Recently a missionary to Sierra Leone (that's in West Africa) was chuckling over the American t-shirts that the guys were wearing. They don't speak English, so they were totally oblivious to the humor in some of the situations. One man was wearing a pink shirt with an arrow pointing to his tummy with the words: "Baby on board." I don't think any of you men would be man-enough to wear a t-shirt like that. Why? Because you can read English, right? But this man had no idea that what he was saying bore no resemblance to reality.
Well, the same was true of the Jewish leaders in this chapter. They get really angry with the idea that Jesus has replaced the temple. They want to kill Stephen over it. And all the while they are wearing proverbial t-shirts that point to Jesus. Everything about that temple was a big neon sign that said, "Believe in Jesus. He's the Messiah." And in chapter 7 Stephen will be showing how ludicrous it is for the Jews to wear these many t-shirts that had been pointing to Jesus for hundreds of years, and yet reject their Messiah. They had the t-shirts of their prophets, sacrifices, priests, cleansing rituals, temple, and many other ceremonial laws. Their proverbial t-shirts were saying, "life on board" when there was no life. Judaism was empty; it was bankrupt. It did not have Jesus.
Now (on the other hand) we should not see this bankruptcy as being obvious. It's obvious to us that Luke is making this contrast, but it may not have been as obvious to them. Just like the man from Sierra Leone, they didn't recognize the contradiction. And part of the reason was that they were looking to the wrong indicators. Economically, this was one of the richest times in Israel's post-exile history. In fact, when Titus conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD, he was able to take massive amounts of money and loot.
Their temple was one of the wonders of the world – a massive achievement that Israel was hugely proud of. And I've got to admit, that it's kind of fun to own a great building. One of the reasons evangelicals don't leave liberal churches is because they love the building. It's respectable. And if the option was to stay in the fancy building or go to a rented room packed with sweaty bodies, the Jews would be tempted to think it was Christianity that was bankrupt – unless they were given spiritual eyes.
Nor should we think that Judaism was bankrupt in terms of intellectual horsepower. I stand in amazement at some of the rabbis of that day who had memorized what today constitutes many volumes of the Talmud. I cannot even fathom how they could memorize so much. Judaism could boast about its scholars. Hillel and Gamaliel are famous even until today. And so there was that aspect that was attractive about Judaism.
Nor should we see Judaism as being bankrupt in terms of its numbers or even in terms of its influence and impact. There were Jewish synagogues in every nation and major city and town of the world, according to Josephus. Rome gave numerous concessions to Israel that it did not allow to any other nation. It allowed Jerusalem to tax Jews from other nations and to have a connectional government with Jews from other nations, and even to have a world-wide supreme court to which Jews in any nation could appeal. This made Israel very literally an empire within the empire. In fact, so much so that it made other nations envious of Israel and irritated with them.
To a Jew, the apostle's call to come out from among them and be separate was a strange call. They were a dynamic organization with influence. To leave it would be to join an organization that appeared to have no influence. They had only known one church, and it was the Jewish synagogue. And so it took spiritual eyes to be able to see the bankruptcy that had happened.
You may remember Glenn preaching on Luke 24, where the two disciples are talking to Jesus and saying, "Haven't you heard about Jesus?! Haven't you heard about all the things that happened to Him?" And Glenn pointed out that that's a pretty strange thing to be saying when they are talking with Jesus face to face. But you see, they didn't recognize Him. Their assumptions had totally blinded them to the possibility that this person could be Jesus. After all, Jesus is dead. And it was not until the Holy Spirit opened their eyes that they finally understood.
And the events of this chapter have a similar strangeness to them. How could they put to death a person whose face is glowing like an angel's? It doesn't just say that the believers saw that. It says that the council noticed that his face was like the face of an angel. How can you discount the miracles that were being performed? I mean, what a contrast Luke paints between the bankruptcy of this frustrated Judaism and the fullness of this confident Christianity. Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit, full of faith, full of power, full of wisdom. It's hard for the reader to miss the contrast, but the people who confronted Stephen were blind to it. Let's quickly look at several evidences of the emptiness and bankruptcy of this system. And today we are only going to focus on Roman numeral one.
The Bankruptcy of a Frustrated Judaism
Evidenced by major defections (v. 7)
First, there were major defections from Judaism. By itself this doesn't prove anything, or liberal churches would be empty, right? But those who had spiritual eyes were beginning to vote with their feet. And when that happens, the leadership needs to sit up and take notice. Take a look at verse 7. "And the word of God spread" [what word would that have been? It was the Old Testament, right. There were no New Testament books written yet. And if Judaism was opposing the spread of the Word, they were opposing the spread of the Old Testament, right? Well, if that is true, what's left for them to hold to? They are bankrupt. And to this day, that is true. So it says, "And the word of God spread"], "and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem" God's Word was spreading like wild fire through Jerusalem, and it wasn't just the uneducated who were becoming Christians. The verse goes on to say that there were defections from among the priests: "and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith."
That little statement would have been a powerful statement to any Jew who read the book of Acts. It's one thing for members of the church to leave, but these men were part of the system. And not only that, they were giving up their income and what their whole lives and training had been dedicated to. They would never have done that lightly. By leaving their jobs they were making the statement that there was really nothing more for priests to do in the temple.
It probably didn't help that these priests told the people that they had seen the huge curtain, thick as the palm of a man's hand, being ripped from top to bottom. Who's doing the ripping there? It's God, right? How could that be anything but a testimony from God that there was no longer any role for temple or sacrifices to play.
Notice that verse 7 says that they "were obedient to the faith;" not that they were obedient to a new faith. There was only one faith. After all, it was the Old Testament Scriptures that were spreading; it was the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that was spreading. Christianity did not overthrow Moses and the prophets as many Jews (and modern dispensationalists) were trying to say. If dispensationalists appeal to verse 13, keep in mind that Luke thinks that this testimony was false witness. It was the fulfillment of what Moses and the prophets had been anticipating for a long time. It was Judaism that had left the faith and become apostate and were disobedient to the Old Testament Scriptures. And I think that is significant because the way some Christians talk about the differences between the Old and New Testaments you would think that Christianity was a brand new religion. It was not. Judaism is the new religion. If you look at the Talmud, you will see that it does not even remotely resemble the faith of the Old Testament. Jesus said, "you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition" (Matt. 15:6). The Talmud is the man-made traditions of the Pharisees. And so, by saying that it was Christianity that was following the faith, Luke was saying that Judaism had lost the faith and was bankrupt. And people were voting with their feet.
Evidenced by an unbiblical theology (vv. 9-10)
Their bankruptcy is further shown by an unbiblical (and therefore an undefendable) theology. Verses 9-10.
Acts 6:9 Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. Acts 6:10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.
They didn't have answers. Their cocky self-assurance turned into dismay as they realized that on issue after issue they were getting nailed to the wall. It became clear that Stephen knew the Bible inside and out and that there was no getting around his assertions. Let me assure you that when Christians know the Scriptures, they have nothing to fear from the arsenal of other religions. All religions are just as bankrupt as Judaism was here. They are all unable to give adequate answers to ultimate questions. It's a necessary consequence of abandoning the revelation of God, who alone can be omniscient and make universals and absolutes. Paul told Timothy in 2 Timothy 3 that there would be many false teachers who would arise in the last days. But he assured Timothy of the bankruptcy of their position and that he therefore had nothing to fear. He said, "but they will progress no further, for their folly will be manifest to all." Amen? When Christians are steeped in the Scriptures, the strength of our position and the weaknesses of false teachers position will become evident.
Evidenced by unfair tactics (error can't fairly compete in the free market of ideas)
Secret caucusing (v. 11a – Greek of "secretly induced")
Well what happens when God's enemies see that they are losing the argument? Do they give up? No. They just resort to more vicious tactics. It's just like kids – when they resort to scorn and mockery it is usually because they don't have a good argument. Stephen shows us how the truth can stand on its own two legs, but not all positions can. When people are committed to a position rather than to truth, they often have to resort to a variety of unfair tactics.
Verse 11 speaks of secrecy. And its interesting that they resort to secrecy when they are in power. You wouldn't think they would have to. Often, it is the liberal minorities in a denomination who resort to secret caucuses in order to influence. You wouldn't expect that majorities would have to. But it's an interesting thing: even in liberal denominations, the liberals have secret caucuses for how to deal with the conservatives. Any time you lack truth on your side, you are going to tend to look for every other advantage you can get. If you can take people unawares, so much the better. This is what made me so sad when there were leaders in our denomination who had secret caucuses to influence General Assembly. They were not liberals, but they were using liberal methodology. Thankfully, many have repented of that. There were actually some people in my own camp who wanted to respond by having our own secret caucuses. And I said, "No way. I want nothing to do with that. If we can't win by openly discussing the Word, there is something wrong. We need an open sunshine policy."
Inducements (v. 11a – Greek of "secretly induced")
The second unfair advantage they try to use is inducements. Verse 11 says, "They secretly induced men to say…" We aren't told what the inducements were. They could have been bribes or simply social pressure. Or maybe the leaders had something on these guys and were calling in their favors. We are not told. And by the way, inducements can even happen in good denominations. At the General Assembly I had a friend who voted contrary to what he believed to be true, and I asked him, "Why!?!" He said, "I have to pay my dues." I asked, "What do you mean?" He said, "I won't be able to get into positions of influence down here unless I vote their way on certain issues." He was succumbing to an inducement, however intangible it might appear. And I told him that he had sold his conscience. And just to be fair, I have felt the social pressure of wanting to please people on both sides of an issue. Man was it hard to vote against certain people when you knew their disapprovals were burning into your back. It's hard. And I think it is unfair of these people to be pushing their inducements. But back to our text, this once again shows that they don't trust that their position can survive on its own. They need to win on other grounds than the free market. The Greek for inducement has the strong idea of pressure being applied.
Disinformation campaign (v. 11b)
The third unfair advantage is that they engage in a disinformation campaign, or as it is sometimes referred to - a smear campaign. The people who had been induced to speak said, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." Well, nothing could be further from the truth. And you wouldn't think that religious folk would stoop to disinformation, but they do. There is a book that you really ought to read by Peter Hammond that will make you pray a lot harder for your pastors. It's called, Character Assassins. It's a remarkable book that documents this ungodly practice of character assassination within the church. It's amazing to see the pathological lies that go on in the name of ministry, sometimes even by pastors. And it's a very needed book. D James Kennedy, Ted Baehr, Brian Abshire and others have written to say, "Amen" to this book that exposes the disinformation campaigns that Christians engage in, and more importantly, shows how we should react to them – how not to be overcome by evil. So we can't just point the finger at the world out there, or point it back to the first century. There are many in the church who have engaged in the same kinds of character assassination. Sometimes it is false attacks on character. Other times it is false information about ministry. Other times it is scurrilous attacks on the theology. On occasion it has been complaining about a ministry to the IRS.
You can understand when atheistical communists in China are spreading disinformation about the Christians, but Christians have a fallen human nature too, don't they? And I have heard Christians spread scurrilous disinformation about theonomy, Calvinism and covenant theology, even after their gross misrepresentations have been shown to be wrong. In other words, they are deliberate lies. I don't know how many times I have heard the false accusations that Calvinists don't believe in missions or that theonomists believe the state will bring in the kingdom of God, or that we believe in salvation by lawkeeping. On the other hand, I have read Reformed books where our guys have spread scurrilous disinformation about Arminianism and dispensationalism, making it appear worse than it really is.
So – whether from the outside or the inside, this is the kind of unfair tactics that the church has had to face since the first century. False rumors became widespread that Christians sacrificed their children and ate them in communion. Man! That would be a hard one to live down, wouldn't it? This made the populace angry enough with the Christians that their torture by Nero seemed warranted. When Nero accused the Christians of burning down Rome, when he himself actually did it, that brought even more physical abuse. And in other countries you see widespread disinformation campaigns to try to make citizens think that Christianity is a cult, is unloyal, is unethical or is criminal. Many times these things are an indication not of strength but of weakness and a sense of frustration with Christianity. It's not something to be discouraged about. Just realize that this is a sign of weakness and vulnerability. They don't know what else to do. If it was just an open, fair, and free competition of ideas, their ideas would not win. And I think in part this is what is making China so repressive. Communism is bankrupt. The same with the unfair tactics in India. It shows that Hinduism is bankrupt.
Enflaming the emotions (v. 12 – "they stirred up the people")
Verse 12 addresses the issue of enflaming emotions. It says, "And they stirred up the people…" The dictionary says that the Greek word means to stir up or incite, with the focus being on the emotions. Have you ever noticed how often people begin to raise their voices and get angry when they are losing an argument? You would think that this would be the time when they would shut up and admit defeat. But no - they shout louder. If you have to shout to make your point, you have already demonstrated a position of weakness, not strength. Just as an example, parents who quietly remind their children of the rule that was broken, and firmly but calmly administer the agreed upon number of wacks with the rod are much more in control than the parents who yell in exasperation at their children. The parents who yell at their children do not practice first time obedience. It's almost guaranteed. They may discipline, but you can bet that their discipline is not first time. At least not consistently. It is haphazardly mixed with warnings this time, discipline another, and warnings, warnings, warnings the third time. And the children know that they won't always follow through. And so they test the lines. But emotion is often a sign of weakness and lack of control.
And the same is true of crowds. The emotions of the people, the elders and scribes were incited. Discussions designed to incite anger are not usually discussions where people are seeking truth, are they? They are holding to a position, and by push or by shove, that position is going to be maintained. There is something wrong when too much emotions creeps into your arguments even when you are arguing for the truth. It's a bad methodology. For one thing, I think it shows that you are trusting yourself to change their hearts more than you are trusting God to change their hearts. You're arguing like an Arminian, not a Calvinist. That was my problem when I first became a Calvinist. I was very emotional in defending Calvinism, and argued as if changing hearts was all up to me. My frustration showed. It's a bad methodology.
One expression that I learned years ago is that anger can all too easily blow out the light of intelligence. And this stands in such stark contrast to what Stephen does because Judaism had something that was not defendable, while Stephen did.
The use of violence (v. 12 - "seized" the two Greek words = to use force and drag away)
But this flaming of the emotions causes people to be incited to violence – point number 5. Verse 12 goes on to say, "and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council." The two Greek words for "came upon him and seized him" indicate a use of force and violence and then dragging away. A person who is confident that he is defending the truth does not need to resort to violence to prove it. In fact, resorting to violence proves exactly the opposite in most cases. If President Reagan had become viscious with his critics, his critics would have had more ammunition to load. But he diffused the situation with his words. It was hard for even his enemies to dislike him, though dislike him they did.
Do you know what is the occasion of most violence in the home? The cause is the heart, but the occasion is often a husband's inability to win an argument or persuade with words, so he resorts in frustration to violence. And this is often true whether his position is right or wrong. It's a sign of weakness, not of strength. It's a sign of bankruptcy, not of truth. Usually when people resort to violence to prove a point it is a sign that they really don't have the right point of view, or at least that they are succumbing to a wrong methodology.
Legal attacks (v. 12 – "council")
The sixth unfair tactic that was used was legal attacks. Verse 12 says that they took him to the council. Now if there really was treasonous blasphemy, that would be one thing. But this is not an attempt to win debate, but to close off discussion. They hoped that taking Stephen to court would achieve one of two things: cow Stephen into silence (in which case they would win) or getting a judgment against Stephen (in which case they would win). And to this day this is frequently the tactic that is used by the opponents of Christianity. Actually, it is even used by established businesses against their competition. They will threaten to sue them in order to intimidate the competition. And because the upstart company doesn't have the resources to fight, they back off. And in India, where many of the courts are stacked against Christians, this is a frequently used tactic.
Digging up dirt unrelated to the debate (vv. 13-14)
A seventh unfair tactic that you can expect will happen to you if you begin to have any degree of success is that people will dig up dirt on you. Is that not true? And often the dirt is totally unrelated to the debate at hand. It is an attempt to discredit the person at a perceived weak point so that people won't listen to his strong arguments. Verses 13-14. "They also set up false witnesses who said, 'This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.'" We will look at the specific nature of this charge when we analyze chapter 7 in two weeks. But for now, just notice three things: 1) they are searching for something that can be used against Stephen precisely because he is so clean. Don't think that you are exempt from this unfair tactic because you are clean. They will look for dirt, and someone will eventually find something that at least appears to be bad, or at a minimum, unpopular. 2) secondly, they hire false witnesses. They don't care whether it is true or not. Their goal is to discredit. This happened to Jonathan Edwards. A lady accused him of adultery. It was only after he lost his job that she admitted that she had lied. 3) Thirdly, they didn't attack the popular message of forgiveness from sins head on. No, that would put them at a disadvantage. They don't want to deal with that issue. They change the subject. And specifically, they bring up a new subject that is near and dear to the hearts of the people in order to discredit Stephen. This is what cults do. When you have them in a corner, they will change the subject with a statement that is so intriguing or frustrating, that you go chasing after that bait, forgetting that you had them in a corner. Now, you are on the defensive.
Now Stephen was being tried in a court of law, but sometimes people today are tried in the newspapers or in other forms of media. And it is important that we not get sucked in by these tactics, even when people use them on your enemies. Don't believe everything you read about President's Bush, President Clinton or others on the Web. They both have their faults, but some of the criticisms are just mud flinging that are reckless and only designed to destroy, not to illuminate. You are being stooges in Satan's hands when you use his methods to promote a godly cause. You can't use ungodly methods to promote godly goals.
Let me make another similar application. They didn't have mass communications such as radio, TV and newspapers to distort Stephen's words and sway public opinion against him, but they had the next best thing - gossip and hearsay spread by word of mouth. Man that can spread fast! And boy can it do damage! If you have given in to the use of gossip, you again have become a stooge of Satan. It's Satan's tools you are trying to use to promote righteousness, and God doesn't honor that.
Now is Satan's tool effective? Yes it is. No doubt about it. When you compare chapter 5 with chapter 6 you can see that public opinion can be swayed quite easily. What does chapter 5:13 say? It says that "the people esteemed them highly." But after this misinformation campaign, the people are stirred up against them. So never put your confidence in public opinion polls. It amazes me when politicians do. People are swayed by misinformation today just as easily as they were in chapter 6 of Acts. This is why you cannot be governed by popular opinion. That can change so easily.
That should not be the case with Christians, though it often is. James says that we are not supposed to be tossed to and fro by every wind of teaching. We are supposed to be stable. But the reason James admonishes us is because we are tempted to the same instability. So I would like to exhort each one of you here to try not to let your opinions of people be set in concrete by what you hear in the media. Be willing to invest money in more than one type of magazine that will give you a wider perspective. Listen to all sides of the issue. Proverbs 18:17 says, "The first to plead his case seems just, until another comes and examines him." When you first hear an issue, the version you heard might seem convincing until you see the inconsistencies in the argument made manifest by the other side of the story. In other words, no matter how convincing a story may appear to be, try to get the other side of the story before you set your opinion in concrete. Proverbs 13:10 says, "Through presumption comes nothing but strife, but with those who receive counsel is wisdom." We can't presume. We need to try to get the full scoop in terms of counselors. Proverbs 14:15 says, "The naive believes everything." There is room for healthy skepticism when it comes to stories circulating in the world.
The use of state power to suppress the truth (vv12c-15)
The eighth unfair method is to use the power of the state to suppress the truth. This is the strategy used by Communists, Muslims, Hindus, Bhuddists and other false religions. They believe in a powerful state who can intrude into the free market of ideas. But once again, it shows the utter bankruptcy of these religions. Christianity will continue to grow in those countries despite all the unfair advantages, and it will continue to grow because it is true, and God stands behind it.
And so it amazes me when evangelical Christians will use this method of Satan to try to get their social agendas advanced. We don't need the state. The state is not our weapon against sin. Against crime – yes. But the Bible must define crime. And yet, Christians are constantly appealing to the state to get their social agendas advanced.
Intimidation (v. 15 – "looking steadfastly at him")
The last unfair tactic used by these men was intimidation. Verse 15 says, "And all who sat in the council looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel." Later we will be seeing why Stephen was not intimidated. And I'm sure the Sanhedrin was not used to seeing that. But the phrase "looking steadfastly at him," means to stare. One dictionary says, "In each NT use (all but two of which occur in the Lucan writings) atenizo seems to emphasize the intensity of the look." So you have 71 rulers staring at you. And I doubt they were staring with a smile on their face. Now, that would be intimidating. Maybe not to you, but I'm sure it would be intimidating to me. And there are people who use intimidation tactics to get their way with other people. But it is an ungodly method. God wants the truth to stand on its own two feet, and He will take His means (which we will look at next week, Lord willing), and He will use those means to invincibly advance His cause. We don't need the methods of Satan.
And I have spent time on all of those methods for two reasons: 1) first, so that we can avoid using them ourselves. We don't want to use the tools of Satan. And 2) second, so that you can see that the loyalty of Judaism was not to truth, but to a position. And now they are searching for ways to vindicate their position. And we've got to be ever so careful that we do not do the same thing. It's easy to state a position, and then when we can't defend it, to try to save pride by using scorn, ridicule and other unfair tactics. We need to be on guard against this methodology from the world and we need to be on guard against it from our own flesh. We should never be naive enough to think that the world, the flesh and the devil are going to play by fair rules. They don't. Satan is the god of this world, and we should recognize that the world is bent on destroying Christianity even if it is not a self-conscious motive at all times. But the important thing to remember is that if an argument degenerates into one party using threats and these other unfair methods, it is probably because his position is bankrupt, like it was here. It flows from people who are frustrated that they can't win when playing on an even playing field.
In complete contrast to all of this, Stephen uses resources that are not fleshly in his arguments. And I think that there is a lot we can learn from how he conducted himself. He demonstrates the fullness of a confident Christianity. Verse 3 says that what the church needed was men who were full of the Holy Spirit. Verse 5 says that Stephen was such a man – full of the Holy Spirit. Verse 10 repeats that thought, as does chapter 7:55. It's obviously an important term for Luke.
And because I really want to do justice to this concept of fullness, I will pick up with Roman numeral II next week. We will see how each of these resources comes from outside of us and empowers us within. The Scriptures are God's thoughts, not our own. And as such, they have a power that far surpasses our own testimonies. Unfortunately, many people use their own words in place of God's. And they shortchange themselves. They are content with carnal weapons.
Faith is not only a gift of God, but it trusts in unseen realities. Stephen was full of faith. And faith is a weapon according to Paul. The shield of faith enables us to wade into the thick of the enemies arrows.
Stephen was full of power (verse 8). Though the authorities were in power from the world's perspective, Stephen was in power from a spiritual perspective. And his power did not depend upon Stephen's life. It was a power that produced results before and after his death. It was a power that these authorities could not stop.
Stephen was full of wisdom according to verses 3 and 10. That is quite different from being full of knowledge. There are liberal theologians who have far more knowledge than you or I will ever have, but they have no wisdom. Some of those scholars probably had more knowledge than Stephen did, but they had no wisdom. Wisdom comes from above, according to James. And James goes on to say that this heaven sent wisdom is transformational. In contrast, knowledge has a tendency to puff up. Now its true that you can't have wisdom if you don't have knowledbut wisdom goes way beyond it. It is a weapon of the Spirit.
And so, Stephen is using totally different weapons in his warfare than we Christians many times do. We frequently find ourselves using the weapons of the Jews. But they are carnal weapons. In 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 Paul says, "For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ."
It is my prayer that we would learn to hate the bankrupt methods of point number 1, and that we would learn to be filled with the things of point number II. These spiritual weapons have been purchased for us, are in our bank account in heaven, are at our disposal any time of night and day, and are far more effective than the methods we tend to go back to by habit. If like Stephen we have a full and confident Christianity, we may attract the wrath of the world, but you can bet that like Stephen and these other Christians, we will also turn the world upside down. May it be so, Lord. Amen.
Brothers and sisters. Don't use the weapons of this world to advance the cause of Christ. And don't be intimidated when others use these weapons. It is a sign that they are weak and bankrupt. Opt instead for the fullness of a confident Christianity. God is sufficient and more than sufficient to fulfill His promises. Amen.