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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

From Living Words to the Word of Life


“This is the Moses who told the Israelites, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people"" Acts 7:37

We have been considering this speech of Stephen, recorded in Acts 7. It has been our topic for several Sunday morning messages – a lot of words. But that is in keeping with Stephen’s approach. His speech was an answer to a question. At the end of Acts 6, he had been hauled in front of the Jewish religious council. He was accused of going against Israel’s religious history with his message about Jesus. The Bible record states that the accusation was based on falsehood – ‘false witnesses, who testified’. They said, ‘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’ (Acts 6 13-14).

When we finished Acts 6 we knew the accusation against Stephen was not fundamentally true. Therefore, when we started Acts 7, and read, ‘Then the high priest asked Stephen, ‘Are these charges true?’’, we already knew the answer. The correct answer, from the Bible’s perspective is ‘No’. Stephen could have answered the question in that way. He could have simply said, ‘No, they aren’t true’. How short would my message on Acts 7 have been then?! - ‘Stephen said ‘No’ – Amen’. But it hasn’t been, because Stephen didn’t give a short answer. Stephen wants his audience to understand, not just that the charges are not true, but the reason why they aren’t true.

Words were really important to Stephen. We use words to communicate with others. Our words may be spoken; they may be written; they may be conveyed using sign language. With them, we can express how we feel to one another. We can tell others what we believe to be true. Words can be used to express the banal – things that are unoriginal and downright boring and worthless. They can also be used to express radical new ideas – things worth hearing. Stephen believed that the truth of Jesus, which he had recently heard and believed for himself, was worth hearing. It was as radical as it was true, and its truth was of vital importance - it must be heard, it must be believed. So, instead of giving that shortest answer possible – ‘No’ – he ends up giving the longest speech in the book of Acts!

Last time, we started looking at what Stephen says about Moses. We noted that Moses lived for 120 years in total (see Deuteronomy 34 7) and that in Stephen’s account he divided this into 3 equal periods of 40 years. We briefly considered the first forty year period. Moses is now at the point in his life where he has been ‘educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action’ (Acts 7 22). How had this happened? Last time we looked at Exodus 2 where we saw something reach into Moses life at the very beginning.

This year (2022), in the month of May, the world record was broken for an item of sports memorabilia sold at auction. It was one light blue football shirt. It sold for over seven million pounds. Why? Well, it was sold by Sotheby’s and their spokesperson said that this shirt was, ‘a tangible reminder of an important moment not only in the history of sports, but in the history of the 20th century.’ Needless to say, it wasn’t one of my shirts! It had been worn by one of the most gifted footballers of all time, Diego Maradona. He wore it for one match only – the World Cup quarter-final, between Argentina and England, in Mexico City in 1986. Only four years previously these two nations had been on opposite sides during the Falklands War. The eyes of the world were watching. Unfortunately, the eyes of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) weren’t watching, as VAR hadn’t yet been invented.

Mr Maradona was Argentinian. He scored two goals that day. His second goal saw him dribble the ball past almost the entire English team before beating the goalkeeper. In 2002, it was voted "goal of the century" in a FIFA poll. But, despite this, his first goal that day, is even more famous.

The ball was in the air in England’s penalty area. England’s goalkeeper, Peter Shilton jumped to meet it at the same time as Diego Maradona. Peter was 6’ 1” tall, with gloves on his size fourteen hands. Diego was less than 5’ 5”. This was a non-contest if ever there was one. Yet, somehow, the ball looped over the keeper into the back of England’s net. How? With outrageous instinct, out of the line of sight of the officials, Diego had actually headed the ball with his hand! Argentina won that match, on their way to winning the whole competition. In the interviews afterwards everyone waited to hear Mr Maradona’s answer to the question of whether a hand had been involved in that goal. He said ‘yes’, but it wasn’t a confession. He said it was scored, ‘a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God’! Opinion was divided on the truth, or otherwise, of this claim. A lot of it depended on people’s perspective – their starting point - where they were born and who they supported. Why do I mention this?

Well, these opponents of Stephen had an opinion about the life of Moses. They revered him. They knew that the hand of Moses had written so much of their early history as a nation, and that by the hand of Moses the Children of Israel had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. But their focus was so directed towards Moses, and what his hand had done, that they ended up giving honour where it was not due. Their perspective hid another hand from view or, at the very least, diminished its influence. Stephen uses words to put them right. Moses hand is not the only hand on the field of play in Egypt. The truth is that the most visible hand, controlling the life of Moses, and Israel, in that Exodus account, really is ‘the hand of God’. Stephen didn’t get to watch the World Cup in 1986 but, if he had he could have, perhaps, re-shaped Maradona’s words - Israel’s triumph over Egypt was a little with the hand of Moses and a lot with the hand of God! I hope we saw that, last time, when we considered God’s hand in the events surrounding Moses birth and early years. And it didn’t stop there. ‘The hand of God’ is the story of Moses life and, because of that, it is a wonderful story.

Moses, like Abraham and Joseph who Stephen has already mentioned, is a character in that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12 1), listed in Hebrews 11. ‘By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be ill-treated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin’ Hebrews 11 24-25). He swapped privileged, palace, pleasure for persecution and pain. Moses had real ‘faith’ and it really affected his life choices. He had a heart for God and God’s plan. But, he was still just a man, a frail human, and in some of his choices that is really clear.

In Acts 7 23, Stephen begins his report on the second 40 year period of Moses life. The words used point us to Moses’ hand and Moses’ plan. ‘When Moses was forty years old, he decided…’ In verse 25, Stephen says, ‘Moses thought…’ He ‘thought that his own people would realise that God was using him to deliver them, but they did not.’ Moses knew that he had a God appointed role and he was eager – over eager – to see God’s plan move on. His intentions were aligned with God, but his timing was not – he was adrift by about forty years! And look at the result. How quickly is this Prince of Egypt humiliated? How quickly does Moses look like any other ordinary bloke? He kills a man in defence of an Israelite slave, is rejected by Israel, and has to flee for his life. For forty years he would be separated from the people that God had chosen him to lead. As verse 27, he became a ‘foreigner’, living in a wilderness place as a shepherd. Not leading people to God, just leading sheep to grass and water. Moses plan had spectacularly unravelled. But God’s plan hadn’t.

Much has been written about this second forty years of Moses life when he lived in Midian. Despite his education, ‘in all the wisdom of the Egyptians’ (v.22), Moses still had lots to learn and the Lord God of Israel was willing to teach him - not at UCL, but at UDL, the University of Desert Life. When the forty years is up, Moses confidence in his own ability to carry out God’s plan has gone completely. In the Exodus account, he no longer trusts himself and even says, ‘Lord. Please send someone else’ (Exodus 4 13). The Lord is displeased with Moses. Moses has learnt that his own hand is weak, but failed to grasp that even weak hands are made strong when God’s hand is behind them. The Lord is very gracious in the way that he deals with Moses and helps him to move forward and realise the truth of what he had already promised him in Exodus 3 19-20, ‘But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand…’ Afterwards, when the review of this period of Israel’s history is written in Deuteronomy 26 8, there is no doubt as to how this has all happened. ‘So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders.’

These events all kick-off with the wonderful sign of the ‘burning bush’. Stephen’s opponents claimed that the only place to meet with God, was in Israel’s Temple, but Moses life says different. Acts 7 29 says, ‘as a foreigner’ - ‘As a foreigner’, in a foreign land, with no Israelite contact for forty years - not inside of a religious building, but in a desert wasteland, in front of a bush that was on fire, Moses met with God. Or, more accurately, God met with Moses. It was God’s presence that made that meeting place ‘holy’ (Exodus 3 5). God had a message for Moses. Moses’ time of choice had been forty years ago. God tells him, in effect, ‘Moses – my time is now. Moses you are going back to rescue Israel’.

Stephen now highlights something, in effect saying, ‘Look Israel – who was this Moses that God sent to rescue Israel?’ In Acts 7 35, Stephen says, ‘the same Moses they had rejected with the words, “Who made you ruler and judge?”’. The one they had already rejected was the one that God had appointed to save – to save them from the ruin of their current circumstances. Here Stephen is aligning Moses with someone else. What happened with Moses, in Israel’s past history, was just a ‘pattern’ (as Romans 5 14) of what had just happened with Jesus. In the account of Moses, ‘something greater than (Moses) is here’ (as Matthew 12 42). Stephen needs his audience to understand their own precarious position. They believed that they were ok – more than ok. They believed that they all their ‘God talk’ made them so. ‘We have our Jewish history. We follow God in the way that he has told us to, through the law that he gave to Moses to give to us. We follow Moses instructions in the same way that our ancestors did’. And Stephen agrees! Yes, they were doing exactly what their ancestors did. But it wasn’t good. It was terrible.

At the end of Stephen’s discourse, he gives them a damning summary. Acts 7 51-53 reads, ‘You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: you always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.’

In the verses which we have been concentrating on today, Stephen brings further evidence of how this was so in the last forty years of Moses life, during which Israel was rescued from Egypt and lived in tents in the wilderness. Acts 7 39 talks about Israel’s ongoing refusal to obey God’s servant Moses - ‘our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.’ How sad. They had been physically delivered from Egypt by God’s own ‘mighty hand’. But mentally, emotionally, spiritually they were still there, longing to enjoy the more rigid certainty that their former life of slavery gave them.

Why does Stephen talk about these things? Another question is, why does the Bible record them and who does it record them for? Well, the apostle Paul tells us something significant in 1 Corinthians 10. This was a letter written to believers. It was a warning. That chapter, in our NIV has a title, ‘Warnings from Israel’s history’. Like Stephen, Paul describes Israel’s bad behaviour during this period, and the destruction that they consequently brought upon their lives. Then he says, ‘these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us.’ God has words for us as we observe these happenings. He is telling his people now, ‘Consider the people of Israel: do not’ (1 Corinthians 10 18) be like Israel.

Do we recognise our own hearts at times, when we read Stephen’s words, ‘their hearts turned back’? Does it sadden us? Does such weakness trouble us? What should we do? We should do what we always need to do. Cry out. ‘The Lord’ can bring ‘us out’ ‘with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm’.

Stephen mentions the law that Moses gave to Israel, in verse 38. He says that Moses, ‘received living words to pass on to us’. That system of rules and regulations kept Israel in relationship with God. It kept that relationship alive. How do we keep our human relationships alive – by relating! We do it by spending time with those we call friends, by listening and responding. I’m pretty rubbish at that. God isn’t though. He is so relational. He gave Israel the Old Covenant law to listen to. ‘Listen to what I’m saying and carry out my wishes. This will keep our relationship going until the thing happens that I keep promising you will happen.’

What is it that God kept promising Israel would happen. He was sending them the ultimate saviour. His prophets, throughout the Old Covenant period, made this repeated claim. Moses was one of those prophets. Stephen reminds his audience of what Moses had said about this distant prospect, in Act 7 37. These are words originally found in Deuteronomy 18 15. There Moses says, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.’

That promised prophet – that final, ultimate prophet had now come to Israel. His name was Jesus. Had Israel listened to him? For the most part, no. They had done as Israel always did, and shut their ears to his words. To stop his words they eventually killed him. But it hadn’t stopped. Jesus had risen from the dead. The risen Jesus was now in charge of a new movement that was starting to carry God’s saving message into a lost world. How was this turnaround possible? Well, there were similarities between the life of Moses and the life of Jesus, but there were also differences. Moses had ‘living words’ but Jesus always was, as is, and will always be, the ‘eternal’, ‘Word of life’ (1 John 1 1-4).

The writer to the Hebrew believers, in those early church beginnings, starts his letter with this truth – ‘In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…’ (Hebrews 1 1-2). He has made it easy for us. Do we want to know what God is like? Look at his Son, Jesus. Listen to his words. Listen to his life. Look at where that life ended – on a cross, suffering for our sin. Because God had something to tell us. He completely understood the backwardness of the human heart since the fall of humankind in Eden. We were completely ‘powerless’ to deal with our sad situation. God knew what it would take to deal with that. He was willing to deal with that. He had a plan. His plan was to have an eternal, unbreakable relationship with people.

The apostle Paul writes to God’s New Covenant people – believers – in Romans 5 about what they now have as a result of this plan and their subsequent ‘faith’ and acceptance of God’s own solution. Paul says, ‘we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’. This wasn’t like Moses plan, which turned out to be at the wrong time. Paul says, ‘You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.’ Why? Again, because he had something to say, and something to demonstrate. ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5 1-11).

This was the message that the church of Jesus Christ was delivering. We have seen it already, repeatedly, in Acts. God’s ‘Word of life’ answers all the questions. What about my sin? Christ died for sinners. What about my previous rejection of Jesus. ‘What shall we do’ (Acts 2 37) about that? Do what Peter said in Acts 2 38, ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.’ What about my ongoing weakness, though? Continue to look to him. Your heart may be ever so weak and ever so fickle. But he is mighty to save, and he does not change. His salvation endures, because his love, through Jesus, endures. I’ll finish by quoting God’s word, found in Psalm 136 10-12.

‘To him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt. His love endures for ever. And brought Israel out from among them. His love endures for ever. With a mighty hand and outstretched arm. His love endures for ever.’


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