Monday, June 25, 2012

Rejection of God and Self-Rejoicing

Rejection of God and Self-Rejoicing

Stephen, disciple of Christ, arrested and on trial for heresy and blasphemy, defends himself before self-righteous religious rulers, using the history of his people as an object lesson in religious rejection of God.

"This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, - Who made you a ruler and a judge? - this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, - God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers." Acts 7:35-37 (ESV)

This is Stephen's grand thesis. This declaration is the climax of his argument defending himself from the false charges of heresy and blasphemy.

This careful, sequential overview of his people's history, from faithful Abraham to Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and now Moses, leads inevitably to an inescapable conclusion: In the same way that the nation of Israel first rejected Moses as their Deliverer, so they first rejected Jesus the Christ.

Miracles proved Moses to be Israel's Deliverer, chosen and empowered by God, after forty years of rejection.

Signs and wonders proved Jesus to be the nation's Final Deliverer, after vicious, vindictive rejection at the cross of crucifixion.

Jesus was the prophet like Moses, raised up by God, empowered to lead the Jews out of a much darker wilderness than that experienced in the days of Moses.

Stephen is defending himself against false accusations and at the same time throwing back against his accusers the sin of rejecting God's sovereign rule over their lives. The Jewish leadership rejected Moses in the same way they had rejected Jesus.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Can you put yourself in the place of Stephen's accusers? What have you experienced that can compare with their stubborn rejection of what God determines is best for us? At what point in your life did your attitude toward God make a radical, 180-degree turn?

Stephen continues his harsh indictment against religious rejection of God's righteousness in Christ.

"This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us." Acts 7:38 (ESV)

CONGREGATION: ekklesia (a calling out, a popular meeting, a religious congregation, synagogue or community); from ek (origin, from out) and kaleo (to call, usually aloud); from keleuo (pronounced kel-yoo-o, meanning to "hail", to incite by word or order); from kello (to urge on)

Stephen refers to the nation of Israel, not long escaped from the clutches of the Egyptian Pharoah, as a "congregation", meaning a group called out to meet together. Most frequently, this word is translated as "church".

There are many different words used for religious groups, as well as for the buildings in which these groups meet.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? List aloud some of these different words. What implications can you pull out from the fact that "church" literally means "ones called out"? What mistaken ideas are often communicated by the word, "church"? What can we do as "church" to emphasize the true meaning of the word?

Stephen declares that an "angel" spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, receiving the commandments of God.

ANGEL: angelos (a messenger, by implication, a pastor); from aggello (to bring tidings); from ago (to lead, bring, drive, go, pass, induce)

However, the Old Testament account describes Moses meeting with God Almighty Himself.

"The Lord said to Moses, - Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever. - When Moses told the words of the people to the Lord, the Lord said to Moses, - Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people." Exodus 19:9-11 (ESV)

"Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up." Exodus 19:18-20 (ESV)

We often rank angels as creatures subordinate to God. Angels appear to be much more powerful than humans, yet we rightly suppose them to be only the servants, or messengers, of God.

Yet Stephen's reference to God Almighty Himself as an "angel" should give us cause to rethink our definitions.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? It's clear that God Himself met and spoke with Moses, yet Stephen used the word "angel" to describe God. Why? What implications does that hold for us when we discuss angelic beings? More importantly, what implications does it hold when we discuss Jesus Christ?

Stephen said that Moses received "living oracles" from God.

LIVING ORACLES: zao (to live) and logion (an utterance of God); from logios (fluent, an orator); from logos (something said, including the thought, a topic, reasoning, motive); from lego (to "lay" forth, to relate)

The phrase, "living oracles" becomes clearer when placed in the context described by Jesus:

"Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." Matthew 4:4 (ESV)

Jesus was quoting from a passage recorded in Deuteronomy:

"The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord."
Deuteronomy 8:1-3 (ESV)

This passage is from words spoken by Moses to the nation of Israel, after his communing directly with God on Mount Sinai.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? In what ways is manna similar to the Word of God, the Holy Bible? How can ink marks on paper be called "living words"?

"Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, - Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him. - And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands." Acts 7:39-41 (ESV)

Despite the miracle of manna and the powerful smoke and fire of Mount Sinai, despite the miraculous delivery from the oppression of Egypty, the people of Israel persisted in unbelief and disobedience.

Moses was gone, lost at the top of a mountain. Smoke, fire, earthquakes and lightning covered the heights. The people allowed fear and self-indulgence to turn them away from faith in God. They created a golden idol, offered sacrifice to the god they had made, and rejoiced in their own work.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? In what "works" do we often rejoice? What circumstances tend to erode our faith and lead us into idolatry or "self-rejoicing"?

Image provided by Mark Smith, Creative Commons License.