One of the greatest challenges for any writer is a little concept called, “Show! Don’t tell!” If editors and agents were paid a dime for each time they corrected it, I’m guessing many of them would be retired by now! As a reader, you might not notice it—until you read a book that told you things rather than describing them. Here’s an example:One of the greatest challenges for any writer is a little concept called, “Show! Don’t tell!” If editors and agents were paid a dime for each time they corrected it, I’m guessing many of them would be retired by now! As a reader, you might not notice it—until you read a book that told you things rather than describing them. Here’s an example: Bruce’s dog misbehaves and is hard to walk. Nothing wrong there, right? But compare it to this sentence: Bruce’s golden retriever lunged at the oncoming walkers, another near-miss in a string of doggy misdeeds. The second sentence creates a picture in your mind and adds extra details that might be helpful—especially if you’re addressing a Golden Retriever Convention or a dog obedience instructor. Sometimes, choosing words carefully lays a foundation for the next phase of a conversation, negotiation, or relationship. And—as in Stephen’s case—words can even determine a pivotal moment of your life.
Acts 7:1 – “Then the high priest asked [Stephen], ‘Are these charges true?’”
The charges were levied by members of the Freedmen’s synagogue that Stephen had:
- …spoken blasphemous words against Moses and the Law.
- …spoken against the Temple and claimed Jesus could destroy the Temple and change Moses’ Laws.
Rather than defend himself, Stephen tells the story of his shared heritage with his listeners. And in that well-known story, he chooses to emphasize facts and details that turn the tables on his accusers…
Acts 7:2-8 – “To this he replied: ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. “Leave your country and your people,” God said…So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. God spoke…“Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves…and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.” Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him…Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.’” (emphasis added)
Abraham received and believed God’s promise before he saw its fulfillment. The sign of circumcision was Abraham’s lasting covenant with God. Stephen and his hearers understood the roots of their faith. It’s important that we understand the roots of our faith—that Jesus Christ was the perfect, sinless Lamb of God, fulfilling every requirement of the old covenant, making the ultimate sacrifice once for all who believe. Thus, all who believe become children of Abraham through circumcision of the heart.
Acts 7:9-29 – “Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him and…enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt…Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan…When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers on their first visit. On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and…Jacob went down to Egypt…As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt greatly increased. Then another king, who knew nothing about Joseph, became ruler of Egypt. He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our forefathers…At that time Moses was born, and…Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action. When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them…But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.” (emphasis added)
The jealousy of Joseph’s brothers ultimately placed Israel’s growing nation in bondage to Egypt, and when a foreign king abused God’s chosen people, the Lord sent Moses to deliver them. But the Israelites rejected Moses’ first attempts to help. Stephen emphasizes the intricate weave of God’s sovereignty and human choice in the grand design of God’s bigger plan…an important ability when pondering our past.
Acts 7:30-43 – “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush…Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals; the place where you are standing is holy ground…Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’This is the same Moses whom they had rejected…He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out of Egypt and did wonders and miraculous signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the desert. This is that Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.’ 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. But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us…’ That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf…But God turned away and gave them over to the worship of the heavenly bodies. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets: ‘…Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.” (emphasis added)
Even after God did wonders and miraculous signs through Moses, the Israelits rejected Moses—the very “crime” Stephen is being accused of. Stephen continues to weave this undoubtedly familiar tale, and his audience listens, without interrupting, as he paints their collective ancestors with the same dark colors they are using to smear Stephen. This is the power of the Spirit’s work through a well-told story and carefully chosen words. Amazing, isn’t it? It’s a gentle prying opening of hearts to hear hard truths.
Acts 7:44-50 – “Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. Having received the tabernacle, our fathers under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built the house for him. However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?’” (emphasis added)
These men accused Stephen of speaking against the Holy Temple, so he reminds them that even the greatest of their ancestors recognized that God’s prescribed dwelling places (the wilderness tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple) were not equal to God—nor could they contain His glory. This became an important point to later explain the symbolism of the rending of the curtain that separated the Temple’s Most Holy Place from the priests’ ministry area. The curtain was torn in-two when Jesus died on the cross, symbolizing unobstructed access to God through Christ’s blood. (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). Stephen—like Jesus—wasn’t speaking against the Temple but rather using it to illustrate God’s new covenant design—one without impediment. But to an old guard, a new design feels like a sure threat.
Acts 7:51-53 – “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 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—you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” (emphasis added)
So much for Stephen’s cozy history lesson! He has totally skipped his personal defense and escalated to accusing accusers! Having carefully laid the foundation for attack, Stephen thrusts a four-edged blade:
- He questions the core of his listeners’ covenant relationship with Yahweh—saying they have uncircumcised hearts and ears.
- He accuses them of persecuting God’s Anointed, just as their ancestors rejected Moses.
- He says they’ve murdered the Righteous One of whom Isaiah prophesied and then was martyred. (Isaiah was the prophet quoted in v.50)
- The final salt in the wound…Stephen accuses the caretakers of God’s Law—those responsible to preserve it, police it, and teach it—are refusing to obey it themselves.
How could such a seemingly mild-mannered fellow turn into such a soldier for the Lord? Can you imagine the emotional whiplash the Sanhedrin felt, watching Stephen’s demeanor change with his words? We don’t know which personality fit Stephen better—the laid-back story teller or the warrior for the God—but we know this. The Lord can give anyone the ability to act and speak in whatever way is necessary for a given situation. He promised it (Mk. 13:11). We can count on it.
Acts 7:54-60 – “When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 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. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 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. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.” (emphasis added)
Take a few moments to study the scene described here. How were the Jewish leaders acting? What was their demeanor? Furious. Yelling. Rushing. Dragging. Stoning. Now, study Stephen. Full of the Spirit. Saw heaven open and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. He prayed…for his attackers. He fell asleep. And Author Luke introduces us to Saul (later to become the Apostle Paul), the young Pharisee standing aloof, approving the massacre. Let your heart be drawn into the drama, and then realize—it was real. Stephen really told this story to a full courtroom. The Jews really threw rocks that cut and bruised him to death. Paul really approved of it all. And somehow…God built His church. Somehow…you and I, 2000 years later, heard the Gospel story. Somehow…we must tell the story, too.
- Lord God, let me tell Your story with passion, with honor, with the truth that makes it compelling. Circumcise my heart to know the right moment and the right words to speak. Forgive me for believing it’s up to me and forgetting it’s up to You! Remind me of the impossible the early church faced…and how much bigger You are than any odds. Teach me to look up and see Your glory when others gnash their teeth or stand aloof. You are the ultimate Story Teller, the Writer of the eternal tale. I place my life in Your hands and ask that You write every word, every scene, every chapter. Selah.