Monday, June 18, 2012

Acts 7 - Stephen's Witness of a God who Loves the Outsider - The Kingdom of God is Bigger Than Us part 2

(Click here to read Acts 7)

Just as the Gospel of Luke recorded the exciting expansion of Jesus' ministry from his hometown of Galilee to the cultural centre of Jerusalem City, Luke's follow-up, Acts continues the story of this expansion through his followers from Jerusalem City to the heart of the Roman Empire. Acts 6-12 tells the story of the first steps of this early community toward an inclusive and universal message and practice.
(please see the introduction to Acts 6-12)

Acts 6:12-14; 7:1 (ESV)
12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon (Stephen) and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”
7:1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” 2 And Stephen said:

Stephen's speech in his own defense reads like a sermon. It is the longest of the sermons recorded in Acts, and the fourth sermon so far. The first three sermons were Peter's on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17-36) to the people after a man is healed and able to walk (Acts 3:12-26) and before the council (Acts 4:8-12), just as Stephen defends himself here.

It is this speech and Stephen's subsequent stoning that sets off the increased persecution of the Jesus People in Jerusalem. The old corrupt powers that preferred a status quo where religious faithful would by financially taken advantage of in their own temple would not abide these commoners taking their faith into their own hands. Luke is challenging us with the good news that the Kingdom of God need not be restrained by a building, a region, or a people group. God and the Justice and Love of the Kingdom are offered to everyone, everywhere. Though Stephen is falsely accused of speaking against the temple and Moses, he does respond by clearly stating that the boundaries of such things are not wide enough to contain the boundless love of God. Those who seek to restrict or contain the work of the Spirit in the world are the true rebels, not Stephen.

Citizens of the Kingdom of God resist rebels.

Even rebels with power.

Even rebels with authority.

Stephen resists.

Stephen's Sermon

Stephen defends himself by reminding the council of their shared beautiful history. Every portion of Stephen's defense shares how either (1) the boundaries of God's covenant have always been wider than one single people group and/or (2) even when God's radical covenant people are rejected, God uses them to bless the entire world, even those who rejected them. What incredibly good news that we ultimately cannot resist the love, justice, and redemption God so generously offers the world.

Abraham was a foreigner from a distant land. He lived long before the promise of Moses, and didn't even know Yahweh, Israel's God. He never owned a piece of livable land. But God promised him an inheritance (vv2-5). The Kingdom of God is for foreigners.

Abraham's descendants were called “sojourners” by God, strangers and foreigners. For four hundred years they lived as outsiders and then as slaves in a foreign land. God promised to bring them out of slavery. This was also before Moses and the law (v6-8). The Kingdom of God is for strangers and slaves, and sets them free.

Joseph was rejected by his brothers, and sold as a slave to the empire of Egypt. God rescued Joseph from slavery, and used him to save Egypt and the surrounding nations from a famine (vv9-16). The Kingdom of God blesses foreign nations, even people who belong to oppressive empires (like Rome). Joseph's brothers were welcomed by Joseph into Egypt where they shared in the blessing and provision (v13). The Kingdom of God forgives enemies and traitors (like Joseph's brothers) and extends its love to those who would betray it in the future (like Egypt).

Moses was brought up as an adopted foreigner among the court of Egypt. His education as an Egyptian benefited him greatly. His Egyptian mother showed him great kindness and mercy, though he was not her own (vv17-22). The Kingdom of God is merciful to orphans and foreigners, and not opposed to the kindness and wisdom of strangers.

Moses tried to act justly toward his people when he visited his enslaved brothers as an adult. His attempts are rejected outright, and he had to leave Egypt to protect himself (vv25-29). Sometimes the Kingdom of God is rejected, even by those for whom it would have the greatest benefit (as Moses and Joseph are both rejected).

While in exile in the wilderness, God calls Moses to return to Egypt to deliver the Israelites from slavery(vv30-34). The Kingdom of God is extended to the foreigners, exiled, oppressed, and even to those who previously rejected it.

For the rest of his speech, Stephen describes the tabernacle, the tent where God would meet his people in the wilderness, and the temple, the building in Jerusalem that had been built, destroyed and restored multiple times. He reminds the council of the history he shares with them, the many times that they had rejected God and been scattered, repented and been redeemed by the God they'd rejected (vv33-53).

God was with them before the tabernacle, before the temple, and still with them every time the temple was destroyed. He remained with them when the temple was destroyed. His love and mercy followed them when they ran the opposite way. He continued to be with them when they were scattered among other nations and without a home. This Hound of Heaven had never abandoned them, never stopped pursuing them. Whether they were foreigners, orphans, slaves, oppressors, in exile, at home, weak, or in power, faithful, or faithless, God had remained their God and continued to offer his covenant to them.

The Kingdom of God offered to them had never been bound by their strict obedience to man made laws and traditions. God always pursued them to keep his covenant because of his faithfulness, goodness, and love, not their own. Now, in Jesus, all walls between humankind and the freedom offered by God had been torn down. This same faithfulness and love would now be offered to the entire world. The cross was a bridge between humans and God, and between humans among each other. It was God's good pleasure to open wide the gates and welcome everyone in.

Stephen accuses the religious elite harshly for not being willing to open the door for unconditional freedom and love to be expressed between God's people. He caps it off by comparing them to their ancestors who had rejected the prophets who had called for justice before him.

Stephen's Stoning

Acts 7:54-60; 8:1 (ESV)
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
8:1 And Saul approved of his execution.
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. 

Jesus promised in Acts 1:8 that the disciples would receive power by the Holy Spirit to be his “witnesses” to the entire world. The Greek word for “witness” that Jesus uses in this passage is martys, meaning someone who witnesses with such conviction that it could lead to death. Our English word "martyr" shares this etymology. Stephen fulfills the promise in Acts 6 and 7. He is filled with the Spirit, wisdom and power. His witness of Jesus leads to his death. His witness leads to the further spread of the gospel to the world.

Stephen's execution reminds us of Jesus' crucifixion. His last words are words of ultimate forgiveness and submission, and echo the last words of Jesus on the cross. Just as Jesus' crucifixion resulted in a further spread of his message, so does Stephen's murder result in a further spread of the gospel. How ironic that the persecution meant to destroy the seeds of freedom would cause them to be dispersed more widely. Stephen's message that the Good News could be spread to anyone, anywhere, leads to the next step - the Good News spreads to everyone, everywhere. This underground Kingdom cannot be destroyed by the powerless violence of the empire. God's Kingdom is an upside-down one, and would use the hatred and violence of its enemies in a jujitsu move to further spread love and peace.

A love that forgives enemies. A Kingdom that opens its gates to those who would reject it.

A Kingdom who would open its gates even to Saul, violent persecutor of the Jesus People, later one of their greatest missionaries.

vv2-53 – again, arrest and persecution leads to the clear preaching of the gospel.
Stephen’s gospel story tells much of the Old Testament and the history of the Jewish people, beginning with God’s covenant with Abraham
v52 - See Matthew 23:37
v58 – Key verse
First Martyr – Stephen the first of the deacons
First mention of Saul (Paul) – complicit, approving (v60), and enabling of the stoning of Stephen
vv59-60 – echoes the last words of Jesus.

(Click here to read Acts 7)

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