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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

The End of Acts 7?


“But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God." Acts 7:55

We are nearly done! Sadly, we are soon leaving Stephen. Stephen’s speech is coming to its dramatic conclusion. He was arguing in defence of a religious position. He was one of the early Christians.

Stephen believed that Jesus was the Son of God, who had been promised by God throughout the Old Testament scriptures. He was defending himself before the ruling religious – the Jewish Council, called the Sanhedrin. They believed that his claims about Jesus were false. In fact, they believed that his claims about Jesus went against the Old Testament scriptures, and against their worship of God in Jerusalem’s Temple, and against the system of rules and regulations, called, ‘the law’, that governed Jewish life. These had been given to their ancestors, many years ago, by their main man, Moses. ‘We are just like our ancestors’, was the implication of what they were saying – ‘we want to obey Moses – that is what God wants us to do’.

In any discussion, it is often good to find common ground first. If you can find something that you do agree on, that is a good place to stand to then look at things that you don’t agree on. The common ground, that Stephen has chosen, is to agree with them on this point – ‘You are just like your ancestors’ (Acts 7:51). This is useful. Both parties agree that the Jewish Council is like their Jewish ancestors. Therefore, if we look at what the Old Testament has to say about what those ancestors were like, we will know what you are like, was Stephen’s reasoning. Then, he had skilfully shown, from those writings, what they were like. We have been considering these things together. Rather than obeying Moses, those ancestors had rejected Moses. In fact, the Children of Israel had rejected all the prophets that God had sent to them, from the beginning, starting with Joseph, and ending with the last and greatest prophet, Jesus Christ. Moses had commanded the Jews that they must listen to Jesus. Instead of listening, they had murdered him.

So, how does Acts 7 end? Some would argue that it ends mid-sentence. Children, listen up! Perhaps your teachers, or your parents, have told you that you cannot start a sentence with the word ‘and’. Perhaps, your answer has been ‘sorry, I’ll change that’. Well, next time, change your answer. When you get told that you cannot start a sentence with the word ‘and’, say, ‘er… Acts 8, verse 1… are you telling me that the Bible is wrong?’ Acts 7 ends with, ‘When he (Stephen) had said this, he fell asleep’. Acts 8 1 continues with, ‘And Saul approved of their killing him.’

Like all of the original Bible texts, when Luke wrote this book of Acts, he didn’t give it the chapter and verse divisions which we now have. The chapter divisions commonly used today were developed by Stephen Langton, an Archbishop of Canterbury, way back in the 13thCentury! They were added for convenience - to help us easily refer to, and find, and quote, particular scriptures. For the most part, it has been done very well, but it isn’t part of that original inspiration of God’s Spirit – it is of human origin, and therefore like everything which we humans do, it isn’t perfect. So, is this split at the end of Acts 7 an imperfection – a mistake? Or, did Mr Langton think, ‘but it’s already the longest chapter in Acts… what about when Dan has to read it all on Sunday morning, in around 800 years’ time… I know - let’s chop seven words off and put them into chapter 8!’? I think not. I think it shows real wisdom. He wants to draw attention to the choice of words in the original. He wants us to be forced to pause at this point, and to consider that the Bible doesn’t tell us that Stephen ‘died’, rather, that ‘he fell asleep’.

Why is it expressed in this way? Is it language used to shy away from death? Of all the books, in all the world, the Bible is the least likely to shy away from the reality of death. It isn’t that. This language is meant to make a point about death itself - death is not the end.

We could use this language in another story. We could use it in a biography of my life, for instance, at the end of each day – ‘he fell asleep’. Reading the story, you would expect more. You would understand this to be the end of one period of consciousness. You would expect a new period of consciousness to begin shortly. And I’m not talking about my 4am trip to the bathroom. You’d expect a new dawn in the morning when I awake to a new day.

That is what Luke wanted to convey with the words, ‘he fell asleep’. This is the end of Acts 7. It is the end of Stephen’s earthly existence. But it is not the end of Stephen. When we move into Acts 8, we remain with the sad, earthly story, in Jerusalem – a most religious man approving of a most irreligious act. Stephen, at that point, has moved on – to a ‘better’ story ‘by far’ (Phil 1 23). He has now moved on to a never-ending, heavenly story, welcomed into the presence of God, by his Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

So, how does Stephen’s life go so quickly in this direction, from the point we got to last time? When Stephen finishes concentrating on certain details of Moses life everything seems to go into fast-forward. The rest of the Old Testament is covered in a blur. It’s as if Stephen knows he has a ten mile journey during which to deliver his account, and is slowly walking along, methodically revealing the details when, all of a sudden, after only two miles gone, his coat gets snagged by a passing Japanese bullet train, and he realises that he only has thirty seven seconds left before his ten miles is up! It appears that Stephen was aware that his faithful words were not going to be tolerated for much longer, and he tries to get in everything that he can, in order to convict and convince, and to change minds. Actually, Stephen wants to change hearts.

Acts 8:1 mentions this man Saul, who is better known as the apostle Paul. When he was finally converted to genuine faith in Jesus Christ, he described how he used to feel as a religious Jew. In Philippians 3:6 he uses the word ‘faultless’. Saul/Paul’s peers in the Sanhedrin would have felt the same. They believed that their painstaking, religious observance made them right with God. But Stephen was telling them the opposite. ‘Like your ancestors’ ‘in (your) hearts’ you have ‘turned back’. That is the phrase that Stephen uses in verse 39 – ‘our ancestors … in their hearts turned back to Egypt.’ Being right with God is not just a little bit about the heart - it isn’t even 99% about the heart - it is all about the heart.

These religious men were claiming that Jerusalem’s temple was the only place that contained God - This was the place that humans must go to in order to have any chance of relationship with him. But Stephen has already shown, using the lives of Abraham, Joseph and Moses, that relationship with God is not dependant on where our feet are standing, but on where our hearts are planted!

That mentioned preference of Egyptian slavery, over God-following freedom, was not an isolated incident, sadly. At least eight times, in the books of Exodus and Numbers, the Israelites express just that (as Numbers 14:4). They wanted to exchange their God appointed, new existence, with their old life. Why? Because ‘in their hearts’ they wanted to replace God – and that is exactly what they did. Stephen details this in verse 40-41, recalling their creation of the golden calf idol for Israel to worship, which is described in Exodus 32. Stephen links this ancestral behaviour with the present day. He uses a telling phrase – ‘They… revelled in what their own hands had made’. What value humankind places there?!

There was an 18th Century philosopher called Adam Smith. Adam Smith is referred to as ‘the Father of Economics’ because he, in effect, wrote the first modern economic manual, called (abbreviated), ‘The Wealth of Nations’. In it he says, ‘Labour was the first price, the original purchase - money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased.’ Actually, this isn’t quite true. In the Garden of Eden, what was possessed came by God’s free gift to Adam. Only after the fall, did work become so valuable to survival. It now seems to be a human instinct. Within the works of our hands – what our own hands do, and make – we place such value. As a creative, artistic principle, that’s great. As an economic principle, it is a really good one. As a religious principle, it is disastrous.

The Israelites in Exodus 32 ‘revelled’ in that golden idol that their ‘own’, less-that-fair ‘hands had made’. The religious Israelites, confronting Stephen here, worshipped the temple, which Israelite ‘hands had made’. They believed that this building contained, and constrained God. Stephen corrects them, in verses 49-50, by quoting those wonderful words from Isaiah 66. Before that, he had referred them to the Wisdom of Solomon in verses 47-48 – the words that this King of Israel had used in his prayer of dedication, when the finest example of this temple was completed. Solomon’s words are recorded in 2 Chronicles 6:18. Solomon didn’t constrain the God of Israel with his thinking. He chose, rather, to constrain his thoughts about the building that he had been given the oversight of. Solomon said, ‘But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple that I have built!’ Solomon understood the temple’s greatest flaw – it was made by human hands.

The Jewish council had misunderstood – their thinking was so mixed up. They had got four words mixed up. They believed that they worshipped, and revelled in, the God-of-the-temple. Actually, they worshipped the-temple-of-God itself. Their glory was not in what the God of Israel had done for them, but what they believed they had done for him. That belief is the direct opposite of the belief that God’s word praises. Tim dealt with this last week in his last message of his mini-series on Abraham, who is the first person Stephen calls as a witness in his own defence. Tim called our attention to Galatians 3. There we are told how Abraham was considered by God to have a ‘right’, genuine, relationship with God. Was it because of what Abraham had done for God? No, it was based on what God had done for Abraham, and had promised him would become fully unveiled in future. ‘Abraham believed God’. That was what made Abraham right with God. How can we be made ‘right’ with God? One way is the way of Abraham – to do what Abraham did – to believe God’s promise of what he has done to rescue us from the ruin of our sin, through Jesus Christ his Son. Another way… - there is no other way!

Stephen sums up the Moses-bit of his speech, in verses 42-43, by quoting the prophet Amos, who himself summed up the Israelite attitude ‘in the wilderness’, in his one star google review of their behaviour. They appeared to worship God. Actually, they worshipped any god but God. Yes, he saw their offering sacrifices to him – he saw their drawing close to him with their physical bodies. They looked close, but, to God’s perspective, they were as distant as ever. Why? Because, as 1 Samuel 16:7 tells us, ‘The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’

And Stephen returns to the ‘heart’ of the matter at the rushed crescendo. He paraphrases Deuteronomy 10:16 telling them, ‘Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised.’ No wonder their response - the comic-book, type description of their fury in verse 54 – ‘they… gnashed their teeth at him’. Why? Because he had just completely undermined everything they believed. They were convinced that their religious, Jewish way of life was what made God pleased with them. Circumcision, was the gateway to Jewishness. But Stephen tells them something that Saul/Paul would later elaborate on, in Romans 2:29. The only circumcision that God really values is not the ‘outward and physical’, but that ‘circumcision of the heart’. Not that performed by a Rabbi’s knife, but ‘by (his) Spirit’, cutting away at our natural inclination to reject God – cutting away our inclination to create a version of God, in our minds, that suits us, but is adrift from his Bible picture of who he actually is - and giving us a changed heart that truly accepts God for who he says he is. When Stephen says, ‘your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised’, they understand what was meant - ‘In God’s sight, you are not even Jewish’.

A while back, I purchased a heart. It was a lamb’s heart, which Martha, my daughter, needed for some dissection work at college. Let’s say I had put it in the fridge and forgotten it was there. Three months later Rowena, my wife, came to the fridge, with its lovely white door, and opens it. Much of Wakefield and the five towns would have heard the screams! That is what has happened here. These men from the Jewish elite prided themselves that they were elevated above the common man, by their supposed knowledge of and adhering to the Old Covenant law. They had a lovely, clean ‘outward’ appearance. They were like a beautiful white fridge, whose door was cleaned with Domestos spray, every morning and evening. Unfortunately, over a thousand years ago, a man named Moses had been given a heart by the Israelite ancestors. He had placed that heart in that fridge and left it there. That fridge stood inside the Jewish council’s building and Stephen had just walked in and flung the beautifully clean, white door wide open. Everyone could see the rotten, stinking heart (see Matt 23:27-28). Jerusalem (and the five towns?!) was in danger of being overwhelmed by the stench. Stephen refuses to budge. He is dragged away so that this Sanhedrin fridge can be locked and bolted and its contents never exposed again. But, who these men are is revealed by their actions anyway. How quickly do these supposedly philosophical, balanced, debating, analysing men turn into just another angry, violent, murderous mob

The Sanhedrin have finished with Stephen. We haven’t quite yet. There are some things that happen at the end, and some things which he says, in death, that cannot be overlooked. Maybe we have a half message to come. Not a half-hearted message, hopefully, but a half message!

We all have a heart. Sometimes, the way we think and feel is exposed for everyone to see. Sometimes it is not. Our lives are like fridges. Anyone who’s thinking, ‘Yeh, mine’s pretty cool’, can stop that now, that isn’t what I mean. Our lives have a door - an ‘outward appearance’ - that everyone can see. Some people have lives that look so clean and neat and tidy and polished. Others? – Not so much. The door of some people’s lives are like the door of our chest freezer in our garage. I think it used to be white. Unfortunately, for over two decades, I’ve been using it as a table to hold parts when servicing my oily bike! Some people might be concerned by that – put off even. It is the same with our lives. We can easily be put off by the perceived, oily grime, visible to the ‘outward appearance’, in the lives of others, or even our own lives.

But the Bible has news. God isn’t interested in the fridge door. If you think that your life’s ‘door’ is wonderfully clean, with your moral code and good behaviour, which everyone sees, then the Bible’s news is clear. Other people might be interested – God is not. You may feel that your life’s ‘door’ is so dirty, and battered by many, many, knocks over the years. You know that other people shake their heads when they see it – put off – as they make their excuses and walk away. But God is not put off by those outward details. He is concerned about the inside. You may be thinking, ‘well, how is that good news, if the Bible tells me that inside all our lives’ fridges, there is a rotting heart’? It’s good news, because he is willing to open that fridge and change that heart.

God was not put off. He sent his Son into the mix of humanity’s kitchen. Jesus died for our sin. He gave his heart for his people. If we turn to him then he will open our life’s fridge door, whether ever so clean, or ever so dirty, and change that old heart inside for this new one. When God examines the inside of our lives in future, that is what he will see. That is the odour that he will breathe in. That is good news indeed. As, Ephesians 5:2 says, ‘Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’.

Stephen has quoted the prophet Amos, who himself was quoting the words of God given to Moses, found in Deuteronomy 4. Rejection of God came with the promise of exile. Even there, though, God held out hope to Israel. If they repented then they would be rescued. In the middle of that Old Covenant book, the New Covenant, which Tim was telling us about last week, is clearly visible – The New Covenant is the new relational arrangement that God has promised people through Jesus Christ his Son.

Deuteronomy 4:29 says this to all those who feel in a place where they are exiled from the Almighty – ‘But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul’. How can this turnaround be? Because of who God really, actually, always was and is. Moses described God, two verses later, in Deuteronomy 4:31, ‘For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your ancestors, which he confirmed to them by oath.’

‘God is a merciful God’ – ‘If you seek him’, ‘you will find him’.


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