A Deacon on Trial for His Life
Immanuel Baptist Church – Sunday, November 1, 2020
What do you know about
the Christian Church’s very first deacons?
There were 7 of them—godly men
appointed by the Apostles in the 6th Chapter of Acts.
In fact, the 6th, 7th and 8th chapters of Acts
are all about the first Deacons—
especially Stephen and Philip.
They both witnessed powerfully for Christ,
sharing the Gospel through miraculous works
and through bold preaching.
Their zeal serves as an example
for deacons in our churches today,
and for all of us believers.
The 6th and 7th Chapters of Acts tell us
of the powerful things Stephen did.
And the 8th Chapter focuses on Philip.
Stephen used the supernatural power
the Holy Spirit had given him
to draw people to Christ
in the same way that the 12 Apostles did.
And he gave his listeners
convincing proof from the Old Testament
that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah
the Jewish people had been waiting for.
Some of those who opposed him
but could not answer the proof he showed them
from the Scriptures
became determined to kill Stephen.
So, they produced false witnesses
to testify against him falsely,
accusing him of things
that carried the death penalty in Jewish courts.
And so Stephen was brought up on these charges
before the Jewish high court—
the Sanhedrin council.
Even before Stephen opened his mouth to speak,
everyone who sat in the courtroom
saw the radiant glow of his face,
like the face of an angel.
He glowed with the confidence, courage and strength
God’s Holy Spirit imparted to him.
After the false witnesses gave their false testimony,
the judges gave Stephen his turn to speak,
to defend himself in court.
Acts 7:1 tells us,
1 The high priest said, “Are these things so?”
And then he allowed Stephen to address
the men assembled to hear the case.
On trial for his life, this godly deacon
presented an unusual defense.
Rather than start out by declaring his innocence
and attacking the false testimony
presented by his accusers,
Stephen began by giving the court
a history lesson.
He presented a brief history of the Jewish people
from the time of the patriarch Abraham, onward.
He did this to put into proper context
the appearance of the Messiah Jesus,
as the culmination of God’s promises
at the end of many centuries—
and to explain his faith in Jesus.
That capsule history failed to convince the judges.
They ended up stoning Stephen to death.
But the message Stephen spoke in court
can prove very helpful to us,
because it sums up in just a few words
1) where the Jewish people came from,
2) where the Jewish religion came from, and
3) where the Christian religion came from.
Looking at Verse 2,
2 He said, “Brothers and fathers, listen. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Get out of your land, and from your relatives, and come into a land which I will show you.’ [Genesis 12:1]
Abraham was an Iraqi, in today’s terminology.
He lived in Mesopotamia.
“Meso” means “between” and “potamia” means “rivers”—
so the land between the rivers—
the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers,
and area found in modern-day Iraq.
And the account in Genesis indicates that
Abraham’s home town was Ur—spelled U R—in what is now southern Iraq,
near the border with Kuwait.
On the first leg of his journey,
to a destination unknown to him,
Abraham moved to a town called Haran.
Stephen said of Abraham, in Verse 4,
4 Then he came out of the land of the Chaldaeans, and lived in Haran.
The ruins of the ancient city of Haran lie today
in what is now in the eastern part of Turkey.
Abraham was not a Jew,
because the Jewish people had not yet
come into existence.
Rather, Abraham was the forefather
of both the Jews and the Arabs.
The earth was still sparsely populated in Abraham’s day.
Abraham lived only around a dozen generations after
the Flood of Noah’s day
when God began re-populating the earth
from the 8 individuals
who rode out the Flood aboard Noah’s Ark.
And God spoke to Abraham,
and called him to move from the land of his birth
to another land that God would show him.
From there, when his father was dead, God moved him into this land, where you are now living.
The route Abraham followed has been called
“the Fertile Crescent,”
because it was a crescent-shaped area of fertile land.
A trip straight across from Ur in Mesopotamia
to the Promised Land on the Mediterranean coast
would have been a difficult trip over dry desert.
We know, of course, that the land God promised Abraham
was what came to be called “the Promised Land,”
“the Holy Land,” the land of Israel.
Abraham didn’t know that, of course, at this stage.
But he obeyed God.
So, in giving his defense before the court,
Stephen traced Abraham’s route from Mesopotamia
to the Promised Land,
which he described to the court as
“this land, where you are now living”—
the land of Israel.
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But Abraham didn’t take this journey
on his own initiative.
God told him to leave his homeland, and move far away.
Stephen went on to explain,
5 He gave him no inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on. He promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his offspring after him, when he still had no child.
So, Abraham knew he would not own the Promised Land,
but that his descendants would—
“his offspring after him.”
And it wouldn’t even be Abraham’s immediate offspring
who would inherit the Promised Land.
Rather, Stephen reminded the court,
6 God spoke in this way: that his offspring would live as aliens in a strange land, and that they would be enslaved and mistreated for four hundred years. 7 ‘I will judge the nation to which they will be in bondage,’ said God, ‘and after that will they come out, and serve me in this place.’ [Genesis 15:13-14]
So, God foretold to Abraham
how his offspring would become slaves in Egypt,
and it would be 400 years before
God would send plagues upon Egypt
and Moses to liberate his people.
8 He gave him the covenant of circumcision. So Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day. Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.
God gave Abraham a covenant of circumcision
as part of his promise
and to set apart his descendants as special.
Abraham fathered Isaac, and Isaac fathered Jacob.
God changed Jacob’s name to Israel.
And that was the beginning of the people of Israel—
the Jewish people.
Jacob’s 12 sons became the fathers
of the 12 Tribes of Israel.
Their offspring became the Jewish PEOPLE,
but the Jewish RELIGION would come much later.
First, Stephen reviewed in more detail how
how the Jews became slaves in Egypt.
He told how the sons of Jacob conspired together
against his youngest son, Joseph,
and sold him into slavery.
In Verse 9, Stephen said,
9 “The patriarchs, moved with jealousy against Joseph, sold him into Egypt. God was with him, 10 and delivered him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt. He made him governor over Egypt and all his house.
Although his brothers sold him as a slave,
God turned things around for Joseph,
and with God’s blessing,
Joseph became governor of all Egypt.
Back in the Promised Land,
Jacob and his sons faced starvation in a famine.
So, Jacob sent his sons to Egypt, to buy food,
which Joseph had stored up ahead of time.
Deacon Stephen continued,
11 Now a famine came over all the land of Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction. Our fathers found no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers the first time. 13 On the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers, and Joseph’s race was revealed to Pharaoh.
“Joseph’s race” was that he was
a descendant of Noah’s son Shem,
through Abraham and Isaac.
The Egyptians were of a different race—
going back all the way to the time of the Flood.
The Egyptians were descended from Noah’s son Ham,
through Ham’s son Mizraim.
Despite the racial difference,
Joseph enjoyed the favor of Egypt’s king Pharaoh,
and so Joseph was able to save his family
from starvation in the famine
by bringing them all to live in Egypt,
where he could feed and protect them.
14 Joseph sent, and summoned Jacob, his father, and all his relatives, seventy-five souls. 15 Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, himself and our fathers, 16 and they were brought back to Shechem, and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a price in silver from the children of Hamor of Shechem.
When they eventually died,
Jacob and each of his sons were buried in a cave
that Abraham had purchased in the Promised Land
to serve as a family tomb.
Stephen went on next to summarize
hundreds of years of history
as the descendants of Jacob
eventually lived in Egypt as slaves,
and God prepared to set them free
by raising up Moses,
who would lead them to the Promise Land
that God had promised to their forefather Abraham.
The deacon on trial continued,
17 “But as the time of the promise came close which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt, 18 until there arose a different king, who didn’t know Joseph. 19 The same took advantage of our race, and mistreated our fathers, and forced them to throw out their babies, so that they wouldn’t stay alive. 20 At that time Moses was born, and was exceedingly handsome. He was nourished three months in his father’s house. 21 When he was thrown out, Pharaoh’s daughter took him up, and reared him as her own son.
The offspring of Jacob,
whose name God changed to Israel,
were now so numerous they could be a small nation.
They had multiplied to become the Jewish people.
Egypt’s king Pharaoh was afraid
they were growing in numbers so fast they would
soon outnumber and overpower the Egyptians.
So, Pharaoh gave orders for the enslaved Israelites
to throw their newborn male babies
into the Nile River to drown.
But baby Moses’ mother
put him in the River in a basket
and Pharaoh’s daughter found the infant
and raised him as her own son.
Remember, Stephen told this history of the Jews
as his defense before the Jerusalem court
where he was charged with the crime
of preaching Jesus as the Savior of Israel.
And now he went on to tell how,
when Moses grew up and was 40 years old,
he tried to save Israel from slavery,
but the people rejected Moses—
just as they rejected Jesus.
In Verse 22 Stephen says,
22 Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. He was mighty in his words and works. 23 But when he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24 Seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended him, and avenged him who was oppressed, striking the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers understood that God, by his hand, was giving them deliverance; but they didn’t understand.
26 “The day following, he appeared to them as they fought, and urged them to be at peace again, saying, ‘Sirs, you are brothers. Why do you wrong one another?’ 27 But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ [Exodus 2:14, 29] Moses fled at this saying, and became a stranger in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.
Stephen’s point was that, back in Moses’ day
Israel rejected a savior
who wanted to save them from slavery.
And now they were rejecting the Savior Jesus,
who Stephen was preaching to them.
Then this bold deacon went on to tell how the people
rejected Moses a second time, 40 years later,
when God sent him with powerful miracles,
to “let my people go.”
After Moses got Pharaoh to let them go,
they turned away from Moses and the true God.
Stephen tells the story like this:
30 “When forty years were fulfilled, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he wondered at the sight. As he came close to see, a voice of the Lord came to him, 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ [Exodus 3:6] Moses trembled, and dared not look. 33 The Lord said to him, ‘Take your sandals off of your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning. I have come down to deliver them. Now come, I will send you into Egypt.’ [Exodus 3:5,7-8,10]
35 “This Moses, whom they refused, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—God sent him as both a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, having worked wonders and signs in Egypt, in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years.
Speaking before the Sanhedrin court
to defend preaching Jesus as Israel’s Savior,
Stephen showed how that nation
centuries earlier rejected Moses,
when God sent Moses as a savior
to save them out of slavery.
And now the deacon on trial clenches his argument,
connecting Jesus with Moses,
by quoting a prophecy Moses himself spoke,
when Moses foretold that God would send them
another ‘prophet...like me.’
That prophet “like” Moses would be Jesus.
God used Moses to prophesy about Jesus.
But Stephen went on to remind the Jewish court,
how their forefathers rejected Moses’ message,
and chose to worship false idols as ‘gods.’
Stephen told them,
37 This is that Moses, who said to the children of Israel, ‘The Lord your God will raise up a prophet for you from among your brothers, like me.’ [Deuteronomy 18:15 38] This is he who was in the assembly in the wilderness with the angel that spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, who received living revelations to give to us, 39 to whom our fathers wouldn’t be obedient, but rejected him, and turned back in their hearts to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods that will go before us, for as for this Moses, who led us out of the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him.’ Exodus 32:1 41 They made a calf in those days, and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned, and gave them up to serve the army of the sky, as it is written in the book of the prophets,
‘Did you offer to me slain animals and sacrifices
forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
43 You took up the tabernacle of Moloch,
the star of your god Rephan,
the figures which you made to worship.
I will carry you away beyond Babylon.’ [Amos 5:25-27]
Stephen reminded the court
how the Jewish people had rejected
the religion Moses had taught them.
He reminded them how they kept rejecting God,
the true God, the creator of the Universe,
and they worshiped instead
the false ‘gods’ Molech and Rephan,
and then the true God punished them
by sending the whole nation into exile in Babylon.
Moses had given them the Jewish religion
by teaching them about the true God
and giving them the Ten Commandments
and the other 600-or-so Laws God gave them.
The Jewish religion consisted of following
those Laws of Moses, obeying God,
and worshiping God through animal sacrifices
as God had specified—
first at a tabernacle or tent in the wilderness,
and then later at the Temple in Jerusalem
constructed by David’s son Solomon.
Stephen now said,
44 “Our fathers had the tabernacle of the testimony in the wilderness, even as he who spoke to Moses commanded him to make it according to the pattern that he had seen; 45 which also our fathers, in their turn, brought in with Joshua when they entered into the possession of the nations, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers, to the days of David, 46 who found favor in the sight of God, and asked to find a habitation for the God of Jacob. 47 But Solomon built him a house. 48 However, the Most High doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says,
49 ‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth a footstool for my feet.
What kind of house will you build me?’ says the Lord;
‘or what is the place of my rest?
50 Didn’t my hand make all these things?’ [Isaiah 66:1-2]
So, the defense this courageous deacon gave in court
reminded them of how the Jewish people
first rejected Moses,
then rejected the Laws of Moses,
and so rejected the true God.
He reminded them how the Jews had rejected God
over and over again,down through their history
that he summarized for the court.
Then he reminded them how they had a long history
of rejecting, persecuting, and even killing
the Holy-Spirit-filled prophets God sent them.
And now they were rejecting God again,
by rejecting and killing their Messiah, Jesus,
and persecuting Jesus’ followers.
And this is where CHRISTIANITY CAME FROM:
The Jews who accepted Jesus as their Messiah
had to meet separately, as the new Christian Church.
Stephen concluded by accusing the court
that was falsely accusing him.
Stephen told them,
51 “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit! As your fathers did, so you do. 52 Which of the prophets didn’t your fathers persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, of whom you have now become betrayers and murderers. 53 You received the law as it was ordained by angels, and didn’t keep it!”
Stephen’s message to the court convicted them.
They were cut to the heart,
because they knew everything Stephen said was true.
But, just as the same court had sentenced Jesus to death,
only a few months earlier,
now they were determined to kill Stephen.
Verse 54 says,
54 Now when they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. 55 But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, 56 and said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
57 But they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and rushed at him with one accord. 58 They threw him out of the city, and stoned him. The witnesses placed their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They stoned Stephen as he called out, saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 He kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
And so Stephen, one of the first 7 deacons
also became the Church’s first martyr.
He became the first Christian to be killed for the faith.
He looked to Jesus,
even as he faced persecution and death.
And he reflected Christ’s love,
even with his dying breath.
Whether we’re deacons, or not,
this deacon’s example
of strong faith and faithfulness
is an inspiration to us today.