Friday, August 7, 2015

Best Man's Speech

I'd like to make a toast. 

The 7th chapter of Acts is quite long (60 verses).
I hope you'll take the time to go to Bible Gateway and read it.
For the sake of space here I have linked to it. Go and read. Then come back. 

We are going to look at this 7th Chap a few verses at a time. A chunk at a time.
Yes, we are going to cover the whole 60 verses in this message.

You'll recall from last week that Stephen has been taken by the Jewish religious leaders and brought before the Sanhedrin, the large group of Jewish rulers from every city in the land. They have accused Stephen of saying all kinds of horrid things against the Temple, against the Judaism, against Moses & God.

Now Stephen stands before the high priest.
It is eerily similar to another moment in which we are familiar.

Matthew 26:57

New International Version (NIV)

Jesus Before the Sanhedrin

57 Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled.

Just as in the instance of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, there are people who speak up in false pretenses. We noted last week, there were several who spoke up with things to say about how Stephen was doing his ministry. They make up sayings or twist what he has said just a bit. Didn't they do that to Jesus also?

Matthew 26:59-61

New International Version (NIV)
59 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. 60 But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward.
Finally two came forward 61 and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’”

The parallelism between Jesus' & Stephen's encounters with the  Sanhedrin and the high priest end there. Other than that they give their lives in defense of the Gospel message they have been presenting, the rest of the story is vaguely different. Jesus says little or nothing before his adversaries. Stephen, on the other hand, launches into an unforgettable sermon.

What we are going to do is look at Stephen's message piece by piece, chunk by chunk. 
What we see Stephen doing is recounting Israel's history back to them while inserting the message of Jesus in the proper places and times. He hopes to help them see just how hard headed and hard hearted they have become. That can be dangerous. It's one thing to go head strong against someone you personally know. A loved one. A longtime friend. To walk into a room full of strangers and assume that we know their history or their feelings beforehand and then speak in this way... This I do not recommend. You better feel as if this is what God really wants you to do. 

I would like to suggest that there are ways to prevent such persecution from happening. 
Sometimes, I think we bring such harshness upon ourselves by not taking a gentler approach with those outside our faith. There are times where I read a news article of someone who was arrested or thrown out of a public place for their faith and I think, "Why exactly did that happen?" In our great country where freedom roles on and we do have the ability to meet and worship wherever we want there are times when maybe we take it too far. Instead of making it about God, we make it about ourselves, our faith, our church. We want what we want the way we want it. When we go shoving our faith and beliefs down someone else's throat, well, we're asking for trouble. And, according to Jesus, there enough trouble with simply being associated with the name of Jesus. We don't need to go heaping more trouble up our heads by making it all about what we want. Having said all that, Jesus mentions that the world will hate us because it first hated Him. That's enough hatred for all of us. Let that ride without making them hate us more because we are overbearing, forceful, faith pushers. 

Stephen's persecution comes on the tail end of an already frightful event.
Jesus has been crucified. The sky went black as night. An earthquake shook the land. The veil in the Temple was torn in two. Even though the moment of Pentecost has given new life to a band of weary believers we should look at the land of Israel as a place that has come though a trial of apocalyptic measures. There is still tension. Its not like the religious leaders just forgot about this Jesus. No doubt, the name of "Jesus" is still a household name. In my own feelings, persecution can, in some cases, be avoided. Maybe that's why Jesus told several of the people he healed not to go about publicly telling everyone they knew. He was trying to prolong the event that he knew was on the horizon. After three and half years of putting up with the Messiah and his teachings, the religious crowd had enough. They don't give this new band of believers and apostles quite that long. 

The confrontation begins with the high priest's words. "Are these charges true?"
Instead of answering "No" and then defending himself, Stephen launches into a sermon with these few fleeting moments he has left. Maybe he thinks that his life hangs in the balance anyway. They are looking for someone to kill, it seems. They want someone to make an example of, so why not Stephen? If you knew you have one chance to speak up and share the message of Jesus, would you do it? 

Instead of defending himself, Stephen cuts right to the chase. 

Acts 7:2-3

New International Version (NIV)
To this he replied: “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 Harran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’[a]  

For the Jew, the Hebrew, their story begins with Abraham.
Sure, mankind's story, for many people, goes back to Adam and Eve. The beginnings of this great nation, however, starts with the one they call the "father of the faith". Once we are past the historical and allegorical stories on Genesis 1-11, then the history of a nation begins. 

Acts 7:4-8

New International Version (NIV)
“So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. God spoke to him in this way: ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’[a] Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.

Stephen's retelling of Israel's history should put his hearers in the shoes of their patriarch.
Can you imagine being told to leave your home, your familiar surrounding and traveling to some far off place? What would that do to your faith? Would it strengthen it? Would it weaken it? Would it deflate it and make it unusable? All of Stephen's audience listens intently as he recalls the actions of this "man of faith". 

Acts 7:9-10

New International Version (NIV)
“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.

The history stretches from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob and then to the life of Joseph who would find himself living in Egypt. First as a slave, then in a dungeon, then risen to power at the right hand of the Pharaoh. Abraham's lineage would be saved. Joseph's family would make it through the hard years of drought and famine. 

Acts 7:11-19

New International Version (NIV)
11 “Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. 12 When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers on their first visit. 13 On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. 14 After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. 15 Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our ancestors died. 16 Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.
17 “As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. 18 Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’[a] 19 He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.

Sometimes we are softened when we hear our family's history.
We recall hard times and bask in the wonderment of how they could have survived such hardships. How did we get to where we are today if our families had to go through all of that? Stephen's plea tugs at their heart strings as he tells them the story of their people's destitution.

Acts 7:20-29

New International Version (NIV)
20 “At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child.[a] For three months he was cared for by his family. 21 When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. 22 Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.
23 “When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. 24 He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. 25 Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. 26 The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’
27 “But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? 28 Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’[b] 29 When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.

From Abraham to Joseph to Moses. the Jewish historical spectrum goes through some of the most memorable figures. A man who was born and then placed in a basket, set adrift while his mother hopes for the best. he is raised in Egyptian hands and, no less, by the hands of his own mother, as God would see to it. Triumph turns to tragedy as he flees in his later years following a misunderstanding, taking the life of an Egyptian soldier in defense of one of his own people. 

Acts 7:30-36

New International Version (NIV)
30 “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. 31 When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’[a] Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.
33 “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’[b]
35 “This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.

Now, it's getting good. God is front and center. The same God who sent Abraham on the journey. The same God who wrestled with Jacob. The same God who walked with Joseph through his trials and triumphs. The God of the burning bush. If I'm in a seat in the Sanhedrin, then I'm leaning forward a bit wondering where this Stephen is going with this. Stephen has his crowd's attention and begins to lay out the final edges in defense of the Gospel. 

Acts 7:37-38

New International Version (NIV)
37 “This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’[a] 38 He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.

"...a prophet..." There were lots of prophets down through the centuries. But, there's only one prophet were are concerned about here. To the Christian, we should be able to see what direction Stephen is steering towards. To the unbelieving Jew, they might still be wondering where this message is headed. 

Acts 7:39-43

New International Version (NIV)
39 “But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’[a] 41 That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. 42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
    forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
43 You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek
    and the star of your god Rephan,
    the idols you made to worship.
Therefore I will send you into exile’[b] beyond Babylon.

Wow. Stephen is strnging Israeli history through Abraham and Moses all the way through their country's disobedience and then into exile in Babylon. If I'm sitting there in the Sanhedrin I have to be wondering if Stephen is doing what I think he is doing. Now he begins to touch upon Israel's turbulent years when they did not listen and follow God. He can't possibly be trying to connect that to us, can he? Their assumptions are fulfilled as Stephen closes out his message. 

Acts 7:44-47

New International Version (NIV)
44 “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. 45 After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, 46 who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.[a] 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him.

Didn't these "witnesses" accuse Stephen of saying blasphemous things against God's Temple and against the customs of their religion? Wouldn't you think that would be an area you'd want to steer away from then if you are speaking with someone you're in conflict with in such a serious discussion? The thing is...sometimes you can't do that. While we would like to avoid persecution and conflict there are moments where a particular subject needs addressing. And, here it is. God is front and center again. While these religious leaders want to rule over the customs and interpretation of the matters pertaining to the Temple, it is God who owns the Temple. It was God who directed Moses' steps. It was God who sent Abraham on his journey. It was God who gave instructions of Solomon to build the Temple. And, while is part of the viewpoint for the Jewish thought and practice of the day, the central focus in on what they want and how they want it. And, Stephen strikes at his final point. 

Acts 7:48-53

New International Version (NIV)
48 “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human 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 where will my resting place be?
50 Has not my hand made all these things?’[a]
51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”

Stephen has done what we like to refer as "preaching Genesis to Revelation in one sermon".
I like to think of it as a best man speech. Stephen truly is the best man to give this speech. He is the man in the moment with the Spirit of God resting upon him. All eyes are focused on him as he weaves his tale of woe and conflict, history and lesson, into a story with a point they cannot miss. He has given them their entire history in a nutshell. The central focus, the monument, if you will, is their liberation from Egypt. The giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. God's interaction with them through Moses, their greatest prophet. Their lineage back through the greatest patriarch, a man of faith, Abraham. But, what did they miss? What have they been missing from the moment Jesus was born in a lowly stable in Bethlehem? Why are there so many today who miss the point? Why is it so hard to accept that we need love and forgiveness? Maybe it the requirements that need to be met. We need to admit our sin. Sometimes it encompasses accepting the sin of our forefathers. maybe the load is just too much to come to grips with and we end up lashing out instead.  All of that comes to fruition as we wrap up this chapter in these last six to seven verses.

Acts 7:54-60

New International Version (NIV)

The Stoning of Stephen

54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
Acts takes a different direction after this.
This man named Saul. These other men who are doing the stoning have dropped their clothes or "coats" at his feet. Scholars suggest that it suggest that Saul was chief in setting up this witch-hunt and stoning. A man, born of Roman origin, outside of Israel, has come back to settle here in this region. He has a seat on the Sanhedrin. he has a vote in what would transpire. The stoners drop their coats here in front of him. Maybe they don't want to get any blood on them. Maybe Saul will round them up. Later, in his letters, Paul will give reference to just such a moment. This moment. "I am the chief of all sinners". 

Why do we persecute others? What is our problem with accepting other people's beliefs?
Why do tend to make it all so personal and then rage in protest when we don't like what they present? It happens on both sides of the ball, to use the football picture. People line up on both sides of the playing field and try to annihilate each other. While that is the purpose of football, it is not the purpose in religion. But, too often, that is what comes from our less than frugal approach to exchange our words and thoughts. 

If you've been on the receiving end of persecution, let us pray that our attitudes can be like that of a Stephen. While being stoned, or persecuted, or spoken to harshly, raged against by people who don't truly understand what they are doing and saying, let our hearts and minds be about forgiveness. Let us say what needs to be said and let the chips fall where they will. Regardless of the outcome, regardless of the retaliation, let our focus be on the One who saves all souls. 

Matthew 10:17-20

New International Version (NIV)
17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

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