The Devastating Impact of Faithless Familiarity
Text: Acts 6:8–7:60
I. The Cause of Stephen’s Arrest (Acts 6:8–15)
II. The Substance of Stephen’s Speech (Acts 7:1–53)
III. The Message of Stephen’s Speech for the Church Today
Good morning church. As we begin this morning, I have to confess that I’ve never taken on 68 verses in a single sermon… But as I wrestled with the passage, over the past few weeks, I became more and more convinced that this unit would be served best by a single sermon.
So, in an effort to set up our text today, I’d like to ask you a question that flows from Stephen’s speech in chapter 7: “What is the purpose of history?” What is it for? Why do we have countless books filled with records of centuries gone by? Well, let me share a few random answers from the internet:
- History is a way of understanding how we got here.
- The purpose History is to prevent the same mistakes over and over.
- History teaches us a better way to interact with others, to deal with conflict and to build better lives for our loved ones and families.
- History helps us learn what works and what doesn’t.
For the most part, these answers help us see that history is not only important but that it should have an impact on our everyday lives in both positive and negative ways. But what happens when a people begin to forget their history or refuse to honestly engage the historical record? What happens when a society succumbs to what we might call “selective amnesia” intentionally ignoring certain events or entire epochs of their history?
Well at the most basic level, it begins to lose its way. As the age old saying goes: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And few passages in the NT demonstrate this truth more than Stephen’s Speech today, in that, it contrasts God’s impeccable record of faithfulness with Israel’s long history of faithlessness, sin, and rebellion.
The Cause of Stephen’s Arrest (Acts 6:8–15)
Notice, from the very beginning of our account today, Luke wants us to see at least two things:
Number One, the church’s prayer for boldness and supernatural validation back in chapter 4 was not reserved for the apostles alone. What I mean by this is that Stephen is so much more than mid-level manager in the local church. He’s a man who is “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (cf. Acts 6:3). He is performing signs and wonders among the people in the pattern of the 12 apostles (v. 8) and he is boldly overcoming every argument that the Hellenistic Jews, from “the synagogue of the Freedmen,” have levied against the gospel through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit (v. 10).
Number Two: Stephen’s trial is driven by anger and false accusations.
Acts 8:13–14 13 and they 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 that Moses delivered to us.”
Notice, how did the synagogue of the Freedmen respond to Stephen’s over-powering wisdom? They didn’t go back to the Scriptures. They didn’t seek further clarity. No. They sinfully organize a group of false witnesses to turn the people away from the gospel and draw the chief priest and Sanhedrin into the fight!
But, this leads us to the question: “What is the fundamental charge against Stephen?”
It’s not just unsanctioned instruction or aberrant teaching BUT wanton and intentional blasphemy! And by blasphemy, they do not merely mean wrong ideas about God; but the kind of teaching that is intended to seduce faithful worshipers of Yahweh into idolatry… which according to Deuteronomy chapter 13 was punishable by death.
Deuteronomy 13:6 If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known.
Deuteronomy 13:8 you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him.
Deuteronomy 13:10 You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lordyour God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
Stephen’s accusers are not just trying to destroy his arguments; they are trying to destroy him in the most literal sense. But instead of backing down or running for cover, what does Stephen do? He peacefully endures their accusations in the power of the Spirit (v.15). And delivers one of the most comprehensive and scathing indictments against Israel and her leaders this side of the OT prophets.
So, as we finally turn to the substance of Stephen’s speech in chapter 7, we will be limiting our examination to two fundamental questions: How did Stephen organize his speech? What is Stephen arguing in his speech?
We will answer the first question before we read the passage because I want you to grasp the overall development of his speech. And we will wrestle the second question as we read each section of the speech. After this we will compile our findings so that we can apply them to our everyday Christian lives.
The Substance of Stephen’s Speech (Acts 7:1–53)
How Did Stephen Organize his Speech?
Well, as we read through the speech, we are going to see that it is organized around 5 time periods in the history of Israel.
- God’s calling and covenant with Abraham. (2–8)
- God’s preservation of Israel in Egypt through Joseph. (9–16)
- God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt through Moses. (17–43)
- Israel’s transition from the tabernacle to the temple under David and Solomon. (44–50)
- Israel’s rejection and murder of Jesus, God’s promised Messiah. (51–53)
What is Stephen Arguing in his Speech?
Abraham (Acts 7:2–8)
In this opening section Stephen is establishing two basic truths.
He is demonstrating that he is innocent of blasphemy, in that, he shows proper respect for the Sanhedrin and celebrates God’s glory and covenant with Abraham in the highest regard. And in this he wants it to be clear that he is not trying to turn Israelites away from their covenant God. No, he loves and worships the God of their fathers.
He is pointing his audience to the truth that Israel’s experience with God did not begin with a temple, the law, or even the land of Canaan; it began with God’s call to and covenant with an obscure idol worshiper while he was part of what we call “the nations.” And what did God’s call entail? It entailed a promise that Abraham’s offspring would have a land of their own and that they would worship God in that land, despite the fact that Abraham didn’t have any children and was living in a different land.
And how did Abraham respond to God’s seemingly impossible promises? He believed and obeyed God. And as we will see, the rest of Israel’s history is the story of how God continued to fulfill his covenant promises despite his people’s perpetual covenant failure. (beginning with experience of Joseph)
Joseph. (Acts 7:9–16)
So what is Stephen’s focus in the life of Joseph? His basic point is that God’s covenant people rejected God’s chosen deliverer. But why? Why would they do such a thing? The answer is in the opening line: “And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt” (7:9). But rejection and slavery isn’t the end of the story is it? No. God was not only with Joseph and rescued him from his affliction; God used the rejected son of Jacob to save his entire family from a devastating famine.
Moses Part One. (Acts 17–34)
The first thing that we see in these verses is that God is actively fulfilling his promises to his covenant people, in that, Israel is increasing and multiplying in the land of Egypt. This is both good and bad. Israel is multiplying BUT they are multiplying in the wrong land! Even more, this very blessing compels Pharoah to abuse and enslave the people of Israel. But God is already on the move in the life of Moses who is saved from death and surprisingly adopted by Pharaoh’s very own daughter (cf. Exodus 1:22). Yet, what happens when Moses steps in to serve his people? He is instantly rejected despite his best efforts to help.
The second thing that we see is that Moses would have remained a shepherd in Midian for the rest of his life if God had not appeared to him in the burning bush and commanded him to return to Egypt. This calling is critical to Stephen’s argument for at least two reasons:
One, it introduces the truth that rightful worship, is in no way, confined to a man-made building or the physical land of Israel. God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and the ground on which Moses stood was holy. In fact, Stephen drives this point home down in verses 44–50 when he addresses the transition from the tabernacle under David and Solomon to the temple.
Two it emphasizes the fact that Moses was God’s official representative. And that his God-given task was to rescue his covenant people from slavery AND to restore them to the rightful worship of their convent God.. Saved from slavery for the purpose of worship.
This was good news of the highest order and should have been received with the greatest joy and anticipation, but as we all know it wasn’t. Was it? The following verses help us understand why.
Moses Part Two (Acts 7:35–43)
To be honest there is a lot going on in this section. So let me hit the main points.
Stephen wants the Sanhedrin to see that Israel’s prideful rejection of Moses was completely unfounded.
- To the first question, “who made you ruler and judge?” the answer is God.
- To the question, how could they know he was truly sent by God? The evidence is anchored in biblical record that Moses led Israel out of bondage performing signs and wonders in both Egypt and in the wilderness for forty years.
- To the question, why should Israel obey Moses? The answer is because he received the living oracles of God on Mt. Sinai.
What is Stephen’s goal in recounting the history of Moses? He wants the Sanhedrin to see that the people of Israel never obeyed God’s instructions through Moses. To put it bluntly, the history of Israel is not one of thankful and faithful obedience to God but perpetual faithless rebellion against God and his messengers.
What happens at the foot of Mt. Sinai? they refused to obey Moses and thrust him aside. And, in their hearts, they turned to Egypt so that they could worship an image crafted by human hands (v. 39). And the sad truth of the matter is that this sin was not confined to the exodus generation. No. According to verse 42, God responded to Israel’s idolatry by giving them over to ever-increasing idolatry (cf. Romans 1).
But it gets even worse! Stephen compresses Israel’s entire history into a single citation from Amos 5:25–27 to show that the golden calf was not an isolated incident from history past; but an act of rebellion that launched Israel into a long-standing pattern of idolatry! In fact, by quoting this passage in Amos, Stephen seems to be implying that Israel was inevitably doomed to exile the moment they worshiped the golden calf.
This is the sad history of Israel’s obedience to Moses and worship of their covenant God! Are there fleeting moments where God’s people walk in obedience? Yes, but if you read your OT well you will quickly see that they are far and few between. See the problem with Stephen’s audience is that they are not only blind to their history; they are repeating it in the most audacious ways.
For the sake of time, let’s jump past Stephen’s remarks about the temple that we touched on before, to his withering indictment in verses 51–53.
Jesus, God’s promised Messiah. (Acts 7:51–53)
Notice, what is Stephen doing in this section? He is turning the tables on his accusers. He is saying, I’m not guilty. You are! You may be circumcised in your flesh BUT you are uncircumcised in heart and ears. You may venerate the Law but you do not keep the law. In fact, you may be intimately familiar with the oracles of God and serve in the temple of God BUT in all of your actions you have demonstrated your abject faithlessness and proved that you neither love nor belong to God!
You are walking in the footsteps of your blaspheming fathers. You have refused to recognize that the very same God— who chose Abraham and his offspring as his covenant people, who delivered Abraham’s offspring from Egypt and revealed his law to Moses, who transcends all places and things because he is the infinite creator. This God (Israel’s God) has fulfilled his ancient promises, to send his promised prophet like Moses in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
He was sent by God for the salvation of his people and he performed miracles in the sight of all so that they could see God’s active endorsement of his ministry. Even more, his coming has inaugurated the final blessing and goal for which he chose our father Abraham to begin with— that all the families of the earth might be blessed through him (Genesis 12:3). But, just like Moses and Joseph and the prophets before him, he was rejected by his brothers.
What is Stephen saying here? He is saying I am not against the God of our fathers, I’m not against Moses, nor am calling for the destruction of the temple. Rather, I am calling Israel to God-honoring worship as revealed in Jesus Christ his promised messiah.
But, as we know from the concluding verses, Stephen’s defense does not secure his acquittal or compel the members of the Sanhedrin to believe. No. It results in a blinding rage that quickly ends in his death.
What is Stephen trying to accomplish in this history lesson? Well, I think we can narrow it down to at least three things. He wants his audience (the chief priest and the Sanhedrin) to see that:
Number One: The story of Israel is a story of God raising up leaders and saviors whom Israel repeatedly rejects. We see this in Joseph, Moses, the prophets, and Jesus himself.
Number Two: The story of Israel reveals that even though God never failed to fulfill his covenant promises to Israel (he gave them the land and the law and eventually the temple); Israel has responded in perpetual rebellion repeatedly turning to idols instead of their ever-faithful God AND foolishly believing that the creator of the universe could somehow be contained in a finite structure.
Number Three: The story of Israel demonstrates that Israel’s rejection of Jesus was part of a deep-seated pattern NOT an accidental oversight.
But, these findings lead us to an even more important question as Christians, “What does Stephen’s speech have to do with my everyday Christian life?” … Well, it exposes us to a very important principle.
The Message of Stephen’s Speech for the Church Today
Israel’s long history reminds us that faithless familiarity with the things of God blinds us to the glory of God and breeds every manner of rebellion.
Let me explain what I mean. The phrase “faithless familiarity” is an attempt to describe the true spiritual state of Israel throughout the OT and into the New.
- Does Israel know who God is? Yes.
- Have they witnessed his power and protection and faithfulness throughout the history of their people? Yes!
- Do they know that God in his mercy chose their forefathers and entered into two covenants with them? Yes.
- Do they know the stipulations of those covenants? Yes, especially the chief priest and the Sanhedrin!
The problem is that, with very few exceptions, the people and spiritual leaders of Israel lived in perpetual unbelief (or faithlessness). And what was the result of this constant faithlessness? Well in broad terms it did two things: it blinded them to the glory of God and bread every manner of rebellion.
It’s not that God didn’t reveal his glory and his power to Israel. He did, time after time in the most audacious and memorable ways in both the Old and New Testaments. The problem is that Israel’s deep-seated unbelief blinded them to the infinite desirability and worth and beauty of their covenant God. And what does this blindness produce? It produces every manner of sin; because sin abounds where God is not trusted and treasured.
Hebrews 3:16–19 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
Don’t miss this, what are we supposed to understand about Israel? We are supposed to see that their long painful history is not a result of God’s faithlessness but their perpetual unbelief.
So how does this apply to Christians today (i.e., professing Christians)
Well, the author of Hebrews has already given it to us.
Hebrews 4:1–2 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.
Friends, this warning in Hebrews is my concern for every single person who calls Olympic their church.
My concern is that you or your children may hear the gospel of Jesus Christ week after week after week taught in Bible classes, celebrated in our music, and proclaimed in the sermon BUT never benefit from its promises and transformative power.
My concern is that you or your children become intimately familiar with character of God, the doctrines of the church, and the content of his commands BUT never come to know him as your greatest treasure.
My concern is that you or your children may consider yourself a true Christian and convince everyone around you that you have been raised from death to life by the power of the Spirit WHEN you are in fact dead in your sin and separated from Christ in your unbelief.
This is my greatest concern as your pastor.
But this leaves us with the question, how should we respond? Well I think the answer is by honestly assessing ourselves. And I’m not talking about assessing our knowledge or our works but assessing our hearts.
- Are you simply going through the motions?
- Are you secretly drifting away from Jesus, sliding into secret or overt patterns of sin— a head full of doctrine and spiritual knowledge that you use to leverage for your comfort while you have a cold shriveled heart that does not delight in Christ?
If this describes you, these verses are a warning and a wakeup call: You may be deceiving yourself. But even more, if you are a parent, you may be actively discipling your children in the kind of faithless familiarity that could leave them forever separated from Christ.
Friends this is the devastating impact of faithless familiarity that we see both in ancient Israel and the church today.
But, in all of this, it is my deepest hope that as you examine your heart that you will see that you are endeavoring, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to trust in Jesus for everything you need and enjoy him as your greatest treasure. Perfectly? Never! But persistently? Yes, in a daily pattern of humble repentance and faith in the blood-bought promises of our Lord Jesus Christ.
 Bruce Milne, The Acts of the Apostles: Witnesses to Him… to the Ends of the Earth, Focus on the Bible Commentary (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2010), 161–62.
 Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts, Expanded Digital Edition., Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2012).