Monday, August 20, 2012

Anger and Glory

Anger and Glory

Stephen concluded his counter-accusation against the religious rulers who had arrested him.

Their immediate reaction was anger.

"Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him." Acts 7:54 (ESV)

"These things" encapsulates all of Stephen's defensive argument, beginning with the second verse of Chapter 7.

God promised land to the descendents of Abraham. More than only land, God's promise included a relationship of faith and worship, sealed by the covenant of circumcision.

Despite jealous betrayal, slavery, wealth, famine, oppression, murder, and persecution, some of the descendents of Abraham held faith with the covenant, although not all.

God formed Moses into His great Deliverer and Lawgiver, bringing the Israelites out of the oppression of Egypt.

God raised David to be His Warrior King, defeating all enemies and securing for Israel their own land.

God sat Solomon on a throne that reigned over one of the greatest kingdoms of the world, wealthy above all reckoning, building a temple of worship second only to that in Heaven.

But every step of the way the nation acted stiff-necked, killing prophet after prophet, betraying and murdering, even until the coming of Christ.

They had received the law of God, delivered miraculously, yet did not keep it.

It was at "these things" that they raged, grinding their teeth at the one who dared throw their own history back into their faces.

It seems an expected reaction. We've all felt on the defensive when someone criticizes us, bringing up our past, confronting repeated failures and offenses.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Do you support Stephen's methods? When faced with controversy or conflict, is it wise to counter-attack, to bring up "ancient history", to count past offenses? What seems to be Stephen's goal or purpose?

ENRAGED: diaprio (to saw asunder, to exasperate) and kardia (the heart, the thoughts or feelings, the mind); from dia (through) and prizo (to saw in two); from prio (to saw)

Rage is an outward response to inward assault. Anger reveals inner hurt, as if a violent assault has occurred inside, and the response is outward rage.

Stephen's experience closely follows the pattern of the other apostles. Arrested, imprisoned and brought to trial for preaching heresy, Peter spoke for the apostles in self-defense:

"We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him." Acts 5:29-32 (ESV)

The religious leaders felt inwardly assaulted and responded angrily:

"When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them." Acts 5:33 (ESV)

Stephen's accusers "ground their teeth" at him.

GROUND: brycho (to grate the teeth in pain or rage)

The New Testament has no other references to "teeth gnashing", but the Old Testament has others. The Book of Lamentations describes the hopeless hounding experienced by the nation of Israel during a dark time of despair, seemingly forsaken by God:

"All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their heads at the daughter of Jerusalem: - Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth? - All your enemies rail against you; they hiss, they gnash their teeth, they cry - We have swallowed her! Ah, this is the day we longed for; now we have it; we see it!" Lamentations 2:15-16 (ESV)

To gnash or grind the teeth seems almost an animal response, an outward revealing of an inward desire to devour, to attack with brutality and violence. The enemies of Jerusalem gnashed their teeth, not from their own personal inner pain, but from a driving desire to destroy.

Stephen's accusers were not in their right mind. No longer were they in a court of law, or a trial of justice. They were not debating or discussing. They were engorged with inward pain and outward malice. They were reacting as animals, snapping their jaws in anticipation of violent rending of flesh and utter destruction of hated and feared enemies.

They were insanely, uncontrollably wild with anger.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What is happening here, spiritually. From what power or essence are the religious leaders acting? Are they all possessed by a demon, controlled by Satan? Have the words of Stephen somehow stripped away all of their self-control and rationality? The circumstance should be one of simple disagreement, a conflict between religious views, or a political debate. Why are they responding in physical rage, almost out of control with emotion?

With the conclusion of his defense argument, at the height of his accuser's blood-red rage, Stephen realized that his time on earth was finished...his immediate future is in heaven:

"But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, - Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." Acts 7:55-56 (ESV)

Stephen's words are not meant for those around him...he's not attempting to bolster his argument or divert attention or pacify his enemies. Stephen is aware only of the glory of God revealed in a vision of Jesus. His words are between him and the Holy Spirit alone.

"Glory" refers to a specific manifestation of God.

GLORY: doxa (glory, praise, honor or distinction that is very apparent); from doko (to think, to seem); related to deiknyo (to show)

The concept contained in the word "glory" is that which can be seen, that quality of something that is most strikingly visible.

The glory of kingdoms is seen in their expansive height and bright decorations (Matthew 4:8). The shepherds experienced the glory of the Lord as a frighteningly bright light (Luke 2:9). The glory of King Solomon was his richly beautiful crown and robe, outshined only by the lilies of the field (Luke 12:27). The disciples saw the glory of Jesus in the powerful miracles He performed (John 2:11).

Human, earthly glory depends upon the praise and admiration gained from being popular:

"How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?" John 5:44 (ESV)

Here, Jesus is distinguishing between the glory of popularity from the divine glory of God.

It is very common for humans to seek, and be satisfied with, the glory gained from admiration by crowds of people:

"My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood." John 7:16-18 (ESV)

The glory of God is contained in what God alone can do:

"Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, - He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them. - Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God." John 12:38-43 (ESV)

Those who reject God reject His glory. They ignore or discount His power and ability to heal. There are even those who recognize God's power and glory, but they esteem it as less valuable, less satisfying, than the power and glory of other humans.

If we define "the glory of God" as the visible manifestations of His power, it seems clear that Stephen had already seen God's glory many times.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Before his arrest and trial, what manifestations of God's power had Stephen probably already experienced? What does this final vision, this opening of heaven, add to Stephen's relationship with Jesus? Does the thought of your experiencing a similar vision thrill you, or frighten you?

Image provided by Dineshraj Goomany, Creative Commons License.