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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

How Extraordinary?



 

“He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child."

Acts 7:5


I love the book of Acts. It is like a grand play. It isn’t performed in a theatre but the world itself is the stage. It’s the Roman world of two millennia ago. Characters come and characters go. In Acts 6, we saw this man Stephen take his place. He wasn’t one of the early church leaders, called ‘apostles’. He was just an ordinary believer. Previously he hadn’t been mentioned. At most, he was just an extra. Then he is brought to mid-stage with six others, to serve the church in an administrative role, before being quickly rushed into the foreground. His witness to the risen Jesus had got him in bother. He was hauled before the religious authorities of the day. He was soon to leave the world’s stage for good, but not before making a speech. It is the longest speech in the whole play.


‘Wow’, you say, ‘it must have taken Stephen a long time to learn!’ But, as we have considered before, it didn’t. He was given his lines, ‘as he spoke’ (See Acts 6:10 & Luke 12:11). Surely, that is impossible – how could anyone turn up to give the longest speech in a production and not have their lines beforehand? That would be extraordinary. It was. I think that this is what the final verse in chapter 6 is alluding to, where it refers to Stephen having this ‘face of an angel’ appearance. He had such an obedient submission to the will of God, and corresponding confidence in God’s supply, that he went from appearing ordinary to appearing extraordinary. It wasn’t just an appearance - It was a reality.


This last week, I read a booklet from West Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service. It was an invite to join the team. Don’t worry, I’m not – apparently you have to put out the fires, not start them! I did really like the invite, though. So much so that I have blown it up. Here it is. The lady pictured is called Lynsey. One half of the picture has her as ordinary Lynsey. The other half shows her as extraordinary Lynsey, with additional uniform and equipment. It is a simple but powerful message about a transformation - ‘Join our team and you will be a better version of yourself’. It actually says this, ‘Lynsey fights fires, and truly inspires’.


So, I have a question? When Lynsey joined WYF&RS, do we think that she had to buy the uniform and equipment, which she would need for her new role, beforehand from amazon, or do we think that she was given it by her new employer? Do we think that when she turned up on her first day that the superintendent said, ‘Sorry Lynsey, I can see that you have fetched your cheese sandwiches in your little, red, Nissan Micra, but where is your oxygen cylinder and big red, hooty, truck?’ We know that didn’t happen. They supplied what she would need to carry out her role.


So with Stephen. In Acts 7, Stephen is called to fight the fierce fire of prejudiced, religious opposition to the glorious message of deliverance for humankind, in the person of Jesus Christ. But Stephen wasn’t sent out unequipped, or ill-equipped. When he joined the Jesus Business, he was given what he would need. Now, you might be thinking, ‘You’ve told us this before. In fact, you keep banging on about it. Why do you keep telling us the same thing?’ Well, I believe that, as Christians, it is something that we need reminding of constantly. We are so quick to forget it, or so prone to doubt that it is true. When we are called to face difficult situations in life, our anxiety is often due to the perception that we are actually on our own. But we are not. It is a biblical fact. Paul says, in Philippians 4:19, ‘…my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.’ ‘According to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus’ – That is a bigger storehouse than WYF&RS has! It’s infinitely sized and exhaustless.


So, Stephen is brought to trial before the Jewish, religious, council. How will he answer the accusation that has been brought. Last time, we considered the reality that he faced. He wasn’t being accused of something that was completely made-up. That would perhaps have been easier to defend. He was accused of something that was derived from the truth of what his Master, Jesus, had said, and which Stephen, as a follower of Jesus had repeated. But from that truth, his opponents had extrapolated a lie. He was accused of undermining the Old Testament prophet Moses, who these religious men appeared to revere, because Stephen was teaching that the rules for life, which God gave to the Israelites through Moses, were passing away. Stephen was evidently agreeing with Jesus, in saying that a new era was here, in which true worship of Israel’s God would not be dependant on being in a particular country, or by being in a particular holy building in that country (John 4:21-24).


The lie that was extrapolated from this was that Stephen was undermining the specialness of Israel, and of Israel’s temple. What he was accused of saying was true. The conclusions reached were not true. But he couldn’t defend himself by saying, ‘but I never said that’, because he most probably had. The way that he does defend himself is a valuable lesson for us. Rather than focus on the little details of what was alleged, he is given the wisdom to understand the bigger picture that his opponents are painting. And Stephen simply gives a critique of their artwork. He tells them that their painting is deeply flawed - because it is.


Stephen’s opponents have brought Israel’s history to the table. ‘It is an illustrious history’, they tell him, in effect - ‘the most beautiful painting’. ‘No it isn’t’, is, effectively, Stephen’s reply – ‘It is a horrible, ruinous picture’ and that is why it is passing away – God is consigning it to his dustbin, for ever, and so should you’.


At the end of this chapter we meet another new character. His name is Saul, although he is generally referred to as Paul by our bibles. We’ve only got to chapter 7 of Acts so far but I’m guessing that Saul/Paul might have a bit of a role to play in the rest of this play! – Who knows? At this point, Saul was an opponent of Stephen. He was a horrible, self-righteous, zealot. He thought that he was a good man. - God didn’t though. What did God do about it? Did he ruin Saul’s life – causing it to unravel in the here and now, before punishing him in the hereafter? No, he reached out to him, and revealed the truth, that Jesus is, indeed, God’s Son and the Saviour, and he ‘called (Saul) by his grace’. He utterly transformed that man’s heart and that man’s life (see Galatians 1:11-17). Why? Because that’s the kind of God he is.


Before this transformation, though, Saul loved Israel’s Jewish history. He loved his own Jewish history. After this fake hope was removed, and he was converted to real faith in Jesus, he wrote about what he had previously been like. Galatians 1:14 says, ‘I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.’ He was supremely confident when it came to his own moral standing. In Philippians 3:1-14 he writes about having ‘reasons for such confidence’, ‘more’ ‘reasons’ than any other person. He had a religious arrogance like no-one else. And then he met with Jesus. What confidence did he then have in the supposedly good, religious way of life that he had been living? He says, ‘(I have) no confidence’. What value did he then place on living the good Jewish life? None. Actually, it is less than that. Those things actually detracted from real faith. They were worth less than nothing. He says, ‘whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.’ ‘I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ’.


This is the very change in thinking that Stephen desires to see in those that opposed him in that religious court. They were telling Stephen that the greatest possible religious crime was to reject Israel’s history. Stephen says (v.2), ‘listen to me!’, and then proceeds to tell them that, actually, the most outrageous crime, in the eyes of Israel’s God - the one true and living God, is not to reject Israel’s history, but to repeat it.


So Stephen implores these people to listen to him. He aligns himself with them. He doesn’t exude superiority. He doesn’t think that he is inherently better than they are – just that he now has possession of a wisdom that he hadn’t previously. Stephen calls them ‘Brothers and fathers’. He is acknowledging that these men were not inherently worse than him – they were either his peers or his elders – they were at least as worthy as he was. But they lacked the truth that they so desperately needed. This could have gone so differently. It was a situation that cried out for humility, but these men had none.


I can remember when I was a young child, my Mum telling me about the role reversal that can often take place between parents and children in later life. Someone that we knew was having to care for their elderly, and infirm, father. She explained that though at this point in life she was doing everything for me, and that teaching and learning were one-way streets, this wouldn’t always be so - there may come a time when I would have to care for her. This has stuck in my mind. When I first had children I experienced the same one-way streets of teaching and learning. Ok, so my young son did educate me in the reality that it is possible to peel a sticky barcode label off an Ikea box and shove it so far up your nose that the doctor in A & E has to have a conversation about needing anaesthetic to remove it, but he wasn’t teaching me anything that I really wanted, or needed, to know! But things changed, and much sooner than my Mum had told me.


In more recent years I have given my family the benefits of my worldly-wisdom, only to be informed by one, or more, of my children that my view is faulty. This can be really painful. It can unbalance our sense of who we are. We can think, ‘Come on – three years ago, I already had over twenty years of adult life-experience. Three years ago, you couldn’t even dress yourself!’ It can be tempting to think that we have to maintain a certain appearance of wisdom. It can be tempting to scoff in order to deflect from what is being said and to perpetuate the appearance of wisdom in every matter under the sun. I know this, because I have done this. It may work to a certain extent, but it proves something. If I don’t listen then I am not wise. That doesn’t come from my tiny, money-box of wisdom – that comes from the Bible’s, amazon belittling, warehouse of truth. Proverbs 12:15 says this – ‘The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.’ How sobering?! Stephen’s opponents at his trial were ‘fools’ – their way seemed right to them even though it was utterly wrong.


Stephen calls upon Abraham as his first witness. These people supposedly revered Abraham, in the same way that they supposedly revered Moses. Jesus had already called out the religious elite about this pretence. In John 8:31-58, Jesus is being opposed in much the same way as his servant Stephen is in Acts 7. Jesus’ opponents tell him, ‘Abraham is our father’. ‘‘If you were Abraham’s children,’ said Jesus, ‘then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things.’


What did Abraham do? Stephen will shortly tell us. But before this, he does not delay in undermining one of the claims implied in the charge levelled against him. The claim that was being made was that there was only one place where God could be truly met, and worshipped, and that place was in one particular building, in one city, in one country. Stephen says, in verse 2, ‘The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia…’ ‘Mesopotamia’! It’s awesome. We call that place Iraq. Stephen is saying, in effect, ‘you are telling me that I can only meet God in the Land of Israel, in Jerusalem, in the Temple. But when your ‘father Abraham’ met God, he was in Iraq. Explain that one!


God had a message for Abraham (v.3) - ‘‘Leave your country and your people’, God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’’ Here we come to what Abraham did. Unlike the Jewish council, Abraham did what God asked him to do. Verse 4 says, ‘So he left…’ Abraham was obedient. He had reason to be obedient. He believed the things that God told him. The Jewish council weren’t obedient because they didn’t believe what God had told them – despite the fact that the he had be telling them the same thing over and over again for several thousand years. In Acts 7:56, Stephen gives his final testimony to the risen Jesus, before Stephen is executed. The response of the Jewish council is found in verse 57. ‘At this they covered their ears… yelling at the top of their voices’. It sounds like a group of angry toddlers refusing to listen to a parent’s instruction. Why did they behave like this? Sadly, because they always had done. Whenever Israel’s Father God had spoken, they had simply ‘covered their ears’ and tried to shout him down.


So, what was the direction that Abraham next travelled in? It was towards Israel, still following God’s instruction. Interestingly, Stephen doesn’t call it ‘Israel’, but, ‘this land where you are now living.’ I think he was making a point. In fact, in his whole speech, he only uses the word ‘Israel’ once, and only when he directly quotes the Old Testament prophet, Amos. Physical, actual Israel, isn’t where God’s ultimate plan and purpose was fixed. Being an actual, ‘outward’ (Romans 2 (NIV)) Israelite counts for nothing. As Paul says in Romans 2:28-29(NLT), ‘For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.’ We may consider this in more detail next time.


Verses 4 and 5 continue, ‘God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on.’ Again, it’s so awesome. Why not say, ‘not even enough ground to set his feet on’? Because Stephen wants to show the absolute littleness of what Abraham actually, physically, received. ‘Not even enough ground to set his foot on’. Stephen is, not so much, saying, ‘Abraham didn’t have a place to stand on’, and, more, saying, ‘Abraham didn’t even have a place to hop on’. And he continues (v.5), ‘But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child.’ Abraham didn’t even have a place to hop on – but he had a promise to hope in.


Verse 6 then details the rigours of life that would be part and parcel of this deal – several lifetimes’ worth of suffering and ill-treatment. It is similar to what the Lord Jesus told people about the Christian life and the trouble that it would bring (see John 16:33). Was Abraham really equipped for what would lie before him in life? Are we? Sometimes, we can feel this desperately. How ill-prepared we are for the Christian life. Let us draw encouragement from the lives of Abraham, and Moses, and Stephen, and the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ of which they are but a small part. They were ordinary people. How did they ‘stand firm to the end’ (as Matthew 24:13). They were ordinary, but there God was anything but. They did extraordinary things because their God was extraordinary. He equipped them. He will equip us (as 2 Timothy 3:17).


Hebrews 12 (1-3) opens like this, ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’


Take heart, brothers and sisters, in the lives of those that have gone before. Consider those lives from the past, as much as you can, because they contain precious lessons for our lives today. They fought fires (see Hebrews 11:34), they can truly inspire! Most of all, though, continue to fix your ‘eyes on Jesus’, and ‘consider him’ - he ‘who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’

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