Standing Firm In Your Faith: The Defense
Passage: Acts 7:35–40
We are continuing our journey through Acts and we are now in Acts 7. Stephen has just been falsely accused of blaspheming God by speaking against the Temple and the Law of Moses. Now, he stands in front of the High Priest to give an account and he is asked one simple question: Are these charges true? Now, it’s important to see that this isn’t just a theological debate. I’m not saying theology isn’t important, but there is even more going on here. The Jews had a nice status quo with the Roman Empire. They were allowed to do their thing in the Temple and worship as they wanted, but if the Temple were to be destroyed and warring religious factions took over, they would most likely lose the protection they enjoyed from the Roman Empire. This building to them reflected their safety, security, and identity. They so identified the Temple with Yahweh that they felt its very existence protected them completely, but its destruction would mean God had left them. So, this is a big deal to the religious leaders on many different fronts.
So, in this chapter, Stephen is answering this question. Are these accusations true? What’s interesting, though, is that he’s not immediately saying yes or no. He’s going back through four very important figures in the Old Testament to say you don’t understand the Scriptures you teach! So, Stephen teaches them what Scripture really says about the Temple and Moses and then he calls them to repentance.
This is a pretty bold move. Calling anyone to repentance is hard, but the religious leaders of that day? That’s bold. I have been a part of calling people to repentance before. It’s not fun, but hopefully it’s done with the best intentions for the person being confronted. It isn’t something done in haste. It isn’t something you do before really examining your own heart. I’ve been called to repentance before and it stings, but when it is done well and from a loving and humble place, I always appreciate that person more over time. But, I can honestly say that I have never called someone to repentance in such a mismatched power dynamic as Stephen in this passage. I have never looked at someone who could order my execution with one word and called them to repentance.
I admire the fact that Stephen could have easily just answered yes or no and gotten off completely. He could have said, “Yes, this is true, but please don’t hurt me, let me explain that Jesus wasn’t threatening your Temple building in the least.” Or, he could have said, “No, that’s not true at all. Let me explain what I mean and how your Temple building is under no threat at all.” But, Stephen cares more about their hearts and their salvation and the glory of God than his own safety, so he tells them the truth. It isn’t a yes or no question. The problem is that they don’t understand their own scriptures and because of that they don’t understand God. They look at this Temple as some sort of good luck charm because God used to meet them in worship there, but God is much bigger than that building.
Stephen uses four epochs in the Old Testament to show that none of them ever thought of God as locked in some building. So, I want to look at what John Stott calls four epochs and see a truth about God that will help us to understand what Stephen is saying.
- Truth 1: God is not limited by our circumstances or hard hearts 2-8
This first truth comes from the first epoch: Abraham and the patriarchal age. Stephen tells us how God made himself known to Abraham before there ever was such a thing as the Mosaic Law or a Temple. Abram, as he was called then, was a pagan nomad in Mesopotamia. He and all his family worshipped other gods. God calls Abram and and then Abraham left Ur for Haran and then left Haran for Canaan where Abraham had no inheritance which means no security.
Then, God promised Abraham that his descendants would possess this land...nevermind the fact that Abraham was old and had no children. But, to make things even more uncertain, God tells Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved and ill-treated for four hundred years before that happens.
So, what are we looking at here? Before there was a holy place, there was a holy people. A people God had called to himself and pledged himself to. God wasn’t limited by their hard hearts. He wasn’t limited by the fact that they were pagan worshippers. God wasn’t limited by the fact they constantly acted in ways that showed they don’t fully trust him. Stephen is emphasizing the fact that it is God who initiates here. He isn’t waiting around for someone with a good enough heart, a moral enough life, or a spiritual enough disposition. God reaches who he wants, when he wants, how he wants...and he did all this before there was even such a thing as the Mosaic Law or the Jerusalem Temple.
How easily we can look at someone and think they are just too far outside of God’s reach. Too far gone. Well, if that is true then that logically means that there was a time where we were moral enough, spiritual enough, and wise enough to turn to God. Paul goes so far as to say that no one seeks God, not one. And because of that we praise God that any one of us here today who believes does so because God reached us. That should make us the most humble of people. That should make us the most serious about our personal holiness. And that should make us the most willing to tell anyone the gospel of Jesus Christ.
God also wasn’t limited by their circumstances. He wasn’t limited by the fact that Abraham was old and had no kids. Not only was he not limited by the fact that his people would be enslaved one day, he tells Abraham that this would be the case. Not only is God not limited, it almost feels like he likes the chips stacked against him. And we wonder where Stephen got this boldness in such a scary situation.
And this never ending commitment to Abraham was renewed to his son Isaac and his son Jocob and Jacob’s twelve sons. This brings us to Joseph in Egypt, the next epoch in Stephen’s speech and the next truth.
- God is not limited by geography or culture 9-19
In jumping from Mesopotamia to Egypt, we see that God isn’t limited to Jerusalem aka not limited to the Temple. Stephen actually says the word ‘Egypt’ six times to make sure they hear it. Egypt was far from Jerusalem. It wasn’t anywhere Jacob would have wanted his people to be. When God extended his covenant with Abraham to Isaac (Jacob’s father), he said, 2 And the LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell xin the land of which I shall tell you. 3 ySojourn in this land, and zI will be with you and will bless you, for ato you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish bthe oath that I swore to Abraham your father. - Gen. 26:2, 3
There is nothing subtle about Stephen’s message. In verse 9 Stephen says 9 “And the patriarchs, cjealous of Joseph, dsold him into Egypt; but eGod was with him - Acts 7:9 Did you hear that? God was with him, even in Egypt. And in verse 11, Stephen makes it clear that Joseph wasn’t some odd exception, God was also with all of Joseph’s family. So, clearly God is not limited by geography.
God is in the hard places. He isn’t limited to cultures that tend to honor him more. In fact, sometimes he’s doing his greatest work inside cultures that are furthest from him. He saved Israel in Egypt, he spoke through Daniel in Babylon, he used Paul mightily in Rome. He used William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English in a Roman Catholic culture that burned him for it. He used Fredrick Douglass to preach the gospel and free slaves at the most tense period of the American slave trade. He used Bonhoeffer and Corrie Ten Boom under Hitler’s tyranny. And I believe he is working today in some of the darkest places on earth. Places like North Korea, China, Iran, and Afghanistan. Do any of those places have a Temple building? No. And can I say, if this is true, this is one of the greatest reasons to be sending missionaries to hard places.
Then Stephen shifts to the third epoch, Moses and the Exodus wandering, and our third truth about God.
- God is not limited by unfaithfulness and rejection. 20-44
This is the longest part of Stephen’s speech. And this makes sense because he has been accused of speaking against Moses. It is abundantly clear that Stephen holds Moses in high regard. God made two promises to Abraham: numerous descendants and land and here is where we see God really delivering on that promise. Stephen first reinforces some things he has already said. First, God isn’t limited by circumstances. It was when the suffering was greatest and hopes were lowest that Moses was born.
Second, God is not limited by geography. Moses takes the people out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness. There is no Temple and not even a Tabernacle yet, but clearly God is with them, protecting them. I mean look at verse 33: 33 Then the Lord said to him, l‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. - Acts 7:33 Wait? Are you saying that there is holy ground outside of Jerusalem? Yes! Wherever God is, there is holiness.
So, Stephen is reiterating his earlier points, but now we have something new. God is not limited by unfaithfulness and rejection. God hears the cry of his people and raises for them a deliverer in Moses. And verse 35 makes it clear that this is the man you rejected. Before Moses fled Egypt, he tried to help resolve a situation between two Hebrew men and they said, “Who made you ruler and judge?” Moses was rejected by the Jews even before he left Egypt.
The rejection of Moses is rejection of God and Stephen goes to great lengths to say how crazy it is to reject Moses. If you know that Stephen is going to call for the repentance of the Jewish leaders at the end here, you can see the heat being turned up. Let me read what Stephen says, 35 “This Moses, whom they rejected, qsaying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—thisman God sent as both ruler and redeemer rby the hand of the angel who appeared to himin the bush. 36 sThis man led them out, performing twonders and signs uin Egypt and vatthe Red Sea and win the wilderness for xforty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to theIsraelites, ‘God will raise up for you ya prophet like me from your brothers.’ 38 This is theone zwho was in the congregation in the wilderness with athe angel who spoke to him atMount Sinai, and with our fathers. bHe received cliving doracles to give to us. 39 Ourfathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and ein their hearts they turned toEgypt, 40 saying to Aaron, f‘Make for us gods who will go before us. - Acts 7:35-40
Your fathers rejected Moses and Stephen goes on to say in verse 42 that in that moment, God rejected them. We talked about this two week ago with the golden calf they worshipped. I don’t have time to rehash it, but go back and see the judgement God brought on them. Then, Stephen quotes Amos who speaks five centuries later about the corrupt worship of Israel back in the desert. m“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, nduring the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 43 You took up the tent of oMoloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’ - Acts 7:42,43
God is not limited in his plan by our faithfulness. Do you know there are whole streams of theology that say our faithfulness and prayer is what gives God permission to act in this world? Without us, what would poor old God do? I don’t know how you can read this and think that. God tells Moses that he will wipe out all of Israel and start over with Moses. God can do what God wants to do when he wants to do it. Every person at the end of time WILL glorify God. Some as objects of his mercy, love, and grace and some as his objects of his just wrath. But, God will be glorified either way. And in just a moment, Stephen is going to pose this very question to the Jewish leaders.
So, it’s heating up and Stephen gets to his fourth and final epoch: The Temple. Here he pretty much passes the point of no return. Either they will repent or Stephen will die. And in this fourth epoch, we see the fourth observation about God that Stephen wants them to hear. God is not limited to the Temple.
- God is not limited to the Temple 45-54
Remember, Stephen isn’t down on either the tabernacle or the temple. Stephen says in verse 44 that the Tabernacle was good and diligently constructed according to the directions God gave Moses. Stephen goes on to explain that the fathers, that is their ancestors, brought it up with them into the promised land and then the more permanent Temple was completed under the reign of Solomon. Both were constructed in accordance with God’s will. Both served a purpose in redemption history.
But, it looks like we could have a problem here. If Stephen’s main point is that God is not limited by the Tabernacle or Temple and then he makes a point to say that it was constructed in accordance with God’s will, does that undermine Stephen’s argument? No. The point is that they were good and right at their time, but should not be regarded as God’s permanent home. They serve a very special purpose, but you can’t limit God to this one space and then use it like some good luck charm. And Stephen makes this abundantly clear in verse 48: 48 zYet the Most High does not dwell ain houses made byhands, as the prophet says, (and he’s quoting Isaiah) 49 b“‘Heaven is my throne, cand the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?’
Paul makes the same point in chapter 17: 24 rThe God who made the world and everything in it, being sLord of heaven and earth, tdoes not live in temples made by man,3 25 nor is he served by human hands, uas though he needed anything, since he himself vgives to all mankind wlife and breath and everything. - Acts 17:24,25 And no one can claim that this is some new teaching because you can go all the way back to 1 Kings 8 and read Solomon’s words at the dedication prayer for the Temple. 27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, sheaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! - 1 Kings 8:27
Do you feel the heat being turned up? Stephen has made an excellent argument through these four epochs. In none of them was God’s presence limited to any particular place. On the contrary, the God of the OT is the living God who is regularly adapting as is best for our good and his glory. But in every stage, he goes with his people.
Now we get to the rebuke. Stephen boldly declares to the Jewish leaders, “You are like your fathers.” Verse 51: 51 d“You stiff-necked people (that was a phrase both Moses and the prophets used to address unfaithful Israel), euncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. fAs your fathers did, so do you. 52 gWhich of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of hthe Righteous One, iwhom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the lawj as delivered by angels and kdid not keep it.”
You are the ones who must give an account! Your fathers killed the prophets and now you killed the one the prophets prophesied about. You were given the law and you broke it. You don’t know your own scriptures. This religion isn’t about your actions, it's about your heart. You resisted the Holy Spirit, you betrayed the Messiah, and you broke the law. How do you want to glorify God? As objects of his mercy or objects of his wrath?
This has to be the least seeker friendly message in the New Testament. I call this Stephen’s defense, but he’s not defending himself, he’s defending the God of the Bible with no regard to his own physical safety. The Pharisees and the Sadducees have asked Stephen to give an account for what he has been teaching and now Stephen has turned it around and said, “No, you are the ones who have to give an account.”
But, Stephen doesn’t just accuse them, he gets to their hearts in the process. There are two parallel phrases in verse 41 and 48 that are not there by mistake and would certainly not have been missed. In verse 41 Stephen, talking about the golden calf, says they offered sacrifices to the idol and “rejoiced in the works of their hands.” Then, in verse 48, speaking about the Temple, he says, “The Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands.” Stephen is comparing the Temple to the golden calf!
Remember, God’s presence was not in the Temple anymore. He removed his presence during the time of Ezekiel. So, the Temple now is to the Pharisees what the golden calf was to the newly freed Israelites. That is a tough pill to swallow. The heart problem here is that much of Israel along with the religious leaders at that time, got their joy, fulfillment, identity, significance, and meaning from what they could achieve with their hands. John Piper says, “They wanted a kind of god and a kind of worship in which they could demonstrate their own power and their own wisdom and their own righteousness and their own morality and their own religious zeal.”
Their joy did not come from God, but from what they could achieve and God will not let them limit him like that. Is there anything we today can learn from that message? We who live in the wealthiest, most powerful nation ever to exist in the history of mankind? Each of us builds more in a year than most of humankind could have imagined in a lifetime! We created the skyscraper, we built the atomic bomb, we ended world wars, and we put a man on the moon. We created free enterprise and luxury beyond imagination. We build and find our security and identity in our businesses, bank accounts, beautiful bodies, and even church buildings. We can even think that God is obligated to protect us because our country has done so much for the world. If there is ever a culture that would be at risk of rejoicing in the work of our hands more than God, it is us...even more than these Pharisees.
So, Stephen is asking the Pharisees to give an account and repent...and God is asking us to do the same. The sin of the Pharisees is our sin as well. How will we respond to this message? We will see next week how the Pharisees respond, but that is in the past. Today, God is asking us, where is your faith? How will you give an account? What kind of God do you worship? A small god limited to the things we create or the limitless God of the Bible? The God who transcends circumstance, geography, unfaithfulness, and man made achievements.
As we will see next week, the Pharisees did not repent. And there wasn't one brick left standing on top of another in their temple less than 50 years later. Will we have softer hearts than them, or will we choose to wait and watch our idols dismantled like they did?
When Jesus allowed the temple of his own body to be destroyed, he crushed this kind of religion. We are as guilty of Jesus’ death as the Pharisees. It was our current sin that put him on the cross. We rejected him just like the Israelites rejected Moses and Israel rejected the prophets. But, he is faithful when we are faithless. We bring nothing to Jesus, yet he offers us everything, if we repent and trust in him.
And if we give an account by repenting of our sin and trusting in Jesus, then all of our sin is wiped away. All of our pride is forgotten. All of our unfaithfulness is replaced by the faithfulness, righteousness, and holiness of Jesus Christ. And at that moment, God begins a work in us that can never be stopped. He makes us his children who live in a new kingdom destined for an eternity with him. That is what Stephen understood so well and why he was more interested in glorifying God than getting off the hook.