By Simon ManchesterSunday 11 Dec 2016Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 21 minutes
Do you remember the story of the young minister who asked his senior minister what he should preach on, the following Sunday? And the senior minister said, ‘You are to preach about God and for about 20 minutes’. And Stephen gets probably half of that instruction right because he preaches in Acts 7, most wonderfully about God but he probably goes on for a very long time, because this is the longest speech in the Book of Acts. It’s 51 verses in our text, and if these are summaries of the sermons or the speeches, we could guess that this was pretty long. The Sanhedrin was probably used to listening to long speeches and Stephen gave them one.
Now Stephen, as you may remember, was one of the seven chosen by the early Church to administrate the Church support system. But he was more than an administrator. He was full of grace and power, and he was doing great works in the name of the Lord Jesus, and he was obviously speaking in the name of the Lord Jesus, and he was hugely opposed and attacked. And he makes this speech – Acts Chapter 7 – because he is now on trial for his faith, in front of the Jewish Sanhedrin. He is charged with attacking the temple and attacking the law, which of course he has not done, but by preaching Jesus, and the fulfilment of the temple and the fulfilment of the law, he appears to be attacking what they regarded as very precious.
Now I don’t know if you have ever read Acts Chapter 7. It’s a baffling speech because it’s a long, long speech, going over the history of the Jews, to the Jews in a way which the Jews, you would imagine, would be perfectly familiar. So why does he do this? Now the answer to the question is, that it is the things that he stresses or underlines that give us a clue to the speech. You see, he is charged by speaking about Jesus with attacking the temple and attacking the law. And he does a recap of Jewish history. He talks about Abraham for eight verses. He then talks about Abraham for eight verses. He then talks about Moses for 28 verses. And then he talks very briefly about Joshua, David, Solomon in about one or two verses. And then he gives a quote about how great God is. And then he winds up by turning the screws on his listeners, and they get in a rage against him, and then they stone him. And that’s how Acts Chapter 7 unfolds. Now, why do the recap of Jewish history, to a group of people who knew Jewish history perfectly well? Don Carson suggests three reasons. One, he says, it calms the listeners by showing that you are on common ground with them. And the listeners did stay calm, listening to the basic survey of Jewish history. The other thing it does is it provides a framework to show that God is a God who moves or changes or shifts or adjusts the purposes and the plans. And therefore, there is a precedent for the change that they are so upset about. And the other thing it does, according to Don Carson, is that it introduces the evil behaviour of the Jews, slowly surely and subtly. So Joseph’s brothers are described as being against him and then Moses’ people are uncooperative. And then of course at the end, Stephen can turn on his Jewish listeners and say, ‘You are the same’. And they can survey this opposition, this rebellion.
Now, what is he specifically trying to do as he speaks? What is his big aim? He is not speaking about Jesus. It’s not a long survey about the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus. He doesn’t spend all his time on the temple. He doesn’t spend all his time on the law. I will tell you what Stephen speaks about in one word. He speaks about God. And by speaking about God, he presents God as the light who illumines everything, and it is, as they see themselves, in the face of God, the light and they therefore recognise their darkness and their sinfulness, that their great opposition emerges and they rise against him.
There are three lessons I want to draw from the speech. It is too long to survey. I just want to draw three threads.
- The first is God’s majesty – they cannot box Him
- Second, God’s revelation – they should not be deaf
- Third, God’s grace – they must not be proud.
The first is God’s majesty. That’s the vital first theme of this sermon. The impossibility of boxing God physically (I hope nobody thinks that God lives in a box like this) and of course, the really greater danger of boxing Him mentally – people who don’t believe that God can be boxed in a building like this still will often believe that he can be boxed in their brain. They have reduced Him; they have bonsaied him, somehow, in their brain. And Stephen speaks against this.
Look at Verse 2, the opening phrase – ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me!.. the God of glory’. That is Stephens’s subject (and if you look at the end of the speech, Verse 49, he finishes off by saying this, ‘Heaven is My throne, the earth is My footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?’
Stephen has a huge, accurate Biblical grasp of God. The question for Stephen is not (as for so many people today), could God possibly cope with all the problems going on in the world today. The question for Stephen is could God be patient with the world. He is so big. The world is so little. What is to stop God from putting His thumb on the world and squashing it like a grape? He has a huge Biblical view of God. And when he surveys the history of God’s people, he shows these Jewish listeners that God is much bigger than a piece of land or property, a promised land. And the way he does that is as he speaks about Abraham and Joseph and Moses, he just happens to mention that each one of them was called or blessed by God, not in the land. God, says Stephen, called Abraham in Mesopotamia (Verse 2 – what we would call Iraq). God called Abraham in Iraq, not the Promised Land. And God blessed Joseph (Verse 10) with power and influence in which country? Answer – not in the Promised Land… in Egypt. God blessed Joseph in Egypt. God made Joseph a ruler in Egypt, not the Promised Land. And Verse 29, God called Moses to lead his people, spoke to him on Holy ground and the Holy ground was not the Promised Land, the Holy ground was Midian (and Midian is what we would call Saudi Arabia). God called Abraham in Iraq. God blessed Joseph in Egypt. God called Moses to lead the people out of Egypt when Moses was standing in Saudi Arabia.
God, you see, is not locked into the Promised Land. And these three guys – Abraham, Joseph and Moses – never even lived in the Promised Land. Abraham would find that his descendants would settle, hundreds of years down the track in the Promised Land. See Chapter 7 Verse 5 – Abraham didn’t get one foot of the land to keep. Isn’t that a striking thing. God said to Abraham, ‘Abraham, I will tell you what will happen. You will have a son, and he will have a son, and then there will be twelve and then a whole group. And then they will go down to Egypt, and they will stay there for 400 years and then somebody will bring them back, and they will live in the Promised Land. But it won’t be you. Abraham, the great patriarch, not in the Promised Land. And then Joseph. He didn’t live in the Promised Land. He lived his life in Egypt. All the blessing came to him in Egypt. And Verse 16, it was only his body and the bodies of his families, that were brought back and placed in the Promised Land. He was buried in the Promised Land, but he didn’t live in the Promised Land.
And Moses, he didn’t get to live in the Promised Land. You see in Chapter 7, Verse 45; it was Joshua who led God’s people into the Promised Land. Moses never got in.
So, how can people – you see the hint, as the speech is taking place – how can people imagine that God can be boxed-in to the Promised Land? When God called these mighty ones – Abraham, the father of the faith, and Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel and then Moses, of course, who was the great hero of the Jews. And none of them was called or blessed or lived in the Promised Land. Now were they in danger for that? Did they lose? Was it a dangerous thing? No. Chapter 7, Verse 8 – God gave His covenant to Abraham. That’s the important thing. It’s not the plot of land you get to stand on. It’s not the house you get that matters. It’s – are you in a covenant relationship with the living God? Because wherever you live in this world, it’s going to be very quick! You will just move through very quickly. The important thing is, have you got a covenant relationship with God for eternity? That’s what God gave Abraham. And then, Chapter 7 Verse 10, God gave wisdom to Joseph so that he could work out what was really important. And Verse 37, God gave His Word, His promise to Moses. That’s the important thing.
So don’t ask yourself – have I got a plot? Have I got a water view? Have I got a great place to live? Ask yourself this question – this is the really big question, this is the mature question – am I in covenant with God? Do I have His wisdom about what’s important? Have I got His promise about eternity. That’s what matters, says Stephen, in this most subtle way to the Sanhedrin.
Now that doesn’t mean that God is not interested in the world because God had His tabernacle in the midst of the people as they journeyed and then, in the middle of the Promised Land. So God was interested in the Promised Land. He was interested in the people. He doesn’t just live on a cloud. He is interested in the world and His people and the tabernacle was built as a sort of a portable tent, where the sacrifices would be carried out so that there would be a fellowship between God and His people. And the tabernacle was the place of course which symbolised the presence of God. And then, when the tabernacle was out done and finished with, eventually the temple was built. And there again, was the place where the sacrifices were to be offered, and God’s presence was symbolised. Now even if the tent, the tabernacle and the temple itself were pretty grand things, even if they were, they were just little boxes. The tabernacle was like a match-box, and the temple was like a cigarette-box, and neither of them could contain the God of the universe. That is what Stephen is attempting to teach. Containing God is impossible. That’s why the Jews that Stephen spoke to … they were not being asked to be negative about the tabernacle or negative about the temple… they just had to get over it. They just had to move on from it, in the same way, they didn’t have to be negative about the crossing of the Red Sea. The crossing of the Red Sea was a wonderful thing, but you have got to get over it because, in the end, something greater than the crossing of the Red Sea has taken place, something greater than escape from Egypt has taken place, and that’s escape from sin and judgement, through Jesus. That’s what they ought to be getting excited about because that is where God has moved to. That’s what the Red Sea pointed to, and the tabernacle and the tent and the temple. It wasn’t as though that they had to be negative about these things, but they had to get over them because they were pointing to a Person called the Lord Jesus, who would be the meeting place, where God would be met by people who sought Him.
Now why is it that people don’t think in these grand-scale terms of which Stephen is speaking? Well, the reason is because of sin. Sin makes us blind. Sin makes us blind so that we do not see clearly what God is like. Sin turns the telescope in the brain so that God is small and we are big. I don’t exactly know why this happen. I understand this because of my sinfulness, and I see it in other people as well, that there is this weird propensity in people to say, ‘I believe in God and He probably made the universe, but He is little, and He is harmless, and He is useless, and He just sits in a corner, wringing His hands and wondering what to do.’ The Bible says that’s a total mistake. The God of the universe runs the whole universe. He runs all the cells in the bodies. He looks after the big things and the little things. The greatness of God, the majesty of God.
Now I know some people do still think that God lives in buildings. Every now and again, I have a wedding practice here and people come, as a family and friends, and it is always interesting when they bring in those little flower girls or pageboys, and they would like to go crazy in this building, which doesn’t bother me so much… they would like to sort of run up and down and climb over everything and explore the place, which is fine.. It’s fine for me… but the parents sometimes get very, very uneasy about this. They feel as though they have walked into God’s building, they have walked into God’s house, and they think they have stepped beyond being respectful into a kind of luminosity and over-reverence as if somehow this was a spooky place and everything has to be done in a sort of spooky way. I suppose there are some people who think like this. What is more dangerous, what is much more dangerous, is the people who have somehow turned the God of the universe into some little God who is their mascot or, as somebody in this Church said recently (and I thought it was a dreadful thing to say), that God is their buddy. That is dangerous language, to reduce the God of the universe to somebody who sits in your back pocket and acts like your four-leaf clover… that is a very dangerous perspective. Now Acts 7 is a great corrective to this, because Stephen teaches that God rules every country. God plans down the centuries. He turns every decision, every detail, for His own purposes. He brings people together. He rescues them. He provides for them. He guards them. He guarantees them all the way to the future. Because He sits on the throne of the universe, the majesty of God. The second theme, which Stephen teaches in the sermon, is that God is a God of revelation and that people must not be deaf.
You know every now and again, a letter appears in the Sydney Morning Herald, or one of the papers, attacking Christians because, the letter quotes a little piece of ceremonial law from the Old Testament and says, ‘Why don’t the Christians keeps this little piece of Jewish ceremonial law, when they are so het-up about this other part of their Bible? And why aren’t they consistent? They seem to be obsessed with this verse, but they completely ignore this verse. And why don’t they be consistent?’ And what that letter-writer is demonstrating is that they don’t understand progressive revelation. They don’t understand that God has moved from A to Z… that God is a God of history, that God moves with the people and that God has established steps, and put them in place. A large part of the problem for people today is that they do not understand progressive revelation, that is, that God has placed us in history, and the history moves forward and that God teaches us, step by step so that we might move forward in history as well. He is not locked in to history. But He teaches us, according to the history.
I will give you two simple examples from Acts Chapter 7. One is the question of Egypt. You might have asked this question. It won’t be on the forefront of your brain this morning, but I will just mention it for your interest. If you were to ask yourself the question – should God’s people go to Egypt – what is the answer? Should God’s people, as you survey the Bible, go to Egypt. Well, it’s interesting, you see, God said to Isaac: don’t go to Egypt – this is not the time to go to Egypt. But then, of course, Joseph was taken to Egypt because it was in God’s progressive plan for the people to go to Egypt. And then God said to Moses – get them out of Egypt because it was part of God’s progressive plan for the people to leave Egypt. So you can’t answer the question of whether God’s people should go to Egypt with one sentence because there is a progressive plan – No / Yes / Out.
Or, think of the building of the tabernacle and the temple. Is it is a good thing for people to build a place where God would meet with His people? Well, Moses – Yes, build a tabernacle. David – don’t. Solomon – do. This is not because God is inconsistent. This is because there is a progressive plan. We need a tabernacle. It’s not the time under David for a temple. It is the time of Solomon. So God is a God, you see, of progressive revelation. As John Stott says in his commentary, ‘The God of Israel is a pilgrim God’.
Does this mean that God may change His plans again and that we should be open to a sudden lurch to the left or the right and a big removal from what we know and love? Well, the answer to that question is that God always tells us beforehand what we should prepare for. God told His people – you must prepare for a King who will come, who will sit on the throne forever. And Jesus came. And God told His people – you must prepare for a day when the covenant will no longer be written on stone tablets but will be on human hearts. And that day has come. What does God tell us beforehand that we should prepare for? Answer? We should prepare for the end. We should prepare for the day when we are to meet Jesus Christ. That is what we are to prepare for. We are not to expect anybody to step-in as a new Messiah. We are not to expect anybody, between the first coming and the second coming of Jesus to come in and hijack us off to the left or the right. No. The Scripture says: prepare for the return of the Lord Jesus, by living in this world so effectively, so fruitfully, so brightly, that other people are helped, you are joyful and God is glorified. So God calls us, you see, to prepare for what He tells us.
And the Scriptures also announce their own closure. So Hebrews Chapter 1 says that God spoke through various means, but in the last days, He has spoken through His Son. Last Word? Jesus. Last Book of the Bible, Revelation, don’t add anything to this… don’t subtract anything… this is a closed canon, this is a closed Book… it’s all fixed. So the rescue of God has been fixed, and the revelation of God has been fixed, and the rescue is about Jesus, and the Revelation is about Jesus, so don’t look for more. Just wait for Him. Wait for the completion of the redemption and wait for the completion of everything the revelation points to.
Well, the punch of this word from Stephen is that his listeners were not moving forward. They were locked in their system. They were not following God at all. And that’s why, when Stephen gets to the end of the speech, he has to say to them, in Verse 51: you are a stiff-necked people. You don’t bow your head to the next thing God says. And uncircumcised in hearts and ears… you are blocked from hearing the plan of God, because of your pride and your deafness. And just as the people under Moses wanted to go back (Chapter 7, Verse 39), so these people that Stephen is speaking to want to go back. God is moving forward. They want to go back. And he says to them – you always resist the Holy Spirit.
Now just in case you think that people are so powerful, that they can resist God, let me quickly say to you, that we, here at St Thomas’s, believe in the irresistible grace of God. That is, we believe that when God wants to wake somebody from spiritual death, He will do it. So why does Stephen say, you resist the Will of God? Is it possible that a person can resist God, or can God overcome their resistance? And the obvious Biblical answer is that a person can resist God, harden their heart, refuse to bow, make no progress, lock in where they are. But any minute of any day of any month of any year that God wants to overcome the resistance of the resistors, He will overcome the resistance. As soon as God wants to drive through our resistance, He will drive through our resistance, and He will turn or transform our resistance into belief and co-operation and repentance and following.
So people are very resistant, and we need to pray, that God, whose grace is irresistible, would overcome the resistance which they are exercising at the moment. I do want to urge you to be very careful of static Christianity. I have been here at St Thomas’s for nearly 17 years. I have been speaking to some people here for 17 years. Some of you in that 17 years have made 17 years of progress: hearing the Word, believing the Word, growing in the Word, passing on the Word. It has been absolutely wonderful. Some people have made very little progress. They are at the same position (almost) that they were at 17 years ago. There’s not much more enthusiasm about Jesus. There’s not much more enthusiasm about the Scriptures. There’s not much more enthusiasm for eternal things. Something has gone wrong. There is a stiff-necked, hard heart. Something has gone wrong because the same information has gone out from the same pulpit, from a range of preachers and some people have heard it and grabbed it and run with it… and some people have not heard it and not grabbed it and gone nowhere.
And what Stephen says to you, and to me, is ‘Don’t go forward, looking for a new Messiah’. We know who the Messiah is, but I hope that you want to grow as a person who follows the Messiah. I want to grow. There are certain times where I don’t feel like I’ve begun the Christian life. I feel as though sometimes I have made no progress in the Christian life. I want to go forward. And I thank God for the people in front of me who have demonstrated that they are going forward, and I do pray and am concerned for the people who have made no progress. If this piece of information has any effect on you this morning, please ask God to make you not a person who has a stiff neck, but rather somebody who, when the Word of God is spoken to you and when you are reading, or the small group, or the sermon… hears it and heeds it and practises it and goes forward… and you grow as a Christian. Because it is possible to be static and to go backwards.
Now the last thing this morning is God’s grace and the abandonment of pride. There is a little word that keeps cropping up in the Chapter. I noticed it, as I was going through it through the week, and it’s the little word ‘hand’. It’s in Verse 35, although it is unfortunately not in our NIV Bibles. It says: God raised up Moses (Verse 35) and sent him to be the ruler and the deliverer through the angel who appeared to him in the burning bush – and literally, it says, through the hand of the angel. In other words, God did the provision of Moses. But then if you look at Verse 41, the Israelites made a golden calf for themselves, and they celebrated what their hands had made. So they celebrated what they did. If you look at Verse 48, it says the highest does not live in houses made by human hands. But Verse 50 – has not My hand made all these things.
So here is a little tension going on for the Israelites, that God does things by His hand and they love what their hands do. And then God calls on them to delight in what His hand does, and they delight in what their hands do.
So not only are the people of God that Stephen is speaking to having a very small view of God, and resisting His Word, but they are obviously more pleased and more boastful about what they do than what God does. And part of this, of course, would have involved their temple. But it is a human problem. It is an international problem to be proud, to get more excited about what we do than what God does, and to feel more secure because of things we have done, than what God has done. And I want to ask you, here at St Thomas’s, to make sure that we boast about how great God is. He is the treasure of the universe. He is the One that we must boast about, not some person. And we must boast about what God has done in sending the Lord Jesus. That is the key that opens the door to eternity. That’s what we must boast about… to be brought to God through Jesus. That’s our boast. But if we boast in our ministries, and if we boast in our efforts, or if we boast in our outreach, or our theology, or the small booklets that we produce, or the small buildings that we renovate, we are, of all people, most to be pitied, because we have started to boast in something which is very, very small. And we must boast, as we are called on, to boast in the Lord.
Well, by the time Stephen finished his speech, he declared God to be very great, to be very clear, and to be very gracious. And the people who were listening were hugely convicted of sin (small views of God), of deafness (not even caring about the Word of God), and pride (much more interested in their own achievements than His). And because they were convicted, they decided to lynch Stephen, which they did, in the same way. I would upset you this morning if I launched into a tirade about your hopelessly small views of God, and your hopelessly deaf attention to His Word, and your hopelessly proud interest in your own achievements. And, if I waxed eloquent on this, and turned the screws, you would find it an extremely annoying sermon. But for Stephen, it ended in a lynching. And as he was dropped into the pit, and they got the stones ready to throw at him, he imitated his Lord Jesus, and he said, ‘Into Your hands, I commit my spirit’, and he asked that they who were stoning him be forgiven. And in the face of this stoning, he looked up, and he saw the Lord Jesus standing, probably defending him, speaking for him, getting ready to welcome him, whatever it was… and the Lord Jesus who had made this wonderful, wonderful, safe passage through to Heaven. And Stephen saw this vision of Jesus and died.
And I want to close this morning by asking the question;
- Do you think that your lifestyle reflects a great God?
- Do you think that your lifestyle reflects a clear God?
- Do you think that your lifestyle reflects a worthy God? Because it hinges on the neck.
Let’s bow our heads and pray. Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for this Chapter. We recognise that You have revealed Yourself to be very great on the throne of the universe. You have revealed Yourself most clearly, making plain Yourself and Your plans and Your purposes. And You have revealed Yourself to be very gracious, achieving things by Your strong hand, that we could never achieve and never match. And we pray that You would forgive us for the sinfulness which boxes You in mentally and misses so much of what You say and forgets what to rejoice in really. And we pray that You would help us by writing on our mind and our heart and our life how great You are, how clear You are, how gracious You are. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.