GETTING THE MESSAGE/Worst sinners forgiven in Christ
Faithful Stephen is applying his sermon to the council of Jewish leaders who he is on trial before accused of blasphemy. Stephen implied that that the Jewish leaders are of the same spirit as those who resisted prophets (such as Moses) sent by God to Israel.
He calls them a “stiff-necked people” (verse 51). This is a farming metaphor, used of a horse that will not respond to the directions of his owner. He resists the reins and commands. The spiritual application refers to one who will not submit to the Lord but is determined to go his own way.
Stephen also says they are “uncircumcised in heart and ears.” In the Old Testament this expression referred to those who resisted making the Lord the object of their devotion and praise. They had the sign of the covenant (circumcision) but not the heart for it. In Jeremiah 9, God declares all men have uncircumcised hearts toward his will.
In saying this, Stephen makes a strong indictment of the council. They are in a doleful condition. They are destitute of any spiritual good and have woeful spiritual miseries upon them. But they are wholly incapable of applying this word. If you recognize your spiritual poverty, the Lord will help you. Pride, on the other hand, leads to destruction.
The Jewish leaders respond to Stephen’s statements of judgement by becoming enraged and grinding their teeth at him (verse 54). They are so provoked that they rush upon him, take him out of the city, and stone him to death (verse 58). Nevertheless, we see Stephen as he dies praying the Lord would not count this sin against them (verse 60).
In doing this, Stephen follows the pattern and Spirit of the Lord Jesus. In Matthew 23, Jesus denounces the Jews sinful stubbornness, proclaiming woe after woe upon them, but also praying for them as he was dying on the cross at their hands (Luke 23).
The Lord speaks of his great patience and longing for the Jewish people despite their rebellious hearts: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you would not!” (Matthew 23:37).
The text implies that if the worst sinner would but run to Christ and put himself under his protection, he will obtain safety. God’s fury will come against sinners, as Jesus made very plain, but not when he is inviting them to reconciliation, calling upon them to come and make peace. The Lord is full of mercy.
As Stephen is being stoned, a young man watches over it with approval (verse 58). His name is Saul. He will become Paul, the chosen instrument of Christ to take the gospel to the Gentiles. The Lord will answer Stephen’s prayer in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.
Paul writes to Timothy about himself: “Christ Jesus appointed me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief… I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life (1st Timothy 1:12-16).
What a change in the man Paul: from persecutor to servant of the Lord. The Spirit of grace changed and sanctified him. Paul came to know mercy and joy in Christ. He was delivered from the misery of a hard, impenitent heart. And all his sins, which were great, were forgiven in Christ.
We need to put a high value on such mercies as prayer and hearing the Word of God. God’s word is of such worth because he reveals his eternal good in it. There is comfort in yielding to the Lord, and believing what he says. He is full of mercy.
Stephen’s death also is noteworthy. His view of heaven before he died (verse 55) shows Christians how great the love of Christ is for his people. People on earth judge things differently than Christ. They celebrated his death, but God was against them and with Stephen. Stephen saw Christ in heaven.
Stephen was violently murdered, but the text says he “fell asleep” (verse 60). He had a peaceful end because he had peace with God in Christ. And still does.