Acts 07_01-08 Stephen's Defense (1)_The Pattern of Faith

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Stephen’s Defense (1): A Pattern of Faith
(Acts 7:1-8)
October 3, 2021
Read Acts 7:1-8 – Stephen is a perfect example of what the Lord asks of all of us in I Pet 3:15b: “Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Stephen did both with extreme passion and grace.
He’s on trial for his life for preaching Jesus, specifically for speaking against the temple and against the law. He will answer those charges, actually turning them against his accusers. Along the way he will also speak truth into other errors of his audience – the idea that salvation is by merit, that God is limited to Jewish land and temple, and that Jesus was not the Messiah, Savior and Lord He claimed to be. Stephen’s philosophy is, the best defense is a good offense. That’s what he does, respectfully -- “Brother’s and fathers, hear me.”
Stephen will show that far from disrespecting God, the Law or the temple, he actually honored them. And he respected God’s Word, seen by the fact that much of his defense consists of allusions and quotations from the LXX. Along the way he will demonstrate that God cannot now, nor was He ever, confined to a particular land or place. He is a God who is always on the move, always calling His people to new adventures and accompanying them.
He will also show that his audience is merely following the mistaken footsteps of countless generations of Jewish people, who despite being favored with God’s revelation, consistently rejected His message and His messengers. He does this with an enthralling history lesson -- a journey that points persistently to Jesus and which is so intense, it holds his audience spellbound right to the end. He’ll show they are the latest in a long line of Rejecters of God’s truth. But he begins at the beginning – with Abe – the first Jew – describing a pattern of faith that should have been followed by all, but was not.
The Jews of Jesus’ time were all confused when it came to salvation. They thought being Jewish gave them a huge leg up. They believed keeping the Law would seal the deal. But they revered tradition more than Law, traditions that defined the Law in a way they could strive for. Three great lessons fall out from Abe’s life regarding salvation that would have served previous generations of Israel well – as well as Stephen’s generation – as well as ours.
I. Salvation is By Grace Alone
Stephen’s first phrase lays a great challenge before His listeners. They had become so outward and stifling in their religion they believed God was only found in their land and in their temple; yet, to gain His favor, they must keep the traditions. This defined their existence. Any concept of a relationship with God was long gone. And Stephen begins: “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham.” This is an immediate challenge to their way of seeing things.
God is a God of glory -- splendid and radiant. And He appeared to Abe, not in a temple, not in Jerusalem, not even in Palestine, but in Chaldea – 500 miles to the east. He appeared to Abe, not bc he was keeping the traditions – not even bc He was seeking God. He wasn’t! God told Israel in Josh 24:2b: “Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates (Chaldea), Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods.” Abe was worshiping other gods, along with his father and brother. He wasn’t even a monotheist; he was a polytheist, whose main god was a moon god. There was nothing in Abe to commend him to God. Abe was a moonie when God called him. So why did God choose him? To display undeserved, unmerited grace.
Grace is all over Abe’s life. For no deserved reason, God appeared to him, and promised a land and offspring. Stephen notes in 7:8b: “And so Abraham become the father of Isaac.” Stephen’s audience knew it wasn’t that simple. Abe got the promise and then 10 years of nothing. So, by the custom of the times, he had a son by Hagar, Sarah’s maid, considered Sarah’s child. God rejected that child, and then another 15 years of nothing. Why the wait? Heb 11:11:By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age.” Abe’s own body “was as good as dead” (Rom 4:19b). Both are past the age of fertility, and boom! Here comes Isaac. What’s the point? Why did God wait? To show it was all of grace. No human merit involved.
Over and over and over again God makes the point, salvation is by grace alone. Out of the whale’s belly, Jonah prayed Jonah 2:9d:Salvation belongs to the Lord!” It is not yours to attain; it is not mine to earn. It is pure grace from beginning to end. It cannot be earned, bought, ritualized or inherited. It was a result of God’s grace in Abe’s life; it is a result of grace in your life.
Paul prays in Eph 1:3) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4) even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5) he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” Do you think you chose God this morning? Only because He chose you first. I Jn 1:9: “We love because he first loved us.” When it comes to salvation, grace is the beginning, middle and end. Temples, traditions, laws, works, rituals, human merit have no place at that table. Salvation is of God alone. He chooses whom He chooses. If you are His today, it is only because God graced you – not because you deserved it. You didn’t and neither did I. Jesus says in Jn 6:40: “Everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life.” That’s the human side. But right after Jesus says in Jn 6:44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Grace is the most wonderful thing in the world because without it – no one would be saved. Rom 3:11b: “No one seeks for God.” If God didn’t call us, no one would be saved. His grace ought to fill our hearts with love for Him.
This is what the cross is all about. Rom 5:8: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It was not we who sought God, it was He who sought us. When we were helpless to pay the debt of our sin, He sprang into action by sending His own Son to pay our penalty.
Adam and Eve, having had perfect fellowship with God, fell into sin. So, they ran to Him for forgiveness? No. They ran and hid. They would have had no hope but by the grace of God, He tracked them down and forgave them based on the promise of a coming “seed of the woman” – a redeemer. But it was all grace. Without grace, we’ll all be lost. We run from God, not toward him.
George B. Shaw stormed out of a meeting one night where the cross was preached as Jesus paying our debt. He left shouting, “Thank you. I’ll pay my own debts.” And tragically – unless he repented, he will. But the only way we can pay for our offenses against an infinite God is by infinite separation from Him. All sin must be paid for. Justice demands it. The character of God demands it. We must either pay our own debt, or accept by faith that Jesus paid it for us. Grace is the only source of salvation.
II. Salvation is Through Faith Alone
Grace is the source of salvation; faith the instrument. This is contrary to human intuition and every natural instinct. We want to do something – to make amends, put God under obligation! But works can never be the means of salvation. It can only be received by faith, not achieved by human effort.
That was contrary to all that Stephen’s audience believed. They were died-in-the-wool do-gooders. They’d have put us to shame. They tithed down to the spices they cooked with. They fasted twice a week. They were outwardly fastidious. But inside, they were a cesspool of evil intentions. Jesus urged them to repent: Mt 23:25: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26) You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” How do you clean the inside? By accepting by faith, the forgiveness paid for by Jesus on the cross.
That was the pattern of Abe’s life. God called; he went, not even knowing where – by faith. God promised him land and descendants, 5)Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, tho he had no child.” Faith isn’t always easy. It couldn’t have been for Abe. God promised land which he is yet to receive and children he waited 25 years for. When he tried to get the promise by human effort – by having a son by his wife’s maid – God rejected it. God was making a point. The instrument of salvation is faith, not works.
Heb 11:8-10 sums up Abe’s life this way: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9) By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10) For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” When the promises didn’t arrive in the short-term, Abe took the long view. He could see beyond time, into eternity. And he was justified – not by his effort, but by believing God – by faith. When God reiterated His promises to Abe – Gen 15:6: “And he believed God, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Abe was saved not because he was good or clever, but because he believed God.
Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote,No man can come to the throne of God and say ‘I’m a better man than Rousseau.’ ” Close to death he boasted, “Ah, how happy a thing it is to die, when one has no reason for remorse or self-reproach.” Then he prayed, “Eternal Being, the soul that I am going to give Thee back is as pure at this moment as it was when it proceeded from Thee; render it a partaker of Thy Felicity!” This from a man who advocated adultery and suicide, lived in immorality for years, had several children out of wedlock, and sent them to a home. He may have been pure by Rousseau standards; he was condemned by God’s. We may not be so sinful as Jean, but we can be just as self-deceived. Until we give up trying, and throw ourselves on God’s mercy, we are without hope. Salvation is by grace, thru faith alone!
III. Salvation by Grace through Faith Results in Works
Now let me be as clear as I can on this. Works do not and cannot produce salvation. Works play no part in saving us. Bringing our good deeds to offer in place of or as supplement to the death of His own Son is a condemning act. It amounts to saying, “Here you go. I insist that I am good enough for you to accept. Jesus dying on the cross was unnecessary and a waste.” That’s what you are saying when you try to ingratiate yourself to God on the basis of anything you can do. It is not salvation by works. It is not grace plus works. It is not grace plus baptism or confirmation or going to church or giving to the poor. It is grace thru faith PLUS NOTHING. That’s as clear as I can say it.
But – after salvation works are critical as evidence of God’s presence in us. Eph 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9) not a result of works, so that no one may boast. [salvation by grace thru faith plus nothing. No boasting that we did anything. But then what?] 10) For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” See it? We are not saved by good works. We’re saved for good works. If they are missing, we’re not real. Loving God and loving others is the fruit of genuine faith. Good works will follow faith as night follows day.
Stephen’s audience had it backward. To them, good works were the thing that would rescue them – that and the fact that they were Jews. But using Abe, Stephen is showing them works are the product of faith, not the cause of faith. Look at it: 8) “And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abe became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day.” Was he saved by circumcision? No! It was a sign of the covenant, not the cause of the covenant. Abe was circumcised to demonstrate his faith, not to initiate faith. The chronology of the book of Genesis nails this point.
What do I mean? Just this. Follow closely. Gen 15:6 tells us: “[Abe] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” He’s genuine, cleansed, righteous before God. No guilt. Paul makes this exact point in Rom 4:2: “For if Abe was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3) For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abe believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’” Abe was a good guy, kind to his nephew Lot – rescued him when he got into trouble. Gave generously to the Lord. But that’s not what saved him. He was saved by one thing. He believed God. Believed and faith – same word. Justified – by faith.
And here’s what drives this point home. Abe was declared righteous by God in Gen 15. It is not until Gen 17:9-14 – 2 chapters and 20 years later that Abe was circumcised. Circumcision was the product of his salvation, not the cause of it. Good works are the result of salvation, but never its cause.
Lee Strobel in The Case for Christ, tells of a man he knew who was a rabid racist – always ready with crude jokes and caustic remarks – educated, able, but never changing. But one day he gave his life to Christ. Strobel says, “As I watched in amazement, his attitudes, his perspective, and his values changed as his heart was renewed by God. He [saw] the Bible teaches all people are made in the image of God. Today he's genuinely cares for all, including those who are different from him. Legislation did not change him. Reasoning did not change him. Emotional appeals did not change him. God changed him from the inside out -- decisively, completely, permanently.” The gospel always changes us. No fruit; no faith. True faith; much fruit.
Conc – Let me close with this. Circumcision didn’t save Abe, and it didn’t save Stephen’s Jewish audience. But it pointed to the circumcision that does save. It pointed to the Jesus they killed. Paul says in Col 1:11: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by the putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” Circumcision involved a cutting off of the flesh. So Jesus was cut off for us that the old sin nature might be cut off when we put our faith in Him. He was cut off so we need not be, but could join Him in newness of life. Is that you this morning? Have you truly laid aside all your accomplishments, your rituals, your ggood works and cast yourself on His mercy alone? Your eternity depends on this.
Let me close with the words of this hymn – truly words to live eternally by:
Nothing in my hands I bring, / Simply to thy cross I cling; / Naked, come to thee for dress, / Helpless, look to thee for grace.” Do it. I beg you, do it now while you can. Let’s pray.
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