Freedom of Worship – Will It Ever Be Lost? Consider Stephen’s Story
By: Frank Tunstall, D. Min.
Stephen was a prophet who was full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. He accurately foretold the New Covenant but did not live to see it blossom.
We live in troubled times in America with many wanting to shut down the church. If that should ever happen will the gospel of Jesus Christ be lost? It’s a fair question, and Stephen’s story answers it: the gospel lives in the hearts of God’s children. The mandates of governments can control what people do, but not what people believe.
Stephen’s contribution to the Apostolic Church was perceiving the gospel of Jesus Christ would leave its Jewish cradle, and the Jerusalem Temple would become unimportant to the growth of the church. Carrying out Jesus’ Great Commission in the worship of the new order would not need a central temple as the gospel moved out to the nations.
The new covenant is built on the foundation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Holy Spirit plants the promise in the hearts of believers that we are headed for a city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10; Revelation 21:14, 19). But until the wonderful day of the Rapture of the church arrives, we have a Great Commission to fulfill (Matthew 28:18-20). As we wait, we must not forsake gathering together in the church as the manner of some is (Hebrews 10:25).
Because of Stephen’s prophecy he was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. The indictment against him was blasphemy against the temple and the laws of Moses. It was a capital offense. Stephen was on trial for his life.
The Charges Against Stephen
“Are these charges true?” asked the High Priest.
Stephen was ready and willing to respond aggressively to the charges.
“Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you’” (Acts 7:2-3; Genesis 12:1).
Abraham and his posterity worshipped God for some 400 years owning no land and having no temple. What they did have was a promise from God and it was enough; the name, the Promised Land, certainly fits. Their faith in God’s covenant promise to Abraham remained strong through all those years; they would wait as long as it took. The covenant promises lived on in their hearts, but without a tabernacle or a temple.
Think about how long 400 years is; about 100 years longer than America is old!
Circumcision became their symbol of faith in God, setting them apart from the peoples of the world.
Joseph was a young Hebrew whose brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery. This seventeen-year-old held to God’s promise to Abraham and to a dream God gave him as a boy. The day came Joseph became the prime minister of Egypt (see Genesis 37-50). He brought his dad and his brothers to Egypt. They lived in a foreign land and prospered until a king arose who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1:8). This king turned the Israelites into slaves. But in all this upheaval their numbers kept multiplying and their faith in the covenant promises of God held firmly in their hearts – albeit without a tabernacle or a temple.
Moses grew up in Egypt as the son of Pharoah’s daughter and lived in the palace for forty years. His next forty years were lived as a fugitive in the land of Midian where he became a shepherd. Moses held tightly to his trust in God’s covenant with Abraham while living in the Arabian desert. God met Moses at a burning bush that miraculously was not turning to ashes and gave him the order to lead Israel to the Promised Land, but without any mention of a temple (Exodus 3:3, 32).
Abraham and Moses are separated by some 400 years but Moses’ trust in God’s promise to Abraham did not die. It all happened without a temple.
“All these people died in faith, without having received the things they were promised. However, they saw them and welcomed them from afar. And they acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. All these people were still living by faith when they died” (Hebrews 11:13).
The miracle power of God’s promise was so strong Joseph instructed his descendants, when the day came, to take his bones with them to the Promised Land.
While wandering in the wilderness for 40 years before they reached the Promised Land. Moses even gave a Messianic prophesy to the nation in the wilderness: “God will send you a prophet like me from your own people; you must listen to Him” (Acts 7:37; Deuteronomy 18:15).
About 900 hundred years pass – close to a millennium – between Abraham and Solomon’s Temple. The Hebrew people all that time amid their ups and downs were steadfast and confident in the revelation of God to Abraham. They held it close to their hearts, but without a Temple.
The day came when Solomon built the first temple, but he himself said, “The Most High does not live in houses made by men” (Acts 7:48-50). Stephen knew this prophecy also applied to the era of the church that would not need the Jerusalem Temple to be successful.
The Sanhedrin’s Anger
The high priest and the members of the Sanhedrin were “furious” at what they heard from Stephen – the audacity to say Israel worshipped God for almost a thousand years before the Temple, and God does not dwell in temples made with hands, and that they had murdered their own Messiah. These leaders grated their teeth at him in a fit of rage (Acts 7:54).
Stephen did see, of course, the Temple era was coming to an end. A new kind of temple was blossoming, the temple of the heart, and it would not be built with human hands.
Stephen’s prophecy was blasphemous to the Jewish leadership. Death by stoning was the sentence. As for Stephen, he looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said. “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55).
At this “they covered their ears and started yelling at the tops of their voices. These leaders then rushed at him, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him” (Acts 7:57-58). While the rocks were flying, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell to his knees and cried out as Jesus had on the cross, “‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60).
The witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Stephen was the prophet of the New Covenant, and it included an international mandate that had no need of the Jerusalem Temple. Jesus’ Spirit-filled followers in their hearts are the temples; they are the Most Holy Place in the New Testament.
For proclaiming this obvious truth of the new order, Stephen became the first Christian martyr.
Stephen knew, because the Holy Spirit was with them, people could stay strong in their faith anywhere in the world without the trappings of the Temple. Their own 1800-year history of the Jewish family proved it.
What Are We to Learn?
The Lord’s church today is facing growing opposition. A large number of countries worldwide already do not allow freedom of religion.
Who knows – believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ in the American church might one day have restricted freedom of worship. A first step could be for the church to lose its tax-exempt status.
How important to know this lesson from Stephen: the gospel lives in the hearts of God’s children. Governments can control what people do but can never control what people believe. This means heartfelt worship of Jesus Christ God’s Son is sovereign.
In the providence of God, Saul grew on up and the Holy Spirit gave him the anointing and the international vision Stephen had seen so clearly.
About forty years after Stephen’s death, Israel rebelled against Rome. The Caesar sent Rome’s legions who marched on Jerusalem and tore down stone by stone the city and the temple. From that day to this, the Jewish temple has never been rebuilt.