Acts 7. “Brothers and Fathers…” Stephen starts off politely. By the end of his preach, and it is a preach, his exposition has gone rock-shaped. Stephen is hurling insults at his listeners and they are hurling stones at him.
I’m not sure if his sermon would get a pass from his homiletics tutor. Stephen begins in Mesopotamia and rambles through The History of Israel: 101. Abraham to Joseph, Moses and Aaron, the tabernacle, David. I’m thinking: “Where are you going with this? Your audience know all this. What’s your point? Get to your point, Stephen!” About 50 verses in, he finally does.
He runs a DNA scan over his listeners and finds that they have inherited some seriously defective spiritual genes. This emboldens him to insult both audience and ancestors in the same breath. He’s said ‘our ancestors’ (vs 39 & 44), but now he gets up close and personal with: “You are uncircumcised and deaf!” (vs 51). He could scarcely have pulled a ruder comment from his vocabulary bag for this Jewish audience. That’s his point alright! Ouch!
Now he’s got rhetorical, there’s no stopping him. “Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute!… they killed…” (vs 52). Actually, Stephen, off the top of my head I could name 3 or 4. Yes, Moses had hassles with the Israelites, but he attained a ripe old age and finished with a mountain-top preview of the Promised Land [binoculars not included]. Samuel, prophet, priest and king-maker makes his retirement speech and totters offstage to a doddery end. David who is called a prophet goes shivery and as a unique frailcare intervention receives Miss Israel as bed-fellow and hot water bottle. Lucky David; maiden not so much. Or think Nathan who fingers David for theft, adultery and murder. He’s not decapitated by royal command. Elijah dodged the foreign Jezebel’s death threat and got a hot extraction to heaven. Elisha was called a baldy, but the taunting lads came off second. As for Hosea, Joel, Micah, Zeph, Haggai, Zech and Malachi… well, we don’t hear of them being mistreated like Jeremiah. Herod Antipas had John the Baptist beheaded, but your audience wouldn’t rate any Herod as their ancestor. So you see, Stephen, it’s best to avoid sweeping generalisations and accusations in the heat of the moment.
The Lord halts Stephen’s preach at this point by giving him a breath-taking visual aid, so he can’t help but make the main point the main point. “Stephen saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honour at God’s right hand” (vs 55). Join the dots. See Dan 7:13f. with Mark 14:61f.
“Look, I see the heavens opened…” Stephen is better at personal testimony and prayer than preaching. Contrast Peter’s preach in the Temple (Acts 3:12ff.). Peter is no less direct, but more conciliatory and positively offers repentance, hope and blessing from the Lord.
Stephen might fall short on sermon marks, but he ends on his knees in a prayer shaped by Jesus his Lord: “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” (7:60 and Lk 23:34 & 46) “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (7:59). We deeply need forgiveness and assurance to pray for and forgive others in turn.
If we share our testimony to Jesus crucified and exalted in Cape Town, we won’t be stoned. Fellow-believers in other countries are indeed being killed for Jesus. We might more likely end in a coma following dementia or losing a battle with cancer or stroke. We need Stephen’s vision of Jesus no less to end well. Or to continue on for years as Jesus’ loyal disciples.