As I looked at a beautiful picture of the Taj Mahal on my screen saver, I thought of a story that Dobson relates in one of his books. If you have ever read anything about the Taj Mahal, you know that it is one of the most beautiful and costly tombs that has ever been built. Dobson pointed out that in 1629, the Indian ruler, Shah Jahan ordered a magnificent tomb to be built as a memorial for his favorite wife, who had just died. He was grief stricken and he wanted to have a memorial so great that no one could forget his wife. The shah placed his wife’s casket in the middle of a parcel of land, and then they began to construct the temple around the casket. His intention was that she was to be the center of attention, right from the start to the finish. But as the years went by, the Shah’s grief for his wife gave way to a fascination with the project itself. One day, while he was surveying the project, he reportedly stumbled over a wooden box. In anger, he demanded that his workers throw it out. It was months before he realized that it was his wife’s casket had been thrown out and destroyed. Dobson said, “The original purpose for the memorial became lost in the details of the construction.”
Well, in a similar way, under Solomon God allowed a magnificent building to be built as a temple to Jesus. From start to finish, He was to be the center of attention. In his God-given plans, everything about that plan revolved around their coming Messiah. He established beautiful rituals, a priesthood, gorgeous clothing and ornaments which were to point to the beauties of Jesus and His grace. But as time went by, the Jews began to become so preoccupied with the temple and its rituals that they ignored the one to whom all of those things pointed. And in the first century, when they stumbled over Jesus and his teachings, they got angry and threw Him out, little realizing that He was the only reason for the building of the temple. But you see, the temple had become an idol that they worshipped. And when Jesus dared to say that the temple would be destroyed, they preferred to kill Jesus than to lose what they had. When Stephen has the audacity to say that Jesus has replaced the temple, they are outraged. Loyalty to the temple and priesthood had become far more important to them than loyalty to their Messiah.
The accusations (vv. 13-14). Were these accusations true?
Now I have listed other accusations that they bring against Stephen, but most of them are smokescreens for the real issue which was that they preferred a form of godliness to the reality of God’s power; they preferred the temple building to the owner of the temple; they preferred the types to the Person that those types pointed to: Jesus; they preferred the oil in the candlesticks to the Spirit that the oil pointed towards. They had the shell, but not the reality.
And in chapter 7, Stephen gives a powerful answer to their absurd accusations. Today we won’t look at His answer. We will save that till next week. Today I just want to apply the accusations that Stephen received to our own time. Chapter 6:11 deals with the accusations outside of court: Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God. So that’s accusations one and two: he blasphemed God and he blasphemed Moses. But they don’t say how. Once they get into court, they have to be a bit more specific. Verses 13-14 say, 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 [and here comes the only substantial basis for anything that they had to say: “for”] we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.
That’s the real issue: destroying the temple and changing the ceremonial law. But brothers and sisters, this is a very important issue. And it’s an issue worth spending a whole sermon on. Stephen thought it was so important that he was willing to die for it. The Jewish leaders thought that this issue was so important that they were willing to perjure themselves and kill an innocent man to hush up the news. After all, many priests were bailing out of the temple and no longer performing the ceremonies. They obviously thought that this was important too. Luke thinks it is such an important issue, that he records the whole of Stephen’s speech, the longest speech recorded in the book of Acts. But Satan tries to obscure the truth of the matter by mixing up this matter of Jesus replacing the temple with a smokescreen of other false charges. And they put a slant on the true charges that puts them in a bad light. And it’s unfortunate, but some modern Christians have bought into the wrong charges and wrong conclusions of Stephen’s accusers. So I think it is important that we look at each charge briefly before we go to chapter
Stephen blasphemed God (v. 11)
And here is the question I want to answer: “Are these accusations true or false?” Now obviously we know that Stephen did not blaspheme God. So at least one accusation outside of court (in verse 11) is wrong. But what about the accusations in verses 13-14? There are some Christians who think that Stephen was preaching something so radically new that it was not even prophesied in the Old Testament. They call our age the great parenthesis. And, they say, during this great parenthesis, we are not under the authority of the Old Testament. They think that this is the only thing that can explain why the leaders are so upset. This is a new religion. They say that the Jewish charges make sense only if there is a new religion.
But before you jump to that conclusion, I think you would have to admit that at least some of the accusations in verses 13 and 14 would have to be false, or Luke could not call them false witnesses. Right? Verse 13: They also set up false witnesses who said… Let’s look at each of the charges and see if we can find out which are true and which are false. I think we can safely dismiss charge number 1 – that Stephen blasphemed God.
Stephen blasphemed Moses (v. 11)
But what about the charge of speaking against Moses? Even if you throw out the inflammatory word “blasphemy,” did he speak against Moses? There are a lot of modern Christians who speak against Moses. I could probably tell you of a hundred pastors who say that Stephen rejected the authority of Moses over the church. They call themselves New Testament Christians. Some go so far as to say that the Gospels and any epistles written to Jews, like James and Hebrews, is not for the church. And we are talking about self-proclaimed evangelicals here. They only follow the Pauline epistles. They claim that the early church ditched all of the Mosaic regulations and that they were now New Testament Christians. Well, let me tell you five reasons why I think that this is a false charge on every count. And I say that even though I believe that the New Testament does authorize a change in the ceremonial laws. (In fact, I think it mandates a change. That’s the last charge, and I think there is truth in that one.) But it is certainly not blasphemy against Moses.
First, you couldn’t have a “so-called” New Testament Christianity since the New Testament hadn’t been written yet. What were the Scriptures that Stephen was teaching in verse 7? Verse 7 says, Then the word of God spreaqd, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. The Word that spread was the Old Testament Scriptures. That’s the faith that was being obeyed by the priests. Later on in Acts 17, Paul praises the Bereans for checking out everything that he said from the Old Testament to make sure it was Scriptural. On another occasion Paul said, he was saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come (Acts 26:22). That’s pretty inclusive. So even if there are changes, Moses was the one who insisted that those changes would come. And besides that, weren’t there changes from before the time of Moses to the time of Moses in ceremonial law? There were. If it wasn’t blasphemy back then, why would it be blasphemy now? Acts 26:22 says that there wasn’t a single thing about New Testament theology that couldn’t be proved from the Old Testament. Not a single thing. In contrast, some modern dispensationalists have said that the church age and all its forms were completely unanticipated in the Old Testament. Well, Paul differs. Acts 28:23 speaks of Paul’s habit saying, “persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening. Moses was their Bible. So they are false witnesses in accusing Stephen of being against Moses. He was not. He used Moses to prove His points.
Second, in Acts 7 Stephen goes to great length to demonstrate that Moses actually supported his position. There is not a hint in his whole defense that Stephen thought Moses should no longer be followed. He considers their charges ridiculous. And based on his counter-charges against the leaders, I doubt he did that out of timidity.
Third, in Acts 7:53 it is actually Stephen who accuses them of failing to follow Moses. He says, You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit. And then in verse 53 says, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it. They were the ones who were not following Moses.
But there probably is an element of truth to the accusation. Even though Moses had anticipated the time when sacrifices would no longer be performed in the temple, the fact that Stephen was preaching that Jesus was the fulfillment of the ceremonial law was no doubt what really ticked the people off. That was a rather radical change. And so, there probably is a basis for this accusation, though it is still a false accusation through and through. If they had dropped the words “blasphemy” and the words “against Moses,” and instead had said, “Stephen is preaching change, then yeah, that would be true. But the way it was phrased was blatantly false testimony. So, the first and second accusations are false.
But I think we can apply this to ourselves. We need to have enough of the power of New Testament Christianity about our lives that Pharisees and Saducees can bring the accusation of change against us. If we not changing; if we are not growing, then there is something wrong. After all, we live in the age of the kingdom, the age of the Spirit, the age of Messiah. We should be doing things differently than in the age of promise.
But at the same time, we need to be committed enough to the Old Testament Scriptures, that if people accused us of being against Moses that they would be false witnesses. Can you prove every New Testament doctrine from the Old Testament. You should be able to. There isn’t anything in the New Testament that is not in the Old in seed form. We need to be whole Bible Christians, like Stephen was, not simply New Testament Christians.
Stephen blasphemed the temple (v. 13)
The third accusation is that Stephen blasphemed the temple. I think we are getting much closer to the heart of their frustration with Stephen. The early church taught that within one generation this beautiful temple would be torn down. And it was torn down in 70 AD. Jesus had prophesied that. And to the Jews, that was unthinkable. “You can throw out the casket, but don’t throw out the Taj Mahal. You can throw out Jesus, but don’t throw out the Temple.” So in verse 13 they say in court, This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place… They just didn’t realize how blasphemous it was for them to in effect throw out Jesus in their effort to defend the temple of Jesus. Whose temple was it? It was Jesus temple.
And how do we apply this in our own lives? We apply it by realizing that the church is not Phil Kayser’s church, or the session’s church. It is the church of Jesus. We apply it by not being so tied to a building when we finally get a building that it drives our vision and our priorities. A building is simply a tool. We apply verse 13 by refusing to get attached to even the most important things of this life. It’s so easy to allow the blessings of God to make us miss out on the Person of God and to be so preoccupied with God’s gifts that we ignore the giver.
Stephen blasphemed the law (v. 13)
Accusation four is that Stephen blasphemed the law. In his answer Stephen will show that he upholds the moral law, and that it is actually the Jewish leadership that is breaking God’s law. In verse 53 he accuses them of receiving the law, but not keeping it. And in the previous verses Stephen shows how they were just like their forefathers who rebelled against the law of God repeatedly. So there is no way that Stephen was blaspheming the moral law. He upholds it in his speech.
Now someone might object that it was the ceremonial law that they were speaking of. And if that is the case, we’ll deal with that argument under point F. But in any case, whether it is moral law or ceremonial law, they were false witnesses. Stephen wa committed to the Gospel preached in the ceremonial law and the moral principles laid out in the moral law. And we need to make sure that we are such people of the book that these kinds of charges would not stick against us; that we would be, as verse 3 says, men of good reputation.
Jesus would destroy the temple (v. 14)
And now comes the only two charges which have any real substance to them. The sixth accusation is in verse 14. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place … There are two places where Jesus predicted the end of the temple. In Matthew 24 He promised to level the temple so that not one stone would be left upon another stone. The other place (John 2) is rather interesting, and I would like you to turn to it, because this is the only time that the unbelieving Jews heard him speak of destroying the temple, and it’s probably what they had in their minds. It is certainly what they had in their minds when they level their charges against Jesus at His own trial. So look at John chapter 2. Jesus phrases Himself rather cryptically. He has just finished cleansing the temple by throwing out the money changers, the sheep and the oxen. Look at verses 16-21.
John 2:16 And He said to those who sold doves, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!"" John 2:17 Then His disciples remembered that it was written, *“Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.” John 2:18 So the Jews answered and said to Him, “What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?”
[What they talking about? They are talking about His right to cleanse the brick and mortar temple. Well, look at His interesting answer in verses 19-21]
John 2:19 Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John 2:20Then the Jews said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” John 2:21 [And then John comments] But He was speaking of the temple of His body.
Now if Jesus was talking about His body, why would He say that in the context of cleansing the physical temple? Why didn’t He say, “Destroy this body and I will raise it up?” Because He was trying to make a point. He knew that they would link His words to the stone temple. That would be a very natural conclusion. But Jesus was tightly linking the destiny of His body and the destiny of the temple. I believe He linked the destruction of His body with the stone and mortar temple in this way because Jesus intended to make it plain that when His body was destroyed, the temple and all of its rituals would die with it, and when His body was raised, it would be the new temple of God. Revelation 21:22-23 calls Jesus the temple and the glory. So Jesus is the temple, the priest, the sacrifice and the Shekinah glory. He sums it all up.
So I think we can say that this part of their charges is true, even though they falsely interpret it as being against Moses and against the law and as being blasphemous words. I love the way that John Piper words it in one essay. He said, “Jesus destroyed the temple the way a homecoming from Saudi Arabia destroys the need for letters. He destroyed the temple the way the rising sun destroys the need for street lights and headlights. He destroyed the temple the way a descending reality destroys its shadow.”
And so I want to ask you if you are living in the reality of Christ’s presence, or if you are still living in the shadows? I mean, even Stephen’s face showed a presence and power that these leaders did not have. Are you enjoying the presence of your Christ, or simply reading His letters from afar as through He were in Saudi Arabia? Both are good, but one is better. Are you living in the full light of the sun, or simply content with the dim carlights which only light up a few feet in front of you? The fact that you are in the age of the kingdom gives you such privileges that to live only in the light of the Old Covenant is to rob yourself. It would be my prayer that if these Sanhedrin leaders were to come and see you, they would find a person so preoccupied with the beauty of Jesus that they are offended that you don’t notice their temple. It is my prayer that they would accuse you of blasphemous words when you prefer the company of the heavenly temple to anything you might find on earth. Would that accusation stick? Stephen knew the reality of what the temple pointed to. He gloried in God’s presence, God’s fullness and all of the graces that flowed from Christ in the heavenly temple. These men didn’t even understand the significance of the brick and mortar. They stumbled not only over Jesus, they stumbled over the brick and mortar. But it’s so easy for us to do the same and to settle for good when we can have best. God gave us the temple so that your attention would be drawn to Christ from first to last. Do you fix your eyes on Jesus? I think that is really the heart of what these accusations were all about. It is what made Stephen ready to die rather than give up what he had.
Jesus would destroy the customs (or “traditions”) which Moses delivered to them (v. 14)
Let’s look at the last accusation. Depending on what “customs” means, it is either partly false or is completely true. They speak of changing the customs which Moses delivered to us. And there have been two interpretations of that. The word for customs is frequently used in the New Testament to refer to the supposed oral traditions of the Pharisees. They claimed to have gotten these oral traditions straight from the mouth of Moses. They said that Moses wrote some thing down, and that is the Bible, and the rest he communicated orally, and that has been passed down in the body of tradition. It’s very similar to the modern Roman Catholic theory of church tradition. And if they are referring to the traditions of the elders, then this charge is false. Jesus didn’t just change these customs. He completely did away with them. He refused to submit to even the tiniest and most insignificant of these traditions of men. And the reason was that they lyingly purported to be laws of God. But the Bible tells us not to go beyond the Bible. 1 Corinthians 4:6 says, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written. So that is interpretation number 1 – that they were accusing him of changing the traditions now known as the Talmud.
The second interpretation is that it is a reference to the ceremonial laws of Moses. Certainly the New Testament required a change of those, didn’t it? Hebrews 7:12 says, For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law. And so, perhaps it was the ceremonial law that they were accusing him of blaspheming. Without a temple you can’t have sacrifices; without sacrifices you can’t have cleansing ceremonies; without the temple there is no need for the priesthood and all the laws governing their temple rituals. You can see why they felt threatened. And so of course there is a change in the ceremonial law. But when Stephen says that, is it really blasphemy?
Stephen starts his defense in chapter 7 by speaking of God’s favor upon Abraham and His presence with Him. And Abraham didn’t have a temple or 90% of the rituals that went on in the temple. There was a change in ceremonial law from Abraham to Moses. If it wasn’t blasphemy back then, why would it be now? There has never been a change in the moral law, but there have many changes in the ceremonial law. There were changes in the ceremonial law under Moses before the tabernacle and after it. There were changes in the ceremonial law before Solomon’s temple and after it. And then Stephen brings up the whole issue of the exile. Instantly, most ceremonial laws were done away with because there was no temple. And so, Stephen shows them that even on their own terms the charge is ridiculous. That is a kind of argumentum ad hominem – the good kind, not the bad kind, where you defeat an opponents arguments on their own presuppositions. And we will look at that Lord willing, next week. And so even if Jesus had never come, his discourse in chapter 7 shows that the charge of blasphemy simply wouldn’t stick.
Of course, the most important point that Stephen makes is that all the ceremonial laws pointed to Jesus. They were the Gospel of the Old Testament. They were constantly teaching not only the need for a Savior, but the promise of a Savior. So where the moral law showed our responsibility and need, the ceremonial laws showed Christ’s promise and His provision. Without a coming Messiah, their ceremonial laws don’t make sense. They were designed to teach the Jews of their need for Jesus and His atonement. But once Jesus came, to continue to follow the ceremonial laws would be to ignore the teaching of the ceremonial laws, and that too would make no sense. When Stephen accused them in 7:52 of murdering the very one that all the Scriptures pointed to, He was accusing them of killing their only hope of salvation and of ignoring the ceremonial law. By killing Stephen they were killing the messenger.
And there is something that we can apply from this point as well. First of all, you need to have such a grace walk with Jesus that legalists can accuse you of being against the law. And what I mean by that is that you are so secure in God’s grace that you don’t have to pretend to be sinless. You don’t need to put on a façade, and so they see you as you really are. God’s grace frees us to pursue the law without being perfect. It frees us to confess when we do fail, and to get up secure in His grace and to pursue the Lord some more. And so, you need to have such a grace walk with Jesus that legalists can falsely accuse you of being against the law
But the second side of that equation is that you need to have such a grace walk with Jesus, and be so full of His power, that their charges won’t stick. You need to know the Gospel of the ceremonial laws so well that you no longer feel the sting and curse of the moral law. Instead, embraced in the Gospel, you find the law of God to be a delight, and everyone knows that you love that law.
So, whether they are talking about the moral law or the ceremonial law, neither charge can stick. The New Testament Gospel was a re-preaching of the Gospel of the ceremonial laws, and that Gospel is what enables us to delight in the law of God. Just as the moral and ceremonial laws went hand in hand, the law and the gospel go hand in hand. The one empowers us for the other.
If you live according to the grace of God, you will receive false accusations. Some will accuse you of being legalists, while others will accuse you of being antinomian. You can’t win for losing. But losing the favor or man is not always a bad thing. It frees you up to focus on the favor of God. And if God’s favor and His presence could make me die a death like Stephen did, it would be worth it.
Please read Chapter 7 in preparation for our next sermon. Try to see how every one of these charges is brilliantly answered simply by telling the story of Israel’s history. There is far more than you can tell in a story than you can give in didactic form. And this one is very intricately woven together. The more I study it, the more awestruck I have become. So please read the chapter before next week if you are able. Let’s pray.
Children of God. I charge you to not be so enamored with the proverbial Taj Mahal that you throw out the box around which the whole was to be focused. Fix your eyes on Jesus, who is the author and finisher of your faith. Do not trade the better for the good. Amen.