THE TENTH DAY OF JULY IN THE YEAR OF GRACE TWO THOUSAND AND SIXTEEN.
Our preacher and my good friend Jeff Christian talked about Stephen last Sunday, and invited us all to prayerfully read Acts 6-7 afresh, listening for God’s word to us today. That is always a godly enterprise which I am happy to undertake, and the following is the message I “heard” from this important extended text.
Once the first generation of Christian believers had passed, each succesive church generation shares much in common. For starters, each new generation must make its peace with Tradition. Tradition is not a nasty word, as some suppose, nor is it a fourth member of the Trinity, as others seem almost to suggest. Tradition is simply the thinking and the doing of the church that lived before us and passed on to those coming after them.
On the one hand, Tradition means that every generation does not have to reinvent the wheel. On the other hand, Tradition itself is always subject to testing by Truth. When Tradition matches Truth, opposition to such Tradition is Treason. When Tradition does not match Truth, it is Treason not to reject it. These principles find classic illustration in the story of Stephen.
The earliest church was in Jerusalem and consisted totally of Jews and Jewish proselytes. They all believed Jesus was the Messiah, which set them apart from the majority of Jews. Most Jerusalem Jews then spoke Hebrew (or Aramaic,a Hebrew dialect). A minority, called “Hellenists,” spoke Greek and favored Greek culture. When the Hellenists charged discrimination in the church’s Meals on Wheels program, the apostles asked the whole church to select internally, seven wise and Spirit-filled leaders to operate the controversial program. The men they picked all had Greek names (Acts 6:1-7). One of these men was named Stephen, a member of a minority (Hellenists) within a minority (believers in Jesus) as compared to the people in power.
God confirmed Stephen’s preaching with “great signs and wonders” (6:8), drawing attention and opposition from unbelieving, apparently foreign-born Jews, who compensated for their own lack of roots with fanatical zeal for the physical Temple, the Holy City, and the Holy Land (6:9-14). These opponents brought false charges against Stephen before the Sanhedrin High Court, and hired additional false witnesses to do the same. “He blasphemes God and Moses,” they said, “and speaks evil against this place [Jerusalem and its Temple], the Law, and the customs.” When all accusations had been presented, Stephen responds, and the summary of his remarks fills Acts 7:2-56. In his remarks, Stephen develops three themes as he rehearses the story of Israel and her God.
Stephen’s first theme is that God’s presence makes any place holy; God does not appear in a place because it is holy already (7:2-43). God first speaks to Father Abraham in Mesopotamia, then in Haran. Years pass before Abraham ever enters the territory that later is known as the Land of Israel. When he does finally walk on that piece of earth, the Patriarch is not given a foot of ground. Instead, God promised to give it to his descendants–after they inhabit another land where they serve as slaves for 400 years.
That land was Egypt, where God saves Jacob and his descendants from starving, and later gives Moses a home. In time, Moses flees for his life from Egypt to Midian and Mt. Sinai. He returns to Egypt, then goes back to Midian. The people finally come into their “Holy” Land–where they live under the constant cloud of God’s threat to send them into exile “beyond Babylon”–a symbol for the land as far away from Israel as it is possible to imagine.
Stephen’s second theme is that God does not live in temples made by human hands (Acts 7:30-50). The first place God designates as “holy ground” is on Mount Sinai in Midian, far from the “holy mountain” in Jerusalem (7:30-34). The portable Tabernacle or “tent of witness” was built under Moses’ direction, but Joshua carried it into Israel’s promised land from a place outside the land (7:44-47). This movable sanctuary could as easily be taken far away from Israel if God desired.
Solomon built the Temple, after David ‘s request to do so had been denied. Solomon dedicated it with the acknowledgement that God does not dwell in a house made by hands (7:48). Isaiah later repeats and expands the phrase, giving it a place of emphasis in Israel’s theology thereafter (Isaiah 66:1-2; Acts 7:49-50).
The third theme Stephen unfolds in the story of Israel and God is Israel’s rebelliousness against God, shown by her rejection and persecution of almost every prophet or righteous man sent by God. This rejection of God’s favored person begins with Joseph, whose brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt (Acts 7-:9-16). In Stephen’s day, every Israelite gushed over Moses, the great Prophet of Israel who gave Israel the Law. However, in Moses’ lifetime, the Israelites rejected him time after time after time (7:27-29, 35, 39).
Stephen now turns to indict his own audience, no doubt fully aware that it will cost him his life. “YOU,” he says, “have proved that you are your fathers’ sons, for they murdered the prophets and you have killed the Righteous One, Jesus, now at God’s right hand in heaven” (7:51-53). At this the mob grabs Stephen, carries him outside the city, and stones him to death (7:54-60).
Stephen, the man of God, comes preaching Truth. The Temple Establishment in Jerusalem, in the name of Tradition, denounces him for preaching Treason. In truth, they are guilty of Treason by their overzealous commitment to Tradition. Let us never exalt Tradition over Truth, or under the cover of denouncing Tradition, reject Truth instead.