The Old Is New Again
Stephen was a brilliant man. Acts 6:5 says he was full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. V8 says he was full of grace and power. V10 says his opponents could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Even after he was arrested, v15 says that his face was like the face of an angel as he was accused in the court.
In spite of all this (or maybe because of all this) the response to him was vicious. The charges against him are given in v14: We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth  will destroy this place, and  will change the customs that Moses delivered to us. Earlier in v11 he had been accused of speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God and so Stephen is on trial for opposing Moses and his customs and God and his temple.
So in Acts 7:1 the high priest gives Stephen a chance to defend himself, “Are these things so?” he asks. Stephen does a very strange thing. He tells a story—a condensed version of the history of Israel. He starts with Abraham at the beginning (in vv. 1–8). Then (in vv. 9–16) he dwells on Joseph and how the Israelites came to Egypt. Then he spends a long time on Moses (in vv. 17– 44). Then he closes with a brief reference to Joshua and David and Solomon (in vv. 45–50).
Finally, he draws his conclusion from this history. V51, “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.”
So what was Stephen’s defence? He had been charged with speaking against Moses and the law, and against God and the temple.
His defence is that history proves the opposite: it is Israel as a people that have stiffened their neck against God and resisted the Holy Spirit. They persecuted the prophets of God, and they killed Jesus the Son of God, and now they are about to kill a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. They are the ones who need to give an account, not Stephen.
Let’s see how Stephen turns the tables on his accusers.
We’ll begin at v9, where Stephen explains that their forefathers – the patriarchs – were deadly jealous of their brother Joseph and sold him into slavery in Egypt.
They didn’t understand his role in their salvation. They were jealous that God was speaking to them through Joseph and even implying that they might someday honour Joseph as their superior. Not a great start.
But v9b–10 say, But God was with him, and rescued him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favour and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him governor over Egypt.
They rejected God’s word in Joseph’s dreams, but God, in his mercy, instead of judging them, used their very sin to bring help to them when they ran out of food and had to come begging to the brother they’d hated.
The next illustration is Moses. God raises him up as a deliverer for his oppressed people in Egypt, but when Moses makes his first appearance to help his people, guess what, they resist him, as they did Joseph.
In v26 he tries to break up a fight between two Israelites, “Men, you are brothers, why do you wrong each other?” But v27 says, The man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?”
So they reject their deliverer as they did with Joseph and as they will do with Jesus, and he flees into exile in the land of Midian.
God, however, in his mercy, sends Moses back again. V34: “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.”
Then in v36 we see Moses, the rejected ruler and deliverer, saving the people: He led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years.
Again, in spite of God’s grace, v39–41 say, 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.
For many of them, God’s patience came to an end at that point. V42 says, God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven.
Finally, Stephen gets to the point of the temple—the accusation against him. He points out that Solomon built God a house (v47)—the temple they prize so dearly and that Jesus said he would destroy and build again in three days—but he says in v48, Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands.
Let’s just pause there for a second and ask, Why did they do it? Why did they keep ignoring God’s word? I.e., resisting the Holy Spirit (v51)?
We might say, because of sin. Yes, but can we be more specific?
Look again at v41. In v41 Stephen says that they offered sacrifices to the idol and rejoiced in the works of their hands.
Then look over to v48. In v48 he says, The Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands.
The root evil in many in Israel was that they derived their joy—their fulfillment, their meaning, their sense of significance—from what they could achieve with their own hands.
V41: They rejoiced in the works of their hands.
They wanted a kind of god and a kind of religion in which they could demonstrate their own power and their own wisdom and their own righteousness and their own morality and their own religious zeal. They got their joy from what they could achieve and not from God.
Especially not from a God who is so free and great and sovereign and self-sufficient that he gets all the credit for everything, and who certainly won’t let himself be limited or controlled by anybody’s man-made temple.
Especially not from a God who says in v50, “Did not my hand (5th time been used) make all these things?” The God who, Stephen says in v2, is the God of glory.
When Jesus said he would destroy the temple and build another in three days, “not made with hands” (Mark 14:58), he meant he would destroy this kind of religion.
The temple in Jerusalem had become for many in Israel a symbol of what they could achieve—the work of their hands and therefore the worship there had become a subtle form of self-worship—all very religious, using all the right language, but coming from uncircumcised hearts and stiff, unsubmissive, self-exalting necks.
Stephen exposed that, and they hated it.
“No! We will not have a god that gets all the glory.”
They couldn’t argue against Stephen. So they killed him.
They would rather it be all about them, than acknowledge Jesus.
It’s not about us.
Look, we’re the same today. In so many ways, we want it to be all about us.
One way we do that is by taking these sorts of biblical stories and making them all about us.
How many times have you heard sermons or seen posters in Christian bookshops that say things like:
Noah was a drunk! Moses was a murderer! Paul killed Christians! David slept with married women! God used them, He can use you too.
I.e., Moses failed to do what God wanted him to do and did things his own way. Eventually he got back on track and God used him despite his failures. Just like God can use you, despite your failures.
Suddenly we are at the crux of the story.
Why do we interpret the stories of Bible people like this? In part, it’s because of our modern obsession with ourselves at the centre of the story. We are the champions in our own story, so why not in the Bible story too?
Is that what this message is about?
Let’s look at the story a bit more closely.
Here’s what Stephen says in his sermon about Moses (7:23-25):
When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand.
Not murder at all! Salvation! Defending and avenging one of God’s oppressed people. The wrong, according to Stephen, was not in Moses, but in the people of Israel, who he says, “did not understand.” God sent salvation Israel’s way and they rejected it.
What happens next is crucial. The next day Moses meets two Israelites fighting and tries to stop them. The text says this (v27):
But the man who was wronging his neighbour thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.
Who accused Moses? The man “wronging his neighbour”! Not some innocent person. An oppressor of an Israelite, just like the Egyptians. What does this man do to Moses? The text tells us: “[he] thrust him aside.” He violently rejected the salvation that God had offered, as proof that Israel did not understand what God was doing.
Moses flees into exile not because he’s been naughty and needs time out, but because both Egypt and Israel have rejected him. Stephen makes this exact point to the leaders in (v35):
“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.”
Ouch! “Whom they rejected”. It’s pointed! The Bible does not insinuate that Moses had to learn a few lessons out in the desert for forty or so years wandering around in his guilt for murder. His exile is not because of his sin, but because of Israel’s refusal to recognise the salvation God was sending her way.
To reiterate this, Stephen repeats the harsh action towards Moses all throughout his life, even in the desert after their salvation from Egypt (v39):
Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 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.’
They “thrust him aside” again. It’s starting to become Israel’s thing: rejecting the saviours God sends their way. So, naturally, He concludes with how Israel has treated Jesus (v51):
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 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.”
It turns out that Moses wasn’t the murderer in the story, the nation of Israel was. They thrust Moses aside, they thrust the prophets aside, and now they have thrust Jesus aside. You get the feeling they’re about to thrust Stephen aside too, don’t you?
You see, the hero of the story is not us. The message is not: God used Moses despite his failures, therefore he can use you despite yours.
The focus is on the one who was fully and totally thrust aside even though he was the (R.O.) Righteous One.
The one who could stand before the leaders of Israel and ask, “Which of you accuses me of sin?” None could. Not of murder, nor of breaking any of God’s commands.
Rather than strike out, he himself is struck, in order to deliver his people.
The story is not about us. It’s only when we want to rejoice in the works of our hands do we make it about us.
Does God change us? Sure. Does he use us? Of course, and in our weakness too.
God uses us, not because we are better than we were before, but because Jesus is better than we could possibly imagine.
It’s not about us. It’s about the greatness and glory and grace of Jesus.
Be careful how you define success.
Joseph, Moses, the prophets, Jesus, Stephen all thrust aside. Successes or failures?
Let me illustrate what I’m talking about.
Remember that influential Pharisee, Gamaliel, in ch5? We met him during another official interrogation of the apostles by the Jewish Council, at which time there was pressure not just to imprison them, but have them executed.
35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36 For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered.
Gamaliel’s first mistake is that he tried to compare Jesus to these other political extremists. “Don’t worry guys, we’ve seen characters like this before. We know had to handle them.”
Trying to compare Jesus to anybody else is a mistake. Jesus doesn’t allow that.
Anyway, he goes on …
38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone,
In other words, let’s just wait and see what happens. Let’s be open-minded about this. Let’s be diplomatic and nail our colours firmly to the fence.
Again, Jesus doesn’t allow that. You can’t say, “let’s just wait and see what happens” when it comes to Jesus.
Either Jesus is God, risen from the dead, and coming back again in glory, or his not. There’s no middle ground.
He makes these mistakes because he was working off this principle…
for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”
Now that may seem very enlightened and very spiritual. Luke may even see in it a kind of unintended prophetic truth.
I think Gamaliel is way off track here. He is suggesting it is possible to judge whether something is right or wrong based on its success.
Now, that principle might work in the business world. It certainly won’t work when it comes to the kingdom of God.
Gamaliel of all people should have known that. The Bible makes it plain that God’s success stories often read like failures to the world.
Abraham leaving wealthy Ur to become a nomad in the desert
Moses giving up a place in Pharaoh’s palace to share the afflictions of a bunch of slaves
Jeremiah languishing in a pit before the contempt of his fellow countrymen
Nehemiah giving up a well-paid job in the civil service to build a wall around a ruin
These are not success stories.
Gamaliel should have known perfectly well that “success” is a very bad criterion of God’s support.
According to this principle, Gamaliel would have said, “Well Stephen’s dead. The movements on the way out.”
Or look at 8:1b, And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
“Yep, it’s pretty much all over.”
Except, God had different ideas. V4, Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
Was the death of Stephen a failure?
8:2, Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.
It was evil, but from God’s perspective, it wasn’t a failure.
What we see as the biggest setback might actually prove to be the very thing God uses to advance his kingdom more than anything else. Conversely, what many might see as a great success, may not actually turn out how you thought.
What if the Liberal Party lost the federal election? Would that have been a failure?
By the way some Christians were speaking you’d think all of God’s purposes hung in the balance according to the result of that election.
What if Israel Folau loses his appeal? Will that be a failure for the kingdom of Jesus?
(What if he wins? Will we see that as the great Christian success story of 2019?
Building a new home base? Success?)
What if you lose money or reputation or some of your rights because you’re committed to serving Jesus? Failure?
God loves to use what we don’t expect, to remind us that it’s not about us, don’t start rejoicing in the works of your hands, because this is where it leads…
Rejection, rejection, rejection. Thrust aside, thrust aside, and thrust aside.
Thank God it doesn’t come down to the works of our hands.
Let’s rejoice that God’s kingdom will never fail, not because we have perfect knowledge of what is successful or not, but because Jesus is better than we could possible imagine.