By Larry Ray Hafley
As Acts 2 has been styled the hub and heart of the precious, pristine promises and panoramic prophecies of the Old Testament, so Acts 7 is the hinge of the book of Acts. Prior to Stephen’s address, the gospel generally was confined to Jerusalem, but ever afterward as the door of faith swung outward, the disciples, ignited by the fires of persecution, “went every where preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).
Stephen’s discourse was occasioned by the Jews who charged that he “ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against -1 his holy place, and the law . . . (and) that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which. Moses delivered us” (Acts 6:13,14). In response to the question, “Are these things so?”, Stephen commenced his famous speech. All who would endeavor to teach and preach Jesus Christ should imitate and emulate his method and manner, for as “they were not able to resist the wisdom and spirit by which he spake” (Acts 6: 10), so none can do today.
What Stephen Did Not Preach
Stephen was on trial, not only for his life, but also for his Lord. With oratorical skill, he could have saved his life. How? First, by condemning the idolatry of those “uncircumcised Gentiles,” and lauding the “one, true and living God of Israel,” he could have obtained favor and escaped death. However, this would have converted no one to Christ. They believed in Jehovah; they abhorred idolatry. That was not the issue. A sermon like that of Paul in Acts 17 would have enhanced his stature, perhaps, but he did not preach what they wanted to hear. Rather, he preached what they needed to hear. With personal comfort and convenience in mind, one can avoid and evade the disfavor of the masses, but he will answer to God for it (Ezek. 3:17-21).
Second, Stephen could have curried popular favor by contrasting the gross immoralities of the Roman rulers with the pure and blameless lives of “my dear brethren,” the Pharisees (cf. Lk. 18:9-14; Phil. 3:3-6). All he would have said would have been true, and it might very well have saved his life, but it was not what his audience needed. It is so easy to “preach the truth” while cautiously ignoring the real needs of lost and dying souls. Stephen did not seek this diversionary escape hatch as hirelings will do.
Third, with sincere pride. Stephen could have noted the glories of David and Solomon. With the recitation of the honor of ancient Israel, he could have swelled the hearts of his audience. He could have expressed his contempt for Caesar and Rome and told how the glory of God’s kingdom supercedes that of the kingdoms of men. Again, it would have been the truth, but it was not the issue at hand.
Fourth, he could have sought relief from his opposers by appealing to the advice of Gamaliel (Acts 5:34-40). Political .expediency was not a breach through which Stephen would flee the assaults against himself and the truth. “Testing the wind” and “feeling the pulse” are activities best left meteorologists and doctors. While exercising wisdom and judgment, faithful gospel preachers will “cry aloud and spare not.” They will not use political tactics to advance themselves when truth is at stake.
Characteristics of Stephen’s Preaching
The traits of Stephen’s sermon are needed greatly. Observe them. Study them. Apply them. Instruct a preacher of the gospel “in the way of God more perfectly” if his efforts are not patterned after those of the steadfast, stalwart Stephen.
1. Use of Scripture: The fiber and fabric of Stephen’s address is webbed and woven, laced and lined with Scripture. Note the numerous citations and quotations of Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Kings, Isaiah and Amos. He did not merely allude to a passage and then launch out on the sea of human wisdom, traditions and philosophies. He preached Scripture.
Do not allow a speaker’s charm, poise, grace, wit, wealth, wisdom and worldly attainments to blind and obscure “what” you are hearing – “Take heed what ye hear” (Mk. 4:24). While wit, eloquence and humor may ornament and decorate a discourse, one should leave “after dinner” speeches on a banquet table. They have no place in the pulpit nor in the kingdom of God’s dear Son. Does the preacher use Scripture, cite Scripture, expound and explain Scripture? Stephen did. Does he illustrate and demonstrate Scripture? Stephen did. Does he read Scripture, giving the sense and causing the understanding to be enlightened (1 Tim. 4:13; Neh. 8:8)? Stephen did. If a preacher does not, he needs to learn to do so, or seek another field of work, for he will be a hindrance and a detriment to the cause of Christ.
2. Application of Scripture: Stephen not only used Scripture, he also applied it. Stephen, “full of faith and power,” showed the Jews that as their fathers had rejected Joseph, Moses and the prophets, so they had repudiated the Just One of whom the prophets spake (Acts 7:51,52). Though at first they did not recognize the relevance, pertinence or significance of his history lesson, it was brought down with the force of a sledge hammer as ‘they perceived that he spake of them” (cf. Matt. 21:45; Acts 7:51-54). The Scriptures were applied directly and personally to their lives, to their particular situation.
Conservative Baptists will “amen” every admonition to worship God “in spirit and in truth,” and will agree that the Bible is “our only rule of faith and practice,” but when one deals directly with their particular errors, he may then be able to reach the “honest and good heart.” Institutional brethren will applaud (often quite literally!) every appeal to “make all things according to the pattern.” However, only when their specific errors are shown to be contrary to the New Testament plan, can one begin to teach them the truth and lead them from the errors of church sponsored recreation, sponsoring church arrangements, societies, etc. Christians want the virtues of “modesty and morality” to be extolled, but what of specific rebuke of bikinis, social drinking, dance halls, lottery tickets and pornography viewed in the home on cable TV?
As Stephen applied Scripture in direct confrontation, so must we (Gal. 2:11-14; 2 Tim. 2:16-18). Scripture not applied is Scripture denied.
3. Origin of Scripture: While Stephen did not argue for the veracity, integrity and authenticity of Scripture’s Divine origin, his words assumed them to be God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). Genesis 12 was what “God . . . said” (Acts 7:2,3). In Genesis 15, “God spake” (Acts 7:6). The “living oracles” were what “saith the Lord” (Acts 7:38,44,49,53). A preacher must ever speak so as to project the Bible as the word of God, and expect his audience to receive it as that (1 Thess. 2:13). This awesome, sublime fact should both humble and embolden all who would preach the word.
4. Authority of Scripture: The origin of Scripture inherently inscribes it with power and authority. Stephen’s authority for his declaration and proclamation of Jesus as the Just One was rooted in the authority of the Scriptures. His words and arguments beat the drum of scriptural authority which says, “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20; Acts 7:37,44).
When one loses respect for the authority of the Scriptures, he will appeal to them less frequently. It is not the reverse. He does not make fewer references to Scripture and then lose respect for it. No, first, he loses respect for the absolute authority of the word of God and then he turns away his ears from the truth and is turned unto fables. Sound doctrine and godly living are a consequence of a deep and profound reverence for the authority of Scripture.
5. Comfort of Scripture: Help and hope are not found in the ingenious, clever reasonings of men, but in Scripture (Rom. 15:4). Stephen did not cite learned men of wealth and influence who had become “obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7), for truth is not established by who has or has not accepted it (Jn. 7:47-52; Acts 4:13; Phil. 3:3-7).
Stephen’s comfort and confidence were based on him who is the Rock, the firm foundation of God which standeth sure. He was not puffed up by his own human energy nor by a spasm of enthusiasm generated and inflated by his own mind. He knew that though one may fluff a pillow, it still will not stand under weight or pressure. Hence, his “true heart in full assurance of faith,” rested and relied on the “testimony of God” (2 Tim. 1:7,8; 1 Thess. 4:18).
6. Condemnation of Scripture: Initially, Stephen’s debating and preaching had resulted in a number of “negative” results. First, it had drawn the ire of people who formerly had been respectful of the new born faith (Acts 2:47; 5:11-16). Second, it created an outcry that resulted in public disturbance and unfavorable publicity. Third, it led to the separation of brethren who formerly had rejoiced and eaten from house to house “with one accord” (Acts 2:46; 4:32; 8:1; 11:19). Talk about giving the church a “black eye” before the public and “driving people away!
Stephen had “aired the dirty linen” of Israel’s rebellion and apostasy before the world, and then he proceeded to convict his audience of the same. He succeeded. His auditors were indeed “convicted.” With withering words of condemnation, Stephen concluded, “Ye do always resist the Holy Spirit: as your fathers did, so do ye” (Acts 7:5 1). He charged them with stubbornness and hardness of heart and with being traitors, “betrayers and murderers.” His conclusions were those drawn from the well of truth and righteousness and not from the reservoir or cistern of his own feelings and opinions.
Is it possible that a man’s preaching that results in such havoc, misery, turmoil, suffering and death can ever be termed a “success”? Yes, for it must be remembered that the word of God is a savor of life and of death (2 Cor. 2:14-17). The problem is not of the seed but of the soil (Lk. 8:11-15). Peter pointedly charged those in Acts 2 with murder and 3000 souls responded in repentance and baptism, but when Stephen did so, they killed him. The seed and the sower were not the problem. It was the soil (Mk. 4:14-20).
John the Baptist told Herod it was “not lawful” for him to have his brother’s wife. For this plain, direct application and condemnation, John was beheaded. In a similar vein, Paul told the Corinthians that they accepted so gross an immorality that even the Gentiles would not tolerate it (1 Cor. 5:1). He rebuked them for it, and it resulted in repentance and restoration (1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2; 7). What was the difference? Was Paul more tactful and less abusive than John? No, the difficulty was in the soil, the heart, not in the seed, the word.
Stephen had not learned how to “win friends and influence people” by “accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative.” He did not seek to promote “selfesteem” and leave people “feeling good about themselves.” Peter’s success on Pentecost began with a total loss of self-esteem and good feelings (Acts 2:37). They were brought to their spiritual knees as they saw the true condition of their souls. After obedience in baptism, they could rejoice in the remission of sins (Acts 2:38,41-47; 8:39; 16:34).
Likewise, Stephen sought to show the Jews their poverty of spirit with the use, application, origin, authority, comfort, and condemnation of Scripture. Therefore, we today, with a message of peace on earth and good will toward men, must preach the truth, the whole truth and only the truth and press it upon the hearts of men. As Stephen’s example demonstrates, our duty is not to promote self-esteem or to attempt to make men feel good about themselves. Our responsibility, devoid of the fear of men, is to sound out the word of the Lord, to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery of the gospel, to open their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light, from the power of Satan unto the kingdom of God, that they might receive forgiveness of sins and the inheritance which is given to them that are sanctified by faith in Christ. In short, “Preach the word.”
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 3, pp. 83-85
February 6, 1992