Stephen was the first of the martyrs for Jesus Christ as far as we know. He was put to death for his beliefs and for preaching the gospel. Now you would have to REALLY upset someone for them to go to such extremes. What I mean is that Stephen was a God fearing man and clearly was well thought of by the Christians as they had put him forward as one of the seven to assist the Apostles.
Given the track record of the scribes, Pharisees and the religious leaders of the Jews at that time, that may have been enough to incur their wrath. After all, they had a track record of violence against the people of God having put the Lord to death not that long earlier and imprisoned the Apostles as well.
But there were some very specific charges they laid at the foot of Stephen that they did not like and which led them to having Stephen stoned. We see those charges in this section of scripture and need to understand why they were so incensed and what it means for us today.
The Charge Against Stephen
Now first we must recognize that the leaders of the Jews instigated men to say things that were not true. They twisted the words that Stephen had spoken in an attempt to discredit him. This is what took place.
11 Then they secretly instigated men, who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”
12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council,
13 and set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law;
14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us.”
These sound like remarkable charges. Blasphemy, destruction of the temple, changing the law & the customs of the people and so on. And no-one seems to have pointed out that they said it was Jesus who would destroy these things and yet they had already put Him to death some time earlier. Of course we know He rose again, but those people said they did not accept His resurrection and yet here they were fearful of Jesus destroying the temple and the customs. Makes you stop and think that although they denied His resurrection publicly, privately they were worried because the evidence was too great to continue to deny it.
But let us look at the charges and the truth of these matters for they are quite interesting in their own right. Although the men instigated to stand against Stephen were speaking out against him, there is some truth to what they were saying.
Destroying the Temple
Did Jesus destroy the temple? Yes and no. We know that when Jesus died the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom indicating that there was no longer any barrier standing between man and God. (Matthew 27:51) Thus the temple worship as it existed with only the high priest entering into the presence of God behind the curtain, and then only once a year, ceased to exist with the death of Jesus and the introduction of the New Covenant.
With the death of Jesus and the commencement of the New Covenant, which began at the point of His death, the old covenant about to become obsolete for the way of Christ is far better than the way of the law. And we know that the temple, which is symbolic of and synonymous with the law must cease to be of importance when the law is taken away. And in Jesus the law WAS taken away. Look at what Paul wrote in the following scriptures in Romans 7:4, 6.
4 Likewise, my brethren, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.
6 But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.
And again in Galatians 5:3-4
3 I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law.
4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
In Jesus Christ we have been set free from the law. But it is not the law that has been taken away from us, but we who have been removed from the law. Let me repeat that. The law has NOT been taken away from us, in Jesus Christ WE have been removed from the law.
When we are baptized into Christ Jesus we enter into His death and His death becomes our death. And the law is not binding on a dead man, as Paul showed in Romans 7:1 saying, “Do you not know, brethren–for I am speaking to those who know the law–that the law is binding on a person only during his life?” Thus if a person dies the law is no longer binding on them. And God has structured the New Covenant so that we can take on the death of Jesus Christ in baptism so that we can escape the law and be taken away from it. Paul wrote as much in Romans 6:3-4.
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
So in Christ we die to sin, we die to the law and we become new creations in Jesus Christ. We have been taken away from the law in Christ’s death, which we receive through faith.
But the law still exists and is in full force for every person who has not accepted Jesus and they shall be judged by the law. This is how we can reconcile being set free from the law but also see Jesus’ statement where He said in Matthew 5:17-18,
17 “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.
18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
The law still exists for those who are under the law, but it ceases to exist for those who have escaped sin and the law through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So for them, the temple and the law have NOT been destroyed as they will be judged according to the law and will be held accountable for their sins committed against the law.
Changing the Customs
So the second charge made against Stephen was in changing the customs that were delivered by Moses to the Israelites. As we can see above, the whole process of worship and access to the Father has changed for the law of Moses ceases to exist for those who come to Christ. Thus the customs under the law must also cease to exist.
One of the keys to this is that the law was administered by the priesthood of the Levites. However Jesus became the high priest of the New Covenant not as a priest of the order of Levi, but as a priest of the order of Melchizadek. The priesthood has changed for those who now worship God under the New Covenant, and as we see in Hebrews 7:12,
For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.
The law that we serve Christ under is NOT the same as the laws given by Moses. We serve under the rules of Grace, not the rule of law. We are not under law but under grace as Paul eloquently said in Romans 6:14-15.
14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!
We now worship God through the Holy Spirit and by the power of grace. Thus, the customs of worship have indeed changed. But they are not opposed to the processes under the law of Moses.
As Christians we do not reject the law because we know that the law is holy, just and good as Paul said in Romans 7:12. Instead we know that the law contains the words of wisdom from God on what makes for a good life and so instead we uphold the law, even though we are not judged by it and are not under it. Paul wrote in Romans 3:31:
Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
As Christians being led by the Holy Spirit and being transformed into the image of Christ, which is the work of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18) we uphold the just requirements of the law because our aim is to do what is right in the sight of God. We do not do this because there is a law that says, “Thou shalt…” We do it because we desire to please the Lord and live in harmony with Him. And when we live in harmony with Christ, there is no need for the law. The law is only needed where there is unlawful and evil practices. But if a person does what is right, they no longer need a law.
Let me give an example. Do you need a law to tell you not to kill a fellow human being? I hope not! Why? Because it is right not to take the life of another and you believe that is how you should behave. In fact it is part of your nature as a Christian not to harm others, especially to kill them. And if it is part of your nature to not kill, why do you need a law to tell you not to kill?
The same goes with all the rest of the laws. God wants us to love one another and love means not doing wrong by another. When we get to that place we will by nature be living in accordance with the just requirements of the law and as such will not need the law any more. Know this for a certainty, there will be no law in the kingdom of God for it will be unnecessary as no-one permitted to live in the kingdom of God will even desire to break the law.
Back To Stephen
So looking back at Stephen and his situation, it is evident that all of the above tore at the very roots of what the Pharisees and leaders of the Jews were doing. And this is aside from the destruction of their power base which caused them great jealousy and envy.
The above is what separated Stephen and the Christians from the Jewish leaders of the time. It is what separates Christianity from Judaism and every other form of religion. And all of this still stands today.
The temple worship is gone. The law ceases to have effect when we come to Christ and in fact if we seek to continue to look to the law we destroy the work of Christ. As Paul wrote in Galatians 5:4-5,
4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.
If you seek to follow the law and believe you are still under the law and bound to keep the law today, you cut yourself off from Christ. We can ONLY come to Christ through obedience to Grace by faith, not through following the tenets of the law. You will never find the path to perfection through the law but only through walking with Jesus Christ. But unfortunately there are many who do not know this today and who believe they are still under the law. That is not what Jesus taught and if it were, Stephen would not have been stoned. But as it was, through teaching and preaching the message described above, Stephen was murdered and martyred.
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(Image supplied by stock.xchng taken by Claudia Meyer)