Have you ever heard: “You catch more flies with honey than vineger?” The expression is supposed to be a maxim, or Truth, that argues that you will often be more successful in influencing people or getting what you want if you speak kindly or flatter a person and suggest they do something rather than condemning them or criticizing them for the things they are doing wrong. Generally speaking, it’s not a bad sentiment. We shouldn’t go out of our way to be prickly with others.
At the same time, however, I think we’ve bought into the idea today that the reason why men either do or do not accept the Gospel is related to whether or not someone presents God with a positive message. We like to compute size with success and that God’s Truth is always glorified by numbers. The more people, the better. By this reasoning, the largest Churches in America would always be teaching the right kind of Truth because they’ve got the most people in them. If Truth is expressed by numbers then the more people = the more Truth.
Yet, I would submit to you, that it is no mistake that the largest Churches in America, that call themselves Christians, are large especially because their message is only positive. Their message flatters men. They catch more flies with honey and , if the maxim is always true, then they must be doing something right.
What is so strange about the fact that many of us buy into this idea is that the idea is repeatedly rejected in the Word of God itself.
In the Book of Exodus, Moses returns from the mountain and finds the entire camp has broken out in a frenzy of worship for a golden calf. Aaron was just giving the people what they want. In John 6, Christ had thousands of followers and, in a single hour, preached Truth to them and lost nearly every disciple. As his disciples told Him that His words were very hard to bear, He asked them if they too would leave? Peter responded with the words of those who truly desire to follow after Christ: Lord to whom shall we go, for you alone have words of eternal life?
Indeed, Christ alone has the Words of eternal life but they are very hard words to those of us who want to constantly receive sweet words. The Word of God is a bitter pill sometimes. And so as Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin, let us be reminded that Truth demands true words. Truth demands that God’s Word be preached according to what the Gospel preaches.
Stephen was hauled before the Sanhredin at the close of Acts 6 under the false charge that he blasphemed God and spoke against the Temple and Moses. Acts 7 opens with him being asked about the charges and then a masterful teaching from the Scriptures that not only shows that Stephen is innocent of the charges but that the Sanhedrin themselves are under trial.
1And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” 2And Stephen said:
“Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ 4 Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. 5Yet 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, though he had no child. 6And God spoke to this effect-that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. 7’But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ 8And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.
Stephen opens by calling the men brothers and fathers. He shows respect and demonstrates that they are in the seat of authority over the Jewish people.
He also shows his understanding of this common covenant they share and points out that Abraham met and worshipped God first outside of Jerusalem when he was brought from Ur of the Chaldees down to the Promised land. He never inherited that land or the full promise of becoming a mighty nation or blessing all the nations but looked forward, in hope, trusting the God who had given him one son of Promise. Stephen also notes that Abraham was told that his descendants would be held captive in Egypt for about 400 years. Here, Stephen is showing that God is not confined to the Temple or Jerusalem because God was with Abraham and with His people even when they were sojourners – even when they were outside of the Promised Land and well before they took Jerusalem during the reign of David.
9″And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him 10and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. 13And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. 15And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, 16and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.
Notice what Stephen points out next. He’s building a case, not only to show how much He loves God and His Word, but to demonstrate that Israel and its rulers have been stiff-necked and rebellious throughout their history. Here, we recall that Joseph was one of God’s first prophets and his brothers, the fathers of the twelve tribes, persecuted him by selling him into slavery. Our minds are given toward thinking in terms of individuals. If we hear about our grandfather doing something when he was young we don’t associate that with the family. To the Jewish mind, however, these men represented tribes. The tribes are named after them. In one sense, it is a picture of the tribes of Israel persecuting the prophets.
Stephen then transitions to Moses. He’s already demonstrating that he’s not a blasphemer and he’s building his case that worship is not confined to the Temple and he turns his attention to defending against that charge that he speaks against Moses. Here, you have to realize that they’re not accusing him of calling Moses names but stating that he speaks against Moses is to say that He denies the importance of the Law. Stephen tells first of Moses birth and rescue from death by being brought out of the water by Pharaoh’s daughter. But Moses knew he was to deliver his people and loved his people more than the riches of Pharaoh’s court.
At one point he struck down a slavemaster who was brutalizing an Israelite and, the next day, came upon two Israelites quarreling. The two men didn’t accept his mediation. They rejected his work as it were. Again, these quarreling men are symbols of the nation at large that rejects Moses. He fled to Midian for 40 years and returned after God visited him in a bush and sent him to deliver His people.
Now, did the Fathers, the Israelites welcome Moses with open arms? Did they obey Moses? Did they do what he revealed from God? Remember, the Israelites in the desert represent Isreal:
35″This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’-this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. 37This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ 38This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. 39Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices,
during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
43You took up the tent of Moloch
and the star of your god Rephan,
the images that you made to worship;
and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’
Once again, we see Israel pictured as rejecting Moses. They not only rejected the person of Moses but they rejected the God he served. For forty years they were rebellious. For forty years they were devout worshippers but they were devout worshippers of false Gods and refused to listen to Moses. They refused to listen to the Law.
At this point, you should be getting a sense of who is really on trial in this presentation. While Stephen is defending himself, he’s really building a case against the current nation – represented by the Sanhedrin – who sit in the seat of judgment according to the Law but are not obeying Moses at all. The irony in this trial is that Stephen is the wrong person to be put on trial for speaking against Moses. The whole trial, with false charges by false witnesses, is a mockery of the Law of Moses. The Sanhedrin, like their fathers in the desert, are those that speak against Moses, speak against the Law, and do not serve the living God even as they claim to know Him.
Stephen has definitively put away the charges that he blasphemes God or that he speaks against Moses. He finally wraps up his defense to show that he does not speak against the Temple:
44″Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. 45Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 46 who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.[c] 47But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,
49 “‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
50Did not my hand make all these things?’
Stephen demonstrates the idolatry of these men’s hearts who place all the significance of worshipping the living God in a house built by hands. God doesn’t dwell in tents and God doesn’t dwell in beautiful temples. Christ revealed to the woman at the well that a time is coming, and has now come, when men will not have to go to a central location to worship Him because God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in Truth.
But the Spirit was far from the Sanhedrin’s understanding. They were obsessed with physical location. They cared not for the Truth but only for their distortion of it.
Stephen has obliterated these false charges but knows the score. He knows that the Sanhedrin is not interested in honoring Moses. He know they are like their fathers throughout history. The defendant now becomes the Prosecuting attorney and reveals that the real people on trial for this mockery are the Sanhedrin themselves:
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Well, if you catch more flies with honey than vinegar then Stephen didn’t get the memo. The Truth, beloved, is that Truth has to be spoken plainly and the sin of men has to be made plain to them. They are guilty of the blood of the Son just like their fathers before them were guilty of the blood of the Prophets. These men can repent of their sins and turn to Christ but they want nothing of it.
54Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.
They are beside themselves with hatred and fury. They have become wild beasts. The darkening of the mind shows them to be the fools and beasts that they are even though they have the respect of the people. Even though they ought to be the wise and the Godly, they are foolish servants of the devil. Stephen will get no justice, just the hatred of an angry mob that was supposed to be a court.
But Stephen, standing alone in the presence of his enemies, is not left alone that day. Stephen is not left to the despair of no hope. As darkness is about to fall upon him, as the world and all its power comes crashing down on him, the Lord is gracious to open his eyes to heavenly realities:
55But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together[d] at him. 58Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
You see, Jesus called the Holy Spirit another Paraclete because the first Paraclete is Christ Himself. The idea of Paraclete in the ancient world is someone who comes along side of you when you are under trial.
Stephen looks to heaven and what is Christ doing: He’s standing! In Hebrews, Christ is said to be sitting at the right hand of the majesty on high but here He is standing.
Why? Because the Judge of all the earth is seated when He renders Judgment but our Paraclete on high is also the Judge. Even as the world is condemning Stephen, Christ reveals to Stephen that He is His Paraclete – His attorney. Christ will plead His case. He will receive nothing but false judgment from this false court but Christ represents Him on high to acquit Him on the final judgment.
This is quite enough for the Sanhedrin. To those that hate Christ and hate the idea that He is God, their transformation to beasts is complete. Like little children they clap their hands over their ears, yelling, and drag him out of the court to stone Stephen to death.
Stephen, with confidence in the finished work of His Savior, commits his soul to His God. But not before he prays for the forgiveness of the men who stone him in ignorance. Thank God for your prayer, Stephen. Thank God for your faith under pain and trial. God heard that prayer as a young man named Saul was present at that stoning and received that forgiveness.
Beloved, if you are Christ’s and your trust in Him for your salvation then draw strength from this thought. A day is coming when the whole world will be brought before the bar of God’s Judgment on high and every deed will be laid bare. Christ Himself will judge. Here is the glorious part on that day for Christ’s own.
When the Judge gets to you, if you have faith in Christ, the Judge will ask for you to give a defense. He will then rise from that seat of Judgment and come to stand next to you as your Paraclete. The Judge of all the earth will be your Attorney.
And, in the blood of Christ, the verdict will be to enter the rest provided for His own!