Preaching To The Elite

May 7, 2023 Speaker: Ray Lorthioir Series: Sermons 2023

Passage: Acts 6:1– 7:60

Sermon 5-7-23

Pastor Ray Lorthioir

Trinity Lutheran Church

W. Hempstead, NY

Based on the First Lesson for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Acts 6:1-9, 7:1-60


Preaching To The Elite

In this morning’s first lesson, we’re given a quick lesson on the first martyr for Jesus, a man with the Hellenistic name, Stephen. We’re told that as the church continued to grow in Jerusalem in the year or two after Pentecost 33A.D., a problem arose. In the daily distribution of food, Jewish widows from Israel proper were getting precedence over Jewish widows from the diaspora — the Jews scattered over the world. And fault was being laid at the feet of the Apostles. So, the Apostles wanted to get out of the social ministry business. Therefore, a new order of people holding authority in the church was created — the Deacons. It was the task of the Deacons to make sure that the needs of all the believers were taken care of. There were originally seven Deacons.

At the top of the list of Deacons was Stephen. We’re told in Acts 6:5 that Stephen was a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit who exceeded expectations. Thus, we’re told in Acts 6:8, “Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.” In other words, God gave Stephen abilities similar to that of the Apostles. He could also preach.

But as we have continued to see during this Easter season, there are people who perversely hate others for the good they are doing. And this happened to Stephen. They hated him even more because he always won arguments from Scripture over Jesus of Nazareth being Messiah.

So, some of these supposedly religious people did something forbidden by Yahweh in His commandments. Acts 6:11, “. . . they secretly persuaded some men to say, ‘We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.’” That’s bearing false witness against one’s neighbor. With this false accusation they got Stephen dragged before the Sanhedrin to stand trial on charges of blasphemy. 

Concerning this trial, remarkably, we read in Acts 6:15, “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” In other words, Stephen’s face had a glow to it. 

This is totally ironic. For we’re told in Exodus 34:34-35, “34 . . . whenever he [Moses] entered the LORD's presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD.” In other words, Moses — the man Stephen was accused of blaspheming — also had a shiny face because of his dealings with the Lord. The Sanhedrin should have noted the irony and stopped right there. But they didn’t.

So, Stephen made a defense before the Sanhedrin. It’s a long sermon, over a thousand words. In it, Stephen highlighted two important figures from Israel’s history — Joseph, son of Jacob and Moses. Both these men shared two things in common with Jesus. Both were initially rejected by their own people. And both were subsequently given great power and authority by God.

Abraham was the father of Isaac. And, Isaac was the father of Jacob, who received the name Israel from Yahweh. Jacob was the father of twelve sons born from four women. In the complex narrative told in Genesis, we find out that Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. The other brothers were jealous of this. Joseph also was gifted by God. He could interpret dreams. Joseph himself had a few dreams that prophesied that he would eventually hold authority over his entire family. He told his family his dreams and his brothers hated him even more.

Eventually, an opportunity came for the brothers to do evil to Joseph, and so Joseph was sold as a slave into Egypt at the age of 17. Through a remarkable series of circumstances, by age 30, Joseph was second in Egypt only to Pharaoh. Then, because of a famine, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt seeking food for their family. They had to deal with Joseph. Again, through a remarkable series of circumstances, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers telling them not to worry about the evil they had once done to him. For God had used that evil to set things up for the survival of Jacob’s family in the midst of a horrible seven year famine. Thus, Jacob’s family moved to Egypt where they were well provided for by Joseph.

Stephen used this piece of Israel’s history to demonstrate a salient fact. Jacob’s brothers, who are the founders of Israel’s twelve tribes, had rejected Joseph. Nevertheless, Yahweh placed Joseph in authority over them.

After about 200 years in Egypt, the descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons had grown into a significant nation of people. The presence of such a large alien nation within Egypt caused the Pharaoh of that time to enslave Israel. There was even an attempt by Pharaoh to enforce infanticide on Israel. But one baby boy was placed in a watertight basket and was floated down the Nile river. By the providence of God, he was found by an Egyptian princess who named him Moses, and raised him as her son.

We read in Exodus 2:11-14, “11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. 12 Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, ‘Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?’ 14 The man said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?’”

Moses knew from this that what he had done was known. So, he had to flee Egypt. But the important point for Stephen’s sermon was that a fellow Hebrew had said to Moses, “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” As Stephen said in Acts 7:35, “‘This is the same Moses whom they had rejected with the words, “Who made you ruler and judge?” He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself. . . .’”

This had also been the point of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost 33A.D., when he said in Acts 2:36, “‘Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’” Now, on the Day of Pentecost the reaction to Peter’s words was one of great repentance. We read in Acts 2:37, “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” To this Peter preached the great Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Acts 2:38-39, “38. . . ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off-for all whom the Lord our God will call.’” That day 3,000 men and their families put their faith in Messiah Jesus.

But on that day, Peter had preached to the common people. On this day Stephen was preaching to Israel’s elite, the Sanhedrin. He was making his defense before the same men that had condemned Jesus to death. Therefore, let’s briefly revisit what happened when Jesus stood before the Sanhedrin.

Mark 14:55-59, “55 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. 56 Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. 57 Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: 58 ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.”’ 59 Yet even then their testimony did not agree.” And notice, what were they accusing Jesus of saying? He would build a new temple, a divine temple built by Yahweh Himself. That’s the worst they could say about Jesus? It’s this sin-crippled world acting perversely as it always does.

Mark 14:60-61, “60 Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, ‘Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?’ 61 But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.” Here Jesus was fulfilling Isaiah 53:7-8, “7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.”

Frustrated, the high priest changed tactics. Mark 14:61, “. . . Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’” To this, Jesus finally gave an answer. Mark 14:62,  “‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’”

There are three things about Jesus’ answer. First, He invoked Yahweh’s Name —  I AM. Second, He invoked Psalm 110:1, “The LORD [Yahweh] says to my Lord [the Messiah]: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’” Third, He invoked Daniel 7:13-14, “13 In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

Jesus frequently identified Himself as the Son of Man. And now He stood face to face with the high priest identifying Himself as the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven that Daniel saw in his vision.

As we have said before, the man standing before the high priest was mortal. If Jesus had come in power as an immortal, it’s probable the high priest would have knelt in subservience before Him. Although with sin you never know. But because Jesus had come as a mortal in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:10-12 and other passages, the high priest obstinately refused to believe Jesus that he would eventually see this same Son of Man in immortal form. Therefore, we read the result in Mark 14:63-64, “63 The high priest tore his clothes. ‘Why do we need any more witnesses?’ he asked. 64 ‘You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think? They all condemned him as worthy of death.”

That night, the Sanhedrin was permitted by Yahweh to sit in judgment over Yahweh the Son and declare Jesus a blasphemer — one who speaks evil of God. As with Joseph and Moses before Him, Israel willfully rejected the one who God would establish as divine leader — Jesus. That was the point of Stephen’s sermon.

However, that night, Jesus declared that He was the one who would eventually sit in judgment over the Sanhedrin and declare them guilty of blasphemy — speaking evil against God — if they wouldn’t repent. Of course, that judgment hasn’t happened yet on earth. And, of course, the night of Jesus’ trial, there was no news of His physical resurrection from the dead.

However, when Stephen stood before the Sanhedrin, news of Jesus’ resurrection in power had gone forth for several years. Peter and John had already stood before the Sanhedrin declaring themselves eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. Scripture doesn’t say if Stephen had been one of the blessed 600 who saw Jesus alive in those forty days. However, through Stephen’s sermon, Yahweh again offered the Sanhedrin reason to repent of their blasphemy. Stephen was saying to his accusers, “you want to argue Moses, then let’s argue Moses.” Like you rejected Jesus, so Israel rejected Moses — and not just once. Even when it was abundantly clear that Yahweh had made Moses His representative to Israel, Israel dared to reject Moses time and again during the forty years in the wilderness.

In his sermon Stephen didn’t mention this event, but in the twelfth chapter of Numbers we read that even Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister began to speak against him. So, Yahweh called them out and instructed all three of them in Numbers 12:6-8, “6. . . ‘When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. 7 But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. 8 With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?’”

In all the history of the world no one has been able to speak face to face with Yahweh and live, except Moses. That is until Jesus came along. Jesus said in John 14:24, “‘These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.’” Obviously, Jesus claimed to be talking face to face with God. But Jesus claimed something even greater in John 10:30, “‘I and the Father are one.’”

Now, Moses was a prophet. Stephen reminded the Sanhedrin of that by saying in Acts 7:37-38, “37 ‘This is that Moses who told the Israelites, “God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.”  38 He was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.’” Here, Stephen quoted Moses from Deuteronomy 18:15, “‘The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.’” Therefore, it’s clear that Stephen considered Jesus to be the fulfillment of Moses’ prophecy — that a prophet like Moses would arise who would speak to God face to face.

Deuteronomy is sort of Moses’ autobiography. However, there’s a nameless scribe who obviously wrote the last chapter of Deuteronomy because Moses could not have written about his own death. In its final verses we read in Deuteronomy 34:10-12, “10 Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, 11 who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt — to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. 12 For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”

As we look at these verses, I think it becomes clear why the Jewish leadership was always looking for a sign from Jesus to see if He was the prophet promised in Deuteronomy 18:15. For, if Moses had been sent to deliver Israel from the power of Pharaoh, and if Jesus was the promised prophet Yahweh had sent, wouldn’t Jesus likewise be able to deliver Israel from Caesar using mighty signs and wonders?

Certainly Jesus was able. But Yahweh’s plan for Jesus was different. We read in Matthew 12:39-41, “39 He [Jesus] answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’”

In the book of Jonah, Jonah was resuscitated from death back into his mortal body in the belly of the great fish. But Jesus prophesied that He would show a greater sign than Moses or any prophet had ever performed. He would show Himself resurrected from the dead in a totally righteous, immortal human body, with the power to give that same resurrection and righteousness to any who would believe in Him — even, as it eventually turned out, to the Caesars.

Therefore, Stephen warned the Sanhedrin in Acts 7:51-53, “51 ‘You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 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 — 53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.’” And the Sanhedrin was hearing this warning through a man whose face was glowing like a messenger angel. 

Would they repent or would sin win out? Unfortunately, we read in Acts 7:54, “When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.” Grinding your teeth against someone is severe. Sin was definitely winning. 

And then came this in Acts 7:55-56, “55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’” This makes me wonder if anyone in the Sanhedrin had bothered to look up, would they have seen what Stephen was seeing? I think they probably would have seen the resurrected Jesus at Yahweh’s right hand if Lord Holy Spirit had come upon them also. That probably would have changed everything. 

But it was no use. Instead of looking up, they acted in their stubborn unbelief. Therefore, we read in Acts 7:57-58, “57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” In this way the Sanhedrin again became just like their fathers before them, rejecting Jesus, the righteous one Yahweh had sent to rule over them. Thus, the extreme perversity of our rebellion against Yahweh showed itself for the incredible evil it truly is. By the way, that young man Saul holding the clothes was the future Saint Paul.

Stephen died as Jesus did, with forgiveness on his lips. But what shall we say? Everyone on this earth who rejects Jesus will face Jesus, the Judge of all things, on the day He comes from the right hand of the Father on the clouds of heavenly power. For He is the suffering Messiah Yahweh resurrected from the dead in a totally righteous, immortal human body. Therefore, it’s prophesied in Revelation 1:7, “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.”

But, before then it’s also prophesied in Zechariah 12:10, “‘And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.’” It looks like just as 3,000 Israelites grieved and repented on the Day of Pentecost 33A.D., many more will make that same journey before the end comes. Praise the Lord.

And as for the gentiles, why are we turning away from Jesus to the false gods of our pre-Christian ancestors? Yahweh’s hands of grace are still wide open to all the nations of the world. Therefore, let us not turn back. But come Holy Spirit. Make the truth known again. Trample the perversity of sin under the feet of those you cause to believe in the only Son of God. May this be to His great glory. Amen.

All Bible quotes are from the NIV. 

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