Wednesday, October 5, 2016

'The Stoning of Stephen' (Acts 6-7).

Background Story:
God called Abraham promising him a homeland and multiple descendants to bless the world. Abraham’s descendants multiplied but they became enslaved in Egypt. God called Moses, who led Israel out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai where God formed them into the ‘Nation of Israel’. God led them into their land under Joshua and later God promised David a ‘perpetual kingship’ over God’s people. David’s son, Solomon built the Temple as a dwelling for God, but he also introduced an idolatry that led to the scattering of the ‘Northern kingdom’ by the Assyrians and the exile in Babylon of the ‘Southern Kingdom’. When the Persians conquered the Babylonians they let the Jews return to their land but they remained under Pagan rule. God’s people longed for a ‘conquering king’ and God sent Jesus. Jesus was ‘anointed by the Spirit’ at his baptism. He overcame the Devil’s temptations and proclaimed the ‘Kingdom of God’. He gathered a ‘new people (12)’ around himself and when they recognized his Messianic identity he went to Jerusalem where he was enthroned as ‘KING of the JEWS’ on a cross. Yet, God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus showed his disciples that he was alive and then he ascended into heaven. From there Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit to empower his disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. 
The apostles, Peter and John, healed a crippled beggar in the temple courts and explained that the man had been healed ‘in the name of Jesus’. Peter told the religious leaders that they had crucified Jesus, but God had raised him from the dead. This message continued to spread and the number who believed continued to increase. The religious leaders forbid that the apostles teach or preach in the name of Jesus in an effort to stop the message from spreading. But Peter and John had to obey God and couldn’t stop speaking about Jesus. In the previous story we saw what happened to ‘Ananias and Sapphira’ who lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 4-5). Now we look at the story of the ‘stoning of Stephen’ (Acts 6-7). Watch the story here and read the comments below.

Stephen tells Israel's Story:  Their numbers were increasing, and they distributed food with their widows daily. However, things were not perfect for some widows were being favored and others were being neglected. So the apostles came up with an idea but trusted the community to settle the matter. The community was to select spiritually wise representatives to distribute the food fairly. They chose Stephen, he was a man full of the Spirit and wisdom, and 6 others who the apostles laid hands on and prayed for. In this way the ‘word of God’ spread and their numbers continued to increase. The early followers of Jesus shared their resources and lived as the extended family of Abraham. They had problems for some of their widows were being neglected in the distribution of food. The apostles let the people chose seven who were known to be full of the ‘Spirit and wisdom’ to take on this responsibility. The apostles had been doing the work themselves and yet there were still problems.  The crisis served to prioritize the ministry of the ‘word of God and prayer’ for the apostles (5:20). The community chose seven who were full of the ‘Spirit and wisdom’.  This was spiritual work and apostles set them apart by laying hands on them and praying for them. In this way the ‘word of God’ spread and their numbers continued to increase (Acts 6:1-7).

One of the seven was Stephen, a man full of God’s Spirit, wisdom, grace and power. Stephen did ‘signs and wonders’ but some from a local Synagogue opposed Stephen. They couldn’t stand up to Stephen’s wisdom or to the Spirit by which he spoke so they seized Stephen and brought him before the religious authorities. They got some false witnesses to testify that Stephen never stopped speaking against the temple and the law. They also claimed that Stephen said that Jesus would destroy the temple and change the Mosaic Law. Yet, Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law and that the temple would be destroyed within a generation (Matt. 5:17, 24:2, 34). So Stephen stood without fear before the religious leaders, with his face shining like that of an angel. Stephen defended himself by telling Israel’s story beginning with God’s covenant with Abraham. Stephen retells Israel’s story showing how their fathers rejected both Joseph and Moses who God used to rescue them. Moreover, Stephen connects the Abrahamic covenant with the story of the Exodus, and his story culminates in his vision of Jesus.

Stephen emphasized how God called Abraham in Mesopotamia to leave that country and that people to go to the land God would show him.  Abraham obeyed and after his father died God sent him to the land where Stephen and his hearers were living. Abraham had no land and no children, but he had God’s promise that he and his descendants would possess the land. This would not be until after 400 years in a land not their own where they would be enslaved. Yet, God would punish their oppressors and they would return to the land to worship God. God gave Abraham the ‘covenant of circumcision’ and when Abraham became the father of Isaac and he circumcised Isaac on the eighth day. Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of Israel’s twelve patriarchs. The patriarchs were Israel’s fathers but they sold their brother Joseph to be a slave in Egypt out of jealousy. However, God was with Joseph and caused the Pharaoh to put Joseph in charge of all Egypt. Then when a famine struck Egypt and Canaan, Jacob sent their fathers to Egypt to buy grain. On their second trip to Egypt, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. Joseph sent for his father Jacob who brought his whole family, 75 in all, down to Egypt where Joseph could take care of them. God used Joseph, who they rejected, to rescue them and preserve their family. They settled in Egypt and died there, but they were brought back and buried in Canaan in the tomb Abraham had bought in Shechem.

The crucial moments in Israel’s nearly 2000 year history revolved around God calling Abraham, the calling of Moses, the Exodus and the giving of the law. In addition God uniquely shaped the lives of Joseph and Moses in order to rescue Israel. Again, Stephen tells this story to indicate how Moses, like Joseph, was Israel’s rejected rescuer. Stephen also pointed out how God called the place where God revealed Himself and His saving purpose ‘holy ground’. The Israelites multiplied in Egypt but they became enslaved by a Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph. This Pharaoh forced them to throw out their newborn babies and this is when Moses was born. Moses was protected by his parents for three months then he was then placed outside. Pharaoh’s own daughter recused Moses and raised him as her own son in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. 40 years later, Moses saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite. He killed the Egyptian and he thought the Israelites would realize that God was using him to rescue them but they didn’t. The next day Moses tried to reconcile two Israelites who were fighting, but the Israelite who was in the wrong said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us?  Do you want to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?’  So Moses fled Egypt and settled in Midian, and another 40 years had passed when the Lord called Moses from the flames of a burning bush near Mount Sinai. The Lord revealed Himself to Moses as the God of his fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and he told Moses to take off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground. God went on to say that He had seen the oppression of His people in Egypt and He had come down to rescue them. They had rejected Moses but God would send the very same Moses back to Egypt to deliver Israel out of Egypt (Acts 7:17-34). Moses did signs and wonders, leading Israel out of Egypt, through the Red Sea and for 40 years in the desert.

This is the Moses who was with the Israelites in the assembly in the desert and who God spoke to on Mt. Sinai giving him living words to pass on to them. Again, Stephen emphasizes how their fathers had rejected Moses and the law. The rejected Moses who had fled to Midian was called by God to return to Egypt to rescue Israel. Moses delivered Israel out of Egypt and he was given words of life, referring to the 10 commandments. But Israel turned back to Egypt in their hearts when they had Aaron make an idol for them to worship. This would happen again and God would carry them away into exile in Babylon. Stephen points out that they did this even though they had the tabernacle with them. Under Joshua they brought the tabernacle with into the land they took from the nations God drove out before them. The tabernacle remained in the land until David asked to build a house for the God of Jacob, though it was Solomon, David’s son, who would build the temple. While the temple was a more permanent dwelling for God, but Stephen points out that no man-made temple could contain the Lord of heaven and earth. Stephen concluded by saying that his hearers were no different than those who had persecuted the prophets. They were like those who killed those who predicted the coming of the ‘righteous one’ for they had murdered Jesus. They were stiff-necked, uncircumcised in heart and resistant to the Holy Spirit. They had the law but they didn’t obey it. His hearers were enraged but Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, saw heaven open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Refusing to listen, they dragged Stephen out of the city and they laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. As they were stoning him to death Stephen, in imitation of Jesus, prayed, “Lord, receive my spirit” and, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:39-60).

Those opposing Stephen had descended from Abraham, but they weren’t obeying God like Abraham. They had accused Stephen of speaking against the law but they were being like their forefathers who had rejected Moses and the commandments God. Instead of acting like heirs of the Abrahamic covenant they were the heirs of those who persecuted the prophets and killed those who foretold the coming of the righteous one. They were like those who had the tabernacle in the wilderness but God wasn’t with them. For the ‘Most High’ doesn’t live man-made temples for the prophets had said that Heaven is God’s throne, and the earth is God’s footstool. Stephen’s vision demonstrates that the temple was superseded by Jesus. The high priest and the religious leaders condemned Stephen but Stephen’s Daniel 7 like vision of Jesus showed that Israel’s history culminated in Jesus and that Jesus stood as Stephen’s advocate. The story shows how important it is to be able to tell the story of Jesus as the climax of the Old Testament story. Then with the story of Jesus as the foundation, the ongoing story of the church is the continuation of the Jesus story.

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