Stephen’s Defense – How does it speak to us?

This morning I feel a little like Peter must have felt on the mount of transfiguration where he was so overwhelmed by the wonder and joy of the presence of the transfigured Jesus that he wanted to build a shelter so that he could just remain there in His presence. He was totally overawed by His presence. So as I sang “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face …. turn your eyes to the hillside where He hung on the cross…..turn your eyes to the heavens from where He will come again, I look up at the heavens and in the clouds I see the the outline of a figure – vague and mysterious – the clouds swirling and floating around the figure and I hear a voice “Just like this cloud I cover the whole earth – cover it with My warmth and protection – there is nowhere that I am not present, soak up my love – allow Me to fuse you into one with Me – I want to give to you, I want to give you the Bread of life – Myself – I want to give you the bread, which is every word that I speak to you – I want to give you the bread of friendship from Myself but also through My other children – just be still, be quiet and listen to Me”.

Today I will deal with Acts ch 7. This is a long and complex speech and I could write a chapter in a book about it, but that is not our purpose here. So I want us to try and pick up the main themes of the speech and find what Jesus is saying to us through it. So why don’t you scan through it yourself first, but before you do here is a pointer. In Acts 6:13 there is an accusation made against Stephen and so this speech is primarily his defense. The accusation is basically made against two aspects of what Stephen had been preaching. Can you see them? They accuse him of speaking against the temple and against the law. Now read chapter 7 and see if you can follow the thread of his defense. Don’t get hung up and tied down in the detail but just scan the main points of what he is saying in respect of these two subjects.

At that time the Jews regarded the temple as a sort of Icon which they held in almost more reverence than God Himself. The temple was built, as Stephen reminds the listeners, by Solomon and even at its dedication 1 Kings 8:27, Solomon had recognized that no place could contain God Himself (Acts 7:48 ff). And we know that it was Jesus Himself who said that his body would replace the temple (John 2:19-22). So Stephen in his defense shows how God met Abraham and Moses in various places, even at one time (Acts 7:33) telling Moses that where he was standing was holy ground (Acts 7:33). So the temple is not the only place that the people could meet with God. Everywhere we meet with God is holy. In fact to underline this fact Jesus prophesied what would later be fulfilled – the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem with it. Of course the original place of worship had been a tent (Tabernacle) (Acts 7:44) which reflected the idea of our impermanence on earth, we are pilgrims as it were.

In His defense against the charge about the law, Stephen makes a point of showing his respect for Moses the mediator of the Law. Of course we know that Jesus had made it clear way back in the Sermon On The Mount that He had come to fulfill the law not abolish it (Mat 5:17). What He was in fact teaching, clearly was that the whole OT points forward Him, who He is and His ministry. Stephen then goes over to the attack( Acts 7:37), pointing out that Moses had prophesied about the coming of Jesus and yet from the beginning the people had rejected Moses and his ministry and the law, turning to other gods and astrology, and killing the prophets who foretold the events which were unfolding now. In fact ending by showing them that they were actually the one’s who were breaking the law Acts 7:53.

So he ends his defense with the harsh words of condemnation in Acts 7:51ff reminding them that their real problem was one of rebellion. I suppose one can say that you can understand how this made the people angry enough to kill him, but is that not the problem of the whole world that rejects God? And for Lilly, that is why they were so angry with Stephen, because he showed up the truth to them.

There is obviously more in the passage from which Jesus may have spoken to you, but this is, as I see it the main thrust of the passage. Now, important, what is Jesus saying to you today from this long passage?

In line with His word to me earlier it seemed He was underlining to me the importance of the fact that He is everywhere, through His Spirit. There is no place that is more holy than any other. We may experience a nearness to Him more in some places, like I do in my little “altar room”, but He is everywhere I go. There is so much fuss made about Jerusalem nowadays, and while we have absolute compassion with all the people there and know there is a huge spiritual warfare going on, nevertheless, God is not more present there than elsewhere. It is no more the spiritual capital of the world, ever since the Jews rejected Jesus.

The second point I felt He was saying to me is a very strong reminder that Jesus is the central point of the whole bible. The whole OT points forward to Him and from the beginning of Acts the message flares out to the whole world. This almost drowns me in the realization of the depth of God’s word.

As usual, if you have specific questions about this passage please let’s hear them and talk about them.

The Mystery of the Battle, God Uses it for Growth.

Be Still and know that I am God. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Jesus is here with you. ‘Speak Lord your servant is listening.’

“Stand at the foot of the cross and look up – at the figure hanging there – I have done that for you – not only to have your sins forgiven – but to give you a totally new life – from the moment I poured my Spirit on you, the direction of your life changed. You have been taken up spiritually into the heavenly realms – where you have received every spiritual blessing in Me (Jesus) – yet physically you remain in the world where the battle for the souls of men rages on – but take heart, I have overcome. Only keep alert, because the enemy is all around – keep putting on My spiritual armour. The helmet, let him not cause you to doubt your salvation – that is where he seeks to weaken you – weaken your resolve, weaken your faith. Then put on the shield – I am your shield, remember your new identity, you are now “in Jesus” – remind yourself of that as he seeks to send fiery darts at you, whispers of ‘did He really mean – when He said that?’ so that you are tempted to doubt Me, My love, My purposes for you. Nothing can change that, that is secure, just wait in expectation to see what I have in mind for you .”

My reading today is from Acts 6:8-15. What can the Lord have to say to me today from this apparently straight-forward passage? To rehearse the context I remember that the story of the new church is moving forward at a great pace, thousand of new converts, due to the witness of the apostles and the miraculous signs they were performing, which authenticated their message. There had been opposition, mainly from the local religious establishment, but which the apostles took as a blessing that they “had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” Acts 5:41. The story moves up a gear now, after some housekeeping in the church to achieve order.(Acts 6:1-7)

Stephen had been chosen as one of the men “full of faith and the holy Spirit” (vs 3) to wait on tables, in the previous section. He is shown here actively witnessing. Now friends why don’t you read this section and ask Jesus to help you to understand what He was saying to the early readers and what He is saying to you today.

OK, so it is obvious that Stephen is faced by a new opposition. I find the description of this group interesting. They were Jewish proselytes, yet came from various other ethnic nationalities. I stop and wonder how often division in the church is caused by factors, like social standing and ethnicity, other than doctrine. These folk were not Christian or part of the new church but, through their actions, they were trying to block its growth. To make it worse they used deceitful and dishonest means to discredit Stephen, who, through the wisdom and power of the Spirit, had left them unable to answer him.

So what is going on here Jesus? Why is this obvious opposition intruding on the growth of the gospel cf 6:7? I know already (maybe I shouldn’t) that Stephen is about to be executed. So why do we have this rollercoaster ride in the new church?

I remember a little picture in a discipleship book I used to use with the students. It was a picture of an aeroplane. Yes, you see the message is that an aeroplane can only take off against the wind. So in His wisdom then and over the centuries God has used opposition as a spur to growth. A stimulant as it were to let us take off and soar. And of course who is behind the opposition? The enemy. So the word from the Lord to me becomes suddenly so much more relevant. Don’t be surprised by opposition, nor be disheartened. God is absolutely in control of the war and the outcome is already determined, but the battles rage on all over the place. While the enemy seeks to divide and destroy the main purpose of God is spurring growth of individual Christians and of the Church. Amen? Amen.

Let’s all then keep actively reminding ourselves of the battle, so that we will remember who the real enemy is and not become disheartened by difficulties, knowing they are God’s tools to bring us to trust Him more and more.

Judgement! – Why don’t we Talk About It?

“Judgement – to understand My judgement you must first understand My righteousness – I do everything perfectly right – My thoughts, My actions everything about Me is perfectly right – hence ‘righteousness’. Now everything – hear Me – everything that is not perfectly right is under My judgement. Now that is serious – my judgement is serious, therefore to demonstrate that, I have pronounced the death penalty on all sin – ALL SIN – all those who cannot live and act perfectly righteously like Me, are under the death penalty – serious ! That is why Jesus had to die – He took that death penalty upon Himself – so that you could be declared righteous – despite your errant thoughts and behaviour – once you are ‘in Jesus’ you are free – free from My judgement – declared righteous – because of HIS behaviour and action.

Now – My judgement is not negative – because My judgement is actually aimed at getting people – all sinful people – to turn to Me – to flee to Jesus for rescue – that is the message of the whole Old Testament – I kept judging My people because they had given their hearts elsewhere My aim was and still is – to this day to turn them back to me. Now the only way they and everyone else under My judgement can escape is by coming to Jesus – for forgiveness – complete forgiveness, so that they too can be declared righteous.

My reading today is in Acts 5:1-11. This should be read in conjunction with Acts 4:32-37, which I read yesterday. The section in ch 4 describes the outworking of the Holy Spirit on the new community of believers which were forming the foundation of the church, God’s new kingdom here on earth. One aspect which is highlighted there is the way that people cared for each other’s needs and how the working of the Spirit caused a wave of generosity to sweep over them, as the people were filled with a sense of unity and compassion.

So this ‘awe-ful’ story in Acts 5 sets the reader back in shock. Amongst all the love that was being shown was this really the same God who now caused these two people to be punished by death? Firstly note vs 3: “Satan has so filled your heart, that you lied to the Holy Spirit”. Shades of Luke 22:3 “Then Satan entered Judas”. Judas was also one of the “inner circle”. But why this severe punishment, so openly demonstrating God’s judgement, when apparently far ‘worse sins’ are committed daily to-day without any apparent consequences?

I take it that the answer lies way back in Genesis ch 3, when Adam sinned and God pronounced His judgement on him and all mankind after that. See Genesis 3:22 b “he (the man- Adam) must not be allowed to reach out his hand and also take from the tree of life and live forever” and vs 23,24 which makes this final “So the Lord God banished him from the the Garden of Eden……After He drove him out, He placed on the East side of the Garden of Eden Cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard he way to the tree of life”. Highly symbolic but he meaning is clear – death had entered the idyll, for the first time. Death was to be the ultimate punishment for sin. A visible, daily reminder of God’s absolute abhorrence for sin.

So now, here in Acts we have a “new beginning” a new Genesis (which means beginnings), as the church is being formed. And God is reminding the people then and ever after that, although the restoration of the kingdom has come, it will only be completed when Jesus comes again and in the interim, in the time described as “now but not yet”, there is still going to be sin and the judgement and punishment for sin is still exactly the same as in the beginning.

Notice too that this event happened in the church. Shades of 1 Peter 4:17; “For it is the time for judgement to begin with the family of God.” So just because we can’t see it being graphically carried out like it was then, it doesn’t mean that it is not happening in God’s own way all the time.

lastly note the effect of this judgement on the community and the the church: vs 5b “And great fear seized all who heard what had happened”. vs 11 “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these events”. An Awe-filled church and a community who had a new respect for Almighty God. Maybe that is what the church and the world needs more of today, instead of trying to explain away events which suggest God’s judgement.

For me today, I feel this is a great spur to the wonder at what Jesus has done for me and all other believers, in setting me free from God’s ultimate judgement which is pictured by death, demonstrating the final separation, that which is the main effect of God’s ultimate judgment in the hereafter. And a new sense of awe at His person and His presence. The Greek word here is ‘phobos’ from which comes phobia, being a mixture of pure awe and fear

So friends how much awe do you feel when you contemplate the revelation of God in His Word and His works we see around us?

The Nations Rage – but the Witness goes out.

The song is “Your love is like an ocean”. I see and imagine myself in the middle of the ocean – surrounded on all sides – as far as the eye can see – the light reflecting in multiple colours on the waves, dancing and twinkling – beckoning me – encouraging me – God’s love – immeasurably immense, totally engulfing me. Then the Lord speaks: “My love is so much more – it is warm, it embraces you on all sides – feel my love, feel my heart-beat – I am for you – yes I am for you – the Creator of the universe, I am for you – who can be – who can stand against you? – So even in trials when you feel opposition – it is only because I have allowed it – for your benefit – Just remember as you experience My love – you are also experiencing an impervious shield, on the one hand totally unyielding to the outside and on the other soft, yielding, embracing, warming, encouraging – filling you with My presence on the inside”.

I have reached Ch 4 in Acts as the “witness” spreads in Jerusalem, firstly among the priests (Acts 6:7), that is the ordinary priests not the Chief Priest and his gang. Today I am reading Acts 4:23-31 This passage follows the healing of the beggar and the speech before the Sanhedran, who, after jailing them, are forced to release the disciples, because of their popularity with the crowd and the very evidence of the healed beggar, present among them. Almost hidden in the script is the remark: “..and they took note that they (the disciples) had been with Jesus”. (vs 13 b) I wonder when outsiders have to do with me, or with any of us, if they will be led to make a similar remark. That’s witness.

Today’s reading concentrates on the report back of the disciples and their prayer meeting which follows.. Firstly they focus on Psalm 2. The question is “why do the nations rage and the people plot in vain?” so I go and dig in Psalm 2. The question is rhetorical, it seems The psalm is clearly pointing to to the coming of the “Anointed One” and the general attitude of the people of the world towards Him. They seem to perceive that He has them chained and they desire to break the chains – breaking contact with Him. Yet God laughs at them and their efforts and warns of His wrath – if they don’t turn to Him and serve Him – “Kiss the Son”. What a beautiful picture of love, acceptance and service.

So the conspiracy of Herod and crew vs 27, is a reflection of this ancient world-view, which looked ahead so prophetically. Yet and this is the main point – vs 28 “they were only doing what God’s power and will had decided beforehand should happen”. Mmmmm.

So as the prayer group continues, their prayer is that God would give them the words and enable them to speak the word boldly ie Witness effectively as the opportunity arose. I love the closing vs as it describes the joy and the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit filling them and shaking the place. I have sometimes longed to feel the place shake as we have prayed, yet there was a huge task ahead of them with much hardship and the temptation to turn back, which has never faced me or any group I have been part of, so they needed and deserved the extra assurance given so vividly.

So what does God mean when He has shown me the extent of His mighty love for me and now a reminder of the difficulties and opposition of the world? Well one thing is clear from the passage, the way ahead may not be known by me but it is mapped out by God and His promise is that nothing will happen to me outside of what He allows. But there is one incontrovertible fact and that is that the world is still in opposition to Jesus. Not to religion, not to static churches nor to lazy uncommitted “Christians”, but to the witness of Jesus and who He is and what He has done for us. And I am called and so are each one of you called to continue the witness to Jesus in the world. I can only do that as I continue to “be with Jesus” on a daily basis so that I reflect Him and His love.

As I soak all this in I am taken again by the mighty responsibility of being a true witness and yet the huge encouragement of the huge and warm love of My Creator.

Hallelujah – the New Age has come.

“Hallelujah – sing Hallelujah – sing praises to Me – let this mark your week – All over the world there are tens of thousands, no millions of people who are rejoicing in Me – people in most difficult circumstances, hardship, poverty, sickness, having been deserted, lonely, grieving – many who still want to praise Me. So that is what I am doing – gathering a people who want to place Me first in their lives and sing hallelujah. they will be at home in My heaven. At the same time draw near to me where you can hear My heartbeat, like an infant child feels its mother’s heartbeat – and receive My love, receive everything I want to give you – as My Spirit works – love, passion, purity of thought, My holiness – be other-people centered this week as always and I will take you along the path I have chosen for you”.

Conscious of the emphasis on singing Hallelujah, I look up Revelation 19 and WOW! Just read it for yourselves.

Now I have been reading Acts chapter 3 for the last two days and here are a few thoughts that have struck me. Remember this is not a complete commentary.

Firstly the healing of the crippled beggar has a deeper dimension than just a healing miracle, which is of course fantastic. Turn to Isaiah 35:6 and look at the signs of the New Age that are predicted there. The age which turns out later to be the gospel age, the age of the New Covenant. So by placing this miracle right at the beginning of the story of the Church, Luke wants to remind us of the launching of a totally New Age. The age of New Wineskins, the age of the acts of the Holy Spirit through the Apostles. Notice that this person would be regarded as the least in the world of Israel and its just there that God starts working. In the end everyone in the kingdom will be singing Hallelujah together on an equal basis.

Of course this incident acts as a catalyst to the opportunity for Peter to be a witness by preaching the Gospel. Notice also how Peter emphasizes the fact that the whole Old Testament points forward to this time.

vs 16 is a bit enigmatic. How did the beggar receive faith. It is clear that God gave him faith. “It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him ….” So it seems just the very act of obeying the apostle’s instruction to stand was a sign that he was believing and accepting the gift of healing he was receiving. It has been described as “active acceptance.”

Peter’s word to the people is ‘repent then and times of refreshing may come to you’ confirming the sign of the cripple. Then further on “Moses said ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like Me from among your own people; you MUST LISTEN TO HIM'”. Sound familiar?

And then at the end of the chapter he repeats the promise God made to Abraham in Gen 12, and qualifies the promise of blessing made to Abraham with “When God raised up His servant, he sent Him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways”. So from that, the coming under God’s blessing under the New dispensation is commensurate with receiving forgiveness and turning from your wicked ways.

So what do I hear? A reminder of the importance of ‘listening to Jesus’. The way to blessing is taking from Him what He gives me as I turn from my wicked ways. I need to be reminded every day of these steps forward under His blessing which is only available to me ‘in Jesus’.

A reminder to me to be alert to any opportunity God may give me to speak out as a witness both in words and action.

And then a reminder of the importance of realizing the urgency of the moment in the light of the promise of the return of Jesus vs 21. Of course the New Age will only be fully consummated when He comes again, at the moment we are still living in the ‘now but not yet’ phase.

So let us spend this week ‘singing hallelujah’ in practice for the New World we will soon enter.