AUSTRALIAN BIBLE CHURCH – July 12, 2009
A CONTINUATION OF THE
ORIGINAL THRUST AND BASE OF
THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF AUSTRALIA, ON CHANGELESS BIBLICAL LINES
STEPHEN : CENTRIFUGAL FROM HIMSELF, CENTRED IN CHRIST
Today, we take a hero of faith, work and witness, whose contribution rose to a crescendo, like a constructive atomic bomb, before those who heard the impact, fearing truth, as they had feared its source in Christ, made sure of one thing. He would not both live and speak in exposition and demonstration that Christ is Lord!
FLAMING SPEECH WHICH WOULD LEAD
TO PETITION FOR PARDON FOR HIS PERSECUTORS
This deacon of the early Church, having been charged with asserting that Jesus would destroy the temple, with changing the customs given by Moses, and not ceasing from speaking blasphemies, was now to answer. That was the tableau.
In his answer, he resolved, it seems, or was led rather, to survey the scene to see where MOSES fitted in, and where those who 'followed' him had their place, and where the Lord related to these relationships, and to show them, from their own history, what they needed to know. He would supply his perspective from the Law and the Prophets themselves, showing what they were, what they were about and the end of the matter. Thus the word of God was the answer.
First, then, he started with Abraham. Led by the divine call to leave his land, and to go to the land appointed, this patriarch went as sent; but at first, he had not so much as a foot of inheritance in that land. Yet even while Abraham was still childless - in fact, he rather specialised in this, having no child for the first century or so of his life - the Lord promised to give him the land of his call, to provide this to him and to his descendants (Genesis 17:7-8). In showing Abraham these things, however, the Lord added that for some 400 years, they would have to live in a foreign nation, and even be oppressed. God however would JUDGE that nation: the Exodus from Egypt and its developments in the 10 plagues for example: but Egypt’s judgment at the hand of God went on as you see in Ezekiel 29:14ff.. This teaches us to amend our ways, and not to contend with the Lord.
The covenant of mutuality within the sovereign call of God was thus given to Abraham, as we have seen earlier, a divine solemn oath with it (Genesis 15, 17). We move to Moses, a leader to come.
First, in a partial genocide against the Hebrew people, as a babe cast away, but secreted, Moses was rescued by a Princess. So brought up and becoming significant in Egypt, he later personally sought to solve a fight between two Hebrews. It led to death and Moses decided on hearing a detrimental account of it, left Egypt speedily and after a long time away, being called by God, he returned to confront the Pharaoh then in power. Simply, he demanded in the name of the Lord, as sent by Him, that the people who came into the land at invitation, should be allowed to leave that land freely, first for a religious feast, then altogether.
Pharaoh scoffed: WHO is the LORD that I should obey Him! .Indeed, Moses had not come to confront the Pharaoh lightly. It was authorised and miraculously confirmed in a divine interview accorded to Moses, in the time when he was far from Egypt. He trembled at that meeting, but was sent, with confirmation of his calling by wonders, to rescue his brethren, the Hebrews; for the Lord saw the oppression and heard the groaning of the slave-driven people. This same Moses then amid signs and wonders from God brought them out. So Stephen sought to recapitulate, given the actual basis of the current religion, as distinct from anything else which might in slovenly style be imagined.
This Moses, he pointed out, was the same one who had been rejected by Hebrews in Egypt who asked him at the first, Who made you a ruler over us! It was he, however who after the victorious Exodus, brought them to their pilgrimage to the promised land, and kept with them the 40 years of their discipline in the wilderness. Having outlined what they all hopefully knew and knew well, and re-established its basis in their minds, Stephen thus made it appear that they had a great deal in common, the victim and the judges. The question would therefore occur in many minds, Why then is there this trouble ? and for what is all this commotion concerning this young man, Stephen! The answer soon appeared clearly.
MOSES VINDICATED: CHRIST IS INDICATED
The Moses who had thus been vindicated - the Lord showing and using His power over and through him - was in a clear position. As to the One WHO had indeed made him a ruler, this became conspicuously apparent! but what of the people themselves ? THAT, Stephen made manifest, was the real question. What shall be said there! THIS, he said, is the SAME Moses who predicted that the Lord would raise up from their own brethren a prophet like Moses. There was a consummation to come; Moses was not the end. "Him shall you hear!" was the advice OF THIS SAME MOSES! But when this great, transcendent prophet came, DID THEY hear Him, or Him of whom He spoke ? That was the question that posed itself.
In other words, by now, it was probably creeping into their minds that this citation from Deuteronomy 18, impossible to deny, well known and a favourite consideration, focussed quite simply the great One to come. He was recognisable as 'that prophet' as we see in the culture of the times (John 6:14, 1:21). His arrival in due time was a common concept based on a basic book of their scriptures. If then there was THAT well-known, clearly predicted prophet to come, HOW could it be blasphemy to identify Him, when He came! and how would you not yield to evidence concerning just who it was ? for He was to be "from their own brethren," not to come dressed as superman or in a space suit.
How COULD they tell ? Of course, HIS WORKS would distinguish Him (as in Isaiah 29, 35 foretold, for example) and what ONLY God could do, done through Him, would be a confirmation of His words of self-identification.
Wait just one moment! however. IF this is the case, HOW can anyone just simply stick out the tongue and call Stephen a blasphemer since there was a PLACE, a NICHE, a NECESSARY situation for the Messiah to fill! Would not enquiring minds and restful hearts in godly men of peace simply seek to identify Him, as did Simeon (Luke 2:26) ? And in any case there was Daniel 9 clearly demarcating the time zone for His appearance, and this at that very time when He came, and when they killed Him *1. It is not difficult. You do not have to be a genius to do simple arithmetic. HOW then could there be any such FIXATION on the phase of revelation accorded to Moses, when it was THIS SAME MOSES who foretold the coming of the One to whom they MUST give heed.
If Moses is so great, why berate Stephen for talking of that prophet who was to come, and identifying Him as Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah: surely he, Moses, their mentor, should be heeded! So far from being a repository for endless tradition, he, Moses was a preparation for the One to come and said so. Moses had even made this clear in very direct terms. The greater is their desire to make Moses magnificent, the more clearly do they contravene him when, out of hand, without being able to resist the evidential proclamations and disputations of Stephen, they decide to dump Christ as 'that prophet' and hence Stephen as a testifier of truth. Into their own trap they fell. They in their awesome rage, were doing what God said would happen when they rejected the Messiah (cf. Isaiah 49:7, 53), with a devastating blindness of mind, heart and eye! What then would they do ? What now would seize them, having seized Stephen and killed Christ, at least in the same spirit ?
THE OUTRAGE OF THEIR OUTRAGE
AND THE WISDOM OF HUMILITY WITH FAITH
Outraged in their raging, they acted with all the gross disregard of truth which their preoccupations with their own phase, ignorantly refusing the next, determined. It is like children, Peter Pans, who WILL not grow up. However pleasant childhood may be, it is not the point to endure for ever; for it is a growth condition leading on to the full image that God has given man. To remain in primary school is no good aim; to idolatrise it, as if it were all because it was useful, is to miss its whole point. In effect, to slay one who said that tertiary education was still to come was unnatural, unnecessary, gross and perfidious, anti-evidential, acrimonious, ungodly and without the fear of the Lord. Christ was slain: now Stephen.
They were refusing spiritually to complete their growth! and to do so, they killed. Some today may equally refuse to grow up, and so die young; but this, it was elemental, it was to reject the Redeemer in order to redeem their pride. We must all grow in grace, and grow up into our Head, the Lord Jesus Christ, finding the express image of God, past symbols, in glorious liberty, not to disobey, but to follow, not to slight, but to magnify, not to become subjective merely, but to be objective, taking up the Cross, and finding in Him that burial of sin and sovereign majesty which neither varies in anything from the truth, nor fails to fulfil what was a prelude and preliminary.
How many perished for their presumption, in denying the Lord; and if today, this is another time, it is not another challenge. It is not too late for any who comes! But as to them, fury took them, and faith did not carry them one inch.
Alas, they paid. Pride and passion pay in the end. Truth always prevails in the end. But HOW they paid, and for how long! Even their new exile as a nation lasted some 1900 years, a considerable advance on the earlier exile to Babylon, one of a 'mere' 70 years. Consummation can be costly, when it is that of disease. It can be worse when the disease has been itemised, characterised and foretold for centuries by God, and still the eyes do not open when it comes! Isaiah even showed the obstinate character of the condition as in Chapter 6; and with this, the result! It came, the word of God always comes.
Yet it was only necessary for them to repent and to receive the Lord who came, as all must do for their sins, of whatever kind, and the reproach would be broken and each one so acting, would have ALL his or her sins buried in the depth of the sea as Micah 7:19ff. instructs us. Pity them then, but pity more their refusal which brings the affliction; for truth, it is not a thing you can change. It is oneself that must be charged when adversatively related to truth.
Such was as it is, the situation. But what of the case with Stephen ? What then is all this cant and ranting about blasphemy! How can they so speak of Stephen, unabashed and ignorant in their seething blindness! Yet there was more. While such thoughts might well have begun to mingle with the guilt of those perhaps seeking in vain to dismiss them altogether, for Stephen was moving with force and clarity like a sword in motion, he introduced a new line of argumentation.
It went in this way. He pursued his declaration with spirit and poise.
He told of their rebelliousness from the first with Moses. Thus in the crisis of the 10 plagues, Israel had been brought out of Egypt in a divine maelstrom of ironic dismissal of those nonentities, the 'gods' of the popular imagination who had no power at all. Indeed, they could not even prevent the escape of Israel, though a whole vast army was working for them! They could not touch an unprotected people: one exposed to all and to any, except for the protection of God. But did the Hebrew people obey the Lord who delivered them ? Lapses multiplied.
Stephen simply went on to his quotation from Amos 5, and to the issue from it. BECAUSE of these sins sustained and prolonged, God would carry them off, in exile, to Babylon. THAT is what their law said. That summed up the situation then. Had it changed ? They had become chronic offenders.
Were they then ignorant of the penalty for REFUSING to believe what God had sent them! Were they to CONTINUE their violations, their wilful ignorance, their witless confusion of the Creator and Lord with nature-worship and the like! (cf. Jeremiah 2:27), specialists in sin ? Would they indeed exalt their own importance and make traditions which they would heed! Would they forget that they had in the first place been sent by GOD who had not only a first intimation, but a final one to make! They were sent for a purpose, not for a mere maritime excursion. What about this ? Would they continue their rebellion!
Stephen now objectivised things. Our fathers, he asseverated, had a temple; but God, as the scripture says, does not dwell in temples made with hands. The point is that although a temple may SYMBOLISE what the Lord desires to make clear, it is by no means the case that He actually lives there, as if there were some government which provided some little god with a place to live, so that it would be nice for him and he would not be cold! So far from this being blasphemy, did not the prophet point out this very thing, this being God's OWN interpretation of what a temple is! It is not a HOUSE for His care ? for He is beyond all houses. Here Stephen cited from Isaiah 66, where God says that heaven being his throne, earth His footstool, so what house COULD they build for Him? Solomon of course had made just this point at the very dedication of the Temple, as registered in I Kings 8:27:
"But will God indeed dwell on the earth ?
Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You.
How much less this temple which I have built!"
How well they were told!
They should listen then! went the reasoning through Stephen. The Temple has a message, a place, but it is NOT to be confused with God Such a thing is intensively ludicrous, systematically misdirected, a wholly ungodly concept in contrast to the inspired utterance from God Himself! Thus Stephen corrected, point by point, their tendency to glorify themselves, their traditions, their making of the faith a mere nationalistic and traditionalistic emblem, forgetful of what it was emblem, and for whom it was erected in the first place, and indeed of what He said who at that time, authorised it.
Rebellion from the first to the last had been all too typical of this people who now so flagrantly both misrepresented what he, Stephen had said, and what it meant, and so bucolically had failed to face the underlying truth, the necessary basis for all truth. Such was his challenge. His point: It is that God does what He says, and that this Jesus had indeed both been shown and proven to be the one to come after Moses, 'that prophet' whom one must believe or else be in wild rebellion against the explicit forecast and vast and ranging series of prophecies concerning their coming Prince!
Was evidence nothing ? Would they who for so long had been unable to resist the argumentation from Stephen that Jesus was the Christ, having failed in this, now dare to assault the servant of God, who for their own benefit was teaching them what was in the Book they now refused to follow! Was this not one more rebellion, like that when they failed to enter the Promised Land ? How hypocritical is it to accuse the one who shames their disobedience! The theme could be pursued as it might at last reach the minds and hearts of some. Was it not THIS SAME JESUS, a promised land par excellence, whom they rejected ? The land was important; this crucial. As they failed in lack of faith to even enter the promised land under Moses, did they even now refuse to receive the Lord's Christ...
Though He had kept the land for them, being faithful to His word, was not the entire point, the ultimate purpose of the covenant to be found in the Lord Himself ? and was this not for a nation to praise and relay the reality of God to the world (as in Isaiah 42,49, 43:21)! What of this was to be found in their navel-examining nescience, in their prized ignorance of their mission! For one and for all, for all nations this blessing was to come, a thing made so clear with Jonah, at the time of his tantrum (Jonah 4): would they now revoke it ? Would they be "stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears."
Would they even as "always resist the Holy Spirit!" Who was being judged ? Was it Stephen or they ? Their judgment becomes ludicrous pomposity (such as God mocks openly in Isaiah 1) when it is not accompanied by a heart to believe, a spirit to receive and an eye to look at what God says and does! Stephen now came to the immediate intention of the rebellious crew, about to commit a legal crime as judges. "Which of the prophets did your fathers no persecute ? and they foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom YOU have now become the betrayers and murderers." Such is the wisdom given to the lips of Stephen, who seeing Christ at the right hand of God, declaimed that fact, while moving on to seek from God forgiveness for his tormentors. Let us NEVER resist the Lord but with joy obey Him, whose majesty is a marvel and whose beauty is the truth.
Next Sunday: the death! There is a species of death that is bred for eternal life, and a species of sacrifice which is eternal gain; for though death cuts, life abuts.