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Monday, August 6, 2012

A Stiff-Necked People

A Stiff-Necked People

After an overview of Jewish history, emphasizing the faith of Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, Joseph and Moses, Stephen points an accusing finger at the religious rulers who have arrested him for heresy and blasphemy:

"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you." Acts 7:51 (ESV)

Moses had delivered their forefathers from oppressive enslavement in Egypt, through powerfully miraculous demonstrations of God's power. They had been guided through the desert by God Almighty Himself, with a representation of His presence in the form of a richly furnished witness tent, the Tabernacle of Meeting.

And they had repeatedly resisted God's rule over their life.

They had repeatedly rejected Moses as God's appointed judge over them.

As they had repeatedly rejected Christ.

STIFF-NECKED: sklerotrachelos (hardnaped, obstinate); from skleros (dry, hard or tough; harsh or severe) and trachelos (the throat or neck, figurative of life, through the idea of mobility); from skeolos (the leg, as being lank) and trecho (to run or walk hastily); from skello (to parch, through the idea of leanness)

Stephen was quoting God Himself when he described dry, hardened and immoveable necks:

"The Lord said to Moses, - I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people." Exodus 32:9 (ESV)

STIFF-NECKED: qasheh (severe) and orep (the nape or back of the neck, as declining downward); from qasha (to be dense) and arap (to bend downward, to break the neck or to destroy)

Frustrated, fearful and impatient, the people of Israel gathered together and demanded a god of their own making, a golden calf. They had turned so quickly out of the way commanded by God Almighty. Filled with wrath against them, on the verge of destroying them, God described them as stiff-necked.

The biblical context of a stiff neck is that of disobedience. A proverb warns of the result of repeated disobedience:

"He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing." Proverbs 29:1 (ESV)

At the heart of stiff-necked disobedience is idolatry:

"The former things I declared of old; they went out from my mouth, and I announced them; then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass. Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass, I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you, lest you should say, - My idol did them, my carved image and my metal image commanded them." Isaiah 48:3-5 (ESV)

The people of Israel, for generations, had turned to idols of wood, stone and metal, trusting them to provide and protect them. Their idolatry continued despite powerful miracles of God Almighty, delivering them from oppression and preserving them in the desert. God spoke prophetic words to them, declaring things that would happen many years in the future, so that when they did happen, there would be no doubt that they were by the hand of God Almighty, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David...and Stephen.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What sin do we share with the people of Israel who worshipped carved images of wood, stone or metal? Is idolatry a consequence of sinful behavior, or the cause of sinful behavior? What defines "worship of idols"?

Stephen also described his accusers as "uncircumcised in heart".

UNCIRCUMCISED: aperitmetos (not circumcised); from peritemno (to cut around); from peri (through, all over or around) and tomos (sharper, more keen); from peran (through or across) and temno (to cut by a single stroke); from peiro (to "pierce")

The "heart" was not the literal object of Old Testament circumcision:

"God said to Abraham, - As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you." Genesis 17:9-11 (ESV)

FORESKINS: orla (the prepuce or foreskin, the covering of the end of the penis or clitoris); from arel (exposed, projecting loose); from aral (to strip, to expose or remove the prepuce, to go naked)

Circumcision was not an abstract spiritual concept and it was not a trivial alteration of the body. It was the removal of a part of the body that everyone is born with. It was the painful separation of natural protection for one of the most sensitive parts of our body.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What message did Stephen intend to communicate by saying that the leaders of the people of Israel were "uncircumcised in heart and ears"? Why is circumcision an appropriate figure of speech for this situation?

A simple six-word statement of Stephen's rebuke against the religious rulers would be,

"You always resist the Holy Spirit." (Acts 7:8)

RESIST: antipipto (to oppose); from anti (opposite, instead, because of; often used to denote contrast) and pipto (to fall); related to petomai (to fly)

"Pipto", meaning to fall, occurs often in The Bible. The wise men fell to their knees in worship of the Baby Jesus (Matthew 2:11). The house foolishly built on sand fell in ruin during the storm (Matthew 7:27) Jesus fell on His face and prayed the night in which He was betrayed and arrested (Matthew 26:39). Eutychus fell from a third-story window, nearly killing him (Acts 20:9).

"Anti" is often used to describe a trade:

"An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Matthew 5:38 (ESV)

"The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20:28 (ESV)

"For" is translated from "anti", the same word elsewhere translated as "opposite" or "instead of".

"Anti-pipto", meaning to oppose, occurs only once, in Acts 7:8. Literally, the word appears to mean "to fall opposite". Stephen is saying that the religious rulers resisted by falling or flying away from the Holy Spirit, or falling in a way that fought against His promptings. Rather than falling in prayer or worship, they fell against in rebellious self-defense.

Stephen accused the religious rulers of resisting the Holy Spirit in the same way as their fathers did:

"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it." Acts 7:51-53 (ESV)

The prophets who wrote the very books of the Old Testament, the holy Book to which the religious rulers claimed devotion, were persecuted and killed by Jewish religious rulers. The very ones who foresaw the coming of Jesus as Lord and Savior were executed by the forefathers of those who betrayed and murdered that Righteous One, Jesus the Christ.

The very last Book of the Old Testament, Israel's final prophet accuses the people of resisting the Holy Spirit, relaying God's own words:

"From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, - How shall we return?" Malachi 3:7 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? In what ways are we today guilty of the same sin as Israel: uncircumcised in heart and ears, always resisting the Holy Spirit? What is the biblical answer to Malachi's question of "How shall we return?"

Image provided by Tom Browne comics - Touch (Frederic Humbert) / CC BY-SA 2.0