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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Jesus Centred Belief


Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs."

Acts 7:8

We are continuing today with the trial of Stephen. He had been hauled before the Jewish religious council, called the Sanhedrin. They didn’t like what Stephen was doing. What was Stephen doing? He was telling people about Jesus. Stephen was a believer - a member of this newly formed body of people called ‘the church’. At this point in time, the church was almost entirely made up of people living around Jerusalem. These people were Israelites who had previously been immersed in the Jewish way of life – its culture and thinking. Their thinking had recently been changed – radically changed.

Throughout the Old Testament scriptures it was promised that Israel’s God, Yahweh, or Jehovah, was to send a saviour to Israel (see Psalm 14:7) who would make Israel glad. Generally, people thought that they would be made glad because this person would save them from the oppression of enemy rule in their country. Actually, he wasn’t coming to do that. He was coming to rescue people from a far greater enemy. When this saviour came, he was called ‘Jesus’. His name literally means Yah saves, or Yahweh saves – Israel’s Jehovah God saves. Why was he to be named in this way? Well, as always, the Bible has the answer. Before he was born an ‘angel of the Lord appeared’ to a man named Joseph, who was thought of as Jesus’ father. The angel had a message for Joseph about the anticipated child – ‘you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:20-23). Jesus hadn’t come to change the oppressive, political landscape of Israel. In his final act, dying on a cross just outside of Jerusalem’s city walls, and in his subsequent rising from the dead, he did something that would overthrow the oppressive, devilish rule of sin in people’s hearts and change the dying landscape of their lives, into a place where ‘new life’ (Acts 5:20) could flourish.

This message about Jesus the saviour, was now being taken around Jerusalem’s districts by the church of Jesus Christ. The problem was that many people didn’t like this message. They were still intent on looking for Israel’s political saviour. They didn’t need a saviour who would change their hearts. Their hearts were fine – ‘thank you very much’! They had the ‘customs’ (Acts 6:14) handed down to them by Moses and the other Old Testament prophets. They had God’s temple with them in Jerusalem. With those customs and that temple, they believed that they had all they needed to have a relationship with God. When they were told that actually, the only way to have relationship with God was through belief – belief in a man who had been put to death like a common criminal, they got seriously upset. This message cut to the heart of everything they believed in. It threatened them personally, and challenged their wider cultural and religious thinking.

That was why these Jewish, religious elite, had put Stephen on trial. They were saying that Stephen, with all his Jesus talk, was undermining Israel’s history. Stephen was now giving his defence. His main argument was that Israel’s Old Testament record actually agreed entirely with this new revelation that had come with the coming of Jesus. Let’s look at the Old Testament record and see what it really says, is what Stephen was saying. And so they did.

Last time we started to look at Stephen’s first defence witness, called Abraham. He had been dead for around two thousand years. How can you bring a dead man into a courtroom to witness in your defence? Well, in our court system, people on trial are sometimes allowed to submit something called an ‘affidavit’. An affidavit is a written statement from an individual which is sworn to be true. What Stephen did ties in with Hebrews 11:4, which tells us about another Old Testament character called Abel, who also, like Abraham, had a genuine relationship with God. His way of living testified to his belief (or faith) in God, and was written down in the Bible. The Bible says this about that record of Abel’s life – ‘by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.’ That day in court Abraham still spoke even though he was long dead. If I was in court, needing someone to speak up for me, I think I’d choose a living person rather than a dead person. But, if there was someone available that would speak as powerfully as Abraham did that day in court in Jerusalem, in defence of this Jesus follower called Stephen, I’d choose them, dead or alive.

Abraham’s life spoke. Stephen has already reminded the court about the relationship that Abraham had with God. God had given Abraham a promise of what he would do for him. God hadn’t promised Abraham something and then immediately given it to him. No, God promised Abraham that his descendants would receive the Land of Israel to live in, not now, but in several generations time. It was a distant promise. God also promised Abraham that, through his line of descendants, the saviour of the world would come, despite the fact that Abraham had no children, and he and his wife were infertile. God was promising everything but giving nothing. Honestly, would we believe such a promise? Abraham did, and his subsequent actions powerfully witnessed to the fact that he did.

Years ago, when the National Lottery was first introduced into British culture, the media was fixated by it. Stories of people’s lives that had been transformed by their winnings were everywhere. It was like a new religion! I remember one of those stories in particular. In those days the lottery was run by a company called Camelot. One weekend a man watched the lottery drawn on TV. The first number drawn was on his ticket of six numbers. As was the second, and the third, all the way up to, and including, the sixth. He had all six numbers. He had gone from having £6 pounds in his bank account to having the promise of six million pounds. I say, ‘the promise’, because in those days, you had to wait a bit. He had telephoned Camelot and they had confirmed that his was the winning ticket number, but they would need a few days. They would need to see the ticket, verify that it had been purchased from the outlet on their records, then they would visit him with the circus of photographers and PR people, and finally hand over the cheque, ‘which may take up to ten days to clear into your account’. Kids, you don’t know you’re born!

This man wasn’t waiting though. He had faith in the system. He believed in the rules of the game. He trusted Camelot to make good on what they promised. So, even before he received the money, he behaved as if he already had it. He telephoned his work and told them that his time of working there had been as long as it had been awful. He wasn’t coming in that Monday, or any other Monday. He waved goodbye to his old boss, and the hold over his life that his former employment had had. He put his one bedroomed flat up for sale and, despite only having a few pounds in his possession, he put in an offer on a mansion. With his promissory letter from Camelot and a photocopy of his winning ticket, he obtained credit from the local sports car showroom, and part-exchanged his Austin Metro for an awesome Maserati. I would not behave that way. I’m a more repressed character. I would wait until the money was firmly in my bank account – until I could actually see it on a statement. Even then, I’d probably wait six months just to make sure, by which time, hopefully, I would have realised that, because I don’t play the National lottery, the money couldn’t possibly be mine anyway. This man was different. For him, the promise of something coming his way was enough for him to take action. So it was with Abraham. And the Bible’s Old Testament affidavit tells us something extraordinary about this. Because Abraham believed what God told him, God counted Abraham as right in God’s own eyes, purely because of his faith.

This is what Stephen wants the court to see and understand. He wants them to correctly understand the awesome truth of Genesis 15:6 - ‘Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.’ Or, as the NLT puts it, ‘Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith.’ God viewed Abraham as right. He now had a real relationship with God. Stephen’s opponents that day would have understood that. They would also have understood the awesome implication of what was later said by Israel’s God through his prophet Isaiah (41:8) – ‘But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend’. James, in the New Testament letters confirms this for us – ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, and he was called God’s friend’ (James 2:3). Wow!

This is where Stephen has got to in Acts 7:2-7. He has done the groundwork. He has established from the record of the scriptures that Abraham had a real relationship with God. Why has he laid this foundation? Well, usually, we think of people doing the groundwork, and laying foundations, before they build something. In the building industry, those things are done before a house is constructed. But Stephen isn’t about to build a house. Stephen is about to knock one down. In his toolkit that morning he has a small but very powerful tool. It’s a little, four letter word but it will do a lot of damage. It’s the word ‘then’ and Stephen is going to cause havoc with it. In verse 8, Stephen says, ‘then’ – ‘Then he (God) gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision.’

Do we understand the implication of this? We may not grasp it instantly, but I believe Stephen’s audience would have done. Because of their erroneous reading of the Old Testament, they delighted in their mistaken belief that their Jewish way of life had secured for them a relationship with the living God. The apostle Paul was present that day. He wasn’t a believer in Jesus then. He still had this same flawed Jewish mind-set. He hated Jesus. He hated Jesus people - Christians. He didn’t hate everything. He loved himself. He loved the privilege of his existence. He loved his presumed obedience to the customs of Moses. Last time, I mentioned that list of his Jewish qualifications that he thought he had, which he gives in Philippians 3:5-6. You know what was top of that list? ‘Circumcised the eighth day’. Like these people here, Paul believed that the rite of circumcision was the gateway to relationship with God - you could not be right with God unless you passed through circumcision’s door – circumcision first, relationship with God follows – this was their ideology. Stephen, through the witness of Abraham’s life shows that the opposite is true. Abraham ‘was the friend of God’. ‘Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision’!

In Luke 15:1-7 we are told about ‘sinners… all gathering round to hear Jesus’. Some of the religious elite were there too. They were muttering against Jesus. They despised the good-for-nothing type of people that Jesus chose to bring hope to. They despised Jesus. Jesus took aim at their self-righteousness. He said, ‘there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent.’ Soon, in this book of Acts, we are going to have rejoicing. Someone is going to repent. That someone is Paul. Paul will go on to write much of our New Testament. In one of his letters (Romans 4) he talks about Abraham. He says, ‘We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.’ God did not give Abraham the covenant of circumcision so that Abraham would be his friend. He gave it as a gift to his ‘already’ friend – ‘then’!

With their immersion in Jewish religious ceremony and culture, Stephen’s opponents would have grasped the implication of that ‘then’ – the order in which the bible truly puts things. Believe God’s promise about his ‘saviour’ first. That makes you ‘right’ with him. Obedience ‘then’ is to follow.

So, what do I mean about Stephen knocking the house down? Well, I have a picture – this is a JCB fitted with a hydraulic hammer. Let’s imagine that I was told that someone was at my house with one of these, hammering away under my lounge window. How would I feel? Acts 7:54 is how I would feel - ‘when (they) heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.’ Why would I feel like that? Because my life is so heavily invested in the ownership of that property. This threat of demolition has the potential to turn my whole life upside down. I would be enraged. That is why these members of the religious elite were so furious - Stephen had turned up that morning with his JCB. What does JCB stand for? Some people will tell us that it is the initials of the company founder, Joseph Cyril Bamford. But in Stephen’s case it was different. His JCB was his Jesus Centred Belief – his faith. Stephen had brought his Jesus Centred Belief and was undermining the flimsy religious structures that his opponents had built, as though they were past their sell by date (which they were!) If he was allowed to continue with this deconstruction, then their whole lives would be turned upside down. Everything they had invested in would collapse faster than Northern Rock Building Society did in 2007.

Is this relevant to us? It may be. So many people reject the message of Jesus Christ the Saviour for this very same reason – they just cannot face the upheaval that Jesus will bring to their lives. They cannot stomach having to admit they were wrong all along with their flimsy understanding of God. Unlike that man who won the lottery, they aren’t willing to wave their old boss goodbye, and start again with a new boss, and allow him to be Lord over their lives. Is that you?

I have already quoted from James’ New Testament letter about Abraham. James shows us that Abraham’s faith was linked to his obedience. The evidence that Abraham actually believed God was seen by what he then did. If Abraham had claimed to believe God and then ignored his command, that would have undermined his claim. But Abraham’s obedience proved that his faith was genuine (James 2:20-24). Stephen also mentions Abraham’s obedience in verse 8.

When we are accustomed to this Old Testament ‘sign’ of circumcision, it can reduce, in our minds, the scale of what Abraham did. Abraham had no such context to help him out. As Tim mentioned a few weeks back, circumcision is the removal of either all or part of the foreskin of a man or boy’s penis. Let’s imagine that I have never read the Old Testament. I would have no context. I would be like Abraham was. Someone I trust says to me, ‘In order to show the truth of what you claim to believe you must be circumcised’. Without wanting to be irreverent, I know that my natural reaction would be along the lines of, ‘that’s the last place anyone is going with a scalpel!’ Abraham must have been taken aback. But he obeyed because he believed. And he was then willing to carry out this rite on his promised infant son, when he was born, and to pass it on to his further descendants. Stephen continues in verse 8, ‘and Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.’

Jacob would eventually be renamed Israel. The birth of the nation of Israel and its twelve tribes is preceded by Abraham’s faith. In fact, it is dependent on it. Abraham believed God’s promise. That made Abraham right with God – God called him his friend. That faith led to obedience, which led to God’s promise unfolding in due time. That is the order that Stephen presented these events, on that day in court, in Jerusalem. Because that is the Bible’s only arrangement in both Old Testament and New.

Maybe you are thinking that you need to turn your life around first, before you come to God and ask him for forgiveness through Jesus his Son. What you really need, like Stephen’s accusers needed, is to have your thinking turned around so that it faces the same way as the Bible’s thinking.

The apostle Paul once thought that this religious ceremony of circumcision was the gateway to relationship with God. One day, as he was travelling, not with obedience in his heart, but with murderous intent burning within, against Jesus and his followers, he finally met Jesus. Jesus had already revealed to people the only way into relationship with God. Jesus said, ‘I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture’ (John 10:9).

Paul, the hateful murderer, found that gate was held wide open, even for him. Paul didn’t then hold back anymore. Paul entered through that gate. Paul found that God’s promise always holds true. Paul was saved. Nothing could then stop Paul. If you haven’t yet come into relationship with God by believing his promise about Jesus his Son, then what is stopping you?

Jesus said, ‘I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.’


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