Today we are continuing our conversation through the book of Acts. This is the narrative, a window into the followers of Jesus getting started after Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
Jesus commissioned His followers:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Go to your people--Jerusalem. Go to your neighbor--Judea. Go to the outsider--Samaria. Go to everyone--the ends of the earth. Be my witnesses. Welcome people to the New Covenant. Go! I’m with you! You’ve got this!
Before we get to the text today we are going to do a few things to get to a shared starting point in our conversation. How do you tend to connect personal experience to God’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with you? Are you a person that does not make any connection between the two? Are you a person that feels complete connection between the two? This is a question to really dwell on the why.
How do you tend to connect personal experience to God’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with you? Why?
Now we come to the first six chapters of Acts. A timeline of the apostles’ experiences might look like this:
Seems like a downward trend. If I was riding that and someone asked me how I was doing, and if I was willing to be honest, I’d probably say “not very good.” But for some reason, the apostles rejoiced in some of these moments.
His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. (Acts 5:40-41)
There are multiple reasons people might rejoice in the face of terrible circumstances. Reasons that may seem good and reasons that may seem bad.
What causes someone to rejoice even when circumstances seem to be at their worst?
And now we come to where we are today in the context:
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. (Acts 6:8-12)
As you think about the graph of the early followers of Jesus,
How are you encouraged, challenged, confused and/or focused by what was happening with the early church?
We’ll keep coming back to this idea as we explore early church narrative: our goal is not to become a copy of the early church. There’s lots to learn from what we’re reading and processing, but we can get into a weird place when we think we have to copy everything the early church did, one for one.
Our goal is not being identical, but what can we learn from the early church? How can we grow now in 2021 while we’re learning and reading and processing?
Thinking back just a little while in the narrative, the Jewish religious authorities were wondering what to do with the Apostles, and one of them, Gamaliel, spoke up:
When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:33-39)
When I look at the graph, when I think about what was happening, I feel: Oh no. Is it all unraveling? Is it coming to an end? Are we messing it all up? Is what Gamaliel talked about happening?
There is a theme in scripture that needs to be brought back to the surface: God is God in less than ideal circumstances with less than perfect people. Think of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, the prophets, Saul, David, Solomon...
God doesn’t change just because circumstances aren’t ideal or people aren’t perfect. In fact, sometimes His work seems to show the greatest in hard circumstances and messy people.
What if the Biblical narrative was only of perfect people in ideal circumstances?
How would it impact history?
How would it impact you?
All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (Acts 6:15)
Time for a speech. Time for a sermon. Peter had done it several times, and now it was Stephen’s turn.
Stephen had been falsely accused. Stephen’s character had been falsely called into question. Stephen was being looked to to defend himself. So what was Stephen going to say in his speech?
Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”
To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’ So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. God spoke to him in this way: ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’ Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.
“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace. Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers on their first visit. On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our ancestors died. Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.
“As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’ He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.
“At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for by his family. When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.
“When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’ But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.
“After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’
“This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness. This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’ He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.
“But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’ That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship.
Therefore I will send you into exile’ beyond Babylon.
“Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
“‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things?’
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” (Acts 7:1-53)
Wait, Stephen! This was a moment to defend yourself. What are you doing?
In this seemingly worst-case-scenario moment, I wonder if Stephen wasn’t even concerned with defending himself. I wonder if he even thought about the possibility that what he was doing would lead to death.
It could be. And it could be that he knew very well what was going to happen. It could be that there was a natural link to how Jesus responded to things, and now Stephen is walking in the path Jesus took.
Scripture is not about elevating people or about elevating the situations. It is about understanding who God is and how He relates with us. It is about how we are to relate with Him. It is about how we are to relate with each other.
The goal is not to be Stephen, no matter how many times I have heard Stephen be idolized here. It’s important to ask why this story was shared, who it was shared by, who it was shared to and why it was shared. I imagine this story of Stephen was written by Luke as a note of encouragement to the early church--that as they faced persecution just like Stephen, it wasn't all in vain.
The early church faced a level of life-and-death persecution that most of the modern church doesn't experience--at least I don’t, as a pastor in Minneapolis. So Luke, writing this message, wasn't writing to you specifically, but that doesn't mean we can’t learn from Luke. It’s important to dig deep and understand why Luke wrote these words to the early church.
The goal is not to share the identical message. This was to the Jewish insiders, and my neighbor doesn't need a carbon copy of this message. But I do see something in Stephen: I see him walking in the words that are written in Isaiah:
“I have put my words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of my hand—I who set the heavens in place, who laid the foundations of the earth, and who say to Zion, ‘You are my people.’” (Isaiah 51:16)
I see him walking in the words that Jesus said in Luke 12:
“When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Luke 12:11-12)
Stephen doesn’t seem worried, and whether or not he knew he was going to die, he seemed to exhibit deep trust in God.
What are some of the challenges of trusting God even when life is absolute chaos and is far from ideal?
As this terrible moment of persecution takes place, the people were scattered:
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8:1-3)
Yes! It is happening--the Great Commission is happening!
We are going to end with some heavy lifting today:
What are the risks and/or dangers of seeing pain and suffering as God’s will?
On the flip side of that, pain and suffering can be viewed as not being God’s will and way. Think about the consequence of that belief--if pain is not allowed, or if pain is seen as a sign of my failure, or if pain is saying that God doesn’t exist. These things teach me to lie and act like pain doesn't exist. Life becomes about eliminating pain or negative experiences or pretending like everything is positive.
And so today we end with one more question:
How have you seen pain and suffering impact your faith, trust, connection to God?
Take It Deeper Questions
- Read Acts 7.
- What elements of a long speech make it good, effective, and/or enjoyable?
- What is one traumatic event that happened to you in your formative years?
- Did that moment have an impact on your faith in God at that moment? Does it have an impact on your faith in God today?
- Why didn’t God intervene and prevent the martyrdom of Stephen?
- How does--or doesn’t--God intervene now? Why do you think that?
- How are you challenged, encouraged, focused, and/or frustrated by this text?
Bible Reading Plan
- Deuteronomy 10
- Deuteronomy 11
- Deuteronomy 12
- Acts 16
- Acts 17
- Acts 18