July 21, 2013
INTRODUCTION – Last week we saw how desperately the world needs the church to produce men like Stephen, who not only are committed to serve the needy and the local church, but who also walk in the power of the Holy Spirit and the fullness of Christ. We also saw that only when the church’s leaders stick to their priorities of devotion to prayer and the ministry of the word – – and only when the congregations devote themselves to prayer and encourage their leaders to stick to their priorities- – and also gladly serve to take some of the load off the shoulders of their leaders – – will these kind of Spirit filled men be produced. Man centered churches and church programs will never produce men (or women) who are full of the Holy Spirit, full of wisdom, full of faith and full of grace., and who can thus be God’s instrument for transformation in their cities.
And can I add here that ministries that only focus on meeting physical/material needs, and do not pursue the fullness of the Holy Spirit in their own personal lives – – these ministries or ministers will short change our communities, and will not accurately represent the God who loves and longs to invade our cities with His power and transforming grace. Any ministry done in the name of Christ must have people full of Christ doing the ministry. At least we should all be striving for that fullness. Well today as we jump into chapter 7 we are going to take a good long look at this remarkable sermon or defense that Stephen gave, but before we do – I want to make sure you understand who the defense is being given to and why.
As Stephen’s ministry began to flourish, and as the power of God through him began to come up against the powers of darkness – – religious leaders who were actually agents of the powers of darkness – – rose up in opposition.
Acts chapter 6 vs. 9 informs us that men from a variety of Jewish religious streams converged together as one – – I believe because they answered unknowingly to one master – – the father of lies – – and they began to argue with Stephen. That proved to be a very frustrating and losing effort for them – – – not because Stephen was more educated or more eloquent or had been the captain of his debate team in high school, but rather because as vs. 10 says, “they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” Stephen had learned by this point to fight with spiritual weapons, not carnal or fleshly ones – – and these leaders had no answer to such weapons.
Jesus Christ told His disciples that a day would come when they would be brought before the authorities and that they were not to worry, but instead they were to expect Him to show up – – well let’s listen to His words – – “do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13:11). This is very bad news for our detractors because the Holy Spirit is infinite in truth and wisdom, and Stephen was learning more and more to depend on Him for both his words and his deeds.
Now while these religious leaders were unable to cope with Stephen’s wisdom – and although they were being lovingly but powerfully confronted with the truth of the gospel – – that didn’t stop them in the least – – because truth and righteousness was not their pursuit – it wasn’t their concern. They were not arguing with Stephen to better understand and obey the truth or to better know and walk with God. They were arguing with Stephen because they were losing their hold on the allegiance of the people, and because they did not want to humble themselves and admit they were sinners in need of a Savior. They had developed a religious system that enabled them to look and stay religious, not have to humble themselves and admit their own personal need, perhaps procure some income, and be able to stay in full control of their own destiny. And Stephen’s entrance onto the stage (so to speak) was a grave threat to everything they held dear.
Well since this discussion was never about truth in the first place, they did what people controlled by the kingdom of darkness do – – they talked some men into making up lies about Stephen – – claiming that he was a blasphemer first of Moses, then of God, and claiming that he was against the temple as a place of worship and against the Law, and that he had taught that Jesus the Nazarene would destroy the temple and the Law – – all serious charges to any sincere Jew. Stephen now finds himself standing in front of the Sanhedrin Council – – who are demanding to know whether these charges are true or not.
And that brings us to our passage for today starting at Acts chapter 7 vs. 1 - “The high priest said, “Are these things so?” And he said, “Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, LEAVE YOUR COUNTRY AND YOUR RELATIVES, AND COME INTO THE LAND THAT I WILL SHOW YOU.’ Then he led the left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. From there, after his father died, God had him move to this country in which you are now living. But He gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground, and yet, even when he had no child, He promised that HE WOULD GIVE IT TO HIM AS A POSSESSION, AND TO HIS DESCENDANTS AFTER HIM. But God spoke to this effect, that his DESCENDANTS WOULD BE ALIENS IN A FOREIGN LAND, AND THAT THEY WOULD BE ENSLVAED AND MISTREATED FOR FOUR HUNDRED YEARS. AND WHATEVER NATION TO WHICH THEY WILL BE IN BONDAGE I MYSELF WILL JUDGE, said God, ‘AND AFTER THAT THEY WILL COME OUT AND SERVE ME IN THIS PLACE.’ 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
Because Stephen was full of grace and the Holy Spirit, he started his defense with a respectful appeal to both the older men and his peers, “Hear me, brethren and fathers!” Please know brothers and sisters that God does not demean people – however in their face He might get about truth. Stephen knew that, and thus he felt about people as God did, and that came out in his treatment of them.
This strange convergence of religious zealots had long lost any connection with the living God because of their hard hearted, man focused, control based Judaism. So Stephen wanted to make clear to them that any discussion of what Stephen truly believed about Moses and the temple and the Law must begin with the God who created and called Moses, the God who devised the temple, and the God who wrote the Law, and the God who sent His Son as the ultimate fulfiller of the law. Thus he begins – “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham.” This is the living God of the universe we are speaking of fathers and brothers! Not some wimpy god that you can form into your own image and control, and who is so passive and far off and uninvolved that you can get by with your control and perversion of God’s revelation and plan. This God created the universe, created humanity, and is perfect in holiness, righteousness, justice, goodness, etc. He is the God of glory!
This is the God who created the universe with a word; who destroyed the known world with a flood; who created a nation through an old wrinkled couple – – decades beyond child bearing; who delivered this people from the powerful nation of Egypt by parting the Red Sea long enough for them to walk through and then drowned the entire Egyptian army when they tried to follow in heavy pursuit; this is the God who lavished love on His people, and blessed them beyond their wildest imagination at the high points of their relationship with Him; and also who refined and disciplined and chastened and punished them – at the low points – – sometimes with great severity when they rejected Him and chose to worship the creation rather than the Creator.
This very God of glory had a plan to reveal Himself to the nations and to bring them into His eternal kingdom and that plan started with the formation of a people through whom He would reveal Himself, and that people needed a father – – a leader – – a man whom God could capture his heart and affections, a man who would believe God for the impossible and learn to walk by faith and not by sight, a man who would become God’s friend –as James 2:23 speaks of. And that man’s name was Abraham. This God of glory appeared to Abraham when he was a nobody living in Mesopotamia, and both according to the original account of this story in Genesis 12 and in this sermon of Stephen’s – – there is no merit whatsoever for Abraham being chosen over any other man. God just sovereignly chose Abraham to be His man. And because God is the God of glory, which means among other things – that He can demand whatever is necessary of us for His purposes to be accomplished – He seemingly – immediately upon introducing Himself to Abraham told him to “Leave your country and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you.” (vs. 3). Abraham was not a perfect man, but at every critical juncture of his journey with God – he chose to obey God regardless of the cost – and the first example of that journey of obedience is seen in vs. 4 which says, “he left the land of the Chaldeans”, which was the land he had grown up in and knew well and perhaps thought he would stay in for the rest of his days – – – until the God of glory appeared. Now you would think the Father of the people of Israel would eventually live in a castle and settle down and raise his children and grandchildren, and perhaps be able to retire at a decent age and enjoy the home of his dreams, but that was not the inheritance God gave Abraham.
James Montgomery Boice wrote some helpful commentary regarding Stephen’s words here in vs. 4,5: “When Stephen begins to talk about Abraham’s time in Canann, he emphasizes that Abraham remained a pilgrim even there. Even though this was the land that God was giving him and his descendants, the land in which the people settled and the temple was built – for Abraham, at least, Canann was just a land through which he was passing. He didn’t even own any of the land, says Stephen in vs. 5. This must have been meant as a rebuke to these settled leaders of the people. They were in the land God had given. This was a blessing. But they were too much at home in this land. They had forgotten that, wonderful as possession of the land of promise was, they were nevertheless only to be pilgrims in it as Abraham had been. Without this orientation, they lacked the spiritual depth that characterized their great ancestor. Abraham we are told in Hebrews 11:10, was not looking for an earthly city, but “to the city with foundations (the heavenly city), whose architect and builder is God.” (end of quote).
Abraham was a kingdom man, but to so many who claim to have his genes – the material comforts of this world sucked out any vision or passion they had for God’s eternal kingdom to come and be established on the earth. They were more often than not – a people who walked by sight, and not by faith. A people who lived for the temporal and not for the eternal.
Not only did God choose Abraham without any merit of his own to stand on; He also promised to produce a people through him when he had no children and when his wife wasn’t even pregnant.. Listen again to vs. 5, “But He gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground, and yet, even when he had no child, He promised that He would give it to Him as a possession, and to His descendants after Him.” Paul – once he was born again by the Spirit of God and began to see the history of God’s dealings with His people through spiritual eyes – saw how unique and foundational God’s dealings with this man Abraham were, and how crucial his response of faith was, and how important Abe’s example to us is. He spoke of Abraham often in his epistles. But it was his words in his letter to the church in Rome in ch. 4 that I think best expound what Stephen is after here. Let me read those to you starting in vs. 16, “For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS HAVE I MADE YOU”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which has been spoken, “SO SHALL YOUR DESCENDANTS BE.” Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.” Therefore IT WAS ALSO CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” (Romans 4:16-22)
God of course knew the challenges and difficulties that His people were going to face in the coming months and years – especially in Egypt. So He – out of the goodness of His heart – after speaking to Abraham in Genesis ch. 15 about how un-countable his descendants from his own body would be – comparing them to the innumerable stars in the sky – God foretold that His people would suffer for a time in Egypt, but that God would eventually deliver them from that suffering. God has always been a realist, and One who is constantly seeking to prepare His people for what lies ahead. Stephen recounts that God was faithful with Abraham and with His descendants to warn them of the challenges and seeming setbacks they would have at the hands of the Egyptians. And He provided a sign or reminder of His covenant with them in the form of male circumcision – – a practice which Abraham was obedient to institute actually first with his son Ishmael and with himself; and then later with his son Isaac as seen in Gen. 17 and ch. 21. Well I want to stop with this first section of Stephen’s defense and make sure we see and heed what we need to see and heed.
I believe that we locf’ers and others in the body of Christ in this region who are striving to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness are going to find ourselves increasingly testifying of our faith and of our God to the lost in this region and at various places around the Central Coast in the days to come. Sometimes these will be calm conversations. Sometimes our audience will be very agitated and even hostile. Regardless we must be faithful to follow the very instructive example of Stephen. 3 closing thoughts or applications.
1. We must treat every person with the respect they deserve as a person whom God created in His image and for whom Christ died – regardless of their behavior. Had Stephen not started out this way, I have little doubt that these people would have been willing to listen to his whole sermon or defense. Paul’s exhortation to Titus and those he shepherded re: their interactions with the lost and difficult people are an important reminder to us about how God expects us to treat every person we come into contact with. This will require us to be constantly vigilant to deal with unrighteous thoughts and attitudes towards the difficult people in our lives.
“Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men. For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior…” Titus 3:1-7
2. We must increasingly work at being God centered or Christ centered in our conversations with the lost. Stephen was very intentional in the way he started off his defense because he was a Christ centered/God focused man, and because man’s greatest need is to get his focus off of himself and his rights and wants to the person and demands of the God who created us. Martyn Lloyd-Jones – the great late British medical doctor turned pastor and theologian – spoke to this in his commentary on the book of Acts, and I quote, “I hope I am not shocking anybody when I say that the Gospel does not begin with the phrase, “come to Jesus.” It ends with that, but it does not start there. The Gospel starts with this – “the God of glory.” In other words, I am again saying that the gospel does not start with men and women and their problems and ideas; it does not start with their needs; it does not start with the twentieth century. That is a modern fallacy. Modern man always starts with himself and ends with himself; he circles around himself. He is at the center, and everything revolves around him. He is a megalomaniac. And that is where he fools himself. I am not surprised that is true of people who do not claim to be Christians, but I do find it very difficult to understand how people claiming the name of Christian, even Christian teachers and professors, in order to appeal to “the modern man” are ready to agree with his first postulate, that must start with people.” Man’s greatest need is to know the God of glory and our conversations with men and women must get to that focus as soon as possible.
3. We must not gloss over either God’s call to us to die or the reality that we will face trials, persecutions, tribulations, etc., when we talk to people who do not know the Lord. God did eventually greatly bless and prosper Abraham, but he certainly didn’t start out His dealings with him that way. That came later. That was a byproduct of Abraham hearing and heeding God’s call to die to himself, his rights, his comforts, and his way of doing things. Jesus in His dealings with men and women was no different. Especially if Jesus discerned that a man’s chief problem was his entitlement and bondage to things and stuff, he quickly cut to the root of that problem and called him or her to absolute denial of self – even to the point – as with the rich young ruler of selling all of his possessions and then coming to follow Jesus. These Jewish religious leaders that Stephen was speaking to were mired in entitlement because of their Jewishness, and Stephen immediately smelled that and dealt with it. We must be willing to do the same.