The Jews in Jesus’ time knew they were a chosen people. They knew that God had given them the Law, through the prophet Moses, and they believed themselves justified by following the Law. They knew that there was a time before the Law had come, but they believed that the Law was the full revelation of God’s purposes on earth, and superseded all that had come before it.
The arrival of Jesus brought confusion. Many of the religious leaders of the time thought that he was opposed to the Law; he hung out with sinners (Mark 2:13-17), he was accused of being a drunkard (Matthew 11:9), and he supported his disciples when they broke the Sabbath laws (Mathew 12). However, Jesus himself taught that he came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it (Mathew 5:17). Many of the Jewish leaders struggled to get their head round this, and to Jesus’ often cryptic solutions when they tried to catch him going against the Law – when he did things like healing people on the Sabbath, he wasn’t following the Law, but he wasn’t really breaking it either.
Stephen’s speech at the trial that ended his life was one last attempt to get the Jewish leaders to see what was going on; that Jesus came neither to make people follow the Law, or to do away with it – he came to transcend it.
To our ears, it seems very odd that Stephen chose this moment to give a potted history of the Jewish people throughout the Old Testament. Why is this relevant? And why is he telling this to the one group of people in the entire world who knew this story better than anyone?
Stephen’s telling of this tale shines a completely different light on the narrative to the one that his listeners would have expected. They saw God’s interactions with humanity as a story leading up to the giving of the Law. Stephen spends most of his time talking about God interacting with humans before the law came (Acts 7:1-36), and when he does talk about the time when the people had the law, he draws out two main themes – God’s transcendence of the law (Acts 7: 49-50) and the people’s rebellion and failure to follow the Law anyway (Acts 7:39-43).
Stephen then tells the religious leaders (in verse 51) that they are “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, 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 pointed back to the central message of Jesus – the Law was good, but only in that it pointed people towards the Holy Spirit and the coming of the Righteous One, who would one day transcend the Law.
A few years later, Paul would write that although the Law was good, it brought death, and judgement, and provoked sin and rebellion in man’s wicked hearts (Romans 4, Romans 7 et al). What Paul, Stephen and Jesus were getting at was that the Jews of the time thought they were Holy because of their partial obedience to the law (for no man could fully keep it).
They trusted in their own righteousness, and believed that this made them acceptable before God.
Nowadays, there are not many people around who believe that following the Old Testament Law is what will make sure they get into heaven. However, the temptation to believe that we can in some way earn our righteousness and work towards our own salvation is just as strong as it was in Jesus’ day. If you talk to the average person in the UK, and talk to them about why people go to heaven (if they believe in heaven), you will invariably get a response about being a good person, helping others, being nice etc etc.
Stephen told the religious people of his time that no amount of being good (keeping the Law) was going to help them – they couldn’t possibly be good enough whilst they resisted the Holy Spirit. What Stephen was pointing towards was Jesus, whose holiness given to us is they only way to transcend the requirements of the Law, and get right with God.
Stephen’s speech ended with a dramatic example of the transcendence he had just talked about – verse 55 tells us “But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” The religious leaders saw this as blasphemy of the highest order, and dragged Stephen away to kill him.
But that is how Jesus empowers us to transcend both the demands of the Law, and the trials of this life – by his direct intervention into human affairs. The Law wasn’t the end of God’s story of involvement with humanity, it was if anything just a preface of the age to come, the age when God would write the law into our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33) and pour out his spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17).
This is the age we are in now – the age of the empowered church, of the Kingdom triumphant, and the age when the Spirit continues to intervene in the lives of believers to confront obstacles such as that which Stephen faced. In the UK we aren’t facing mobs of religious leaders trying to stone us to death, but in whatever we do face, we can have an assurance that the spirit will empower us through it.
I’ve never faced a threat to my life like Stephen did – I guess the closest would be when I was waiting to undergo some emergency surgery a few years back, that turned out to be rather more dangerous than I was aware of at the time. During the preparation for that (and just to be clear for the sceptics – before any painkillers or other drugs had been given to me) I felt an incredible sense of peace and assurance that God was with me. I can’t control God, and cannot conjure him up on demand, but I believe that just as Stephen saw God transcend the circumstances of his impending death, when the time comes that my body fails, the same hand that held me in that hospital ward will be holding me again.