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About this series
Satan's Agenda for Planet Earth (Including You)
God's agenda for your life and planet Earth is under constant attack by the enemy of your soul, who seeks to distract, derail, and destroy. It's the ultimate illustration of competing agendas, and eternity lies in the balance. Learn how to recognize and fortify yourself against Satan's schemes, even when you've taken a direct hit. Based on the book of Acts, Diabolical will equip you with biblical truth about your enemy and reveal the battle plan you need to thwart Satan's plans and fulfill God's agenda.More from this series
This is a series, if you’re new, not about “spiritual warfare” or overt demonic activity. This is about the subtle agenda of evil. How it gets played out. Sometimes what we’re used to isn’t right.
Now, think about that. Sometimes what’s accepted, what you’ve heard, what your great grandfather told your grandfather who told your dad or mother that told you that’s accepted, that you don’t even question, it’s just a worldview. Sometimes, it’s not right. It’s not true. You don’t even think about it.
I’m going to suggest sometimes it’s not only not right, it’s diabolical. It’s evil. It hurts people. And yet, the enemy has us going down a path because it’s a tradition, it’s just accepted.
Here’s all I want you to get: we all have traditions. I’m using the word “tradition” in its clear, definitional sense. Not like, “Oh, a tradition is we put up lights at Christmas.” Well, God bless you.
Here’s what a tradition is. A tradition is an inherited, established, customary pattern of thought or action or behavior, like a religious practice or a social custom. And then I love the second half of this. It’s the passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation, especially by oral communication.
So, it seeps into your brain, you’ve heard it since you were a kid, everyone does it, everyone accepts it. I’m going to suggest Satan’s number two agenda to ruin, to kill, to destroy is to maintain the status quo.
Whenever, wherever you’re at, however you’re moving, maintain the status quo in your life, maintain the status quo in your marriage, your spirituality, in churches, in culture, just maintain the status quo. Because, see, truth is powerful. Truth brings change. Truth liberates. Truth heals. And so this is very, very subtle.
In fact, here’s my thesis, I put it in your notes. My thesis is this: Traditions are not wrong, but they are dangerous. I’m not saying that traditions are wrong, things that are handed down. But they’re dangerous.
Follow along carefully. Traditions are the highway by which we pass on the values and principles that matter most. Okay? That’s how we pass on things that matter. Then circle the next word in your notes, will you? Unfortunately, unfortunately over time the means, the traditions, we practice to remember those values and truths, can take precedence over the truths themselves.
This was so true in Jesus’ day and it’s so easy to look back and see it then but harder now. But follow along as I read just a short passage, from Matthew chapter 15.
“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat.’” Ceremonially washing their hands.
“Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your traditions? For God said, “Honor your father and mother and anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” But you say that if a man says to his father or mother whatever help you might otherwise have received from me, well, it’s a gift devoted to God, he is not to honor his father with it. Thus,’” notice this line, “‘you nullify the Word of God for the sake of your tradition.’”
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied, ‘You people honor Me with your lips but your hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain, their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”
Did you notice how many times the word “tradition” and “nullifying the truth”…? If we had a little bit more time, basically what they did is that if you had some money, and you were responsible to take care of your parents as they aged, what you would say is, “This money is korban.” And that means it’s dedicated to God.
And so it was like putting it in a little account over here that you were going to give to God, and then you’d say to your parents, “I’d really love to help you but I can’t because…” And, of course, the Pharisees were getting the money.
There are good traditions, there are bad traditions, but all traditions have an element of danger. Because here’s what happens: good traditions, religious traditions, social traditions, traditions around core and important values – first you do them to remind you of that important thing. Then, over time, they start to become a little bit more important and they consume the truth.
And then pretty soon they bury the truth and then pretty soon they eliminate the truth all together.
And so you have people practicing tradition thinking they are doing exactly what’s right. That’s why it’s so diabolical. I mean, you’re never, ever in more danger in your entire life than when you’re convinced how you’re thinking, how you’re behaving, and how you’re acting is in line with what’s true and right and the fact of the matter is, you’re going south when you think you’re going north.
Notice the contrast between truth and tradition. Truth liberates, tradition perpetuates; truth gives life, tradition nullifies the Word of God; truth brings change, traditions – the status quo; truth defines reality, traditions are built for stability.
Truth is threatening, isn’t it? You hear a new truth, I need to address this in my marriage. I need to do something with one of our kids. Boy, I’ve got an attitude. I had a friend who said to me, “You need to deal with this.” That’s threatening. Tradition is comforting. It’s been this way, I’m used to this way, we’ll do it this way.
And finally, truth is dynamic but tradition is static. Let me give you Satan’s agenda and this is exactly how it works. Satan’s agenda put, his goal is to do this: to separate the truth from the tradition so deceptively that sincere people, people like us… I mean, if you weren’t sincere you wouldn’t be here.
“We want to learn about you, Lord, we want to follow you, we want to live those kinds of lives, we want to be pleasing, we want to grow, we’re sincere.”
And the enemy wants to take some traditions in your personal life, some traditions in your family, and some traditions in this church, and some traditions in Christendom and get us all just, little by little, separating the truth from the tradition so slowly and so deceptively, that we would hold to a form of godliness, that’s the way Paul says it, and we would deny its power. That’s scary.
We’re going to see the classic study in the New Testament on this. We’re going to see a man who will defy hundreds of years of tradition at the cost of his life.
If you have your Bibles, open to Acts chapter 6, or your PDA, or your mobile device, whatever you have. Let me give you the scene in the background.
Stephen was chosen as one of the seven to help distribute the food, but God gave him these miraculous powers, he began to do miracles to authenticate this new work of God, and then he was being challenged. He was talking about Jesus as the Messiah and so there’s implications for the law.
And Jesus is the Messiah, therefore, there’s implications for the temple and for the future of Judaism.
And then the opposition came. And so he’s accused of blasphemy. That’s the charge. Now, you need to understand, it’s a capital offense. If he’s found guilty, he dies. The two charges from the last part of chapter 6 are this: one, you’re speaking against the holy place or the temple and two, you’re speaking against the law of Moses.
Now, background-wise, pull out your pen if you’ve got it. The historical setting is this: the Jews in Jesus’ day had come to venerate and worship the land, Palestine, the law given by Moses, and the temple, that unique location, more than the purpose of the land, the law, or the temple.
In other words, tradition over time had so separated from the truth that the tradition ruled. So the Jews were saying, “This special temple, Palestine, this holy land and the law that we’ve received, we’re superior, we’re better,” they trafficked in it, they memorized it, they had an oral tradition called the Mishnah, which had hundreds and thousands of other add-ons to it.
And the rabbis would say the Mishnah or the oral law is like a fence around the written law. And so, I mean, if you grew up as a Jewish boy or a Jewish girl, I mean, there were rules upon rules, and rules about the rules.
And that’s the world that we come to. But they forgot that the land was just a place where God would birth promises to Abraham. They forgot that the law was given to help us see that no one can keep it and there’s a Savior coming.
They forgot that the temple is just a place where God’s presence would come and manifest itself but you can never box God in. It’s living, it’s vital, it’s relational.
So notice now, 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.
Now, as we walk through this, here’s what you need to understand. If you’re like me, and you had never read this before in terms of really studying it, you could read they’re putting Stephen on trial and then it just sounds like, well, he’s talking about Old Testament history.
This is about Abraham and then this is about Joseph and this is about Moses and then this is about the next guy, Joshua. And when you just read it cursory you think, “He’s kind of giving an Old Testament history and when he gets done, they want to kill him? I mean, isn’t this a little over reaction?” That was, honestly…
And then I realized I’m missing something here. See, he is poking. He is poking and he’s pulling down the most deeply held traditions. So, as I read this passage and you follow along, here are the three things I want you to get. This is what he’s doing and use it as a filter, so as we walk through it together, because this is the difference between the tradition and the truth.
Three timeless truths: first, God’s agenda has always been based on His promises, which necessitate progression and change. Now, as I read this, I want you to see, when we talk about Abraham and then Joseph and others, he’s going to slip this in. He’s going to say, “Mm, mm, it’s about a promise. It requires change. It’s dynamic. It’s living. There has to be faith.”
Second, God’s blessings and purpose have never been restricted to Palestine, or to the temple, or just the Jewish nation. See, he’s going to tell Israel’s story but then he is going to tell the story and he’s going to frame it in certain ways where he punches holes into traditions so by the time he gets to the end, they will have gotten the message.
The third timeless truth is that God’s people have historically and repeatedly rejected God’s man, the prophets, and God’s plan of deliverance.
I want to walk through this and I want you to follow along with me and I’m going to take those key areas like location. In what land did the blessing come? Where’s the focus on promise? Where’s the focus on deliverance? And I’ll give it to you first, and then as I read it, I want you to, kind of, imagine that you were a Pharisee and realize he is messing with everything near and dear to me.
And then in just a little bit, lest we make this just a history lesson, I want to spend some time and say, “What traditions do we have? Personal ones? Corporate ones? Family ones that are diabolical. That we’re on a path, that we are as sincere as those Pharisees. We are as blind as them and it’s killing us. And it’s stealing joy, and it’s ruining relationships.
So are you ready? Okay. Stephen’s message, truth or tradition, he’s going to talk about Abraham first in his defense, notice the location – Mesopotamia – notice the promise, it’s about the land and the descendants. His focus, he’s just going to say, “God’s intent was to bless all nations.” And then, finally, he’s going to say, “Faith, it always involves trusting God, and for Moses, faith meant you had to leave.” He had to take a step out of his comfort zone.
Let’s pick up the story. Chapter 7, verse 1. He’s on trial. “Then the high priests asked him, ‘Are these charges true?’ To this he replied, ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to the God of glory. He appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. He said, “Leave your country and your people,” and God said, “go to a land that I will show you.”’
“So he left the land of the Chaldeans and he settled in Haran and after the death of his father God sent him to this land where you’re now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground but God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess this land, even though at the time of Abraham he had no child.
“God spoke to him in this way, ‘Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and they’ll be enslaved and mistreated for four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve, and where they are slaves. And afterward they will come out of that country and worship Me in this place.’
“Then God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision and Abraham became the father of Isaac and he circumcised him on the eighth day after his birth and later Isaac became the father of Jacob and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.”
Now, his defense, he starts out, we can all agree, Abraham’s the man, right? Right. And, by the way, we all agree. They’re nodding. There’s no problem here. And, let’s see, now where did he get his calling? Was it Palestine? Oh no, no. It was Mesopotamia. Oh, okay, you know?
And what was the basis? Was it because he followed a lot of rules? No, no, no, it was a promise. God did the impossible. It required faith.
And so he builds step one of his case. Now he introduces, through Abraham, the twelve patriarchs. That’s among Joseph and so he picks up the story now, and he’s going to talk about Joseph, and the location now is Egypt.
The promise God gives Joseph. Remember, He gave him a dream? And he said, “One day you’ll have a position, and your brothers and your parents will bow down to you.” And the focus is Joseph’s rejection and God’s deliverance. I want you to look for that as I read that.
He’s going to say – God saved His people through Joseph. But they rejected him. Do you see the, how he’s starting and there’s just a little seasoning of someone else is going to get rejected later.
Rejecting Joseph, rejecting Jesus, rejecting Moses. There’s a pattern here coming. Sincere people.
Finally, faith means enduring. Joseph endured rejection, he endured prison, he endured a false accusation. But he’s always going to come back to, it requires a living, vital faith. We pick up the story in verse 9.
“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But,” relationship, “God was with him and rescued him from his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. And he made him ruler over Egypt and all of his palace.
“And then a famine struck all of Egypt and Canaan and with it great suffering and our fathers couldn’t find any food. When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt he sent our fathers on their first visit. On the 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, and Jacob went down to Egypt where he and our fathers 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 amount of money.”
And so now he starts to build the case. And he said, “In our great history together of what God has done there was a deliverer. And the deliverer was given a promise. And the deliverer had to suffer unjustly.” Are you starting to make some of the, you know what? These are the smartest guys on the planet right now in terms of Judaism. There’s seventy of them. They know the Old Testament backward and forward.
And he even uses this Shechem. You know what Shechem is? Shechem is the capital of Samaria. He’s just, it’s like salt in their face or salt in the wound. He goes now, Mesopotamia is where it starts: blessing. Then the blessing comes out of Egypt. And not only that but here’s where he buried our forefathers. The blessing in the hand of God was even in the capital of Samaria.
The Jews hated the Samaritans. Builds his case. He’s pulling down, one by one, the pillars of tradition and he’s taking them back to the truth.
Next, he’ll go to the core. Moses is, like, bigger than Elvis. I mean, he’s rock-star of rock-stars, of rock-stars. And not only is there that he gave the law, that he gave the Ten Commandments, that he wrote the Pentateuch, all that, but there was a lot of extra biblical information about his childhood and amazing stories and, I mean, he was just venerated. Nearly worshipped.
So we’re going to get the longest section with him. And then notice the location here. Where does the blessing occur? Midian. What’s the promise? “Moses, you will deliver My people.”
What’s the focus here? God’s law is given. That’s what the Pharisees like to champion but it’s also rejected. And then, finally, faith means returning. See, he’s going to make the point that it’s dynamic, it’s relational, it’s living, it’s powerful, it’s change, it’s progressive. God’s living.
For one man faith means stepping out and leaving everything. For another man it’s going back to where you don’t want to go to. There are no formulas. It’s trusting and believing.
And so now we pick up the story. Moses. The rock-star revisited, with some of the points highlighted, not from tradition, but from the truth.
Verse 17: “As the time drew near for God to fulfill His promise to Abraham the number of our people in Egypt greatly increased. Then another king who knew nothing about Joseph became the ruler of Egypt. He dealt treacherously with our people and he oppressed our forefathers forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die. It was at that time that Moses was born and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for in his father’s house and when he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own. And Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and he was powerful in speech and in action.”
And now Moses is going to have a mid-life crisis. He was looking for his roots. “At age forty he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian so he went to his defense and he 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 and he tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you want to hurt one another?’ But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? Do you want to kill me the way you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ And then when Moses heard this he fled to Midian where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.”
Now, you need to understand. One of the greatest evidences of God’s blessing is children. Where does Stephen remind his hearers that God’s blessing happens? He gets two sons not in Palestine. Midian.
We pick up the story. “I am the Lord.” “After forty years he looked closely and an angel appeared to Moses in the flames. It was at the desert of Mount Sinai and when he saw this, he was amazed at the sight and he went over to look more closely and he heard the Lord’s voice. ‘I am the Lord, the God of your fathers. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.’
“Moses trembled with fear and he did not dare to look. And then the Lord said, ‘Take off your sandals. The place where you are standing is holy ground. I have indeed seen the oppression of My people in Egypt and I’ve heard their groaning and I’ve come down to set them free. Now come. I will send you back to Egypt.’ This is the same Moses whom they had rejected with their words. ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He sent them to be their ruler and deliverer by God Himself through an angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out of Egypt. He did wonders and miracles and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and for forty years in the desert. This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.’”
If you have your own Bible, underline that verse, verse 37. This is not a verse that the Pharisees are quoting. Notice what he’s saying. He goes, “Moses, your hero, the one we all so highly respect, who gave us the law, he had his sons in Midian, there was God’s blessing. Then he came and he got the hand of God upon him for this deliverance and then remember: this is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will send you a prophet like me.’ What do you mean, ‘Like me?’ A deliverer. Someone that will take you out of your bondage.”
And all through the Old Testament we have this picture of Egypt being this, sort of, place of bondage and sin, the salvation is through the Red Sea and into the Promised Land and new life. And Stephen is saying there’s a new Moses. And the new Moses is the Messiah and he’s going to build his case.
All through the Old Testament we have this picture of Egypt being this, sort of, place of bondage and sin, the salvation is through the Red Sea and into the Promised Land and new life. And Stephen is saying there’s a new Moses. And the new Moses is the Messiah and he’s going to build his case.
“He was in the congregation in the desert with our fathers when the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai and he received the living words to pass on to us, the Ten Commandments. But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead they rejected him and in their hearts they turned back to Egypt. And 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’s happened to him.’”
Well, he’s up on the mountain getting the Ten Commandments; he’s with God.
“That was the time when they made an idol in the form of a calf and they brought the sacrifices to it and they held a celebration in honor of what their own hands had made,” then notice this, “but God turned away and gave them over to the worship of heavenly bodies and this agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets.”
See, when they told the story, when the Pharisees looked at the truth, they looked at it through the lens of their tradition, and control, and power, and the parts they wanted to hear.
He’s now telling the story of Moses and how, yes, another prophet is coming like him and then he tells a story and he says the people rejected. This law that you guys think is so great, which God gave and is, it was rejected by them.
Then he quotes Amos chapter 5 and God speaks saying, “Did you bring these sacrifices and offerings for forty years in the desert, O house of Israel? You have lifted up the shrine of Molek,” this is a false god. They would take their small, baby children and they would throw it into the fire to appease this god.
“The altar of your god Rephan, the idols that you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.”
And so, he’s telling the story about Moses but when he tells the story notice he says the blessings came from Midian, Moses came to deliver, he did have the law, the law was rejected, it was all about faith.
Now he’s going to move to Joshua. So he’s addressed the issue about the land, he’s addressed the issue about the law and its real purpose, and now he’s going to address the issue about the temple.
Because they’ve now got God inside of a box, in control, this is God’s presence, we’ve got, you know, only us, we have it, no more. And he’s going to talk about the origin of, “Where did we get the temple?”
And he’s going to tell the history in a way that breaks through their tradition. Notice the location is the wilderness. Again, we’re not in Palestine. The promise is victory over your enemies. He’s going to talk about Joshua going into the Promised Land and overcoming his enemies.
And then the focus is going to be the tabernacle’s purpose. He’s going to talk about, it’s God’s presence. Every time, remember, the cloud would move, or the fire by night, and then they would take the tabernacle and it was portable and they would move. Wherever God moved, the tabernacle.
The point is the tabernacle wasn’t to be worshipped. The tabernacle was a place that always identified the living, moving, dynamic presence of God and obedience is always moving and changing to whenever God – He moves, you move, He moves, you move, He stops, you stop.
And it’s like a chainsaw cutting underneath of the core of their tradition. 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 don’t, 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 verses 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.
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 you turn to the last page, 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 the 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 are 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 until 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? When you look at Christendom across America, is this not true or not? Haven’t all of us, I mean, I grew up, I didn’t grow up as a Christian. I just grew up around all these people who said they were. They lied, and cheated, and committed as much adultery, and did stuff that everyone else did. So I said, “I don’t want any part of you!” How much of that is in us?
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, the 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 kinds 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.
Could I just name a few? What if, how many of us, you know, including, 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?”
Breaking traditions is hard. 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.