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Monday, May 28, 2012

The Faith of Abraham

The Faith of Abraham

Stephen's defense was based upon the faith of Abram, who later was called Abraham. In obedience to God's direct command, Abram left a country in which his family ancestors had lived for generations, to a land completely foreign to him.

"Now the Lord said to Abram, - Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Genesis 12:1-3 (ESV)

Abram obeyed, but with great reluctance and procrastination.

Still, he obeyed.

Yet what was Abram's reward? What happened to God's promise?

"God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. And God spoke to this effect: that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. - But I will judge the nation that they serve, - said God, - and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place." Acts 7:4-7 (ESV)

INHERITANCE: kleronomia (heirship, a patrimony or a possession); from keleronomos (a sharer by lot, an inheritor, a possessor); from kleros (a die for drawing chances, a portion) and nomos (law or regulation or principle); from klao (to break, specially of bread) and nemo (to parcel out, especially food or grazing to animals)

A family sitting down to eat a meal would have the father break a loaf of bread in pieces, giving to each member of the family what they needed. Each portion of bread was "klao", broken off, and "nemo", shared with others.

The concept of sharing included the distribution of lots in games of chance. The lots were probably "kleros", pieces of sticks, drawn at random.

Distribution of real property or valuable assets were regulated by "nomos", civil laws that guaranteed rights and mandated responsibilities regarding dividing up land and belongings among family members.

All of the laws and regulations, the "kleronomia" of life, supposed a man to have children to which he would portion off all that he owned.

Abram entered Canaan with no hope of "kleronomia".

Abram camped and tramped throughout the length of Canaan, building altars of worship of God, providing for his wife, nephew and servants, trading livestock, silver and gold, becoming a wealthy, powerful man.

Yet he could not claim one square foot of land for his descendents.

He had no children of his own.

Growing older, death coming closer, all of Abram's wealth would likely end up possessed by strangers.

But Stephen's defense emphasized the promise of God. God promised that Abram would have children. God would require Abram's descendents to live as sojourners, oppressed and enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years, but after their tribulation they would come out and worship God. (Acts 7:6-7)

Stephen is building an argument for his defense. His first step is to remind the council of Abraham's obedience to God, his faith in God's reward despite actual circumstances that seem impossibly barren. Beyond the immediate circumstance is God's warning that Abraham's descendents will be oppressed slaves for four hundred years.

Stephen understood that all of this was completely known by his accusers. The Jewish religious rulers on the council had heard, read and studied the Old Testament thoroughly.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Put yourself in the council's place, forgetting for the moment that you already know how the story ends. What would the council be feeling at this point in Stephen's argument? What is Stephen's purpose in rehashing Abraham's history, especially the barren, hopeless, oppressive part of his history?

Stephen has reminded the council of their common forefather in faith, Abraham. Despite troubling circumstance and human weakness, Abraham trusted God to fulfill His promises of reward and joy.

Stephen continues with rehearsing Abraham's life:

"And he [God] gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs." Acts 7:8 (ESV)

Verses seven to eight in Stephen's account covers most of Abraham's life. Verse seven begins with God's promise to Abraham (Abram) in Shechem, on the northern edge of Canaan. Abram treks the length of this land southward, even to the point of entering Egypt to survive a period of famine. With him, traveling every mile, was his entire household: wife Sarai, nephew Lot, servants and livestock.

Egypt was not good for Abram's marriage, and he left, retracing his steps northward, leaving Lot in the Jordan Valley, eastward. Abram returns to the first encampment he had made in Canaan, Shechem, near the Oaks of Mamre, and made his permanent home.

From here Abram became a powerful, influencial property owner. He joined with local Canaanites in battle with foreign kings. He continued to worship and trust God.

He and Sarai continued to live childless.

Abram was eighty-six years old when he and Sarai faltered in their faith, diluting God's promise of an heir by assuming that any child, born of any woman, would suffice. Abram lay with Sarai's servant, Hagar, with Sarai's urging.

Hagar bore Abram a son. They named him Ishmael. (Genesis 16:15)

Sixteen years later, God appeared to Abram and changed the names of both Abram and Sarai. (Genesis 17)

ABRAM: abram (high father); from abiram (father of height); from ab (father) and ramam (to be high, to rise or raise)

ABRAHAM: abraham (father of a multitude)

SARAI: saray (dominative); from sar (a head person); from sarar (to have, exercise or get dominion)

SARAH: sara (a mistress, a female noble); from sar (a head person); from sarar (to have, exercise or get dominion)

Abraham was 99 years old when God changed his name and reaffirmed His promise of a son, a genuine birth-child of Abraham and Sarah.

At the same time, God commanded Abraham to be circumcised, and to continue to circumcise every male born in his house, throughout every generation, whether born of family or servants, blood relative or foreign.

Not long after, Abraham moved his people far south, to Gerar, near to the border with Egypt, the "land of the Philistines". No reason is given. Again, Abraham and Sarah experience a challenge to their marriage.

It is here that Sarah becomes pregnant.

"The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac." Genesis 21:1-3 (ESV)

ISAAC: yshaq (laughter, as in mockery); from sahaq (to laugh outright, in merriment or scorn; by implication to sport)

Abraham was 100 years old, Sarah was 90 years old.

It was here that Abraham finally, literally planted roots. In worship and memorial of God's everlasting faithfulness, Abraham planted a tamarisk tree near his well, naming the place Beersheba, "the well of an oath". Here he experienced the greatest test of his faith of the mountain of Moriah, nearly sacrificing his precious son, Isaac.

37 years later, Sarah was nearing death, and they moved back to their first home in Canaan, near the Oaks of Mamre. Sara died, at age 127, and Abraham purchased the field in which she was buried.

After many years, Abraham heard news of his old home country, the land near Shinar in Mesopotamia. He wanted his son, Isaac, to remain faithful to the Everlasting God, and he feared the result if Isaac were to marry a pantheistic Canaanite woman. He sent a servant back to Mesopotamia to find a woman of the family of Abraham's brother, Nahor.

Isaac married Rebekah, the granddaughter of Nahor. Rebekah and Isaac gave birth to Jacob and Esau. Jacob's name was changed to Israel, and he had twelve sons, the patriarchs of the nation of Israel.

All of this happened from verses seven and eight of Stephen's account of Abraham's life. Stephen mentions none of this. Verse seven: God gives a promise to faithful but weak Abram. Verse eight: Abraham is circumcised, has a son, has a grandson, and twelve great-grandsons become the patriarchs of a great nation.

As Stephen briefly recounts the life of Abraham, the listening council, all Jewish leaders, must have known all of this. His jump from verse seven to verse eight must have triggered in his listeners memories of the decades that he skipped over.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Stephen's defense to this point can be condensed into two foundational facts: Abraham believed God despite great difficulty, and Abraham's great-grandsons became patriarchs of a great nation. What logic is he following? Why are these two facts critical to his defense?

PATRIARCHS: patriarches (a progenitor, "patriarch"); from patria (paternal descent, or a group of families or a whole race or nation); from pater (father)

Before these sons of Jacob became revered patriarchs, they were selfish, fleshly and malicious brothers of the youngest of them: Joseph.

"And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household." Acts 7:9-10 (ESV)

Stephen is building his defensive argument, step by step, using the history of the Israelite nation to show the unstoppable power and mercy of God.

God exercised great mercy and power on behalf of Abram, an undeserving, sinful, weak, godless man. Included in the mercy and power was a promise of reward and great joy, given to Abram hundreds of years before it was to happen.

Joseph's story seemed to be the start of fulfillment of that promise.

Joseph survived violent assault, slavery and imprisonment in a foreign dungeon before God gave him favor and wisdom above all others, exalting Joseph to the throne of Egypt, second only to the Phaoaroh.

Perhaps for one moment the family of Jacob, the descendents of Abraham, had a brief, exciting thought: "Perhaps now the ruler of Egypt will conquer all of Canaan on behalf of the promise given by God to Abraham!"

That was not God's plan.

God directed circumstance and human hearts to bring all of Abraham's descendents as a group to Egypt, hundreds of miles from the land promised him by God.

"There came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem." Acts 7:11-16 (ESV)

For the descendents of Abraham, now deep in the land and influence of Egypt, the promise of Canaan would easily fade away. As the patriarchs grew old and died, what hope could a half-remembered promise from God bring? What good would be land hundreds of miles away, occupied and controlled by other people?

Hope lived, however, in the sons of Abraham.

"Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem." Acts 7:15-16 (ESV)

Jacob insisted on being buried in God's promised land, the field back at little Shechem, near the Oaks of Mamre, in Canaan.

"I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place." Genesis 49:29-30 (ESV)

Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah were all buried in the land promised by God.

Joseph, on his deathbed, made the same request:

"I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying - God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here." Genesis 50:24-25 (ESV)

Joseph died and was buried in Egypt, but he completely believed God's promise and bound his family to believe also. He fully expected God to give the entire land of Canaan to Abraham's descendents, Joseph's descendents.

When that happened, he wanted his bones to be buried with his father.

Abraham's faith was entrusted to his sons, and they embraced that legacy of faith, trusting that God would do what he had promised.

Abraham's life story forms the foundation of Stephen's argument, defending himself from charges of heresy and blasphemy. The story of Abraham can be summarized as someone who trusted God to do what He promises, no matter how long it may take.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What promise of God do you claim, despite not yet receiving it? What experiences have made it seem that His promise is very far away, so far that many people would take it as a sign that God does not exist.

Image provided by Chris, Creative Commons License

Monday, May 21, 2012

Grace and Goodness from a Wasted Life

Grace and Goodness from a Wasted Life

Stephen, preacher and servant of Christ, has been arrested for heretical blasphemy. In the face of hateful, false witnesses and malicious judges, Stephen's appearance radically changes in the eyes of all at the trial, and he begins his defense.

"Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, - Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you." Acts 7:2-3 (ESV)

What was "your land" and how did it become their land?

MESOPOTAMIA: mesopotamia (Mesopotamia, region between the Euphrates and the Tigris); from mesos (middle) and potamos (a current, brook or freshet: running water that is drinkable)

The Old Testament account described Abraham's country as "Ur of the Chaldeans".

UR: ur (a place in Chald'a); from ur (flame, figurative for the East, the region of light); from or (to be luminous)

The inhabitants of "the land that I will show you" probably referred to Abraham's country of origin as "the land to the east", using a name that literally meant "land of the light". The first hint of light following the dark of night would come from the horizon to the eastward.

The Bible describes a world-wide flood that destroyed all human life except the family of Noah. From Noah's three sons came every tribe and nation that now lives on Earth.

One of Noah's son's was named Shem. Shem's great-grandson was Eber.

EBER: eber (a region across, or opposite, usually meaning the east); from abar (to cross over)

"Eber" became Ibri, the general name of all of Eber's descendents, including Abraham:

"The enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way. They also took Lot, the son of Abram's brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way. Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre" Genesis 14:11-13 (ESV)

HEBREW: ibri (an Eberite); from eber (Eber, the great-grandson of Shem)

One of Eber's sons was Peleg:

"The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram. The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash. Arpachshad fathered Shelah; and Shelah fathered Eber. To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided." Genesis 10:22-25 (ESV)

Until Peleg's birth, humanity lived in one region of Earth. They had one language and they migrated as a group westward, settling in a land known as Shinar, on the Persian Gulf. The land would later be called Chaldea or Babylonia. We know that land now as Iraq.

The confusion exploding from the fall of the Tower of Babel caused all humanity to scatter, coalescing into groups according to language. Eber's descendents moved further southwestward from Shinar.

"The territory in which they lived extended from Mesha in the direction of Sephar to the hill country of the east." Genesis 10:30 (ESV)

Shinar most likely is now known as Baghdad, in the center of Iraq. Mesha was to the west, on the Gulf of Aqaba, only about 50 miles from the southern tip of Israel on modern maps. Today's location of Sephar is in Yemen, over 1000 miles south of Mesha, near the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea.

All of what we know as Saudi Arabia was the country of the "Ebers", descendents of Peleg and his brother Joktan.

It appears that Peleg's family was not as adventurous as the rest of Eber's descendents. While most of the "Joktan Ebers" pioneered the entire area of what we know as Saudi Arabia, the "Peleg Ebers" kept the home fires burning not much further than a couple of weeks of travel.

Peleg's great-great-grandson, Terah was still living close to Shinar, near a town called Ur. Modern maps would place Ur near Nasiriyah, Iraq, about 200 miles south of Baghdad.

Terah was 70 years old when his wife bore a child, a son. Two more sons followed, giving Terah three heirs: Abram (Abraham), Nahor and Haran.

This was "your land and your kindred" from which God had called Abraham away. For generations Abraham's ancestors had lived in this region, surrounded by countless uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces.

It is important that we understand the conflict facing Abraham. Stephen is basing his defense on the faith demonstrated by Abraham. The depth of Abraham's faith is shown by his leaving a land in which his family had lived for generations.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Have you experienced a time in which it was clear to you that God was moving you from something long familiar to you? What was the circumstance and how did it affect your faith?

Out of the blue, Terah broke tradition and moved his family over 600 miles northward to a place he named after Abraham's brother, Haran, who had recently died and was probably Terah's favorite son. Modern maps would place Haran in Turkey, near the border with Syria.

What spurred Terah to to move? Perhaps it was recent disappointments. His favorite son, Haran, had died in his arms, probably from illness. Abram and his wife, Sarai, had not produced any children. To top it all off, Terah's remaining son, Nahor, was famous for only one thing: snoring!

NAHOR: nahor (snorer); from nahara (to snort or snore)

Terah's life in Ur was depressing, but it was probably not sufficient to explain the sudden break with tradition.

A better explanation would be the intervention of God:

"Now the Lord said to Abram, - Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Genesis 12:1-3 (ESV)

Stephen began his defense by reminding the Jewish court that the "God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. Abraham was a middle-aged man, a worshipper of many gods despite being descended from Noah, a man who had "found favor in the eyes of the Lord", a "righteous man, blameless in his generation", a man who "walked with God". (Genesis 6:1 ESV)

God spoke to Abraham, but it was Terah who made the decision to move. Abraham most likely told Terah of his encounter with God, and Terah took that as a cosmic sign, giving a reason to leave the place in which his favorite son had died.

God's words may have triggered the decision to leave, but Terah and Abraham still lacked any sense of dependence or faith in God.

"Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there." Genesis 11:31 (ESV)

Terah intended to go to the land of Canaan, the "land that I will show you", but halfway there they stopped, deciding that halfway was good enough. They named their new homeland after Haran and stayed for many years.

Terah died in Haran, 205 years old, meaning Abraham and Nahor were about 130 years old, with most of those years spent in Haran.

Haran was not Canaan.

We don't know how God showed Abraham that it was to Canaan that he was to go, but it's evident from the biblical account that it was obvious to Terah and Abraham. They had intended to go all the way, but they lacked the faith that God's plan was the best idea.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Have you experienced a decision that you now believe was made when you were unsure of the goodness or wisdom of God? What were the circumstances and how has the experience affected your faith today?

Stephen continues his account of Abraham:

"He went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living." Acts 7:4 (ESV)

The Old Testament adds a bit more detail:

"So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan." Genesis 12:4-5 (ESV)

After a glorious encounter with the living God...after knowing God's plan for his life, heard spoken by the lips of God Himself...Abraham remained at the halfway point for decades, until after his father had died. Abraham was 75 years old.

Abraham was old...he had put off following God's clear command for decades...but at last he takes his family and belongings and enters the land known then as "Canaan" (Genesis 12:4).

From the context it appears that Abraham had long been holding onto God's promise, but was reluctant to completely obey because of his relationship with Terah, his father. Perhaps Terah feared to venture deeper into unknown territory. Perhaps Haran was everything and more that Terah had been looking for and he stubbornly refused to let his family move on.

Whatever the reason, Abraham did not move into the new land until his father had died.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Have you experienced being constrained because of your relationship with someone close to you? How did the conflict resolve?

It may be that Terah, and Abraham, hesitated to move in the new land because it had a trashy, humiliating reputation:

CANAAN: kena'an (humiliated); from kana' (to bend the knee, to humiliate or vanquish)

Stephen didn't call the new land "Canaan"...he described it to the Jewish court as "this land in which you are now living." (Acts 7:1)

Why did Stephen avoid calling it by name? It may be that Stephen understood deeply the shameful, humiliating reputation held against the people known as Canaanites. From the very beginning of the nation of Canaan, two-thirds of the world's population, the descendents of Shem and Noah, and most of the descendents of Ham, had all regarded the Canaanites as servants, cursed and humiliated through the behaviour of Canaan, their ancient forefather.

The story of Canaan requires another look at the Old Testament, focusing on Ham, one of Noah's sons, and Ham's son, Canaan.

"Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside." Genesis 9:20-22 (ESV)

Ham showed extreme disrespect to his father by spreading the news of his drunken nakedness. Noah's two other sons, Shem and Japheth, tried to make up for Ham's disrespect:

"Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father's nakedness." Genesis 9:23 (ESV)

Noah eventually learned of Ham's disrespect:

"He said, - Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers." Genesis 9:25 (ESV)

After the Great Flood, the fall of the Tower of Babel, and the confusion of human languages, the descendents of Noah and his three sons spread throughout the world.

The descendents of disrespectful, humiliated Canaan formed clans, tribes and nations later known as Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites.

"The territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon in the direction of Gerar as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha." Genesis 10:19 (ESV)

Abraham's first stop in Canaan was called Shechem, near a forest of trees, the Oak of Moreh. (Genesis 12:6)

Abraham's journey scribed a rough triangle. He traveled northwest from Ur to Haran, the tip of the triangle, a trek of about 600 miles. From there he traveled southwest about 400 miles to Schechem.

The distance as the crow flies, from Ur westward to Shechem, is about 600 miles.

When Abraham was still a young man, God appeared to him visibly, suddenly, gloriously, and directed him to a land inhabited by distant relatives, relations regarded as trashy, cursed and humiliated. Abraham clearly hesitated. He went only when his father was willing to move, and then they went only about halfway and settled down for decades. The route that Abraham took in obeying God involved scores of years and hundreds of miles of time and travel wasted.

Was it a waste?

What was God's plan in allowing Abraham to spend decades of years and hundreds of miles before reaching the land?

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Have you experienced a journey in your life, a journey that perhaps has included wasted years and misspent energy and money? Looking back, knowing that God is Sovereign, completely in control of all details, all-powerful, all-knowing, and utterly holy and good, what glimpses of good have you seen come from the wasted parts of your life?

Image of sunrise over Galilee provided by Mike Darnell, digitalartprintgallery.com, Creative Commons License

Image of maps created by the author using images from bibleatlas.org and maps.google.com, modified using GIMP.org

Monday, May 14, 2012

He Looked Like An Angel

He Looked Like An Angel

The wisdom and spiritual power of Stephen upset the preferences and plans of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Unable to refute arguments solidly supported by Scripture, the religious rulers set up false witnesses, stirred up public anger and arrested Stephen, charging him with blasphemy and religious rebellion.

When the council's anger and self-righteousness had vented itself in a furious storm of words and threats, they paused for breath and stared at Stephen daring him to defend himself:

"And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel." Acts 6:15 (ESV)

How many angels had these religious rulers seen? What experiences allowed them to compare Stephen's face with that of an angel?

Their experience with angels was probably limited to only the descriptions written in their holy Scripture. The final book of the Old Testament, written by one of the last authentic Jewish prophet, Malachi, speaks of a "messenger" sent by God:

"Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap." Malachi 3:1-2 (ESV)

"Messenger" is the ESV translation of a Hebrew word that the KJV often translates as "angel":

MESSENGER: malak (a messenger of God, an angel); from an unused root meaning to despatch as a deputy.

Jesus referred to this same prophecy when he spoke to the crowds concerning John the Baptist:

"What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, - Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you." Matthew 11:9-10 (ESV)

The New Testament word translated here as "messenger" also means angel:

MESSENGER: angelos (a messenger, especially an "angel", often implying a pastor

How did Malachi describe the appearance of this angel?

  • Uncomprehendable ("Who can endure the day of his coming?", literally, "Who can measure?")
  • Overwhelming ("Who can stand when he appears?")
  • White hot ("Like a refiner's fire")
  • Pure white ("Like fuller's soap")

For these religious rulers, steeped in the Old Testament, the definition of angel was, one who appears uncomprehendably, overwhelmingly white, as white as the hottest flame and as pure as the cleanest cloth.

Stephen's face reminded his persecutors of how they imagined an angel would appear.

Perhaps the Jewish council remembered how Scripture described the angel that appeared to the mother of Samson:

"A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome." Judges 13:6 (ESV)

VERY AWESOME: meod yare (vehemently fearful); from a word meaning to rake together)

To Samson's mother, the appearance an an angel was intensely frightening. All of the angel's power and purity were "raked together" in his face, concentrating awesome force and knowledge in a single look.

There are not many detailed descriptions of angels in Scripture, and not all of them include any mention of terror or fright...but some do. Angels appear in many different forms, especially suited for the purpose sent them by God.

But the few instances in which angels are described as being fearfully powerful and blindingly white are quite sufficient to dispel any notion that angels are cute, smiling babies with wings.

Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, must have been present during Stephen's trial, or more likely, he interviewed reliable witnesses who were there, perhaps even members of the council who later became Christians because of this experience. After the hateful accusations and false testimony, the one event which stood out clearly was the appearance of Stephen as he stood to defend himself.

Stephen's face appeared fearfully and terribly powerful and wise.

He looked like an angel.

For this brief moment, Jesus Christ took over the life of His servant, Stephen. Christ's power and wisdom found expression through the appearance of Stephen's face.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Millions of ordinary Christians have lived and died without it being said of them, "Their face was like that of an angel!" What comfort can this moment of Stephen's life hold for us, as modern, ordinary Christians, who will probably never be facing a death sentence, who will probably never experience having "a face like an angel"?

Image provided by Louise Docker, louisedocker.com, Creative Commons License

Monday, May 7, 2012

Secret Slander and Public Deception

Secret Slander and Public Deception

"Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen." Acts 6:9 (ESV)

FREEDMEN: Libertinos (a Roman feedman)

CYRENIANS: Kyrenaios (a Cyrenaean, an inhabitant of Cyrene); from Kyrene (Cyrene, a region of Africa)

ALEXANDRIANS: Alexandreus (an Alexandreian, an inhabitant of Alexandria)

CILICIA: Kilikia (Cilicia, a region of Asia Minor)

ASIA: Asia (Asia, Asia Minor, usually only its western shore)

Libertinos had strong family connections with Roma, a major city in Italia, the nation we now call Italy.

Cyrenians immigrated from Cyrene, a major city in Cyrenaica on the northern coast of Africa, the nation we call Libya.

Alexandrians came from Alexandria, a major city in Aegyptus, the country we know as Egypt.

Cilicia was a region just north of Jerusalem, along the southern coast of the country we now call Turkey. The western region of Turkey, just across the Aegean Sea from Greece, was called Asia.

Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city, with immigrants, merchants, polititians and pilgrims from all over the world. People naturally gather together with groups that share a common language, culture and religion. Many of these groups were Jewish, but foreign in language and culture, and they each established their own centers of worship, known by their original homeland names.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? It seems to be human nature to group together according to language and custom, even after choosing to move to a new country, a new town. Even Christians develop personal preferences which influence where they worship, who they spend time with, what they eat and how they relax. How does this natural human tendency hinder our ministry to others? Or does it strengthen our ministry?

These staunch Jews from other lands were most vocal against the preaching of Stephen, but they could not defeat his wisdom and boldness. They resorted to slander.

"They could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, - We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God. - And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, - This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us." Acts 6:10-14 (ESV)

Libel and slander have identical effects and identical laws. Both are known as defamation: civil wrongs that harm a reputation. Libel is defamation that can be seen: writing, printing or an image, or statue. Slander is any defamation that is spoken and heard. (1)

The Jews attacked Stephen upon the very foundation on which Stephen was chosen by the church to represent them as a ministry leader: his reputation for being full of God's Spirit, wisdom and faith.

The Jews charged Stephen with speaking "blasphemous words against Moses and God." They claimed to have witnesses hearing Stephen speak "words against this holy place and the law," that "Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us."

BLASPHEMOUS WORDS: blasphemos rhema (scurriolous, calumnious or impious utterance); from blapto (to hinder or injure) and rheo (to utter, speak or say); from rheo (to flow, or run as water)

The "scurriolous" (low buffoonery, indecent or abusive) words of Jesus, the "calumnious" (false or deceptive) utterances of the Son of God were probably these:

"Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." John 2:19 (ESV)

The apostle John heard Jesus say these words, and he explained that Jesus was speaking of His own body. The Jews arguing with Jesus took the words to mean the building used by the Jews for worship. At the time that Jesus spoke these words, the Jews objected, not to any sense in which Jesus would destroy the temple building, but that Jesus claimed to have the power to raise a ruined building that had taken forty-six years to build.

Months after Jesus had been killed, and after He had been raised from the dead and ascended into Heaven, Stephen preached about these words of Jesus, using them to prove His divinity.

Unable to dispute Stephen's integrity and faith in God, the angry Jews found a few people willing to give false testimony. They twisted the words of Jesus to imply that He had threatened to destroy the holy temple building.

The accusation that Jesus tried to discredit Moses, or that He declared the laws preached by Moses to be obsolete, is completely false. Many references show Jesus exalting Moses as a great leader, lifting up the Old Testament commandments as holy standards for Christians.

Perhaps it was from the words of John the Baptist that the Jews tried to manufacture evidence of heresy by Jesus:

"John bore witness about him, and cried out, - This was he of whom I said, He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me. - And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." John 1:15-17 (ESV)

Jesus did preach about the insufficiency of Moses and the Law:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." John 6:32-33 (ESV)

The breaking point for the Jews may have come when Jesus boldly refused to support capital punishment of a woman caught in the act of adultery. Jesus never judged Moses as wrong to mandate stoning, but He did require those who judge to be without sin before demanding punishment of others.

"The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, - Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say? - This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, - Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." John 8:3-7 (ESV)

The Jewish leaders relied upon dishonest witnesses, basing false testimony upon twisted references and half-remembered words. The council resorted to secret deception, implying that many citizens of Jerusalem admired and respected Stephen and his message concerning Jesus. Only until the false charges of blasphemy gained strength through rumour and gossip could the council win support for persecution.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What other words of Jesus can you think of that modern nonbelievers view as "defamation" or "culturally wrong"? Are there any verses of Scripture which are difficult for you to accept?

(1) Source: legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com

Image of slander provided by The Weston Times and Guide, December 12, 1917, Creative Commons License

Image of map provided by www.roman-empire.net, modified by the author using GIMP.org

Image of slander provided by The Weston Times and Guide, December 12, 1917, Creative Commons License