Date: 16 Apr 2023
Speaker: Ps Daniel Tan
Sermon Text: Acts 7:1- 8:3
Blessed Sunday to everyone, both here in Henderson and those participating online. Last weekend, we commemorated the momentous event of the Christian faith – Good Friday and Easter.
Only because Calvary happened, our faith is not in vain. In the risen Lord we now have forgiveness of sins. We now can look forward to eternity in the presence of God.
A place where there will be no more tears, no more sickness, no more pain and no more death.
Easter encapsulates our faith. We now can enjoy a relationship with Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.
Scripture says, we were bought with a price. Easter reminds us, the price is the life of Jesus. And so, the only appropriate response to such costly sacrifice, is that we are to glorify God with all that we are and all that we have.
1 Cor 6:19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Today’s text is a sterling example of what it means to glorify God with our lives.
In Acts 7, we see Stephen, a man full of the Spirit, of faith, grace and power testifying for our Lord before the religious council in Jerusalem. We see him, taking up his cross and following His master to the very end.
Why is Stephen on trial? Chapter 6 has told us that he was preaching in the Greek-speaking synagogues and the leaders could not win the discourse they were having with him and so they instigated false witnesses to charge him with blasphemy.
Since they cannot win him, they wanted to silence Stephen.
Their charge of blasphemy was :
Ac 6:13 …“This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”
Proclamation – Do not reject Jesus, God’s Messiah
Some Christians have used the book of Acts to justify that the key outcome of the coming of the Holy Spirit are the charismatic gifts.
Yet what we have seen so far, is that the key significance of the Holy Spirit is instead the proclamation of the Gospel in the languages of society and the boldness to do so in the most challenging of situations.
Thus, it is significant that Luke the writer records for Stephen, not the signs and wonders that he did but his defence speech.
His speech that records why the Christian faith is not anti-Judaism, but is actually a fulfilment of it.
Why the Christian faith does not deviate from the history of Israel, but instead it is a continuation of it. The people of Israel with the inclusion of the Gentiles, have now become the church of Jesus Christ.
In this long chapter, we see the following segments:
David and Solomon (v46-50)
Stephen’s verdict (v51-53)
Moses occupies the bulk of the narrative and his life is further segmented into three, forty year periods.
I would like to go through Acts 7:1-53 under the following headings. These headings I submit is Stephen’s defence on why it is them and not him who are the blasphemers.
1. God’s presence is everywhere
To the Jewish leaders, they felt secure that God’s presence was with them in the Jerusalem temple. And because of the temple, then God’s favour rested upon them.
Stephen said, God’s presence is not limited to the temple. He has appeared to the forefathers outside of the City of Zion, outside of Jerusalem and the temple.
To Abraham, God appeared to him in Mesopotamia (v2). To Joseph, God was with Joseph in Egypt (v9).
With Moses, in Egypt, and when he was born, in God’s sight Moses was beautiful (v20). In the wilderness of Mt Sinai, God appeared to Moses (v32).
For the long time, God’s presence was with the Israelites in the tabernacle and when they entered the Promise Land, it was at Shiloh (Jos 18:1) until the time of King David. It was not in Jerusalem.
And even when Solomon built the first temple, which far surpassed the 2nd temple during the time of Stephen, it was pronounced that the Most Hight does not dwell in houses made by hands. For heaven is God’s throne and the earth His footstool.
Not only has God appeared to Abraham, Joseph and Moses outside of the temple, Jesus has now taught, He is God’s temple – destroy this temple and in 3 days I will raise it.
In Jesus, the very presence of God is manifested. Jesus is the Word become flesh and has dwelt amongst man.
Significantly this means, there is thus no need for any temple, for Emmanuel has come, God is with us.
Today, do we think that God’s presence is only manifested when we are in church here in Henderson?
Scripture says, by the Holy Spirit, Christ dwells in every believer. Scripture teaches that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Today, as we go about our daily lives, do we reject the regenerating work of the Spirit in our lives by our harbouring of sin?
Outside of Sundays, do we quench the Spirit’s work in our lives by our disobedience?
2. They have constantly rejected God’s deliverers
Secondly Stephen defended himself by saying, the religious leaders have consistently throughout history rejected God’s deliverers.
The patriarchs rejected Joseph (v9). These are the founders of the 12 tribes of Israel. They were no angels, they sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt.
What about Moses, God raised him up to be Israel’s deliverer, but the 2 Israelites fighting, rejected Moses’s help (v27).
V35 tells us that Moses was raised by God to be ruler and redeemer of his people under Egyptian slavery.
And after he had delivered them, v39 reminds – our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside and in their hearts they turned to Egypt.
Despite their rejection, Moses said in v37, God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. Stephen is thus proclaiming, Jesus is that prophet who is to come.
If Moses gave the law, Jesus came to fulfil it. Yet like their forefathers, they have rejected God’s deliverer.
Today, if you have not placed your trust in Jesus, may I urge you to consider not rejecting Him. Jesus has come to be your saviour.
3. They have constantly fallen into idolatry
They have been given the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision. Has that become an idol? The idea that just because I’m born a Jew, I am part of God’s chosen people forever!
They have been given the Promised Land. Has that become an idol as well? Remember your history, remember the exile. This 2nd temple was only built after you came back during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Remember it was the Lord’s discipline that you were exiled for you failed to worship and to obey Him.
Go back to the time of Moses and remember the worship of the golden calf. Remember the worship given to idols, the work of your hands.
V43 gives a further list of their idolatry – you took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship in exile.
Church I don’t think we are any different today. Anything that displaces God as first priority in our lives is an idol. For the first audience it was the law, the temple and circumcision.
Today, would our idols be our health, career, family, hobbies, our finances?
Church, God and His purposes should instead take first place in our lives.
4. Yet God has continued to reach out to them
In spite of their rebellious ways, we see that God still loved Israel and continued to reach out to them.
With the covenant of circumcision, God chose Abraham not because of any value in Abraham but purely through God’s grace. That is how we are elected as well.
This gracious hand of God led him to providentially allow Joseph to be sold into slavery so that Jacob and his children might survive the famine.
When they were enslaved in Egypt, God raised Moses to be their deliverer. His sovereign hand preserved Moses from infant death.
Look at v 19 – 21. The repeat word ‘exposed’. Jewish infants were ‘exposed’ so that they would die. Yet, Moses escaped detection for 3 months.
And then when he was ‘exposed’ to Pharaoh’s daughter, instead of death, Moses was adopted.
The history of Israel has been God showing grace to a rebellious people. Revealing Himself to be:
Ex 34:6 … a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.
This is the same God whom we worship today. He continues to reach out to each one of us.
We may have rejected or failed Him in this past week. But His nature tells us He yearns to reconnect with us.
Remember, God yearned so much that He sent His son Jesus to die for us at Calvary.
5. So don’t be stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ear, resisting the Holy Spirit
Stephen ends his defence by saying, it is not him but the religious leaders who have rebelled against God. They are the ones who are stiff-necked.
They are the ones like the Israelites of old whom God called stiff-necked when they worshipped the golden calf.
Ex 33:9 And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
They are the ones who are the uncircumcised. They may be circumcised physically but they have rejected God’s covenant in their hearts and minds.
Gen 17:7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you …10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.
They have rejected this covenantal relationship with God.
They have basically rejected who they are in essence. They are not the people of God, they are blasphemers.
And all this is because like their forefathers, they have resisted the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
Everything in their faith points to Jesus as their Messiah and instead of rejoicing and accepting Him, they have murdered Jesus, the Righteous One.
Very strong words of accusation by Stephen. And I submit, it is true for mankind today as well.
May none of us who are listening to the sermon, resist the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Let us not reject Jesus, God’s messiah.
For if we do, we will be found to be blasphemers of God.
Persecution – Not foreign for Christians, God’s messengers
Through the past sermon, we have observed that Satan is intending to do all he can to disrupt the church. Be it from internal strive or external conflict.
Since chapter 4, we see a steady increase in the intensity of persecution. It started with a stern warning to Peter and John, then in chapter 5, the Apostles were beaten and then warned again not to speak in the name of Jesus.
In today’s text, we see that persecution went all the way. They were so enraged that they dragged Stephen out of the city and stoned him to death.
A young man, Saul is now introduced. He was already a leader, for the mob left their clothes at his feet and Luke says, Saul approved of Stephen’s execution.
1. Cross-bearing Stephen
This same Saul will become Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles and say:
2 Tim 3:12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
Stephen is experiencing what it means to deny himself and to carry his cross daily for Jesus.
And Paul himself would later experience the same range of persecution as Stephen. No doubt, hugely impacted by his witness of Stephen’s testimony.
May I submit for our consideration that persecution for the faith should not sound foreign to believers. It should however be what we can expect.
And based on Acts thus far, it can range from – on one end, rejection and scorn, to the middle - a smear campaign with even direct warnings and imprisonment. And then to the other end for some believers, martyrdom.
Today, we have the English translated bible in many different versions. The fact that we hold it in our hands so freely is due to the price paid in blood by men like Willian Tyndale.
William Tyndale (died in 1536) dedicated his life – and eventually gave his life – to the cause of translating the Word of God into the English language.
Tyndale was a Protestant Reformer and was influenced by the works of Reformers such as Martin Luther.
However, it was illegal in those days to have a Bible in the common language. You could be put to death for producing, reading, or even memorizing Scripture in English.
As a translator of it, Tyndale was on the top of the authority’s hit list.
He was tried by King Henry on a charge of heresy in 1536 and was found guilty and condemned to be burned to death.
His final words, spoken at the stake were reported as "Lord! Open the King of England's eyes."
Eventually, a subsequent King, King James did authorize a new version called the King James Version and it drew quite extensively from the work done by Tyndale’s translation.
We today owe a depth of gratitude for martyrs like Stephen and William.
2. Gracious Stephen
We have seen that Stephen’s persecution was just like his master Jesus. To be a man filled with the Spirit, will also we observe, enables one to also respond as graciously as Jesus.
Stephen full of faith, in the agony of being stoned to death, continued to trust in the Lord Jesus. Using similar words as Jesus in Luke 23:46, Stephen commits himself to the very end.
In the words of Paul, trusting Jesus, because for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purposes.
As Stephen stumbles under the weight of the crushing stones, he offers the grace of God to his enemies. He prays that God will not hold this sin against them.
No fire no brimstone, instead Lord, shower them with mercy and grace.
Willian Tyndale expressed the same thing as well. His dying prayer was that the King of England will open his eyes to allow the living word of God to be translated into English.
This, so that it will become accessible to everyone in the country.
Such responses of trust and grace in the midst of persecution are marks of Spirit-filled disciples. May this too be evident in our lives.
Proclamation – God’s sovereign plan of redemption continues, the church’s mandate
Satan thought the death nail for Jesus was at the Cross. That didn’t happen. Satan thought that martyrdom would be the death nail for the church. But that didn’t happen as well.
Instead, persecution was part of God’s sovereign plan for the proclamation of redemption to continue. The mandate of the church carries on.
The disciples who due to persecution left Jerusalem for Judea and Samaria, did not leave as refugees, no, they left as missionaries.
Some bible commentators remarked that if all the religious rulers accepted the Gospel of Jesus, the faith would not have left Jerusalem.
Given the existing animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans, it would have taken a very long time for the Gospel to include the Samaritans.
God in His wisdom knew that what could have taken many generations to do, can be done in a very short span of time through persecution.
Today, let us give thanks and be grateful for God’s providential push. Bringing the gospel to Judea and Samaria.
For us here in Singapore, we don’t have overt persecution to compel us to proclaim the Gospel. But how about overcoming our prejudices that the Gospel is also for the foreign worker in our society?
According to MOM, there are 1.4m foreign workers in Singapore. The top 7 countries are Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Thailand.
Linguistically and culturally, they are very different from Singaporeans. But since we are going through the book of Acts, we cannot ignore the implications of reaching out to them.
Our Community Services ministry is exploring how we can be a blessing to the foreign workers around Henderson during National Day in Aug. Do pray that the Holy Spirit will enable Hermon to be a channel of His grace to them.
Though overt persecution doesn’t happen here in Singapore, it’s happening where our missions partners are. What is needed thus is our constant prayer support and practical acts of financial giving so that they can continue the good work of Gospel proclamation.
In 2 week’s time, we will have our ACM. Please pray over the missions budget. Ask God to enable everyone of us to be able to contribute so that His work continues.
May I end today’s sermon with a testimony of how through persecution, the word of God grew in China.
Project Pearl is the code name given to a landmark 1981 Bible smuggling operation. In one night, Project Pearl smuggled into China one million Chinese Bibles.
At the time of the Project Pearl, China was suffering from the effects of the Cultural Revolution, which had tried to crush among others, Christianity. The country was also still closed to outsiders.
Christianity instead of surviving, was thriving, as it typically does under persecution, and millions of Chinese Christians needed Bibles, which the authorities confiscated, burned and prohibited from being printed.
Financed and led by Open Doors, Project Pearl was staffed by an all-volunteer crew of twenty Christian men from 7 countries.
On the night of the operation, a tug boat slowly pulled the barge 200 miles up the coast from Hong Kong, undetected past even a Chinese naval base, to a secluded beach in southern China where thousands of underground church Christians were waiting.
Three small rubber boats were then used to pull the waterproof packages to shore, where the Chinese Christians opened them, took out the boxes of Bibles and hauled them on their backs, bicycles, motorcycles and cars across China.
This provision of Bibles had an astonishing impact in China. God’s timing was perfect – the million Bibles came just as the house church movement in China was mushrooming across the country.
One church leader remarked “It’s just incredible. It was what really fuelled the revival and the growth of house churches …. We didn’t know that would happen – it was because of God’s timing. We met the request that came to us, but the side effect was absolutely miraculous. It was just the right time to have all of these Bibles available for believers in China.”
We thank God that in spite of or maybe because of persecution, the Word of God was so treasured that faith was strengthen and Gospel proclamation continued.
Today, China has the world’s largest Bible printer, Amity Printing Company (APC), in Nanjing city.
On 11 Nov 2019, the printing company held a grand-scale celebration with 200 over guests made up of Chinese church and government leaders as well as international visitors including leaders from the United Bible Societies (UBS) Fellowship.
They were all present to celebrate the printing of the 200 millionth Bible milestone.
Let us give thanks to God for His sovereignty over the affairs of man. May we continue to trust God and faithfully do our part in our corner of the world for the furtherance of the Gospel.