Myanmar 2018 SEVEN Part series
Overcoming Obstacle to Revival
21 OCT 2018
The Word and Spirit of Love
29 OCT 2018
05 NOV 2018
Stephen and the Final Judgement
19 NOV 2018
Luke 22:66-70 ESV; Acts 7:51-60 ESV
The saying “Grace is always surprising” proved true when in the middle of preaching a sermon in Myanmar, one I’d already preached here, I was deeply moved by a marvellous sense of the presence of God.
Expounding the trial and death of Stephen I was overcome with elation, almost laughing repeatedly, over the victory of God in Christ over the arrayed forces of evil.
At the time I didn’t know quite what was going on but now I believe the experience was a share in the messianic triumph of Jesus recounted in Psalm 2 ESV, vs.1 “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? vs.2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, vs.3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” vs.4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.”;(Ps 2:1-4 ESV)1)cf. Ps 59:8 ESV.
Perhaps it’s because of the martyrdoms in the New Testament only Stephen’s is recounted in detail that the comprehensive nature of the triumph of Christ comes through with particular power.
Whilst Stephen was a notable leader of the Greek speaking part of the earliest Church in Jerusalem, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” and a worker of miracles (Acts 6:1-8 ESV), the weightiness surrounding his death at the hands of the Jewish Sanhedrin (High Council) comes from his speech before them.
The importance of what Stephen has to say for the whole New Testament is indicated by its being the longest speech in Acts.
His sermon and killing has a place in the narrative of Acts that marks a turning point in the history of the apostolic church.
After Stephen’s death events move beyond Jerusalem and its very Jewish style of Christianity to the ministry of Paul and the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentile world.
It is both what Stephen sees and says that releases such a vital transition in God’s covenant dealings with humanity.
Though he is put on trial for “always speaking against the holy Temple and against the law of Moses.” (Acts 6:13 ESV)
Stephen doesn’t defend himself against these charges but argues forcefully Israel’s history proves she typically misunderstood the ways of God.
His sermon stands in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament “covenant lawsuit” (Heb: rib); where through a prophet God brings before the heavenly divine council an action against Israel for breaking their covenant with him2)Isa 1:2-20 ESV; Jer 2:4-13 ESV; Am 2:9-16 ESV; Mic 6:1-8 ESV..
Through Stephen Israel’s leadership who so recently had Jesus crucified put to death are being placed on trial by God at a point of supreme spiritual crisis.
Stephen forcefully illustrates from biblical history that Israel has been incompetent in recognising those whom God raises up to lead them, both Joseph (Acts 7:9 ESV) and Moses (Acts 7:25-29, 35 ESV) were rejected.
At the centre of Stephen’s prophetic charge is that Israel had tied her sense of identity to a sacred space in a way that blinded her to the deeper ways of God. This explains why the speech focuses on events outside of the Promised Land.
The God of glory called Abraham in Mesopotamia and the led him through Canaan though he held no possession of it.
Then his descendants, even as heirs of divine promises, were in Egypt for 400 years where the Lord was with Joseph (Acts 7:2-8, 9-10 ESV) whose bones, with Jacob’s, were later buried in Shechem, in the land of the hated Samaritans3)Acts 7:16 ESV, Josh 24:32 ESV.
God’s great exodus works were done in Egypt at the Red Sea and in the wilderness (Acts 7:36 ESV) where the site of the burning bush and the giving of the Law at Sinai wasn’t even identifiable (Acts 7:35 ESV ff.).
God’s habitation in the wilderness, the tabernacle, occupied no special sacred space but was a mobile home marked out only by the revelation of its heavenly pattern given to Moses (Acts 7:44 ESV). From the days of the golden calf things made by human hands predisposed Israel to idolatry (Acts 7:41-43 ESV).
Stephen moves to a climax by quoting words from the prophet Isaiah4)Isa 66:1-2 ESV; Acts 7:49-50 ESV from the time of the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the temple; “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands” (Acts 7:48 ESV).
The Jews never understood that the temple and its entire sacrificial system was a temporary arrangement and to treat it otherwise was idolatry, the temple’s time had come to an end (cf. John 4:21 ESV).
In passing verdict (Acts 7:51-53 ESV) on his hearers as those who always rejected the prophets Stephen shifts language from “our fathers”5)Acts 7:11-12, 19, 38-39, 44-45 ESV to “your fathers” (Acts 7:51-52 ESV); for there is no longer a common point of covenant identity between him and the leaders of Israel.
Something contemporary Judaism’s rejection of messianic Jews as Jews at all reflects. The guilt of their fathers in slaying the prophets came to a climax in murdering Jesus, “the Righteous One” (Acts 7:52 ESV) so they had terminated their unique covenant relationship with God.
In Hebrews there is the same emphasis that the temple of Jerusalem had already lost its meaning and function as a place of atonement6)Heb 8:7, 13 ESV; Heb 10:1-2 ESV; it had been replaced by another and superior temple not “made with hands” but in heaven.7)Acts 9:24 ESV; cf. Acts 8:1-2 ESV
Having first rejected Jesus in person then Peter’s later preaching to them that he’d been raised from the dead “to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31 ESV) their time was done and no opportunity to repent remained. Under such weight testimony they lost all self-control and all hell broke loose.
The COURT OF EARTH and the COURT OF HEAVENThey “ground their teeth” at Stephen (Acts 7:54 ESV) but he; vs.55 “full of the Holy Spirit gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. vs.56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”…. vs.58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him…. vs.59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” vs.60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:54-60 ESV).
Stephen’s extraordinary vision of Jesus transpires because there are two courts operating at the same time in relation to his message and ministry, one on earth and another in heaven.
Like Stephen (Acts 6:13 ESV), Jesus once appeared before the Sanhedrin judges with false witnesses standing to accuse him of plotting to destroy the temple8)Matt 26:59-61 ESV; Luke 23:10 ESV.
Stephen sees Jesus exactly as he had proclaimed to the Sanhedrin at the moment of his condemnation, as the glorious Son of Man; “vs.67 “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe… vs.69 But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”.” (Luke 22:67, 69 ESV).
He sees Jesus as vindicated by the Father through resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God.
Being seated at God’s right-hand means occupying the position of power and authority with special access to the sovereign rule of heaven9)Ex 16:6, 12 ESV; Job 40:14 ESV; Pss.18:35 ESV; Pss.20:6 ESV; Pss.21:8 ESV; Pss.110:1 ESV; Hab 2:16 ESV. In Hebrews Christ’s sitting indicates his priestly work in complete10)Heb 1:3 ESV; Heb 8:1 ESV; Heb 10:12 ESV.
The extraordinary thing about this vision is that Jesus is standing as advocate11)cf. Rom 8:33-34 ESV; Heb 7:25 ESV and as Judge.
Christ is the chief witness on Stephen’s behalf for advocates on behalf of the accused in Jewish courts of law always stood to testify12)Deut 19:17 ESV; 1 Ki 3:16 ESV; Acts 4:7 ESV; Acts 5:27 ESV; Acts 6:13 ESV etc..
The testimony of the glorious heavenly advocate on Stephen’s behalf totally negates the authority of the earthly tribunal and its false witnesses.
In the Old Testament the LORD himself rebuked Satan in his accusation against Joshua the High Priest in the heavenly courtroom.13)Zech 3:1-10 ESV cf. Dan 7:10 ESV
With the victory of Jesus the Accuser has been cast out of heaven and can no longer make such accusations before God (Rev 12:1-11 ESV).
The vision of Stephen is a vision of his own unlimited vindication by God for Jesus is the Judge at the Last Judgement.
The Lord’s own prophetic words are being fulfilled before the End, “vs.8 “And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, vs.9 but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” (Luke 12:8-9 ESV).
Stephen sees Jesus as he will appear at the Second Coming passing judgement for him and against the temple leadership and any role for the temple in the plan of God.
Contrary to her self-understanding of endless privilege Israel is now judged like other nations (cf. Matt 25:31-36 ESV); as Isaiah prophesied, “The Lord has taken his place to contend; he stands to judge peoples.”14)Isa 3:13 ESV cf. Job 19:25 ESV; Dan 12:1 ESV.
Already knowing the verdict of the Last Day Stephen can die fearlessly before his persecutors in the glory of God triumphant over the powers of death and evil.
Placed inside the glory cloud Stephen speaks glorious words especially as they stone him; “falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:60 ESV).
These words echo those of Christ from the cross, ““Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”” (Luke 23:34 ESV) because in the power of the Spirit Stephen is sharing in the victorious all-forgiving sacrifice of Jesus’ death in the glory of his heavenly Lord (cf. Rom 5:5 ESV).
THE RELEASE OF POWER
If those who “buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him” (Acts 8:2 ESV) considered his slaughter a great tragedy for the life of the emerging Church they had failed to be grasped by the way of the cross.
After decades of persecution later Christians better understood that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Tertullian).
Immediately after the death of Stephen there arose “a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria…. Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”15)Acts 8:1, 4 ESV cf. Acts 8:5-8 ESV; Acts 11:19-21 ESV.
The apostles and the other Hebrew Christians were able to stay in Jerusalem because unlike the Greek speaking Christians they were still attached to the temple as a site of devotion and Law16)cf. Acts 11:1, 18, 22 ESV; Acts 21:20 ESV.
In the wisdom of the plan of God Stephen’s blood released a shock wave of spiritual power that radiated from Jerusalem beginning the mission to the Gentiles.
The conversion of Saul to Paul the great missionary to the Gentiles, someone for whom Stephen prayed as he prayed for his persecutors, was an outstanding fruit of his sacrifice.
THE LAST PROPHET
When the Sanhedrin rejected Jesus they rejected him both as King of Israel and as the prophet-successor to Moses to whom they were meant to listen17)Deut 18:15 ESV; Acts 3:22 ESV; Acts 7:37 ESV.
Whilst the wicked Ninevites repented at the preaching of the prophet Jonah the prophetic judgement oracles against Jerusalem by the greater prophet than Jonah were rejected18)Luke 10:30-32 ESV; 19:42-44 ESV; 23:28-31 ESV.
As the Son of Man Jesus went to the cross as the rejected final Prophet who has not been listened to19)Luke 9:22, 44 ESV; 17:24-25 ESV; 18:31-33 ESV; cf. 24:7 ESV but he stood for Stephen as one who had been heard by God.
Stephen’s message that the Jews had perverted the worship of God places him in the prophetic succession of the Old Testament20)e.g. Isa 1:11-15 ESV; Jer 6:20 ESV; Am 5:21-24 ESV and his vision of the glory of God constitutes him a prophet21)cf. Isa 6:1-13 ESV; Ezek 1-3 ESV.
In quoting Isaiah 66:1-2 ESV (Acts 7:49-50 ESV) that God does not dwell in houses made by hands Stephen proclaims the temple is no longer the dwelling place of the Spirit and glory of God (Acts 7:51-53 ESV).
His vision of Jesus now residing in the glory of God re-locates the true sanctuary from earth to heaven.
To cling to the man-made temple is to place oneself outside of the saving community of the new covenant.
That God no longer has a national covenant with Israel doesn’t mean he has no plan for the Jews.
They are simply no longer uniquely the people of God (1 Pet 2:9 ESV). God’s saving message and mission now goes to the world pre-eminently through another people, the Gentiles. The prayers of Stephen for his persecutors are a prophetic mode of expression22)Acts 7:55-56 ESV cf. Gen 18:22-23 ESV; Gen 20:7 ESV; Ex Gen 32:9-14 ESV; 1 Ki 18:42-44 ESV; Am 7:1-2 ESV.
Like the earthly Jesus’ intercession for Peter (Luke 22:31-32 ESV).
His stoning in Jerusalem places him firmly within the prophetic line23)Luke 4:24 ESV; Luke 13:33-34 ESV; Acts 7:42 ESV. Killed by the former covenant people of God Stephen’s prophetic vision of Jesus is the final vision a prophet who ministered especially to Israel could see. There will no longer be prophets exclusively to the Jews.
Stephen was a reformer whose message confronted the foundational self-understanding of the leaders of Israel about their privileged place before God.
His message inevitably cost him his life because idolaters always protect their heart commitments and the deeper the commitment the more vicious the response (Ezek 14:1 ESV ff.).
This causes us to ask a painful question: “What are the idols of the contemporary Western Church grieving the Spirit so he is not revealing to us the glory of the Lord?”
The exposure of sexual abuse in religious institutions uncovered how deeply these systems were committed to protecting themselves.
As Israel cried out “‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” but inwardly they had become “a den of robbers”24)Jer 7:4, 11 ESV cf. Luke 19:46 ESV, ambition for money, numbers, power, prestige and influence has penetrated much church leadership.
I was in a meeting recently when a pastor confessed that his leadership had just sacked the youth leader for though there were up to 150 kids involved there was no fruit; they had decided to get rid of their smoke machines and coloured lights.
“Nightclub church” i.e. the darkening of the insides of church buildings and other assorted displays, is a sign of a loss of the presence of the Lord.
THE VALUES: driving “high performance” churches striving for works of “excellence” will not survive the fire of the Day of Judgement (1 Cor 3:12-15 ESV).
Forgetting church leadership many ordinary Christians have become addicted to church culture; devotion to the lead pastors’ vision, the song leader’s anointing to lead us into the presence of God, the beauty of the liturgy and the riches of tradition etc.
This psychological dynamic explains why many of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were attached to the temple services and even to some ceremonial aspects of the law25)cf. Acts 3:1 ESV; Acts 21:17–26 ESV; Gal 2:11-14 ESV. All of which can obscure the glory of Christ.
There are deep spiritual dynamics surrounding most churches rarely recognised or dealt with.
I was in the beautiful Wesley Uniting Church praying the other day and could sense dark powers over the church influencing its building committees, heritage groups, programme organisers and long-term attendees with a commitment to preserve the church building at all costs.
These forces also move at a denominational level.
Our building plan with the diocese would have left us with about $1 million which had to be used to maintain existing buildings, i.e. it was no available for ministry purposes! Commitment to the survival of the church (as we know it) at all costs impedes the release of the resurrection power of the Spirit.
The goal of every material entity in this world, whether it is a church building or a human body, is to exalt the glory of God in Christ whether by life or death (Phil 1:20 ESV).
For its revitalisation the Western Church needs to be immersed in the life of the glorious new humanity revealed to Stephen.
This power radiates out from God’s heavenly court of judgement where Jesus is interceding on our behalf.
When a certain theologian comments, “Stephen’s vision… was not a vision of a martyr close to death, but a vision of a prophet performing his mission.” (W. Paroschi) he is only half right.
For it is all Christians, not just those of the prophetic office, who by holding to the testimony of Jesus before hostile witnesses’ function as prophets and so can share in the Spirit’s impartation of glory.
The glory of having been set free from fearing the judgements of authorities in this world through certainty about the verdict of the Last Judgement. This revelation is powerful beyond words.
Whenever a believer is opposed for being a Christian (1 Pet 4:16 ESV) we can fall to prayer to Jesus our exalted Lord for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
With Christ as our advocate interceding before the throne of the Father we can expect recognition from on high and power to preserve our discipleship.
The Accuser cannot finally harm us (1 John 5:18 ESV) for Jesus’ prayers will prevail; “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31-32 ESV) proved true first for Peter, then for Stephen and will do so for us…
In Christ we are in an extraordinary position of revelation and authority.
MESSAGE DELIVERED: 19th Nov, 2018 Location: Unknown
Author: Dr. John Yates
YouTube or PODCAST:
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||cf. Ps 59:8 ESV|
|2.||↑||Isa 1:2-20 ESV; Jer 2:4-13 ESV; Am 2:9-16 ESV; Mic 6:1-8 ESV.|
|3.||↑||Acts 7:16 ESV, Josh 24:32 ESV|
|4.||↑||Isa 66:1-2 ESV; Acts 7:49-50 ESV|
|5.||↑||Acts 7:11-12, 19, 38-39, 44-45 ESV|
|6.||↑||Heb 8:7, 13 ESV; Heb 10:1-2 ESV|
|7.||↑||Acts 9:24 ESV; cf. Acts 8:1-2 ESV|
|8.||↑||Matt 26:59-61 ESV; Luke 23:10 ESV|
|9.||↑||Ex 16:6, 12 ESV; Job 40:14 ESV; Pss.18:35 ESV; Pss.20:6 ESV; Pss.21:8 ESV; Pss.110:1 ESV; Hab 2:16 ESV|
|10.||↑||Heb 1:3 ESV; Heb 8:1 ESV; Heb 10:12 ESV|
|11.||↑||cf. Rom 8:33-34 ESV; Heb 7:25 ESV|
|12.||↑||Deut 19:17 ESV; 1 Ki 3:16 ESV; Acts 4:7 ESV; Acts 5:27 ESV; Acts 6:13 ESV etc.|
|13.||↑||Zech 3:1-10 ESV cf. Dan 7:10 ESV|
|14.||↑||Isa 3:13 ESV cf. Job 19:25 ESV; Dan 12:1 ESV|
|15.||↑||Acts 8:1, 4 ESV cf. Acts 8:5-8 ESV; Acts 11:19-21 ESV|
|16.||↑||cf. Acts 11:1, 18, 22 ESV; Acts 21:20 ESV|
|17.||↑||Deut 18:15 ESV; Acts 3:22 ESV; Acts 7:37 ESV|
|18.||↑||Luke 10:30-32 ESV; 19:42-44 ESV; 23:28-31 ESV|
|19.||↑||Luke 9:22, 44 ESV; 17:24-25 ESV; 18:31-33 ESV; cf. 24:7 ESV|
|20.||↑||e.g. Isa 1:11-15 ESV; Jer 6:20 ESV; Am 5:21-24 ESV|
|21.||↑||cf. Isa 6:1-13 ESV; Ezek 1-3 ESV|
|22.||↑||Acts 7:55-56 ESV cf. Gen 18:22-23 ESV; Gen 20:7 ESV; Ex Gen 32:9-14 ESV; 1 Ki 18:42-44 ESV; Am 7:1-2 ESV|
|23.||↑||Luke 4:24 ESV; Luke 13:33-34 ESV; Acts 7:42 ESV|
|24.||↑||Jer 7:4, 11 ESV cf. Luke 19:46 ESV|
|25.||↑||cf. Acts 3:1 ESV; Acts 21:17–26 ESV; Gal 2:11-14 ESV|