Who Speaks for God?
Acts 6:8 – 8:1
Who speaks for God?
It was Mark Twain who said, rather tactlessly I thought, “Sacred cows make the best hamburgers”! To which some bright spark later added, “but the meat can be a little hard to swallow!”
Sacred cows make the best hamburgers.
The Cambridge International Dictionary of Idiom defines a “Sacred Cow” as a belief or system that is treated with much respect and is not usually criticized.
There will be things, I know, that come to mind immediately when we hear that term,
But it’s all, out there, isn’t it?
We don’t have any beliefs or institutions like that do we? Things we just accept without question?
We wouldn’t refuse to consider there might be other ways of doing things,
It’s only other people who have sacred cows, right?
Well, I’ll let you think about that for a little while, but what we see in this section of the book of Acts is the criticism of a number of beliefs and institutions, things we might call, sacred cows, by Stephen, this man we met last week when he was appointed to a role of service in the church.
We could call these issues sacred cows, because these beliefs and institutions are thought by the people attached to them, to be beyond question, beyond criticism.
Again, nothing to do with us right? We’d never let things just go along unquestioned, unconsidered?!
But as we read it, I’m sure you realised, Stephen doesn’t hold back, he dismantles these sacred cows, the history of the nations relationship with God,
The tabernacle and the temple,
The Words of Moses and the prophets,
Systematically dismantling them, not by saying “they’re rubbish, have nothing to do with them”, but by pointing out there’s no need to cling to them so, “religiously” because they’ve misunderstood those ideas and institutions in the first place.
His opponents had become so “religious” that they’d misunderstood God.
Imagine that. Imagine being so religious that you’d misunderstood God.
Maybe a little shaking and polishing, or even, deconstruction of our religious framework is necessary,
Who knows, unless we look at ourselves, we won’t know if we’ve built up a collection of ideas and experiences that are actually at odds, with how God has promised he’ll work.
Where do we go to hear God speak?
Let’s just back up a little though, before Stephen starts dealing with these misunderstandings, let’s get the context.
We know from last week that Stephen was full of the Spirit and wisdom. And Luke tells us in verse 6 that Stephen did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people, but we’re not told any of those, they’re not described to us, their impact on the community is not discussed,
But what we do learn about this Stephen is that his defence of the Christian message attracted strong opposition from his fellow Jews.
And Stephen’s message, in which he mentions things of great significance to the Jewish people, draws opposition from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen, who were former slaves and their descendants. They, like Stephen, were Jews from outside Jerusalem, Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia., so it’s quite possible that this was Stephen’s own synagogue, These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.
And when you can’t win the argument, what do you do?
You just throw mud!
So they round up some false witnesses to accuse him. The very same, prosecutorial technique used to deal with Jesus, This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
But did you notice, in his sermon, Stephen doesn’t really address the accusation against him.
I was wondering this week, if I knew this was going to be my last ever sermon, what would I say?
What would I want to get across?
Dismantling sacred cows
This is Stephen’s last ever sermon, and it’s devoted not to defending his own position, or saving his own life, but to show how so many of the religious leaders of the day, and their followers, had actually rejected God, because they were so caught up protecting and celebrating their sacred cows.
And their temple,
The people were so caught up in enjoying those three pillars of their religion, that they were blinded to the very thing those pillars were supporting.
The Messiah, The one who would fulfil these 3 and bring them to their fulfilment.
George Bernard Shaw wrote his play Androcles and the Lion in 1912, and attached to it a preface which is actually longer than the play itself! In it, Shaw calls Stephen, “A quite intolerable young speaker” and “a tactless and conceited bore”
I won’t tell you what I thought when I read that! but it’s true that Stephen goes for the jugular. And why not?! If people are rejecting God, perhaps they need a bit of a wake up.
And if anything was to upset the Sanhedrin, this ruling council, it would be to say that these three which for so long had been considered the ultimate signs of God’s blessing and presence, were no longer central, were no longer the primary way of knowing God and being known by him, or even to say, that Jesus was somehow greater than these!
But Israel had repeatedly misunderstood the significance of, Land, the Law, and Temple, and gave them, much greater significance than God had ever intended, almost to the point of superstition.
So how does Stephen dismantle the people’s misconceptions about these three great pillars of Judaism? Basically he says, these things were not absolute, they were always destined to give way to Jesus.
Land – Confusing great blessing with ultimate blessing
And he starts with the Land, the land of Canaan which was promised by God to Abraham. Even today, people speak about “the promised land”, so significant was this promise.
But dwelling in the Promised Land is not the ultimate sign of approval or blessing from God that the religious leaders thought it was.
Being in the land wasn’t the first step to a right relationship with God.
And how do we know that? Well look at Abraham.
Stephen says, The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran., Before he’s even made it to the Promised Land, he has a relationship with God,
Before he’s set foot in Canaan, God has promised his blessing.
Abraham is promised a great nation of descendents,
He’ll be used to bless countless others,
And as it happens, when he does arrive in the land, he doesn’t possess any of it! but that doesn’t mean he’s out of step with God. Verse 4, God, gave him no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land,
Jump ahead to Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph in verse 9. His experience proves the same point.
6 times in 7 verses Stephen repeats the word “Egypt.” He’s determined to make sure his hearers understand the significance of this, God’s blessing doesn’t depend upon possession of the land.
God was with Joseph, verse 9.
He rescued him, verse 10,
God gave him wisdom, enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh, he made him ruler over Egypt.
God’s blessing of Joseph was clear and abundant, and yet he spends all his adult life in Egypt!
Clearly God’s blessing of Joseph isn’t dependent upon possessing the Promised Land, and incidentally, the blessing gets spread to Joseph’s family, his brothers and parents, only when they leave the land and come to live in Egypt.
Or what about Moses?, perhaps the most revered leader the nation of Israel had ever known, Moses too proves the point, A relationship with God depends on something other than the spot where you live.
Moses was born in Egypt, he was raised in the royal household, and it was not in Canaan, but out in the desert, near Mt Sinai, that God appeared to him in the burning bush, that’s verse 30.
It was to Moses that God made himself known by his name, “say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’”
And who knew God better than Moses? God actually allowed Moses to look on him, surely that’s a sign of incredible closeness and intimacy of relationship.
Yet Moses never set foot in the Promised Land, so the religious leaders who think that possessing the land is God’s stamp of approval on them, haven’t understood Moses’ relationship with God.
So God blesses Abraham, and keep his promises to Abraham, and uses Abraham to fulfil his own purposes, without Abraham even possessing a foot of the Promised Land.
And Joseph lives and dies in Egypt, and yet was clearly blessed by God and known by God.
Moses was brought up in Egypt, his relationship with God really began in the desert, and he died before he ever reached the Promised Land, and yet he’s still held up as the one of the greatest heroes of the nation,
Clearly dwelling in the land is not the ultimate sign of God’s approval or blessing.
There’s more to pleasing God than living in the place God has promised.
A right relationship with God, doesn’t start, or end, with geography,
With what you do and where you go.
And that’s the point the religious leaders have missed.
They thought that because they were living in the Promised Land, they were obviously in good standing with God,
What could God possibly do to bless them more?
What other great deliverance or salvation or blessing could God have in store for them? Surely nothing! Because they were in the Promised Land.
They had such a high view of what God had already done, that they had no room to consider what God would do in Christ.
So let me ask you, What do we think are the signs of God’s blessing?
Some might say our material prosperity,
Our safety and security,
Our wonderful church community, and let me say, I’m more excited about this community than just about anything else in my life at the moment!
But there can be a danger, when what God has done for us physically, material provision, wonderful relationships, healing, these things can actually crowd out the even, greater blessing God has given us in Christ Jesus.
The Promised Land was good! Milk and honey and all that!
But compared to an eternal rest,
Compared to the blessing of being in Christ,
Compared to the delivery from sin and death that he offers, it pales,
Our, physical blessings, and, we live in a land of so many physical blessings, they can blind us to those greater blessings that are ours in Christ.
Paul says in the beginning of Ephesians, Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
And he goes on to list holiness,
Redemption and forgiveness,
The Holy Spirit,
The hope of glory
Imagine missing out on those, or even just failing to appreciate them, because we’re so caught up in the blessing of good health, or material provision, great relationships.
We’re not immune from this error.
Law – hearing Moses but rejecting Moses
The second sacred cow that Stephen dismantles, is that of the Law, in verses 37 – 43, of course, tied to Moses.
An this is as close to a personal defence as Stephen gets. It’s as if he’s saying, “you accuse me of speaking against Moses and the law, but it’s you who have rejected Moses and rejected the law”
As early as Mt Sinai, he says, in verse 53, just out of Egypt, the people were already breaking the law that God gave them, and you’re just like them.
Even though with their mouths these religious leaders said it came from God, they didn’t obey it.
If they had obeyed it, they wouldn’t have persecuted God’s prophets, they wouldn’t have killed his messengers,
They wouldn’t have murdered God’s righteous one!
So Stephen, rather than presenting a clear-cut defence to the charges that have been made against him, highlights the crimes and law-breaking of his opponents!
They haven’t obeyed the law
They haven’t obeyed the prophetic announcements of the one who would come and sum up the law!
There’s more to living in a right relationship with God than simply being given the law, it’s not the recipients of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but those who follow it and obey it.
And the proof that these religious elite didn’t follow the law, was that they didn’t follow where the law pointed.
If I follow a street directory, I get to the place where it takes me, right?
If I follow the law of God, I get to the place where it takes me.
If these religious leaders had followed the law, if they’d listened to God and learned from his Word, they would have got to the place where it takes them, they would have recognised Jesus as the Messiah.
Stephen on the other hand doesn’t speak against Moses or against the law,
He talks about “living Words” passed on to us, what Moses gave us, he says, gives life!
He has a high view of Moses and the law!
The difference is, Stephen follows the law,
He gets to where the law takes you,
He sees where the law points.
He understands the law fulfilled.
Simply hearing something doesn’t mean it’s changed your life does it?
I don’t know how many maths classes I sat through in high school, but if simply hearing was enough to change your life, I’d be a maths genius! As it happens, simply hearing, isn’t enough, and I’m, whatever the opposite of maths genius is!
Simply hearing truth doesn’t mean you’re walking as God wants you to walk.
The call on God’s people in all times and in all places has been to hear the Word of the Lord, and obey.
Do not merely listen to the Word, James says, and so deceive yourselves, do what it says.
The result of rejecting God’s word for Israel in the centuries before Christ was exile. God sent them “beyond Babylon.” So Stephen’s contemporaries, and even people today can expect little better if they persist in their rejection of God’s chosen messenger.
I’m always hearing about people who call themselves Christians, they “love Jesus”, quote-unquote, but they don’t want to do what he says,
The parallel with the Sanhedrin’s view of Moses is astounding!
The hero of our nation, the great one!
But, be ready for the one he promised would come? No!
Listen to what he says, the promises and warnings? No!
It’s kind of fashionable to quote him every now and then, but, don’t get too carried away!
This seems to suggest 2 things for those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus. We need to make sure we’re doers of God’s Word, of Jesus’ commands, not just hearers. Otherwise we’ll miss out on the place where he’ll take us, just as the Sanhedrin missed out on the place Moses was taking them.
But also as Christians, Stephen here tells us how to read our Old Testament.
To read the Old Testament without considering where it takes it,
Without seeing it fulfilled in Jesus Christ,
Without understanding every promise and prophecy tied up in his life and death and resurrection, is to misread the Old Testament, and to be just like these Jewish religious leaders.
We understand, by God’s grace, that the Old Testament is the story of the coming of God’s righteous one, verse 52.
If you’re a Christian, read the Old Testament, Christianly.
Temple – forgetting where God lives
We better keep moving, Did you notice in verse 13, the first accusation raised by those false witnesses, is that Stephen is speaking against the temple!
Now these are false witnesses, so we don’t really trust what they say, but there is a shift in Christianity, away from the temple-centric religion of Judaism.
But it’s not only that a change has occurred, from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, but as Stephen shows, yet again, his opponents didn’t understand the Old Covenant in the right way, anyway.
He highlights the error of thinking that God dwells only in earthly temples made by human hands, when in fact, heaven is the proper dwelling place of God.
Now it’s easy for us to be critical of the way of thinking in the New Testament time and prior about God’s dwelling place, because we know that God dwells within his people, but that indwelling of the Spirit for all of God’s people dates only from Pentecost.
But Stephen doesn’t talk about the new experience of God’s presence for Christians, but says, you don’t even understand what was going on in the past.
As it happens, God had been very clear, he wouldn’t live in a temple on earth, from verse 49, Stephen quotes Isaiah, Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?, Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?’
And Solomon maked the same sort of declaration when he opened the temple nearly a thousand years before Stephen.
God had never wanted his people to think that he was contained within a building.
And as we saw from Abraham and Moses and Joseph’s experience, centuries before there was a holy place, there was a holy people, whom God had made his own and drawn to himself.
They had a relationship with God based not on a building, but on a Covenant, God’s promises,
And their part of the covenant was not attendance, but obedience.
We don’t come to church, to meet God, to enter into his presence, There’s no building that is somehow closer to God than another.
That’s one of the great things about meeting in a gymnasium, we’re not quite so likely to fall into the trap of thinking this is where God lives. But it still can happen.
You may have heard the story of the little boy drinking his glass of milk with his mother and he asks her, “Mummy, is God everywhere?”
And his mother replies, “yes, God is everywhere.”
And he asks again, “Is God in our house?”, and mum replies, “Yes, God is in our house.”
The little boy drains his glass of milk and holds it out at arm’s length, looking at it quizzically, “Is God in this glass?” Mum is a bit more hesitant this time, seeing a potential metaphysical minefield opening up before her, but, “yes, God is in that glass.” At which point the boy slaps his hand over the top of the glass and cries “got him!”
So often we want a God where we can find him,
A God we can manage,
A God who will be accessible to us on our terms.
A God we can go and visit in his building!
A God who will stay in his box,
That’s not the God who Stephen is prepared to die for.
Stephen was prepared to die for the difference between the God of first century popular Judaism and the God of Christianity.
He thought the distinction was that important.
Is it a faith that will produce martyrs?
Last year I read a review of a book authored by one of the leaders in the emerging church movement. The reviewer was concerned by this man’s apparently small view of God and his accomplishments, and so he wrote that this particular view of God, this branch of the Christian faith seemed unlikely to ever produce martyrs.
In an era when more Christians are dying for their faith than ever before, I thought that was an interesting measure of your Christian faith, of your view of God.
Is your picture of God one that could produce martyrs?
Would people be willing to die for that?
Stephen thinks the right view of God is important enough to die for.
The leaders had misunderstood the place of their land.
They’d misunderstood the law,
They’d misunderstood the temple,
And they were content with those things, not seeing where they pointed,
Not seeing that God’s saving action and deliverance were not complete until Jesus died on the cross.
Not seeing that faithfulness to the law means faithfulness to Jesus who fulfils the law.
Not seeing that a holy people is infinitely better than a holy place
Stephen’s sermon, deconstructing, or re-examining, the sacred cows shows the serious consequences of being caught up in form and process and our own expectations.
Their religion actually led them to reject God!
So religious that they left God out of the picture!
You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him
The irony is, the leaders’ final act of rejection against Stephen is exactly what he’s been accusing them of doing to everyone who spoke for God.
He becomes the first martyr.
What will we do with the warning?
What will we do with this explanation of God’s gracious relationship with his people.
You and I aren’t the first Century Jewish religious elite, but Stephen still points us to the Righteous One.
Has anything crowded him out?
Is anything getting in the way of Christ?
Is religion displacing relationship?
Are physical blessings blinding us to the greater spiritual blessings?
How’s your neck?
Are you stiff-necked, or are you looking at Jesus?