Boldly Proclaiming God’s Word

Boldly Proclaiming God’s Word

John Stott writes, “Some preachers are like the circus jugglers – one stood against the wall and the others threw knives at him. They would hit above his head. They would hit close by his ear, under his armpit, in between the fingers. They could throw within a hairbreadth and never strike. Such skill in a circus juggler is commendable, but the same skill in a messenger of God is not. God’s word is described as a two-edged sword piercing deep into the very soul and spirit of a person. God’s Word is like a hammer breaking open stony hearts. God’s Word is like seed bursting with life and fruitful living to everyone who would receive it by faith. God commissions His messengers, preachers and teachers of His Word, to apply the Truth directly to the heart of the hearers. To be certain, many may well enjoy the show of a skilled orator who throws verses and stories like knives in a dazzling display while never hitting, but we need God’s Truth to hit us, to strike us, to sink deeply in even if that Truth hurts us for a time; even if it is painful.

Faithful Stephen understood this in this sermon in Acts 7. He buries the sword of God’s Word so deeply in his audience that they begin to gnash their teeth at his words, and in fury, they take him outside the city and they crush his body with stones. Stephen knew that his role was not to entertain, nor to amuse, but God had called him to faithfully proclaim the Truth of God’s Word.

From a human standpoint, we might say that Stephen’s sermon was a dismal failure. No one ordered the tapes afterwards. No one shook his hand and said, “Nice sermon, Stephen.” No one asked him for his notes, and from the narrative we get the idea that no one made the decision to follow Jesus immediately after the presentation of this message. Stephen did not preach to please men and women, but Stephen preached to please his God. As God was pleased, God did use Stephen’s sermon dramatically, even to this very day. He used it in the early church to set a fire that continues to burn to this day by God’s Spirit.

Stephen’s sermon is somewhat unique, at least to modem times, because it was so focused on God. We don’t learn much about Stephen and his life, and his family, through this message. We don’t even learn much about the felt needs of the 1st Century Jew living in Jerusalem, but what we do learn about is a great deal about God and His mighty working plan in this world.

Stephen begins his message with the Glory of God in Verse 2,

“Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared…”

He begins with the Glory of God and we discover, in Verse 55, that the message ends with the Glory of God. That

…Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the gory of God.

In the beginning of the message, the Glory of God comes down to man. At the end of this sermon, man is allowed to ascend to see the Glory of God in heaven himself.

I enjoy John Piper’s book, “The Supremacy of God in Preaching,” because it reminds me of my need to maintain a God-centeredness to my sermons. In that book, John Piper writes, “People are starving for the grandeur of God and the vast majority don’t even know it. Those who do say, ‘Oh, God, thou art my God. I seek Thee, my soul thirsts for Thee, and my flesh faints for Thee as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.'” Does your soul reflect such yearning? “But most do not discern that they were made to thrill at the panorama of God’s power and glory and the: seek to fill the void in other ways, and so if God is not supreme in our preaching, where in the world will people hear of the supremacy of God. And if we do not spread a banquet of God’s beauty on Sunday morning, will not our people seek in vain to satisfy their inconsolable longings with the cotton-candy pleasures of pastimes and religious hype? If the fountain of Living Water does not flow from the mountain of God’s Sovereign Grace on Sunday morning will not the people hue for themselves cisterns on Monday, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” So, the task of God’s messenger is to present God in His glory.

I love Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7, if for no other reason that it reminds me that my preaching must be God-centered if it is to be God-honoring. We study Stephen’s sermon in broad strokes this morning. I want you to capture its weight and its beauty as a whole rather than taking it apart piece-by-piece over a course of weeks of time. Being a God-centered sermon, Stephen presents us four specific truths about God.

First, Stephen teaches us of God’s sovereignty – God works to bring redemption to His people.

Second, Stephen teaches us of God’s glory – God cannot be confined by human boundaries.

Third, Stephen teaches us of God’s grace – God reaches out to those who reject Him.

Fourth, Stephen teaches us of God’s faithfulness – God faithfully fulfills all of His promises in Jesus.

The context is the debate between Stephen in the Synagogue of the Freedmen. We read of that in Chapter 6. We look at Chapter 6:11, and after this debate, these guys get really frustrated at Stephen and they secretly persuade some men to say,

“We’ve have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.”

This is the charge.

In Verse 13,

They produced false witnesses…

And, these false witnesses say,

“This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law.”

These charges are very serious and it is important for you to understand that Stephen knew the seriousness of these charges and the false witnesses that were coming against him. These charges are very similar to the charges made against Jesus that lead to His ultimate murder, and so the High Priests, upon hearing these charges that Stephen is blaspheming against God, against Moses, that he is standing against the Temple and he is against the Law of God, the High Priest comes to Stephen and asks the question, “Are these charges true?” The majority of Chapter 7 is a reply; it is a masterful, extemporaneous sermon. It is so masterful that it could only be done, I believe, extemporaneously underneath the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, because it is so structured, it is so ordered, it is so perfect in its presentation. Stephen brings to us a wonderful teaching in regards to the history and theology of God’s working throughout Old Testament Scripture.

In Part One, Stephen will tell us about Abram and God’s call upon him. Even while Abraham was still living in a pagan land, God appeared to him in that strange and pagan, idolatrous land. Outside the Land of Canaan, God met Abraham, called him, and then made a promise to him and initiated a special relationship with Abraham and to Abraham’s children.

Part Two presents Joseph. The point that Stephen makes through talking about Joseph is that Joseph was one of the Patriarchs. He was given the responsibility by God to be the deliverer and yet the Patriarchs themselves rejected Joseph. It was only until they met Joseph the second time that they accepted him.

Moses is presented in Part Three of this message and Moses is assigned the God-given task to be a ruler, a deliverer over the people, but Moses, too was rejected by his people at the beginning, and then, even after Moses led the people out of the land of Egypt, out of slavery, that he again, was rejected. Not only did they reject Moses but they rejected the Law that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai as they engaged in idolatry and then idolatry became sort of a symptom of a national disease, a national illness, that this had always been a part of the nation’s spiritual rejection of God and of His Law.

In Part Four, Stephen is going to talk to us about David and the Temple that would be built through his son Solomon, but he makes the case, while this temple was great and glorious, it was never meant to confine the presence of God to one locality; that the temple was not intended to be regarded as God’s literal home, for God cannot be confined to time and to space. God is eternal, and He is omnipresent, and He is everywhere. He can’t be limited and put in a box in this way.

This disrespect for the Law did not come from Stephen, but it came from the people who continued to reject God. The disrespect for the Temple did not come from Stephen but it came from the people who made the Temple into a place of idolatry.

Having followed the flow of Stephen’s historical argument, we now turn our attention to these four great truths which are presented in this message.
Truth Number One: God’s Sovereignty: God works to bring redemption to His people by His Grace. The Truth of the Scripture is that God does not wait for man to wake up spiritually and call out to Him. The natural heart of man is ignorant of God so it wouldn’t know who to callout to. Furthermore, it is rebellious and so it resists what little it does know about God. In fact, the truth of the Scripture is that no one seeks after God, not even one, so the natural state of the human heart is spiritually dead, unable, unwilling to make any step towards God on its own. God, if we are to have a right relationship with Him, must take the initiative to reach out to us first or else we would forever remain alienated from Him, separated from God, without Him, and without hope in this world.

It is vital that we remember that anything we know of God begins with God’s Sovereignty; it begins with God’s Sovereign initiative to reveal Himself to us and to bring His Truth to us in such a way that we would receive it. We read of this theme all through this sermon.

Look at Verse 2,

“The God of glory appeared…”

In Verse 3, “God spoke.” In Verse 4, “…God sent him…” In Verse 5, “…God promised him…” In Verse 6, “God spoke to him…”

In Verse 8,

“(God) gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision.”

Do you see the theme that God is the One who sovereignly initiates His work among His people, that it is not the people who first try to reach out to God, but it is God, in the midst of this spiritual void, this spiritual dead-place, even in Mesopotamia where idolatry was rampant, it is God who appears and God who graciously comes to Abram and Abram’s children through that? The Sanhedrin, the religious leaders that were arguing Stephen, possesses a very man-centered view of redemption. They believed that if you followed certain rules, if you did certain religious ac that God would respond to you, so their view of salvation and redemption is that God in Heaven is waiting and He is waiting for us to act first, and once we act first, then God looks down and says, “Okay, that’s a good response,” or, “That’s not a good response,” and Stephen rejects this error in his sermon.

He says, “If you missed this point that God must be the one who acts in order to bring redemption to His people, if you missed it in Abraham, then don’t miss it in the life of Joseph.”

He goes on in Joseph’s life, in Verse 9 and 10,

…the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him…

God acted. God sovereignly rescued him from all his troubles and He gave him

…wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh…

And why was that? So that he could ultimately deliver his people from famine. It was God initiating salvation; it was God initiating redemption with His people. What about the days of Moses?

Look at Verse 35 and 36,

“This is the same Moses whom they…rejected…”

They weren’t taking any steps toward God. They were rejecting every initiative that God was offering.

“Who made you ruler and judge?”

He was sent by God; God initiated the sending of Moses, “…to be their ruler…”

They weren’t asking for a deliverer. God was sending them one by His Grace.

“And he was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out of Egypt and did wonders and miraculous signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea…for forty years in the desert.”

The major point of all of this is to say that the Gospel of Jesus is that God initiates this plan of salvation in the lives of His people, and nothing can hinder God; not even the rejection by man and by women can hinder God from accomplishing His Sovereign purposes.

Stephen proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus and the religious leaders debated with him over it. They rejected the idea that salvation was wholly on the basis of God’s Sovereign Grace and they taught that it could be earned by living out the Law, and when they heard of this Gospel of Grace that is why they accused Stephen, saying, “You are against the Law,” because they misunderstood it. When Stephen told the Gospel in detail, what happened? They said, “This guy is blaspheming against God and against Moses, and this guy is speaking against the Temple and against the Law itself.”

It is important to remember who is standing there giving approval to this hatred and this animosity towards Stephen. There was this guy named Saul, and we read about that in Verse 1 of Chapter 8, that even while Stephen was being stoned, Saul was standing there giving approval to this horrible death of Stephen. Perhaps Saul remembered Stephen’s sermon; I wonder. He remembered the accusations laid against Stephen when he penned the words of the Letter to Romans 7:7 and 14. He addresses the question,

“Now does the Gospel mean we are against the Law?”

He says,

“What shall we say, then? Is the Law sin?

“Is the Law bad, is the Law horrible?”

“Certainly not!”

He says,

“Indeed, I would not have known what sin was except through the Law.”

Verse 14,

“We know that the Law is Spiritual but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.”

Paul addresses the very same accusation that Stephen addressed in Acts 7. He says, “Is the Law sin? Am I against the Law? No, I am not against the Law, but the problem is not with the Law. The Law is perfect, but the problem is with me. I am the one who is unspiritual and as a result, the Law is unable to save me.”

Why is this truth about God so important? Two practical implications – first, personal salvation is all of God’s Grace from beginning to end. We have no more part in our salvation than Abraham played in his calling, than Joseph had in becoming a ruler over Egypt, or Moses had from his rescue from the Nile River. That is why Stephen writes all these things to show us that God Sovereignly ordains salvation. If we are saved, we are saved wholly by the Grace of God. The works of the Law are excluded, and so our relationship with God is not a 50/50 relationship; God does fifty percent and we do our fifty percent and then; together, we are able to attain Heaven. Salvation is not even a 90/10 where God does ninety percent of the work and we do our ten percent, and then, salvation is not even a 99 and one relationship; where God does ninety-nine percent of the work and we just do this little, tiny part. In fact, salvation is not even a 99.9999 percent and a .0001 percent relationship. There is nothing that we contribute to our own salvation. We come only to God as people who are poor in spirit, people who are spiritually impoverished, and people who have nothing in our hands to bring; simply to the Cross we cling.

Charles Spurgeon tells a wonderful story of this poor woman who was destitute and a minister came to her house to bring her money so that she could pay for food for her children. The minister knocks at the door and no one answers. He knocks again harder and no one answers. The next day, he saw her at church and he says, “I came to your house yesterday and I knocked but you weren’t home.” She says, “Oh, I was home all day.” “Well, do you remember anyone knocking about three in the afternoon?” “Oh, yes, yes, I do.” Her face was fallen, but she says, “But, I thought that you were the bill collector, and so I hid myself because I had nothing to pay.”

So often, as people come to church and as they open up their Bibles and they hear the Gospel and they read God’s Word, they almost want to close it. They almost don’t even want to come to church because they are afraid that the Bill Collector is coming and saying, “You need to pay up. You need to do your part in order to be accepted by God. Here is what you need to do.” So people out of their fear of realizing, “I don’t have what is required to pay God in order to be accepted by Him,” keep their doors shut and they hide inside, all the while, God is this gracious God who is bringing to them everything that they need. Everything that you need is found in Jesus. Open the door. Receive Him. It is all of grace. Isn’t that a wonder?

The result to this kind of salvation is joyful, exuberant praise and adoration. This is why, when we worship, we have a great time and energy in celebrating God because our salvation is all of Grace and we have something to celebrate.

The second practical principle that we want to draw from this great truth is that God is right to set the conditions of salvation. Jesus sovereignly devised the means to provide salvation; there is no other way to God, to be accepted by God, other than the means that God sovereignly ordained for us. If salvation began with man, any man, even a great man, say Abraham, or Moses, then the argument could be made, “Surely if it began with Abraham, Abraham is a man just like me; surely I could come up with another idea that should be just as acceptable to God.” That is not where salvation begins, and that is not where salvation ends. Salvation begins with God and He has the right to set the conditions. We have no argument before Him to say, “God, if your way is okay, my way should be, too!”

When we come to God, we must come to God on His terms which means we come through the provision that He Sovereignly ordained which is Jesus Christ who died upon the Cross and arose on the third day. This is the focus of the Gospel that when God provided salvation to mankind, it was through His Sovereign work. Do you see why it is so arrogant to reject God’s initiative and then to offer your own up to God with the expectation that it would be accepted because of God’s Sovereignty.

The next truth about God that we observe through Stephen’s sermon is that God cannot be confined by human boundaries. These religious leaders were mad at Stephen for “speaking against the Holy Place,” they said. This is the same accusation that was made against Jesus. They said, “You said you would destroy this place and in three days you would raise it up.” The religious leaders thought that they had God locked in a box in the Temple; that this Temple was the literal place where God lived and so all spiritual life had to focus around the Temple as a geographical location. That’s what had become of what had become of this 1st Century religion. Stephen reminded them that God’s presence must not be bound by anyone location, and in thinking that, rather than being contrary to honoring the Temple, it was actually faithful to the Scripture. He noted that God appeared to him, not in the Land of Canaan, but God appeared to Abraham in a pagan, idolatrous land; that God was with Joseph in Egypt, and Joseph left the Land of Promise, and God didn’t desert him when he left the Land of Canaan, but God was with Joseph all the while he was in Egypt. God met Moses. Where did God meet Moses? In Median, and then God gave the Law at Mount Sinai. The idea that Stephen is presenting here is, “How can we imagine that God is to be confined to a Temple?” God is not confined to anyone location.

Acts 7:47,

“…it was Solomon who built the house for him.”

He acknowledges, “The Temple is great,” but,

“…the prophet says: ‘Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?'”

That is to say that the Most High does not live in houses built in human hands. God is so big that He cannot be confined to one room. The idea that the 1st Century religious leaders held, in regard to the Temple, Stephen said, “It is ridiculous to think that God can be confined to one room,” and it is also unscriptural – God’s Glory is immense. This nation failed because it made the Temple an object of worship itself, and that is what Stephen was rejecting. The lesson that Stephen brings to us is that God is everywhere present, and the Holy Place is where Jesus, the Messiah, is.

There are two practical implications behind the Glory of God not being confined. The first is: we have to be aware of creating our own Jerusalem Temples. There is something that appeals to us about having God in a certain location, that we can put boundaries on Him. The Temple is not needed any longer because we have Jesus. He has opened for us the very Holy of Holies; the Temple curtain was torn in two at the crucifixion of Jesus, revealing that now He is the Way to the very Holy of Holies, to the very presence of God.

The danger is to think of certain buildings as “Sacred Space” where God is “specially” present. For instance, this room, we call it a Sanctuary, but what makes this place “sacred,” and I do believe this place is sacred? Is it because there are pews in here instead of chairs? Is it because there is carpet instead of basketball boundaries? Is it because the ceiling is shaped this way and there are certain kinds of lights with crosses on them? Is that the reason why this is a “Sanctuary?” The answer is, “No, God is not confined to this place,” but the reason why this is sacred is because the Spirit of God indwells His people and when people gather in this place, something sacred is happening here. We have to be careful of thinking of God being present in anyone specific location.

That brings us to the second practical application: we must aware of becoming sloppy in worship, and this is where we have gone from considering, in our modem church, the Sanctuary as being “the place” where God resides, and perhaps there are some who still struggle with that, to the point where, most today, struggle with the idea that God doesn’t reside anywhere, and there is no place that is sacred and that there is no place where we ought to revere and stand in awe of the Holy God. Just because there are no specific sacred places doesn’t mean worship is not sacred, and the modem trend often races to the opposite extreme of a casual, flippant attitude towards worship – no sense of God’s Holiness, His Holy Otherness, His Majesty, His Glory, His Beauty, and His Magnificence.

Listen to what the writer of Psalms (96:9) says,

Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before Him, all the earth.

Do we ever tremble at the Holiness of God as we are gathered together for worship?

You say, “That is the Old Testament, Pastor.”

Listen to Hebrews 12 (Verse 2),

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that (can’t) be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe…

Do you realize there is such a thing as unacceptable worship? That is worship that is not done with reverence and with awe. The reason given is our God is a “consuming fire.” Reverence and awe is always the Biblical attitude of worship, and when we come to worship with the same attitude we would have in going to a friend’s house, or a pool party, something is desperately wrong. We don’t want to get hung up or caught up on the externals of worship, but there is something about the externals that often betray the internal of the heart, so when we would come to worship like we would to a pool party with a torn t-shirt and a beat up ball cap, and we come in and just slouch down, there is something wrong with that kind of worship because it betrays something is happening on the inside. You might say, “No, no, I really do have reverence and awe.” I am not going to really argue long and hard with you on that, but what I want to argue long and hard with you is that we must have reverence and awe and you need be honest before God about that because God knows.

The third truth: God’s Grace reaches out to those who reject Him.

Jesus, all through His life, was opposed. Stephen is opposed for preaching of Jesus, and they accused Stephen of blasphemy just as they accused Jesus of blasphemy. Instead of answering the charges and just laying at that and saying, “I am really for the Law and I am really for the Temple, I don’t know where you get that,” Stephen turns the tables on these religious leaders and he accuses them of rejecting God’s Deliverer, even as their forefathers had all throughout the history of this nation. Joseph was set aside by God to save his people from starvation and yet, his brothers hated him. These were the patriarchs who hated Joseph and sold him into slavery. The nation began their history with the rejection of God’s “specially” appointed deliverer.

We fast forward four hundred years and we observe Moses. Stephen says, “Look at Moses. When Moses came to you he was set aside by God to be your deliverer and what did you do? You said, ‘Who are you to become ruler and judge over us? Who appointed you?’” Moses goes out into the wilderness for forty years. God appears to Moses in the burning bush and sends him right back. Moses delivers the people from slavery in Egypt and what happens in the wilderness? The people continue to reject Moses as the leader that God had appointed over them; as the deliverer that God had given and provided for them. God is gracious to reach out to those who reject Him. God didn’t stop reaching out to His people and He doesn’t stop reaching out to you.

In Matthew 23:37, Jesus is speaking and He says the same thing regarding God’s Grace; that He reaches out to those that reject Him, and we see this wonderful picture found in Jesus,

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you…how…I have longed…”

Do you see the Grace of God continue to reach out to those who reject Him?

“…how…I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

Stephen offers the strongest indictment possible for the condition of the hearts of the religious leaders of the day, when he says,

“You stiff necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ear…”

“Stiff-necked” means unwilling to bow the neck and the head in submission. He says, “You are unwilling to bow your head in submission to God who is the Authority. You are saying, ‘I am against the Law. I am against the Temple. I am against Moses.’ Look at your own heart. Look what God has done and shown you so clearly all throughout our history.”

Two applications: the natural response of the human heart is to reject God’s Grace. One of the things we often say is “If we were these people and had this happen to me, if Moses came and showed me all these signs and he led me out through that Red Sea, I would never reject him.” But, you know we would. That is the natural condition of our heart it is to reject God’s initiative, it is to reject God’s Grace.

Jesus, in Matthew 23:30, says this to the Pharisees,

“And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of out forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.'”

Do you see our heart is blind to our own rebellion? Jesus says, “I know what you are saying as you read your history, you are saying, ‘If I lived back in that day, of course I wouldn’t have rejected Moses; of course I wouldn’t have rejected Joseph; of course I wouldn’t have rejected all of the prophets. Not me!'”
Then the Righteous One comes; the One who is the fulfillment of all the prophets, and what happens? They kill Him.

Isn’t it a wonder that while we are still sinners Christ died for us? While we are still rejecting God, Christ died for us. What Grace!

The last truth we want to look at is the truth of God’s Faithfulness. God’s Sovereignty works to bring redemption to His people. God’s Glory cannot be confined by human boundaries. God’s Grace reaches out to those who reject Him and God’s faithfulness fulfills all of His promises in Jesus.

Stephen says, “I am being charged that I am against the Law. No, the Law is good, but Jesus fulfilled the Law for us He is the fulfillment of the promise of the Law. Jesus is the Temple; Jesus is the Way that we come to God. You say I am against Moses, himself. No, Moses was a wonderful guy; a deliverer who was rejected by the nation, but he was the deliverer, but even Moses prophesied that ‘there is going to be another Prophet from among your own people.'” Who do you think Moses is talking about – someone greater than himself and that someone is Jesus?”

Beloved, human history climaxes here in the person of Jesus, and everyone before the life of Jesus looked and had to deal with, “What are we going to believe about the person who is going to come? We live after that event in history of God becoming a man, and God dying on the Cross. We have to look back on that and say, ‘What would I do with Jesus?'”

God is sovereign. Submit to Him.

God is glorious. Let us worship Him.

God is gracious. Receive Him.

God is faithful. Let us enjoy Him, and enjoy Him forever.