READ – Acts 6:8-7:60
The first section of the book of Acts (Chapters 1-12) can be divided into two parts: Part one (Chapters 1-5) is mainly about the gospel going deep into the growing church in Jerusalem. Part two (Chapters 6-12) is mainly about the gospel going out to new places and people. Chapter 7 – the sermon and martyrdom of Stephen – provides both the theology and the impetus that moved the church outward with the gospel. Stephen recounts the story of the Old Testament (the story of “our ancestors” ) to answer accusations that he was against Judaism’s most important institutions - the temple and the law. He explains that he isn’t against either but is for the God of glory and the Righteous One that they reveal.
1. THE SEARCH FOR GOD
Stephen begins his sermon by reminding his audience what they were really talking about, or more accurately, who they were talking about. He is “the God of glory”. Those who search for and seek this God need to remember what He has said about his own glorious presence.
· God cannot be confined – The bible’s story shows God meeting his people in Mesopotamia, Haran, the land of the Chaldeans, Egypt, the land of Midian and Mount Sinai. What do all these places have in common? None of them are the temple. The lesson? God cannot be contained. The story of the Old Testament is clear - God’s glory was never meant to be confined to one place and people. The ultimate purpose of the temple was that it was to be a starting point for God’s people to show and to take God’s glory to all the earth and to all peoples.
· God cannot be predicted – God is not found where we think we will find Him or expect Him to be. He is definitely never found where we demand Him to be. Stephen appeals to his hearers, “Remember our story brothers! God was not with the powerful, the mighty and those who thought they had him figured out. God was with the wanderer (Abraham), with the sufferer (Joseph), with the rejected (Moses)”
· God cannot be manufactured – Shockingly, Stephen’s sermon implies that the temple of God had become idolatrous. The God whose hand made everything (v50) “does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands” (v48). This phrase, “made with hands”, is the same phrase used throughout the bible for idolatry (see v41, 48). The God who manufactured all things, says to us, “You can’t manufacture my presence.” In the temple of Jesus’ day, we see how something God-made can turn into something man-made. Instead of searching for and seeking God in the temple, the Jewish leaders of the day were confining and predicting God - which meant they weren’t really seeking the God of glory but manufacturing a god of their own hands.
The story of the bible reveals that the great search in everyone’s story is to see the glory of God. Yet, in our search for God’s glory, we all end up choosing a god we can confine, predict and manufacture. Why?
2. THE FLIGHT FROM GOD
The bible’s story teaches that every person’s story is shaped by a paradox - though we all long to see the God of glory, when given glimpses of His glory, we all run from Him. We all flee. Stephen explains how his ancestors always fled from God in one of two directions (and sometimes both!):
· The irreligious flight from God – Stephen was charged with being against the Torah – God’s law that reveals his loving will for humanity. In verses 38-43, he responds to this charge by asking his accusers what happened when the law was first given to Israel. When Moses received these “living oracles”, the people were unwilling to obey and pushed him aside, turning their hearts back to Egypt. They made up their own gods. They made gods to match their own values and their own rules. A god whose law matched their own desires and beliefs. Though “making an idol” sounds very religious to us, it’s the same thing as saying, “I don’t want a God who tells me what to do! I will make my own rules and values”. This is the heart of the irreligious flight from God.
· The religious flight from God – Stephen’s sermon shows us another way we flee from God – not away from religion but right into it. The zeal for the temple, the fanatic obsession with the law of God, the ardor against law-breakers – Stephen says all it was a sham. Outward religion was hiding the lack of inward reality (“uncircumcised hearts”). The obsession with other people’s law breaking (sin) was just a way to deflect attention away from their own sin and inability to keep the law (7:51). Stephen is trying to say, “All our religious effort has done nothing to change us to be able to keep the law! All the religious fervour surrounding the temple isn’t about running to God, it’s actually enabling people to hide from and run away from God.” The more religious people use religion to run from God, the angrier they get when their façade is exposed.
3. THE GOD WHO GOES OUT
As Stephen reaches his conclusion he says, “For all the ways you think you are defending God and his word, you have missed the very heart of the story. It makes all the difference - Is God a God that stays in and says “come to me” or is He a God who goes out and says “I am coming to you”? Which one is it? This sermon shows us how the story of the bible is the story of God’s search for and flight to us. He is a God who goes out. Abraham, Joseph, Moses – did not come looking for God – He came looking for them.
But what happens when a fleeing person meets the God of glory? It’s what happened to Moses. He “trembled and dared not to look” (v32). When confronted with God’s glory, we want to run! Even a glimpse of his glory reveals our sin, our brokenness, our guilt and our shame. How does the story resolve this tension?
Stephen (v52) says God has made a way for us to come back to Him by coming out to us as the Righteous One. Stephen is using a title for the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:11. There we learn a Righteous One will come so unrighteous people could be counted righteous and welcomed into God’s glorious presence. How? The Righteous One will bear our sins by pouring out his soul in the death we deserve; by being numbered as a rebel (as one who flees), by standing for us in God’s glorious presence (interceding for us).
Stephen is saying the Righteous One has come. In Jesus the search for God is over, the flight from God is over. Out of his glory, He came to bear our sin and to make us righteous so we could see the God of glory and enjoy Him forever.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions? Do you agree that every person’s story is – at its root – a search for God’s glory? How have you seen this in your story?
2. Why is it important to remind ourselves in our thinking or conversations (or debates) about God that we are talking about “the God of glory”?
3. How do you tend to confine God? Control (or predict) God? Have you had moments in your life when you realized you had manufactured a god of your own making? How has God revealed to you that you have had a diminished view of Him?
4. In what ways do you tend to flee from God? Is it more of a flight into irreligion or religion? What does this look in your story?
5. Which of the following signs of the religious flight from God do you most exhibit? How might the gospel help you change in this area? What would it look like for these things to change?
a. More focused on others “breaking the law” than your own failure to keep it.
b. A focus on external behavior and rule keeping rather than inward love for God and what he loves.
c. Anger when others point out your inconsistencies
6. Read Isaiah 53:11-12 (or the whole chapter). How does Jesus, the Righteous One, resolve the tension between our search for God and our flight from God? Read the excerpt below on the implications of Isaiah 53:11-12 for us. How would believing this change our relationship to God? How would it help in our struggles to keep his law (ie, his loving will for us)?
When our faith is in Jesus, where He is, we are. Where He is is where we belong and where we are welcomed. He covers our sins, He bore our sins, He poured himself out for all our law breaking (sin) and feeling, and he makes us righteous like He is, we can not only come into God’s presence & glory but we are invited to his very right hand (the closest and most intimate place).
7. If everyone is searching for God but can’t find Him, if everyone is fleeing from God and is afraid to find Him, how can we show and speak the gospel as good news?