Stiff-necked people are arrogant and stubborn. They work hard to be good before God. But they refuse to worship God as God, celebrating their achievements instead. Therefore, after much patience, God turns away from them.
We come to the third sermon of “The Acts Eight”, “Stephen and the Stiff-Necked”. It’s long (7:1-53), so to “hear” it we’ll need our Bible. Let’s pull it out and read along. Before we get to Stephen’s sermon, let’s take a brief look at the man and charges made against him.
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)– Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.” So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:8-15).
The Man Stephen.
We met him in Acts 6:5. There he was one of seven chosen to distribute food to church widows and introduced as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” Here author Luke describes him as “a man full of God’s grace and power” who “did great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). He spread the Gospel primarily among Hellenist Jews, that is, Jews born outside Israel (“Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria and the provinces of Cilicia and Asia”). They reacted with arguments. Unable to succeed, they persuaded some men to make false charges against Stephen. They seized him and dragged him before the Sanhedrin. When members looked at him closely, they saw a face literally shining with God’s glory, as was written of Moses’ face (Exodus 34:29,30).
Charges Against Stephen.
To the Court the men Luke calls “false witnesses” charged Stephen with blasphemy against Moses and against God, specifically (1) speaking against the temple saying Jesus will destroy it and (2) speaking against Moses by changing his traditional customs. Like most lies, they contained enough truth to be deceptively convincing to the already hostile Court.
It wasn’t really a sermon, but a historical defense which Stephen turned into a prosecution of the Court. In it, Stephen over-viewed Jewish history in the Old Testament. Two themes run throughout it. First, God’s steadfast covenant faithfulness to his people. Second, the people’s resistance to God in favor of their own way, resulting eventually in God turning away from them. We’ll look for those themes as we read. And we’ll do it with the prayer that God may keep us from being stiff-necked before his grace.
The High Priest’s Question.
“Are these things (the charges of speaking against the temple and the customs of Moses) so?” (7:1)
God and Abraham (please read 7:2-8).
Stephen tells how God called Abraham to a land he would show him. Abraham went, but only as far as Haran. But God “removed” him from that land to bring him to the land of promise. In other words, Abraham half obeyed, half resisted. Nevertheless, God acted in sovereign grace and drove Abraham from Haran to the Promised Land.
God and Joseph (please read 7:9-16).
Stephen recounts how the patriarchs (the men who would become heads of Israel’s twelve tribes) sold Joseph into Egypt, jealous of his dreams in which he claimed they would have to bow down to him. But God was with Joseph and gave him favor with Pharaoh. Therefore, by God’s sovereign grace, Joseph saved his family (and future generations) from famine. (His brothers did bow down to him.)
God and Moses (please read (7:17-43).
Stephen narrates Moses’ story—how the Hebrews were enslaved under Pharaoh and how the Lord rescued them with signs and wonders. But from the Hebrews rejected Moses again and again, questioning Moses’ credentials as ruler and redeemer, finally making a golden calf “and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.” God then “turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven . . . “
God and the Temple (please read 7:44-50).
Yet a believing remnant survived 40 years in the wilderness. God brought them into the Promised Land, driving out the nations for their sake. Solomon, David’s son, built the temple. “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?’says the Lord. ‘Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?'”
With that quote from the prophet Isaiah (66:1,2), Stephen begins to drive home his charge against them. The temple was the work of their ancestors’ hands. They built it and gloried in it, instead of in the God who doesn’t live in a house made by men. Rather, he is the maker of all things.
“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him– you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it” (7:51-53).
Their history reveals their resistance to God. And they have climaxed it by betraying and murdering the Messiah. Yet, there is still opportunity to repent at this “sermon.” We’ll see next time if they do. Meanwhile, here is . . .
A Soft-Necked Prayer.
O God, please soften my neck.
I don’t want to be like those people
who enjoyed your grace but worshiped themselves.
I never want you to turn away from me
because of my arrogance or stubbornness.
Enable me to lower myself and humble myself
to your good and perfect will
(even if I think my way is better).
Teach me that I can’t box you in,
because you’re too big and can’t be contained.
Teach me that my achievements earn nothing,
that all things are from you and through you and to you.
What am I that you are mindful of me?
In the name of your Son who chose your will for my sake.