Stephen, the first martyr in the Christian church (Acts 7), preached before the supreme court in Israel (Acts 6:12). He had been falsely accused of preaching against Moses and against Yahweh, the God of Israel. His opponents tried to debate with this deacon from the church at Jerusalem, but he was full of grace and power (Acts 6:8). Their real opponent was the Spirit of God, who brought the wisdom of God to the conflict (Acts 6:10). As false accusations were brought against the preacher, the people observed his face become like that of an angel (Acts 6:15). The high priest asked the question, “Are these things so?”
Stephen was instant in season and out of season. His opportunity to bear witness to Christ came with a sermon on the history of Israel. This approach to the ministry of the Word is helpful, and it should be employed from time to time by preachers, today.
A survey of the history of God’s salvation of His people affords Christians the opportunity to learn the big story of God’s redemptive plan. Recently, I was blessed by a preacher who took the motif of Christ the King and walked the congregation through the history of kingship. He began in Genesis, and he ended in Revelation. He followed the template of Stephen’s historical account of God’s people, but he did it from the perspective of an accompanying theme. It was excellent.
An historical sermon from the Bible connects the dots to show the big picture. The starting point for the preacher could be God’s eternal decree or creation. In Stephen’s case, he began with Abraham being approached by the God of glory (Acts 7:2). Stephen quoted God’s call of Abraham to leave Haran and head for the Promised Land (7:3). We observe the interpretation of events by the preacher, as he intertwines Old Testament text to support the storyline (7:3, 5, 6, 7). Clearly, Stephen knew his Hebrew Bible well enough to quote it in a pressure preaching situation.
Stephen demonstrated something very important for preachers. Preachers must be able to present their comprehensive knowledge of the Bible, especially from an historical perspective. The false accusations were answered by a faithful review of the Scriptures, as the history of God’s people. This is also done in Psalms 105–106, which tell the history of Israel. It makes me wonder how comprehensive most believer’s history of the Christian church would be if they were given an on-the-spot history test.
The retelling of the family story, especially by a different member of the family is enjoyable. Stephen captured his audience’s attention by giving the family history. His interpretation of events is personal, but accurate. When Christians tell a Bible story, whether it be a small pericope or a summary survey of the whole Bible, we are reinforcing the Christian faith.
Stephen mentioned Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon in his recounting. Obviously, Stephen gave a selective history. With Abraham, Moses, and David, we have three major points of covenant history. The plot shifts, and even thickens, with each additional element of covenant understanding. The promised Seed of Abraham, who would keep the Law, as the righteous King was only fulfilled by one person in history. Who is that person?
Stephen was preaching Jesus Christ through his suspense-building history lesson. The climax of his sermon was his charge against his listeners, the Sanhedrin and the Jewish people gathered against him (7:51–53). They brought him to court on false charges of speaking against Moses, but Stephen’s whole point in retelling the history of God’s covenant with Israel is to bring countercharges against his accusers.
Stephen’s claim is that his accusers and his judges were guilty of killing the Righteous One (7:52). The long-awaited Messiah had come and subjected Himself to the precise pattern of Israel’s history of killing its own prophets. This was untenable in the mind of the Pharisees and Sadducees present, and it was highly provocative.
Authentic Bible preaching, even the preaching of the history of God’s people, must come with enough conviction to position the hearer in a place of repentant humility. Obviously, the reverse was true for Stephen’s hostile audience. In God’s providence, Stephen was given the honor of being the first Christian martyr. He followed in the way of his Master and was stoned to death by his hearers.
Stephen’s sermon was Trinitarian. He opened with the God of glory, told his hearers they were resisting the Holy Spirit, and that they had killed the Righteous One. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all had a place in Stephen’s sermon.
The historical accounting carried a number of unpacked doctrines. In every sermon, the preacher must determine what and how much will be opened up for his hearers. Stephen skimmed the surface of historical theology, and then brought his charge against his hearers in the application section of the sermon. The pronoun “You” indicates the shift, as in, “You men are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears and are always resisting the Holy Spirit (7:51).”
Stephen’s point was very bold, “you are doing just as your fathers did (7:51).” Their fathers had killed the prophets. It was the prophets who announced the coming of the Righteous One. Stephen’s audience went further by actually killing the Righteous One (7:52). Stephen’s final charge was the breach of the Law by their murderous actions (7:53).
Preachers are never sure of their listeners’ reaction. One might argue against Stephen’s poignant boldness. The hypothetical scenario of Stephen watering down his message, to be more winsome, is repulsive. Instead of imagining a lower standard for this preacher and preaching event, we would be wise to wonder why there is so little resistance to our ministries. Pacifying guilty sinners is reprehensible.
Preaching for conviction is a lost art form. Post-modern preachers are far more influenced by philosophy and psychology than the Bible. Both thematic and topical sermons are preferred by Post-Moderns. Thematic preaching is acceptable on rare occasions. A steady diet of topical sermons will expose the preacher’s quest for cultural relevance, but it will rarely bring conviction of sin because sin and judgment will rarely be the chosen topic. Stephen’s thematic, historical sermon is one very helpful way to preach in a non-expository way. As a steady diet, we would always recommend the verse by verse preaching of a book of the Bible.
How then shall we preach like Stephen? First, we must periodically preach the history of Israel in the Bible. One sermon a year, dedicated to a comprehensive survey of Israel’s history, seems right. Second, finding a parallel theme that reaches from Genesis to Revelation is another way to capture the big picture. Third, the method of storytelling, with intermittent Scripture quotes, will keep the story tethered to the Bible. This will help with accuracy and bring authority. Fourth, content selection is important when trying to reach the climax of the story. This is the inductive style. The proposition is at the end of the sermon.
In Stephen’s case, it was in the application. The suggestion here may be to mix up sermon structure formats. The text must always drive the expository sermon structure, but thematic and topical structures, like an historical survey, invite some expected variation. Finally, we must always spur preachers on to greater boldness, and this includes the objective of preaching for conviction.
In conclusion, Stephen is one among many preachers in the Bible. He served the church as a deacon, but he was also gifted and anointed to preach the Word. Christianity is historical. Therefore, there should be history-based sermons. The outcome of his preaching opportunity reminds us of the life and death nature of Gospel preaching. It is a matter of spiritual life and death for the hearers, and it can be a matter of bodily life and death for the preacher. Preach the history of God’s people from the Bible, but be aware of how you, too, might be added to the history of the church.
Spokane Valley, Washington
May 2, 2021