The In-Between Years - Part 33
Series: The In-Between Years
April 18, 2021
The In-Between Years — Part 33
Last week we finished chapter 6 in Acts where Stephen, one of the seven chosen to handle the daily meals ministry to widows, was not only serving tables he was also preaching a risen Jesus in the synagogues of Greek speaking Jews like himself. Luke records that…
10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Acts 6:10 (ESV)
There are only two acceptable reactions to the gospel, the good news that Jesus lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died: you either accept it or reject it. There’s no middle ground. These Jews rejected it. But they went even further. They hated the message so much they attacked the messenger by creating fake news about him…
11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” Acts 6:11–14 (ESV)
Instead of running away, or freaking out, or even recanting before the Sanhedrin, Stephen rested in perfect peace…
15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. Acts 6:15 (ESV)
Today, we’ll begin looking at what happened.
1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” Acts 7:1 (ESV)
The high priest, who resided over the council, asks Stephen if the charges are true. His answer determines his destiny. The Sanhedrin had the power to do pretty much what they pleased with him.
Yet Stephen doesn’t take the time to answer their question even in the face of such danger. He doesn’t defend himself. Instead, he begins a history lesson. Which is ironic if you think about it! They were supposed to be the teachers of Israel.
This history lesson is part of the longest sermon recorded in the Bible. As I shared last week, it’s tempting to skim over these 51 verses which take up almost the whole chapter. At first glance they don’t seem to contain much more than just a rehashing of Israel’s story. But I can’t forget what Jesus said to the disciples…
12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. Luke 21:12–15 (ESV)
Jesus promised he would tell them what to say when they stood before synagogues and even the council for his sake. We know this side of the cross it was the Spirit of God who influenced them. If God’s Spirit led Stephen to preach this, we should look carefully at what he says.
The Bible turns sterile if we aren’t careful. Verses become just text on a page that we need to read for that day’s devotion. We see them, but we don’t see what’s behind. Every story, every account in God’s Word involves people with their own passions, personalities, hang ups, backgrounds. So much texture is added when we take the time to dig a little deeper. De-sterilize the word if you will.
As I prepared for today’s message and the ones following on Stephen’s sermon I wondered about him as a person. What made him so passionate? We can kind of understand the zeal of the original disciples who walked with Jesus during his earthly ministry, who saw him crucified and resurrected. But there’s no indication Stephen was one of them. Most likely he was a their convert, maybe on the day of Pentecost.
All the first Christians were Jews and, Stephen, like all Jews of that day, was raised, steeped, in the OT Scripture. They lived by these words in Deut…
4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4–9 (ESV)
Stephen grew up absorbing the stories of the Bible. Internalizing the Law of God. Memorizing the Psalms, reciting them morning, noon and night. Taking to heart the warnings and prophecies of the Prophets. He would have had a deep longing for the promised Messiah, especially in the 1st Century with Roman occupation of Israel.
Knowing this makes his and all the early disciples’ acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah all the more incredible since Jesus claimed to also be one with the Father and thus equal to him. He even ascribed the holy and mysterious covenant name of Israel’s God to himself when he said…
58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. John 8:58–59 (ESV)
Here’s a poor nobody from the hick town of Nazareth claiming to be YAHWEH. No faithful Jew would convey such a lofty thing on any mere man. Anyone who did that deserved to die! This, folks, is what gives the gospels such credibility. Not that they contain the story of a man who claimed to be the Christ (Messiah) and Lord (YAHWEH) — throughout history crazy people do things like that even to the present — but that those first disciples, born and raised Jewish, believed him and accepted him as such.
There was something about Jesus — the way he taught the Scriptures, the way he handled himself with the Jewish leaders, the miracles he performed — that convinced them he was who he said he was. Of course, being crucified and coming back from the dead three days later confirmed it all.
Jesus’ miracle working powers, his authority over the Scriptures made those first disciples believe, and his return from the dead sealed the deal. But here’s something we all need to understand: the revelation of who Jesus was and is didn’t take the Jews in a whole new faith direction. It didn’t create some new religion. It fulfilled the faith already established through their father Abraham and his descendant Moses.
All that Jesus was and is, did and does, is bound up in the Jewish Scriptures — our OT — in every word, every phrase, every story. Something you cannot see unless you look at it through the lens of Jesus himself.
Two of Jesus’ first disciples experienced this right after the cross but before the resurrection…
13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” 25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. 28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, 34 saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread. Luke 24:13–35 (ESV)
Their hearts burned within them when they saw Jesus in the Scriptures! You could say that the books of the NT are accounts of the early disciples’ hearts burning within them. After Jesus ascended they made connection after connection, saw Christ in story after story, and it fired up the faith they already had as Jews. The most Jewish thing a Jew could do was to accept Jesus as Christ as Lord. He was and is the fulfillment of their very faith.
Stephen probably did not physically walk with Jesus during his early ministry, but he came to follow him under the ministry of his first disciples. And as he went back to the Scriptures: the books of poetry, the books of wisdom, the books of history that he had been raised on, his heart burned within him all the same. Stephen was ignited with passion as he too saw Jesus plainly standing between the lines of every Hebrew Scripture. He’d been there all the time.
So when he stood before the council, he wasn’t concerned with getting the charges dropped; he wasn’t afraid of going to jail; he didn’t even fear for his life (remember the same folks wanted to stone Jesus and ultimately got him crucified); he wanted to show the ones who were supposed lead God’s people that they were actually leading them away from the One he had come to accept as both CHRIST and LORD.
Conclusion: One of my favorite NT scholars writes:
He had been accused of speaking against the Temple and the law; of saying that Jesus would destroy the Temple and change the customs which Moses had given, heavy as those customs were with cultural and religious symbolic significance. How was he to respond?
He could simply have waved the charges away. They are obviously false. He hasn’t been saying that at all. Or he could have avoided them and used the opportunity to speak about Jesus himself, about his cruel death and astonishing resurrection, about the future hope of the renewal of all things which was now coming true in him. Instead, he takes the bull by the horns and goes for the big picture. What you need, he says, is to rework your [the way you approach God’s story in the Scripture]. Tell the story again from the very beginning and get it right this time. Pace out the whole journey, from Abraham onwards, so that you arrive at the present moment at exactly the right speed and from exactly the right angle. Then, and only then, will you understand who Jesus is, and what I and my friends, who believe in him, have and haven’t been saying…
This explains why much of the speech doesn’t seem to be a direct answer to the charges made against Stephen. What we have to do is to listen carefully, to see the way he is telling the whole story, and to note which points, out of the thousands of different things that one could deduce as ‘the moral’ from different bits of the story, he wants to highlight. Instead of a head-on rebuttal of the charges, he has chosen a kind of outflanking movement. Tell the story this way, he is saying, and you will see what I am saying about Jesus and how it relates to everything else that matters.
Michael Heiser wrote a book called The Unseen Realm. We are going through it on Wednesday nights. It presents a fascinating take on what the Bible teaches about the supernatural world. One of the things he brings out is how important it is to not get caught up in the minutia of Bible interpretation. The details are important, but if we focus only on them we fail to see how they come together to form the big picture. Heiser writes…
The facts of the Bible are just pieces—bits of scattered data… we gain a perspective that is both broader and deeper if we allow ourselves to see the pieces in their own wider context. We need to see the mosaic created by the pieces.
The Bible is really a theological and literary mosaic. The pattern in a mosaic often isn’t clear up close. It may appear to be just a random assemblage of pieces. Only when you step back can you see the wondrous whole. Yes, the individual pieces are essential; without them there would be no mosaic. But the meaning of all the pieces is found in the completed mosaic. And a mosaic isn’t imposed on the pieces; it derives from them.
This is one of the biggest changes I’ve made in my study of Scripture. It’s changed the way I think about theology and doctrine and even changed the way I preach. God is teaching me to step back and look at the mosaic of Scripture as a whole. What is the big picture of the Bible? Every heresy, every unhealthy movement in Christianity throughout history can be attributed to a fixation on some detail, some piece of the mosaic, without stepping back and seeing the whole.
That was the problem with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and even the council Stephen stood before. They were caught up in a few tiles of the mosaic, as important as they were, such as the Law of Moses and the temple of God, so much so they couldn’t see God himself when he stood before them in the person of Jesus.
Stephen goes for the big picture and retells the story of the Jews in such a way that that it reveals the Mosaic forming the image of the one who was and is God with Us.
Conclusion: Now I think we are ready to look at Stephen’s message.
2 And Stephen said: “Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham… Acts 7:2a (ESV)
And we’ll pick back up and keep going next time.
As we close, let me leave you with this thought. The big picture of the Bible points to Jesus not just to give us information. It conveys a message and it’s this: through Jesus there is forgiveness of our sins and the giving of eternal life, and that eternal life has to do with his coming return when he will literally set up his forever kingdom on a renewed earth. And the good news of the gospel is that he invites you to be a part of that…
13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:13 (ESV)
Even if everyone here is saved, I’m teaching you how to do this!
 Heiser, M. S. (2015). The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (First Edition, p. 15). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
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