Stephen’s defense. He challenges the status quo tradition concerning the land, the law, and the temple with the, write this word down, truth.
He challenges all three. These are the three most sacred things that the Jews of this time hold on to. He challenges all three with the truth that demand faith, radical change, and then following God’s promised deliverer, the Messiah, Jesus.
And so now we pick up the story. And so far, the issue of the land has been decimated, the issue of the law and how they view it is being crunched, and now he goes after their view of the temple that they’ve put their trust in.
We pick up the story in verse 44: “Our forefathers had the tabernacle of testimony. They had it with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses according to the pattern he’d seen. Having received the tabernacle, our fathers under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations.
“God drove it 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 the house for Him.”
So he said, “We had the tabernacle and then they had the Promised Land. David had it in his heart but Solomon is the one who built it.”
“However,” this is what he adds, “the most high God does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says,” and now he quotes Isaiah 66:1 and 2, “Heaven is my throne,” God speaking, “and earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for Me or where will My resting place be? Has not My hands made all these things?”
Now again for us, sometimes, not being steeped in the Old Testament, nor being Jewish, nor being a rabbi, we really don’t get how deeply he’s puncturing what’s going on.
Isaiah 66 is a classic, classic passage. Isaiah is a prophet and he’s prophesying about when Israel is in sin and has turned away from God. Now he gives verse 1 and 2 but I will guarantee all seventy of those scholars, they know verse 3, 4, 5, and 6. And it’s like a lawyer who has someone on the stand and he makes the point.
Point one and point two but in the news media, point three, four, and five have been there and he just makes point one and two and then he walks away and kind of lets it simmer while everyone’s going, “Whoa!” The implications are unbelievable.
Well, let me, just for your sake, tell you what’s in Isaiah 66. You can just listen. Verse 3 he says, God has said, “Heaven is My footstool; My hands made all things, nothing can contain Me.” Verse 3: “This is the one I esteem. He who is humble and contrite in heart and trembles at My Word.”
What’s the problem of the Pharisees? What did Jesus say? They’re arrogant. Their way is the way. They’re not contrite when they’re faced with the truth and they don’t tremble at God’s Word. They manipulate it.
Now God says some things that if you were a rabbi your blood pressure is going from about one forty over eighty to about two hundred over one sixty because what you know is what God says after that is this is how he feels about people who respond in these kind of ways. This is God speaking.
“But whoever sacrifices,” speaking of people who would worship him falsely, “whoever sacrifices a bull in the temple is like one who kills a man. And whoever offers a lamb is like one who would break the neck of a dog. And whoever makes a grain offering is like someone who would present pig’s blood and whoever burns memorial incense is like one who worships an idol.”
I mean, do you see those pictures? “They have chosen their own way and their souls delight in abominations so I will choose harsh treatment for them and bring upon them what they dread.”
And then He gives the reason why He is rejecting Israel: “For when I called, no one answered. When I spoke, no one listened. They did evil in My sight and they chose what displeases Me.”
He has made the case for the land, he’s made the case for the temple, and he’s made the case for the law, that you are nullifying the truth of God and all of his purposes, and all those things by your traditions, and it’s put you in control, and comfort, and power, and religiosity, and you have rejected the One who gave the law.
You have rejected the One who is, the person who fills the temple. And you have rejected everything that God promised to our father Abraham in the land and the whole purpose was to bless all the nations.
And so his finale is strong. Notice, finally, we get to his comments about Jesus. The location he talks about is our hearts. He says the real issue is always about the heart. It’s about inside you, not external religious stuff.
Eternal life is the promise. It’s deliverance from sin and death and it’s the fulfillment of the law. Did you notice? In each one he talked about descendants. Then he talked about deliverance with Joseph and then deliverance with Moses and deliverance – he’s saying this is the final deliverer.
The focus is the rejection and killing of the Messiah. And for Stephen, faith means you believe to the point that if they kill you, you refuse to compromise on the truth.
Notice these harsh but accurate words. Now he’s made his case, here’s his application: “You stiff necked people with uncircumcised ears and hearts. You are just like your fathers. You always resist the Holy Spirit. Was there a prophet your fathers didn’t persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the righteous One. And now you’ve betrayed and murdered Him.”
What a line. “You’ve received the law,” tradition, “that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” That’s truth.
Result: “When they heard this they were furious and they gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’
And at this they covered their ears, yelling at the top of their voices and they rushed at him and they dragged him out of the city and they begin to stone him.”
So much for the trial. So much for justice. “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’”
Does that sound familiar at all? “When he had said this he fell asleep.”
As I said, it’s a very interesting history lesson, isn’t it? But I don’t, I don’t think God’s purpose is for us to look back and understand how they didn’t get it. I think God’s purpose is for us to have, the decision at a crossroads to say, “Am I going to look at life through a Pharisee and tradition or am I going to look at life through a Stephen and truth, regardless of how painful it might be?”
I find there’s four lessons that just pop out of his story that I think, at least for me, are very applicable and I think probably for you.
Lesson number one simply put is: truth demands transformation. Truth demands transformation. James 1 says when we receive truth and we don’t act on it, we just, we’re hearers, we’re not doers of the truth.
Jesus said it’s when you know the truth and when he said “know” he meant by way of application. When it abides in you, when you act on it, when you respond, when you’re Abraham, if God speaks, you leave. If you’re Moses, you return. If you’re Joseph, you endure. If you’re Joshua, you fight!
But truth is based on promises given to you and you’re following in relationship. Truth brings transformation. But you can traffic in truth. You can read the Bible every day, you can go to a men’s Bible study, you can come to church regularly, you can listen to Christian radio, and you can feel like, “I must be okay, right? I mean, I’m in the Bible.”
Well, could it be that coming to church and hearing God’s Word is a part of a tradition but the diabolical part would be what if you’re not responding to the part of truth where God’s speaking to you?
And coming to church, and reading the Bible, and even being in a Bible study makes you feel safe and comfortable, and okay, but what if the truth of God is, you need to address the issue in your marriage. You need to forgive your mate, go get counseling, and make it right.
What if the truth is, your finances are out of control, and I’ve been whispering it, whispering it, whispering it and you go to a ladies Bible study and afterwards buy fifteen pair of shoes.
What if the truth is you have a sexual addiction, you flirt at work, and I want to save you, and save your marriage, and you need to get help, get clean.
What if the truth is that you live with a low-level resentment of one of your folks or an ex-mate and you’re just, you smile on the outside but you’re an unhappy, resentful person on the inside and you’re bound by it. And you drink the poison of unforgiveness thinking it’s going to kill somebody else.
What if the truth is that your schedule is crazy and the denial of, “It’s going to slow down and as soon as we do this or as soon as we do that…” And your kids are neglected. And you’re giving them stuff instead of you. What if that’s the truth?
What if the truth is you’re a religious person, you’re just not very loving. You tell everyone how closed non-Christians are. You know why they’re closed? You’re not a very nice person to be around. You come off self-righteous. What if that’s the truth?
See, I can live with all those things completely unaddressed and go to Bible study. And check off, “I read Genesis 22 this morning and Matthew 22. And I can’t ‘til we go to our small group.” And we talk about the stuff that I’m comfortable with. Just as long as we don’t deal with issues.
Do you see it?
Second lesson: the basis of God’s blessings are relational, not ritual. Jesus would say here in Matthew 15, “Go and learn what I mean. I desire compassion, not sacrifice.” There is no formula, okay? It’s not read the Bible, go to a Bible study, give ten percent, and “Ooooh, I even went on a mission trip.”
And now God, you owe me a great marriage, a great life, bring the right man, a right woman, all my kids turn out right, we’re upwardly mobile, and…
That’s Evangelical Christianity. Much of America. It’s our view of ritual. Our attempt to put God in a box, have a formula, and say, “A-7, B-4, C-3,” on the little vending machine of God. Now make me happy, make me wealthy, keep me from cancer, have all my kids turn out right, and I really want to get them in these kind of schools. And when you do that, “Thank you, Jesus. I give you all the credit.”
That doesn’t sound a lot like leaving, returning, enduring, fighting, and being an instrument of God in a fallen world that fulfills His agenda.
Now any of those things or all of those things that He happens to give you, He’s just good. But they’re not the goal.
Third lesson: perverted traditions must be exposed and abandoned. I get that from Acts chapter 7. I mean, this guy went against hundreds, and hundreds of years, of tradition. Hundreds of years of the law, and the temple, and the land.
What if, how many of us have this tradition that we just buy gifts and go into debt every Christmas? And buy stuff because we feel obligated and not because the people need it and not because we really want to do it but it’s just a tradition and to not do it, “Well, what would they think?”
Well, why do you do that? Do you understand the peer pressure? Well, why, I mean, why is it, end of January, half of March, you know? You’re under water again. I mean, when we’re, I walk around with my wife in a store for some people that I really love and care about, I’m thinking, “There’s not a thing in the world they need. Why are we buying them anything?”
Whereas, I got from someone, it was one of the most meaningful gifts. You know what I got from someone? A note. “Dear Chip and Theresa, I want you to know how much I love you both. How much I really care about you both. By the way, the picture you see is the picture of a goat that I bought for you that will be in a family in Africa that’s starving. I thought it would mean a lot.”
What if we all did two or three of those?
Tradition. Upward mobility is a God-given destiny and right for you and your family. Wherever you’re at, you need to make more. Whatever kind of house, it’s gotta be better. Whatever kind of car, you gotta upgrade.
What would happen if you had a job that you loved with more time in deep relationships and made less money? And your kids, are you ready, here’s the other one. Education is paramount. Tradition. Your kids need to get great scores, get in great schools, be very upwardly mobile, get great jobs so you can feel good about you.
My kid went to Stanford. He got this on his SATs. And so we had hassles almost all their life in junior high and high school as we pressured, and pressured, and pressured, and pressured, and pressured, because education is god in our home. Oooh. Now we’re getting down to where we live, huh?
Especially in some of our cultures. In others, it’s not education. It’s sport. My son made the traveling team! He’s twelve years old! Now, we spend all kind of money we don’t have, flying all over the place, to play other twelve year olds who probably live in San Jose too, but we play them in Minnesota and it’s so wonderful!
And so we don’t go to church anymore, so I’m passing down this tradition. Sports is what matters. You’re the center of the universe. I’m going to make you a narcissistic kid. And if I’m successful you’ll make twenty million dollars someday and won’t talk to me. And put white powder up your nose.
I mean, think about it. Sometimes what you get used to isn’t right. It’s diabolical.
The very last point here is that truth bearers refuse to maintain the status quo. In their life, their relationships, or their sphere of influence. You know when homes are going to change? You know when workplaces are going to change? When I and you all, together, say we will be Stephens and Stephen-ettes. And we will take honest looks at the traditions in our lives and we will take so literally that if we know the truth, and practice the truth, then we will know the truth and it will set us free.
And where there’s freedom there’s always faith, and there’s power, and there’s promises, and there’s a relationship, and there’s joy, and there’s impact. But you have to break some tough traditions.