It seems that whenever anything becomes popular these days it doesn’t take long for imitators to show up. Sometimes it comes in the form of a tribute, like the popular Elvis Presley imitators. They even advertise themselves as “Elvis impersonators.” Our local favourite, Rory Allen, is very good at it, and fans appreciate the care he takes in his presentation. We all know he isn’t really Elvis, but it is good fun pretending for a little while.
While imitation may often be the sincerest form of flattery, it may also be used to commit fraud. There is a lot of identity theft going on in the world. There are also many cheap knock-offs of popular brand-name products available for those who want the cachet without paying the price. Each of these is an attempt to profit from the reputation of another person or company, or even to directly steal from another person.
It turns out that Jesus has been popular enough to generate any number of imitators. Most are careful to claim not to actually be Jesus, but rather to be disciples or followers. Some have even written manuscripts that claim to be “gospels.” A popular one among modern scholars is called the Gospel of Thomas. It claims that Jesus said many things that line up with an old religion called Gnosticism. The writer is clearly attempting to apply wide the appeal of Jesus Christ to an entirely different religion to increase its popularity. Jesus becomes a purveyor of hidden wisdom about how to liberate the soul from the evil flesh we are conditioned to accept as our real life.
The gospels accepted by the Christian church as a whole, however paint an entirely different picture. Luke, the writer of the Gospel that bears his name, also wrote the book of Acts. He had been trying to put together a coherent account of the Jewish beginnings of the church as well as its initial spread into the Gentile world of the Roman Empire. In the interests of showing the continuity of the message of Jesus Christ he peppers the book with accounts of messages delivered to various people about the story of Jesus and why they tell it. I would like to turn now to one of these messages that I like to call the gospel of Stephen.
Luke first introduces Stephen as one of the seven “deacons” who help solve the problem of bias in food distribution to needy believers in earlier in Acts. 6. They are described as “men of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom.”
He must explain his faith in Jesus to answer false charges of blasphemy that result in his appearance before a Jewish religious court, as described in verses 8-15 [NRSV throughout].
8 And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. 10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. 13 They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” 15 And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.
Those familiar with the story of Moses and Israel’s prophets will recognize certain features of the description of Stephen. Moses and many of the prophets had done great “signs and wonders.” The description of a “face of an angel” would have reminded them of how Moses’ face literally glowed after God had given him the tablets with the covenant that was inscribed by God (see Ex. 34:29-30). These should have been clues that something God-ordained was going on with this man. He had “prophet” written all over him.
1 Then the high priest said, “Are these things so?” 2 And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.’ 4 Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell. 5 And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abraham had no child, He promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his descendants after him. 6 But God spoke in this way: that his descendants would dwell in a foreign land, and that they would bring them into bondage and oppress them four hundred years. 7 ‘And the nation to whom they will be in bondage I will judge,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and serve Me in this place.’ 8 Then He gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham begot Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot the twelve patriarchs. 9 “And the patriarchs, becoming envious, sold Joseph into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and delivered him out of all his troubles, and gave him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house. 11 Now a famine and great trouble came over all the land of Egypt and Canaan, and our fathers found no sustenance. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first. 13 And the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to the Pharaoh. 14 Then Joseph sent and called his father Jacob and all his relatives to him, seventy-five people. 15 So Jacob went down to Egypt; and he died, he and our fathers. 16 And they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. 17 “But when the time of the promise drew near which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt 18 till another king arose who did not know Joseph. 19 This man dealt treacherously with our people, and oppressed our forefathers, making them expose their babies, so that they might not live. 20 At this time Moses was born, and was well pleasing to God; and he was brought up in his father’s house for three months. 21 But when he was set out, Pharaoh’s daughter took him away and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds. 23 Now when he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended and avenged him who was oppressed, and struck down the Egyptian. 25 For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And the next day he appeared to two of them as they were fighting, and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brethren; why do you wrong one another?’ 27 But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 Then, at this saying, Moses fled and became a dweller in the land of Midian, where he had two sons. 30 And when forty years had passed, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire in a bush, in the wilderness of Mount Sinai. 31 When Moses saw it, he marveled at the sight; and as he drew near to observe, the voice of the Lord came to him, 32 saying, ‘I am the God of your fathers–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and dared not look. 33 ‘Then the Lord said to him, “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the oppression of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.” ‘ 35 This Moses whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ is the one God sent to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the Angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He brought them out, after he had shown wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years.
Notice the terms of respect with which he begins his response. He begins with a short recap of Israel’s history, with particularly reverent emphasis on the very Moses they accuse him of denigrating.
Within that story he also weaves a subplot that will turn the tables on his inquisitors. He reminds them that Joseph, the one who saved his father and brothers from starvation, was the one rejected and sold into slavery by those same brothers. He also reminds them that Moses was rejected by the very people God sent him to save – and not just once! This theme continues throughout the rest of the address. God sends prophets, and the people of Israel reject them and reject God’s instruction through them.
37 “This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear.'”
The last four words are not so much a prophecy as a command. “Listen to him!” Stephen is setting them up for the identity of this “prophet like Moses.”
38 This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us, 39 whom our fathers would not obey, but rejected. And in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods to go before us; as for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. 42 Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the Prophets: ‘Did you offer Me slaughtered animals and sacrifices during forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 43 You also took up the tabernacle of Moloch, And the star of your god Remphan, Images which you made to worship; And I will carry you away beyond Babylon.’
Stephen is reminding them that even the religious establishment God himself provided, the Aaronic priesthood, fell away from following Moses within days of the establishment of the covenant. This leads hearer to the rhetorical question of why it should be surprising if later Israelite religious leaders strayed from following Moses’ instructions.
44 “Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as He appointed, instructing Moses to make it according to the pattern that he had seen, 45 which our fathers, having received it in turn, also brought with Joshua into the land possessed by the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers until the days of David, 46 who found favor before God and asked to find a dwelling for the God of Jacob. 47 But Solomon built Him a house.
Now he begins to answer the charge of speaking against God’s Temple. Yes, David wanted to build a house for God, but God had David’s son Solomon actually build it. Strangely enough, building the Temple did not prevent Solomon from leaving God to worship idols. Nor did having a Temple prevent the majority of Israel’s kings from worshipping other gods.
In fact, practically before the embers of the inauguration sacrifices of Solomon’s Temple died out, God was warning Solomon in a vision that even a holy place dedicated to him was no guarantee that Israel would not be driven out of the land if they continually disobeyed the covenant conditions (1 Kings 9:6-9). Unlike Stephen’s accusers, the prophet Isaiah was aware of the words God spoke to Solomon. Stephen notes this with a quote from Isaiah 66:1-2.
48 However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says: 49 ‘Heaven is My throne, And earth is My footstool. What house will you build for Me? says the Lord, Or what is the place of My rest? 50 Has My hand not made all these things?’
Since the entire passage was regularly read in the synagogue, they would have been familiar with the next several verses, which talk about how hypocritical the nation has always been in its worship. They go through the motions of animal sacrifices and miss the point of worship: faithful obedience in humility and repentance (2-3). The following verses discuss how God will deal with the unfaithfulness of his people in a calamitous judgment that destroys the city and the temple (v. 4-6). Without knowing the context of this quote from Isaiah, we miss the impact his next statement would have on his audience.
51 “You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, 53 who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”
He accuses Israel as a whole of constantly rejecting God’s divine guidance through His prophets, to the point of killing those prophets to shut them up. This is a pattern that they are continuing by killing the “prophet like Moses” that Moses and all the prophets had told them to follow and obey. This really upsets them, but they are not quite ready to act against him yet.
Notice that he has said nothing disrespectful about Moses or the Law. Rather he has accused them of heaping contempt on both Moses and the Law by killing Jesus.
54 When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. 55 But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56 and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; 58 and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
It is when Stephen declares that Jesus is not only alive – resurrected – but “standing at the right hand of God” that they have finally had enough. The man they had rejected and killed is now in charge of the entire world! That pushed them over the edge. The same mentality that killed the prophets was still at work in Stephen’s generation.
To recap, Stephen tells his audience that Jesus is the long-expected “prophet like Moses” who came to deliver Israel from slavery to foreign powers, sin and death. He was rejected, just like Moses. He died before entering the “promised land,” just like Moses.
Unlike Moses, he came back to life. He has entered the very plane of God’s existence, “at the right hand of God.” Because of this he is Lord.
Since sin is what leads to slavery to foreign powers and death it seems logical that sin must be dealt with first, in order to create the conditions for freedom and life to persist. His life as God-in-the-flesh, his ministry, his death, resurrection, and ascension have completely dealt with the penalty of sin – for those who accept Jesus as Lord.
It isn’t that Jesus is only Lord of those who accept Him. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
It is forgiveness of sin that comes with repentance and acceptance of His Lordship. Without that forgiveness there is no eternal life nor eternal inheritance in peace and safety. There is only exile and death.
Jesus is Lord!
It’s not just a slogan. It is a reality.
Whenever that reality is taken seriously by the powerful of this world there is a predictable reaction. Attempt to silence the messengers, whether by ridicule, by threat or by force.
As we look around us, we see an increase in all three types of reaction against the gospel of Jesus Christ. Could it be that the powerful are taking the gospel more seriously than we might think?