Stephen Brought Before a Council Part 5 of 6
by John Lowe
(Laurens SC, USA)
What was the general charge made against him—that he spoke blasphemous words and, to aggravate the matter, "He ceases not to speak blasphemous words; in other words, he only has one thing on his mind and his tongue; wherever he goes he preaches the same message; he makes it his business to instil his notions into every conversation, regardless of who he is with. He has been warned against it, and yet he continues to do it, but with even more frequency and passion.
Blasphemy is rightly considered a heinous crime (to speak contemptibly and reproachfully of God our Maker), and therefore Stephen's persecutors would be thought to have a deep concern for maintaining the honor of God's name. Just as it was with the confessors and martyrs of the Old Testament, so it was with those of the New—their brethren that hated them, and cast them out, said, Let the Lord be glorified and pretended they did Him a service by doing it. Stephen is said to have spoken blasphemous words against Moses and against God. Thus far they were right, that those who blaspheme Moses (if they meant the writings of Moses, which were given by inspiration of God) blaspheme God himself. Those that speak reproachfully of the scriptures, and ridicule them, reflect badly upon God himself, and fail to show Him His due respect. His great intention is to magnify the law and make it honorable, those therefore that vilify the law, and make it contemptible, blaspheme His name for He has magnified his word above all his name. But did Stephen blaspheme Moses? By no means, he was far from it. Christ, and the preachers of His Gospel, never said anything that looked like blaspheming Moses, they always quoted his writings with respect, and said nothing other than what Moses said should come to fruition: therefore, Stephen is very unjustly accused of blaspheming Moses.
By “set up false witnesses,” we understand that having hired them, they brought them and set them before the Sanhedrim, to bear witness against Stephen: to say what they themselves knew to be false.
Which said, this man.
“This man” refers to Stephen, who was now before the council, at whom they pointed, and whose name, out of contempt, they would not mention.
Ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place.
“This holy place” is either the city of Jerusalem, which is sometimes called the holy city, which was foretold to Daniel by the angel, or much later to His disciples by Christ, that it would be destroyed; and was afterward destroyed in A.D. 70 by a Roman army. This is something which Stephen might speak of; but, in reality, he was reporting what Jesus said about the Temple of His body, that it would be destroyed and three days later restored (meaning His crucifixion and resurrection). But the witnesses and the members of the Sanhedrim took him to mean the Temple which, if destroyed, could not be rebuilt in three days. At that moment they may have been sitting in the Temple or someplace near it. The accusation flung in the face of Steven was, “This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words.”
And the law.
“And the law” is used here for the Law of Moses in general or the ceremonial law in particular: the sense is, that Stephen was continually telling the people, that in a little while their temple would be destroyed, and an end be put to temple worship, and to all the rituals and ceremonies of the law of Moses. Speaking against the temple and the law was sufficient to make good a charge of blasphemy. It is very likely that they had heard him speak words to the effect that the Law cannot give life, nor save from death, which is as true as the spirit from which they proceeded; but they gave them a very false portrayal, as we see in the succeeding verse.
14 For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.
For we have heard him say.
They declare that they are going to use his own words against him and prove that he blasphemed God.
That this Jesus of Nazareth.
This part of the charge against Stephen is definitely true, because he spoke of Jesus everywhere he went. They will go on and add more to the charge, but this is what they really hated—that Steven preached that Jesus was the messiah and that THEY had killed Him.
Shall destroy this place.
“This place” is the temple, and the charge is the same as the false witnesses at Christ's examination brought against him. They said, “We have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place. This was a lie since neither our Lord nor Stephen ever declared that Christ, would destroy the temple; what Jesus actually said was that they, the religious leaders, would destroy it, that is, the temple of His body; He said nothing at all about the secular temple of the Jews. What’s more, at that same moment, Jesus promised that he would "raise it up" (meaning the temple of his body) in three days. Here are His exact words: “Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." The Jews replied, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?" But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:19-22; NIV).
It is true, that much later, closer to the end of his life on earth, Jesus indeed prophesied the destruction of the temple, but He did not promise that he himself would destroy it, but asserted that "The king (God) would send his armies (those of the Romans) and destroy those murderers and burn their city" “The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” (Matthew 22:7)..
Perhaps they had heard Stephen say “that Jesus shall destroy this place,” but that did not prove that he was guilty of blasphemy. Christ was condemned as a blasphemer, for words which were thought to refer to the temple. They seemed to be greatly concerned for the honor of the Temple, but at the same time they were profaning it by their wickedness; making it not only a house of merchandise, but a den of thieves.
And shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.
By “customs” is meant the rites, ceremonies, institutions, and offices of the Mosaic dispensation. They claimed that Stephen said that Jesus would change these same customs. And yet this is no different than what the Jews themselves say will be done, during the time of the Messiah; for they assert, that "in time to come (i.e. in the days of the Messiah) all sacrifices shall cease, but the sacrifice of thanksgiving.” This was an out-and-out lie, because Stephen probably knew nothing about the mystery of the abolition of the Mosaic Law, which even the apostles do not seem to have had any idea of at this time. And it is much less probable that he openly taught what Paul himself, many years after, only insinuated, and even did that with very great caution (see Galatians 2:2). This therefore seems to have been merely an inference drawn by them from what he taught concerning the destruction coming upon the Jews, if they continued in their unbelief: but it was a very precarious inference, since the city and temple had been destroyed before, without any repeal of the law, and therefore they were false witnesses. And they were even more so when they claimed he had spoken blasphemous words against that holy place, and against the law—what blasphemy was it against that holy place, which they, at one time or another, either profaned or idolized, to say that it would not be perpetual, any more than Shiloh was? And that the just and holy God would not continue to give the privileges of his sanctuary to those that abused them? Had not the prophets given the same warning to their fathers when they predicted the destruction of that holy place by the Chaldeans? Indeed, when the temple was first built, didn’t God himself give the same warning?—“This house, which is high, shall be an astonishment” (2 Chronicles 7:21). And with respect to the law, which they charged him with blaspheming; that law of which they boasted, and in which they put their trust; they were at that very moment breaking it, and dishonoring God by attempting to convict this innocent man “You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” (Romans 2:23,).. How was Stephen’s saying, (if he really did say it) that Jesus would change the customs which Moses had delivered to them, blaspheming the Law or its glorious Author? Was it not foretold by the prophets, and therefore to be expected, that in the days of the Messiah, the old customs would be changed, and that the shadows should give place when the substance was come? This, however, was no essential change of the law, but the perfecting of it: for Christ came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it; and if he changed some customs that Moses delivered, it was to introduce and establish those that were much better.