galatians 3:24

[12] Colossians 2:17; Hebrews 10:1

[13] 2 Timothy 3:15

[14] Luke 24:27

[15] John 5:39,45-46

[16] Kingdom Come: The Amillenial Alternative, Sam Storms; Page 18

[17] John 5:39,45-46

[18] Jude 4

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