You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it. (Acts 7:51-53)
Stephen’s Charge Against The Jews
The persecution of the church did not take long to escalate into violent and threatening charges being made against the disciples. First, it was a miracle of healing a lame man at the Temple that caught the eye of the Jewish leaders demanding Peter and John explain their actions and teaching about Jesus of Nazareth. Warning the two apostles, the Jewish council released the men severely threatening them not to teach in the name of Jesus. This did not dissuade the first disciples from spreading the gospel throughout the land and the Jewish leaders laid hands on all the apostles and put them in the common prison. After interrogating the twelve and beating them they were warned again by the council not to teach in the name of Jesus. After being released the twelve did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ daily in the temple and in every house. When a need arose to care for certain widows that were neglected in the daily distribution, the apostles sought the church to find seven men of good reputation to appoint over the work of the church. One of these men was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit named Stephen. He did great wonders and signs among the people catching the attention of a certain group called the Synagogue of the Freedmen who began to dispute with Stephen. They were unsuccessful in debating Stephen and unable to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. Instead, they induced evil men to falsely charge Stephen bearing false witness that Stephen was guilty of blaspheming God. Being brought before the council, Stephen was permitted to give his answer before the high priest. Stephen’s defense is a blistering attack on the hypocrisy of the Jewish leadership as a nation far removed from the holy people of God. In a little over 1200 words, the disciple of Christ reviews the history of Israel as being a rebellious and disobedient people who disregarded every overture of grace offered by the Lord. His message was clear, definitive and accusatory to its core of rebellion characterized by the Jews since being delivered from Egypt.
Stephen did not try to rewrite the history of Israel in a favorable manner. He preached the clear truth of how Israel rebelled against God. Ultimately the Jews killed the Son of God as Peter preached at Pentecost. The great message of Jesus of Nazareth was the saving grace of God that brought joy to three thousand Jews on Pentecost and many more were learning of the Christ through the preaching of the early disciples. The number of the early Christians came to be about five thousand with multitudes obeying the gospel daily. Preaching Christ was not to condemn the Jews but to save them. The word of God came and lived among the people as the manna came among the multitude in the days of Moses but the Jews rejected Jesus. As long as they refused to accept Jesus as Christ they rejected the only spiritual manna that would save them. Sadly, Stephen’s charge against those who accused him was the same charge made against their fathers who persecuted and killed the prophets of old. The old covenant clearly told the stories of how the rebellious Jews refused to hear the words of the prophets and in some cases killed the men of God. Israel was once a powerful nation but through the wicked kings of the northern tribes of Israel and the final demise of the southern tribes of Judah the nation was taken away to Babylon. God punished the nation of Israel for their rebellion and Stephen was reminding the Jews of his day how history had repeated itself. Instead of killing the prophets they had killed the Messiah. His plea was for the Jews to accept the grace of God and believe Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. They refused.
The message of Stephen was not unlike the sermon of Peter at Pentecost with the exception of one thing: at Pentecost three thousand Jews obeyed the gospel; when the Jews heard Stephen’s sermon they rose up and killed him. Infuriated by the message of Stephen, they gnashed at him with their teeth, violently threw him out of the city and stoned him to death. Religious men murdered a man for preaching a simple message of historical truth. Their hearts were filled with hatred and prejudice. They were stiff-necked because they were unyielding to the truth with a stubborn determination. When Stephen called them uncircumcised in heart and ears he was describing their unwillingness to listen to things they knew to be true. They would not listen to Moses’ law whom Jesus said spoke of Him. Like their fathers before them, they resisted the Holy Spirit in rejecting the word of God. It is hard to imagine how people who profess to love God will commit murder in His name. The history of Israel is filled with the rejection of the people to the prophets and Stephen reminds them they had killed the Anointed One when they killed Jesus. Rejecting the word of God was refusing to listen to the law given by the direction of angels, the heavenly word.
Stephen’s message still resonates today as so many read the Bible and rejects its clear and plain teaching. They openly crucify the Lord again by rejecting the established word of God ordained through angels. Salvation can only come when Jesus is believed to be the Son of God and accepting this truth obeys as Peter told the multitude at Pentecost. “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” What will you do with the sermon of Stephen and Peter? Will you be among the three thousand that obeyed or the crowd that killed a man of faith? Your choice will be how you respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God.