The In-Between Years - Part 41
Series: The In-Between Years
July 04, 2021
The In-Between Years - Part 41
We have been creeping through Stephen’s message before the council for quite some time now. Just in case you haven’t been with us, Stephen was a Greek-speaking Jew who preached a risen Christ so powerfully the Jews could not refute him so they falsely accused him of blaspheming the law, Moses, and the Temple. He was brought before the high council of Jewish leaders called the Sanhedrin, responding to his charges with the longest sermon recorded in the Bible. He retold the story of the Israelites through the lens of Jesus, centering it on three famous people and one famous place.
1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” 2 And Stephen said: “Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ 4 Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. 5 Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. 6 And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. 7 ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ 8 And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs. Acts 7:1–8 (ESV)
9 “And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him 10 and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11 Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. 13 And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. 15 And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, 16 and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. Acts 7:9–16 (ESV)
Abraham, Joseph, and then the most famous Jew of all, Moses. He divided his life into three spans of 40 years…
First 40 Years
17 “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt 18 until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. 19 He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. 20 At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, 21 and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds. Acts 7:17–22 (ESV)
Second 40 Years
23 “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ 27 But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons. Acts 7:23–29 (ESV)
Third 40 years
30 “Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. 33 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’ 35 “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ 38 This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. 39 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: “ ‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 43 You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’ Acts 7:30–43 (ESV)
44 “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. 45 Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 46 who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, 49 “ ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?’ Acts 7:44–50 (ESV)
That’s the story, but now comes the…
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 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, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” Acts 7:51–53 (ESV)
We have to take a minute and let that sink in. While we do let’s talk about texting. Who would have ever thought texting would be as big as it is. I mean, back in my day if we had had cell phones we would have talked on them. But these kids text way more than they talk. Texting is kind of old school isn’t? The thing about texting is you cannot convey tone or emotion like you can with your voice.
It’s kind of like that with the text here. We have a record of Stephen’s words but his tone isn’t immediately clear. Was it angry? Was it proud (like mic drop)? Was it timid?
I think if anything it was humbly passionate. His words were harsh but they came from a place of love and longing. He loved Jesus and he loved the people through whom the Messiah came. And longed for them to repent and turn like he did.
We might be quick to judge Stephen. “Maybe you should have gone easier on the council. I mean you started great but that ending: stiff-necked, uncircumcised ears and hearts?… HARSH.” You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Right?
One, Stephen wasn’t the first to call the Israelites out like that. So, you remember the whole golden calf thing? Look at what God said to Moses just after that…
5 For the Lord had said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; …’ ” Exodus 33:5 (ESV)
And the word of the Lord came to the prophet Jeremiah…
10 To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen; behold, the word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it. Jeremiah 6:10 (ESV)
So God himself called the Israelites stiff-necked and uncircumcised of heart.
Two. Someone else we know approached the Jewish elite like this as well. See if you can tell me who said this of the scribes and Pharisees: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”
Jesus said that. I preached the Gospels for sixteen years before I realized the striking difference between the way Jesus approached religious folks and sinners.
Look at what Jesus said about the scribes and Pharisees in context and see how it applies to what Stephen said…
29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. Matthew 23:29–36 (ESV)
Jesus himself noted the Jewish leaders’ propensity to reject and kill the prophets God sent to lead them home. He also predicted they’d keep doing it. They did. They crucified Jesus. And…
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 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. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:54–60 (ESV)
What a sad ending to Stephen’s story. There’s a lot more to see here, though. And we’ll do that… next time.
Conclusion: Let’s close with what NT Wright says about Stephen’s incredible sermon and it’s forceful thrust…
It isn’t Stephen who has been a heretic, blaspheming the true God and the Temple; it is the Jewish rulers, following their idolatrous ancestors! The defence turns into an attack. Yes, David planned the Temple, and Solomon built it (verses 45–48). But Isaiah (66:1–2) had already declared, following Solomon’s own prayer of dedication (1 Kings 8:27), that since God’s own hand makes all things, the idea that human beings can produce a handmade building which will somehow contain God is the actual blasphemous nonsense. At a stroke, Stephen has taken the entire Jewish Temple-theology and, using Israel’s own story and her own prophets, has overturned it. The Most High doesn’t live in shrines like this. Heaven is his throne, and earth his footstool. The entire cosmos cannot contain him, since he made it all in the first place. What God wanted instead was to come into his world as a human being, ‘the Righteous One’ (Acts 7:52), to rescue his people. But, like their ancestors, the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day had refused their appointed deliverer and had preferred their own homemade, handmade system and building. Moses and all the prophets would unite with Stephen in condemning them.
It is an astonishing speech—unsatisfying in some ways, since we would have liked to know what Stephen would have said in more detail to the actual charges laid against him. But he does something more powerful, and more important. He takes to a new level the charge which Peter and the others have been laying, all through, against the Jewish leaders of the day. It isn’t just that they rejected God’s Messiah, the Righteous One, and handed him over to be killed by the pagans. In doing so, they were simply acting out, at long range, the pattern of rebellious behaviour set by their ancestors. Instead of the recounting of Israel’s history becoming a ‘story of salvation’, as so often, it turns out to be a ‘story of rebellion’. Stephen is claiming the high moral ground. He stands with Abraham, with Moses, with David and Solomon, and with the prophets, while the present Jewish leadership are standing with Joseph’s brothers, with the Israelites who rejected Moses, and with those who helped Aaron build and worship the golden calf. As we consider our own traditions, and think of them lovingly since they ‘prove’ that we ourselves are in the right place in our worship and witness, perhaps sometimes we need to allow the story to be told differently, and to see whether we ourselves might be in the wrong place within it.
You do not want to be in the wrong place in God’s story. God’s story is about setting this world back to rights. About dealing with sin and death. We all need to be saved from that. God gave us a promise concerning that…
13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:13 (ESV)
Last week I emphasized the “everyone” part. God’s promise is for all, no matter what. This week look at the “who calls” part. That implies a person realizes he or she needs help so they call on someone. That’s important.
Those council members thought they didn’t need God’s help because they were keeping the Law, but inwardly they weren’t. God looks at the heart. And we all, if we look deep enough, realize our hearts are dark. We aren’t any better than them. We need somebody to save us from ourselves. Jesus is that somebody. He lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died.
God’s promise is for everyone, but it’s only effective for those who realize they need help.
Would you call on God today? Take him up on his promise?
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