Prophetic Momentum

Jon Cressey writing mostly about church, prophets and prophecy...


If there’s one thing that could be said about Stephen’s presentation of the gospel in the book of Acts, it’s “courage.”

Stephen’s well known sermon in Acts 7, especially his change in tone in Acts 7:51 where he confronts the Jewish council, saying, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you,” marks a significant moment. Bible college wouldn’t have prepared him for such bold witnessing, and even today, it might raise an elder’s eyebrow!

Great sermon!

Welcome to Acts 7! Stephen’s sermon to the Jewish council begins brilliantly. So brilliantly, in fact, that one might assume he had memorised the first five books of the Bible. That’s why, as I read it, it caught my attention. I’ve been reading and rereading them, and then suddenly, reading Acts, I thought, “Hello!” And then, just as everything seemed to be going smoothly for Stephen, and he was about to win the Sunday School Bible memorisation gold cup, he throws a curveball. He not only captured their attention but held it with a firm grip! “You stiff-necked people!” They certainly didn’t see that one coming!


What was going on? We talk simplistically of sermons “landing,” but this was so sudden that as you read it, all you can think about is “Brace, brace, brace!”

This abrupt shift isn’t off-piste but rather a calculated move to confront his audience with their persistent resistance to God’s message and messengers. In the previous chapter of his life in Acts 6, he’s marked out as a man full of grace and power, who was doing great wonders and signs among the people. The hallmarks of the Holy Spirit’s anointing and activity in his life were evident not just in his actions but also in his words. But really, “stiff-necked”? Stephen’s familiarity with scripture has deeply influenced his thinking, worldview, and vocabulary.

The term “stiff-necked” is also found in Exodus 33:3, 5; 34:9 (remember, Stephen is guiding us through the Pentateuch, not embarking on a walkabout) and describes the Israelites’ obstinate disobedience and resistance to God’s direction and guidance. In the abrupt halt to his sermon, Stephen draws a parallel between his audience’s rejection of Jesus (and the Holy Spirit’s work) and Israel’s historical disobedience and idolatry. Perhaps, this sermon ended precisely on the punchline. There’s no need to ask what the response should be to the message – it’s blatantly obvious, yet nevertheless rejected. Talk about preaching for a verdict!

Stephen’s sermon up to this point had been a retelling of Israel’s history, illustrating God’s faithfulness despite the people’s recurring unfaithfulness.

Preaching for a verdict!

His sudden shift to direct confrontation comes almost as an old-days prophet, where direct, often harsh, confrontation was employed not out of anger but out of a deep desire for the people to turn back to God. But it’s the sermon that keeps on giving. Stephen is relentless. I wonder if as he felt God’s anointing on him, he suddenly knew where this was going.

Not content with merely labelling them as stiff-necked, Stephen asserts that they are “uncircumcised in heart and ears,” undoubtedly extending and intensifying his rebuke.

Although physically circumcised and outwardly part of God’s covenant people, they are internally and spiritually resistant to God’s voice and Spirit. If that didn’t stir them up, nothing would, especially considering his subsequent emphasis on true circumcision as a matter of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4).

In the background

Stephen is a man on a mission. More than that, he is God’s man on a mission, and what is about to happen will mark a turning point in the life of the Church. Amidst the agitation of the Jewish council, there is the attentive focus of a distinguished Roman citizen from Tarsus, a Jew, circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee.

Stephen’s intent isn’t merely to accuse but to awaken his listeners to the gravity of their position before God, especially in light of their rejection of Jesus, whom he proclaims as the Righteous One foretold in the Scriptures.

Coming to a conclusion

Our lives are full of purpose; we’re not always aware of it, but God never wastes the lives of His people. Stephen is so loved that when his time comes, Jesus, seated at the right hand of the Father, will rise to His feet to greet him.

And so, sticking to the sermon notes of the moment, Stephen continues his gentle admonition: “You always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 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, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”

This is not how you win friends and influence them, but it was the right thing to say, and the Lord would commend him for it.

They didn’t seem terribly blessed, encouraged, or impressed. But with a different heart, they could have been. Hearts hardened like bronze, they responded – enraged – and ground their teeth at him. The congregation were like American XL Bully dogs, off the leash, growling and angry.

So much for them and their response to the gospel. Stephen, on the other hand, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And as the musicians came up, he uttered the last part of his sermon, a sermon that would be written down and read until the last day of history… “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

Praying Jesus’ prayer

That got their attention. There’s much more that can be said, especially as they respond with ferocious violence- particularly Stephen’s prayer for the Lord to forgive them as they didn’t know what they were doing. A prayer that Stephen knew would fall on the ears of One who prayed it Himself.

In these challenging times it’s good to reflect on Stephen’s courage in sharing the gospel, even when faced with hostility. It’s not always easy to speak up for what we believe in, especially when we know it might not be well received and Stephen’s bravery reminds us that sometimes, speaking the truth requires courage.

Stephen’s story is a challenge for us to be bold in sharing God’s love and truth, even if it’s uncomfortable or met with resistance.

Lets also have the conviction to speak with empathy and compassion, knowing that our words have the power to bring hope and healing to those around us, even in the midst of difficult circumstances.

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