July 28, 2013 INTRODUCTION – One of the things the Jews around the Jerusalem area in the first century were very proud about was the fact (in their minds) that they were sons and daughters of Abraham. Last week we focused our attention on how Stephen helped to bring clarity to the way they saw Abraham’s life and faith and calling as seen in vs. 2-8a of Acts chapter 7.
Whether we are talking about Jews or those who call themselves Christians – many in both camps tend to put their faith and identity in the wrong places. Their perception of what is required to please God and be in good standing with Him – or even who He is – is often not grounded in reality or truth, but is passed down from generation to generation – – and rather blindly and passively accepted as true. An effective fisher of men or laborer for the harvest will discern in time – where the person or persons they are dealing with or relating to – have put their trust and security, who they really worship, and they will by God’s grace and power – bring these things to light. Most people – whatever faith they claim to belong to – have a really warped concept of God, don’t have a clue what grace is all about, and don’t yet see why it was so absolutely necessary for Jesus Christ to shed His blood on the cross of Calvary.
In the back and forth – rather animated discussion or debate Stephen had with these religious leaders – as Luke tells us about in the latter verses of chapter 6 – – Stephen discovered the chinks in their armor – – or the cracks in their foundation. His long defense or sermon in chapter 7 is his attempt to reveal those chinks or cracks and help them see clearly the narrow and only way to God. Today we want to look at the next section of his defense that deals with the 12 patriarchs, or the 12 sons of Jacob. Let’s read the first part of this passage together and then I will try to help us sort through the particulars.
As you turn to Acts chapter 7, I just want to confess that this sermon or defense of Stephens is one that I have read countless times through the years when reading through the book of Acts, and I almost always walked away scratching my head or yawning after reading it. I don’t ever remember hearing sermons or teachings on it. I think many would agree with me it is kind of hard to get into. But because we believe strongly at LOCF that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (II Tim. 3:16), and because we believe “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4) – – we are committed to working through passages of scripture like this that at least initially don’t seem very relevant to 21st century life. Time and time again, my experience is – – when I really invest some time meditating and pondering such a passage – – sooner or later the light bulbs start going on and revelation and relevance comes. (read Acts 7:1-10)
“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 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 HEY WOULD BE ENSLAVED 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 Jaob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs. The patriarchs became jealous of Joseph and sold him into Egypt. Yet God was with him, and rescued him from all his afflictions, and granted him favor and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and he made him governor over Egypt and all his household.”
Abraham had a son named Isaac who had a son named Jacob, who had 12 sons from his two wives – Leah and Rachel – and their maid servants – Zilpah and Bilhah. Kind of a long, convoluted, rather dysfunctional story of how Jacob went from lady to lady – producing baby after baby. You can read about it in Genesis chps. 29, & 30 if you would like more details.
Stephen refers to these sons of Jacob as Patriarchs, but they just started out as 12 brothers. Do you remember their names? Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Napthali, Joseph and Benjamin – Benjamin being the youngest. These 12 are the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel, and thus the tribes are named after them. Joseph actually is the ancestor or father of 2 of the tribes – Manasseh and Ephraim, that are not named after him, but rather his sons.
Before Benjamin was born, Joseph being the youngest and thus still at home – was asked by his father Jacob to go check on his brothers who were shepherding the flocks in a city called Shechem. These brothers had all grown to despise Joseph and were quite jealous of him for two reasons. 1. Their father clearly favored Joseph. 2. Joseph had two dreams in which he had some level of authority or greatness over his brothers and he was very quick – foolishly so – to tell his brothers about these dreams – in his youth.
So these renowned and revered ancestors of 10 tribes of Israel as vs. 9 of Acts 7 tells us – before they became fathers of tribes – – ganged up on their younger brother – since their father wasn’t around. At first they were going to leave him in a pit to die – but then at the urging of one of the more reasonable ones – they decided to sell him to some Midianite traders passing by, who then sold him to Potiphar – Pharaoh’s officer or captain of the bodyguard in Egypt. Not exactly a piece of Jewish history that these religious leaders wanted to be reminded of. They preferred to remember the 12 patriarchs in all of their so called glory – minus the ugly parts.
The fact is God gave Joseph two dreams to help him, his father and his brothers prepare for his unique destiny and calling, which was intimately tied to theirs. And his brothers almost snuffed out his life before he ever had a chance to fulfill his destiny. While Gen. 37:11 tells us that Jacob pondered the possible meaning of these dreams – – not one of Joseph’s brothers did. Jealousy and envy blinded their eyes from getting a much needed prophetic glimpse into what was to come.
Then they went home and lied to their father about what really happened – telling him that some wild beast must have attacked him and killed him while he was trying to make his way to them in Shechem. To be specific – they told their dad that a wild beast had “devoured him and had surely torn him to pieces”! That’s a picture isn’t it for an old worn out dad, who just lost his favorite son? Why not add that his brains were scattered all over a big rock for effect?!
What a bunch of dufus’s these 10 brothers were in reality. But while Stephen touched on that, his main concern was that these religious leaders who were contending with him – – see God’s hand on Joseph in spite of the wicked intents of his brothers, and in spite of the fact that Joseph now found himself firmly planted in Egypt – a place these religious leaders were convinced was God forsaken, and that God would never visit.
Being sold by your own Jewish brothers to Midianite traders is bad enough. But that was only the beginning of Joseph’s afflictions. Soon after he was elevated to serve under Potiphar, Potiphar’s wife began to try to seduce him. Day after day she would try to allure him when no one was around; and day after day Joseph would resist her advances. Until finally one day she got disgusted with him, took personally his rejections of her advances, and lied to her husband and the authorities and told them he had tried to rape her. He was immediately and unjustly put in jail. But over time God’s favor and blessing was evident on him – even in an Egyptian jail – and the head jailer put him in charge of all the prisoners – two of whom had dreams that only Joseph could interpret. When both of those two prisoners were informed they would be being released some days later, Joseph asked them to remember his many kindnesses, which they both vowed to do, but neither did. So he remained in prison for another two years. But God was with him, and when Pharaoh had a dream after those two years, Joseph had a wide open door to interpret the dream, again because no one else could. And as a result he was again elevated to service in Egypt and soon became a ruler over Egypt.
The point is twofold- – First, he had a very high calling, but the journey to the fulfillment of his calling was fraught with trials and tribulations and disappointments and injustices,……. and such is life with God’s servants. Second, while the Jews liked to think God only shows up, and only receives our worship in His temple in His land, Joseph’s story disproves both of those theories.
The fact is – – it is often those very trials, tribulations, disappointments and injustices that prepare us to tackle huge challenges, such as Joseph being raised up to help Egypt try to overcome seven years of famine as a nation; As to God showing up – – He loves to show up in the most forlorn and unexpected places, and isn’t at all adverse to providing solutions for the problems of pagan peoples. He has never been confined to any one building or land or people for that matter – as much as these religious leaders begged to differ.
Let’s catch up with the story as told by Stephen (read vs. 11-15). “Now a famine came over all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction with it, and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers there the first time. On the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family was disclosed to Pharaoh. Then Joseph sent word and invited Jacob, his father and all his relatives to come to him, seventy-five persons in all. And Jacob went down to Egypt and there he and our fathers died.” (7: 11-15)
Famines are horrible things – – all sources of food just dry up – – and they didn’t have protein powder and Ensure and all the vitamin and food supplements we have these days. So as Jacob watched these horrors unfolding in the land of Canaan, he sent his sons (“our fathers” as Stephen referred to them) to Egypt to try to buy some grain for their very survival. Joseph hid his identity the first time around, but when they came the second time with his younger brother Benjamin – whom he had never met – Joseph realized it was time to make himself known. Then his clan of 75 persons was urged to come to Egypt – which they did, and God’s people were preserved and protected – in Egypt of all places. The fact is Jacob and all the patriarchs died in Egypt, not in the promised land. And they were all buried back in the land of Shechem – where the 10 older brothers first attacked their brother Joseph and threw him into a pit. Ironies and fulfilled prophecies and dreams all throughout this story.
In the midst of all this turmoil and saga full of twists and turns and suffering – – God never forgot His promise, which Stephen had mentioned earlier in vs. 6,7. And yet for the Hebrews I’m sure it looked like he had completely forgotten his promise as the new King of Egypt knew nothing of all this highly successful and strategic reign of Joseph; and thus he began to inflict great suffering and oppression upon the Hebrew people. Let’s read vs. 16-18
“From there they were removed to Shechem and laid in the tomb which Abraham had purchased for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. But as the time of the promise was approaching which God has assured to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt, until THERE AROSE ANOTHER KING OVER EGYPT WHO KNEW NOTHING ABOUT JOSEPH.” (7:16-18)
So what do you make of all this talk of the 12 Patriarchs? Well let me suggest four things.
First of all it was the next to youngest and only one of the 12 that God truly bestowed His favor and blessing on and used in a mighty way. Time after time in scripture this is the way of God – using the most unlikely, the smallest, the youngest to accomplish His purposes.
Second, He was able to use Joseph in a mighty way because Joseph rolled with the punches, learned his lessons, practiced righteousness, and never got bitter or hardened about his afflictions and the injustices he suffered along the way. Joseph’s life is an excellent example of the way God works, and the way we need to cooperate with His working and ways. He gives us great dreams and visions for our lives – – He gives us a glimpse of the great things He intends to do through our lives – – and then He spends some number of years beating the fleshly snot out of us until we are useable in His hands. I forget who put this remarkable process into words, but I want to read to you how one old sage chose to describe God’s way with a man or a woman whom He intends to use.
“When God wants to drill a man, And thrill a man, And skill a man; When God wants to mold a man To play the noblest part, When He years with all his heart To create so great and bold a man That all the world shall be amazed, Watch His methods, watch His ways – – How He ruthlessly perfects Whom He royal elects. How He hammers him and hurts him, And with mighty blows, converts him Into trial shapes of clay Which only God understands, While his tortured heart is crying, And he lifts beseeching hands. How He bends but never breaks When his good He undertakes. How He uses whom He chooses. And with every purpose, fuses him, By every act, induces him To try His splendor out. God know what He’s about.”
Third, God’s kingdom will show up anywhere – where he has one son or daughter – who is willing to work with him for the common good. He would just as soon show up in Egypt as in Israel anytime. Now in saying that – – I do believe He still intends to fulfill His plans and purposes for Israel. But His blessing and favor were never meant to be thought of as only accessed in a certain land and in certain buildings. God has never been confined to only certain lands and buildings and structures, or to a certain people. Jacob and all his brothers died in Egypt. They were buried in Shechem. The Hebrews greatly multiplied in number in Egypt. Stephen saw this clearly. Israel as a whole always struggled to see or accept this reality.
Fourth – God is a God who is absolutely committed to fulfilling His promises. Neither Abraham and Sarah’s age, murderous jealousy among Joseph’s brothers, unjust accusation and imprisonment, famine, or oppressive rulers in Egypt who didn’t know about Joseph were able to hinder God’s plans and purposes for Israel. That’s what Stephen is getting at when he said – as we see in vs. 5, “…and yet, when he had no child, He promised that He would give it to Him as a possession” and then in 17, “But as the time of the promise was approaching which God has assured to Abraham., the people increased and multiplied in Egypt.” When you study closely the lives of people that God has used mightily down through the ages whether individuals, couples or peoples, the one thing they had in common was they learned to stand on the promises of God. There comes a point in one’s journey with God where we discover that our gifts, our vows, our commitments, our intentions are all like the grass that withers. But you can go to the wall with God’s promises. His commitment to His promises is the one sure thing in life we can always know will not waver.
There are two scriptures that speak to the role faith in God’s promises and word played in Joseph’s life that I want to briefly comment on.
The first one is in Psalm 105:16-19 “And He called for a famine upon the land; He broke the whole staff of bread. He sent a man before them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. They afflicted his feet with fetters, He himself was laid in irons; Until the time that his word came to pass, The word of the Lord tested him.”
The second one is in Hebrews 11:22 “By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel and gave orders concerning his bones.”
In the Psalms 105 passage Joseph’s faith and trust in God’s word to him through the dreams as a youth was tested by all the afflictions he went through, but He believed God and came through on the other side. In the Hebrews passage Joseph – knowing that God had promised Abraham that though Israel would be enslaved and oppressed for 400 years in Egypt – – they would be delivered and rescued – – Joseph was so convinced that would happen that he asked when it happened – that his bones be taken to Shechem for proper burial.
Abraham and Joseph were men who walked with God; listened to His voice; stood on His promises; endured afflictions and trials and seeming setbacks; One was used to begin the formation of a people; the other was used to rescue it and preserve it.
CONCLUSION – So my question for you today is: What has God spoken to you about your calling and destiny; how are you handling the afflictions that He has brought into your life to make you worthy of your calling? And how is your faith and trust level in His promises to finish what He has begun in and through you?