God Almighty, Lord of Heaven & Earth, God-Who-Sees, God-Who-Provides, Judge & Counselor, our sinful lays before You revealed, nothing is hidden, everything is known to You. The darkest corners of our hearts & the false impressions we put on to impress others are exposed for what they are in Your sight. There are no secrets we can keep from You, nowhere we can run or hide from Your gaze. You know our going in & our coming out, our lying down & our rising up again. Grant us this mercy today, remind us of Your best, the good You have provided because of our worst. Let us see You & be reminded of our own condition in the light of Your glory. Let us remember today, pace ourselves with the footsteps of Jesus along the Way of Suffering & the Hill of the Skull. May we be present there today & turn our hearts heavenward. Remind us, sweet Jesus, of Your love, mercy & grace over us. Forgive us our deep failings, every one & restore our hearts with Your blood & Spirit. We pray this in the power of Your precious Name, Jesus, amen.
Close Your eyes & imagine at the paragraph breaks.
Be present, an observer in the crowd today.
Walk through today aware of what He did for you as your day progresses.
(Friday, Early Morning)
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house, and Peter was following at a distance. And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
Now the men who were holding Jesus in custody were mocking him as they beat him. They also blindfolded him and kept asking him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” And they said many other things against him, blaspheming him.
When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes. And they led him away to their council, and they said, “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I ask you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” So they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” And he said to them, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.”
Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”
When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.
Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. I will therefore punish and release him.”
But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”— a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.
And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
(Friday, About 9am)
Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.
Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.
On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”
“11 The following night, the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Have courage! For as you have testified about Me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.’
12 When it was day, the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves under a curse: neither to eat nor to drink until they had killed Paul. 13 There were more than 40 who had formed this plot. 14 These men went to the chief priests and elders and said, ‘We have bound ourselves under a solemn curse that we wont eat anything until we have killed Paul. 15 So now you, along with the Sanhedrin, make a request to the commander that he bring him down to you as if you were going to investigate his case more thoroughly. However, before he gets near, we are ready to kill him.’
16 But the son of Paul’s sister, hearing about their ambush, came and entered the barracks and reported it to Paul. 17 Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, ‘Take this young man to the commander, because he has something to report to him.’
18 So he took him, brought him to the commander, and said, ‘The prisoner Paul called me and asked me to bring this young man to you, because he has something to tell you.’
19 Then the commander took him by the hand, led him aside, and inquired privately, ‘What is it you have to report to me?’
20 ‘The Jews,’ he said, ‘have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the Sanhedrin tomorrow, as though they are going to hold a somewhat more careful inquiry about him. 21 Don’t let them persuade you, because there are more than 40 of them arranging to ambush him, men who have bound themselves under a curse not to eat or drink until they kill him. Now they are ready, waiting for a commitment from you.’
22 So the commander dismissed the young man and instructed him, ‘Don’t tell anyone that you have informed me about this.'”
I have been in situations before where I was the only Christian in a workplace, and all some of my co-workers wanted was to see me fall apart, to drop my guard and to do something that they wanted to do. Whether it was through a confrontation or temptation to stray from the path, they simply wanted to see me fail. And the reasons behind this varied. Some of them were people that fell away from the faith and thought they ‘knew better’ now and they were trying to do me a service by pulling me away from Christ. Others never had anything to do with God or His church and simply wanted my behavior to match theirs. I was pressed on my beliefs, I was mocked, I was run through an inquisition over the course of many shifts. I was offered drugs, alcohol & the promise of sexual encounters with loose women if I would just go along with them, be like them, and do what they did for ‘fun.’
But I was always able to stand firm in my beliefs because I knew that Christ was there with me in those moments. God gave me the strength to stand my ground, to say ‘no’ and to still maintain my integrity. Was there temptation to fold, to cave in and just run with what seemed easy? Honestly, many of the things people offered were so vulgar and against my character that it wasn’t difficult to refuse them. (This is the credit of the Holy Spirit working in me.) But other times, it would seem easier to just run with the attitudes of the world and to act like they were acting, to maybe joke like they were joking, to be a part of their conversation to ‘fit in.’ And we’ve all encountered these situations, arguments and debates in the workplace, school and out in the world if we’ve been living our faith in Christ.
Because a life lived publicly for Christ is going to draw attention. It’s going to make some people angry, some people uncomfortable and we must be prepared to stand firm no matter what that may bring. Paul was certain he was doing what was right, there was no question. But it would have been easier to just be quiet about Jesus once he had arrived in Jerusalem. There may not have been temptation to live like a Roman, but there may have been temptation to look like Saul the Pharisee again. There may have been temptation to live that old life, or to at least compromise a little, in order to get people to like him, trust him or even just leave him alone. But Paul knew that a life lived for Christ, a life where you GoLove others rather than just seek to protect yourself, was going to be a life that required sacrifice. And in this sacrifice, he would find resistance from others who were still living for self or in a way that acquiesced to public opinion.
In all these instances, Christ promised to strengthen us, to give us courage and even that the Holy Spirit would give us the proper words to say as we stand before those who would accuse us of wrong doing or wrong thinking. For those who ridicule us because we are ‘narrow’ or ‘closed’ minded, we can stand against their arguments & ridicule. For those who are morally loose, we can resist the temptation to live like them. For those who encounter us with anger in their hearts, we can still respond with love because of what Jesus Christ is doing in us as we are being daily sanctified for God’s glory. Our witness matters, the courage we have in Christ speaks directly to His goodness, His mercy, His grace and His Lordship over us. If our life just looks like the life around us in the world, then what good does Christ do? If we choose to live like everyone else, why on earth would there be anything compelling about a Christian walk? We haven’t been called to cave, but to conquer sin through the power of God’s Holy Spirit at work in us! The old life in us is dead and gone, and in Christ we stand victorious! There is something more, something better, something of eternal significance when we will leave behind that old dead life and be renewed in our heart and mind, as Paul was, and pursue the life that God offers to us in Christ Jesus.
“When we walk with the Lord/ in the light of His Word/ what a glory He sheds on our way./ While we do His good will/ He abides with us still./ Never fear, only trust and obey./ Trust and obey/ for there is no better way/ to be happy in Jesus/ but to trust and obey.”
“Paul looked intently at the Sanhedrin and said, ‘Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience until this day.’ 2 But the high priest Ananias ordered those who were standing next to him to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, ‘God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! You are sitting there judging me according to the law, and in violation of the law are you ordering me to be struck?’
4 And those standing nearby said, ‘Do you dare revile Gods high priest?’
5 /I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest,’ replied Paul. ‘For it is written, ‘You must not speak evil of a ruler of your people.” 6 When Paul realized that one part of them were Sadducees and the other part were Pharisees, he cried out in the Sanhedrin, ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees! I am being judged because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead!’ 7 When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, and no angel or spirit, but the Pharisees affirm them all.
9 The shouting grew loud, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees party got up and argued vehemently: ‘We find nothing evil in this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?’ 10 When the dispute became violent, the commander feared that Paul might be torn apart by them and ordered the troops to go down, rescue him from them, and bring him into the barracks.”
Paul is obviously in a difficult place during these moments in Jerusalem. Whether the corwds in the Temple complex, or here in the Sanhedrin, Paul is not surrounded by supporters. But where he seems to stand on his own, he is also doing well by keeping his wits about himself. He is aware of who is around him, what they believe and what is truly important to them. For the Romans, he poited out his own Roman citizenship. For the Jews, his deep roots in the faith. Within this gathering in Acts 23, he finds a way to have half the group side with him based on a theological bias they already held.
Jesus wanred His followers about times like these, and gave specific instruction that Paul seems to follow to the letter: ‘Be wise as serpents, but innocent as doves.’
Matthew 10:16-20 – Persecutions Predicted
“16 Look, I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves. 17 Because people will hand you over to sanhedrins and flog you in their synagogues, beware of them. 18 You will even be brought before governors and kings because of Me, to bear witness to them and to the nations. 19 But when they hand you over, don’t worry about how or what you should speak. For you will be given what to say at that hour, 20 because you are not speaking, but the Spirit of your Father is speaking through you.”
Paul was living out this exact scenario. And although he wouldn’t have been in Galilee to hear this teaching directly from Jesus while he was still learning under Gamaliel, I do wonder if Jesus didn’t repeat this to Saul as he was becoming Paul.
Paul knew that things weren’t going to be easy. There were zealots chasing him all over Asia Minor trying to kill him, and they weren’t finished with their effort quite yet. Jesus told Ananias that Saul/Paul was going to suffer for the sake of His Name. But even knowing all this, God was never going to cruelly leave Paul to stand on his own, abaondoned to suffer hardship. In fact, it was the strength and power of God upholding him through these trials. Jesus specifially says that the Holy Spirit would speak through these moments. And so, in that speaking, there is hop in the presence and in that hope, a deeper love and thanksgiving emerges.
It was wise for Paul to know his audience whenever he spoke, and by & large, he did well identifying them in each instance. But the main thing he remembered was that God was his first concern, not sittingin the front row of the audience, but standing there on trial with him. He was not alone.
As we GoLove people in the Name of Jesus, we must also trust that God is with us, giving us words to speak and strength when we need it most. Last week, 9 people died for their faith here in the United States, hope declared with a gun to their head. Sometimes the expression of our faith doesn’t come with elloquence and many words. Sometimes, in situations like these, a simple ‘Yes.’ will suffice.
Be bold. Declare your ‘Yes.’ Stand with Christ.
“51 You stiff- necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit; as your ancestors did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They even killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. 53 You received the law under the direction of angels and yet have not kept it.”
54 When they heard these things, they were enraged in their hearts and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God’s glory, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, 56 “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
57 Then they screamed at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and together rushed against him. 58 They threw him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They were stoning Stephen as he called out: “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 saying this, he fell asleep.”
This is the end of Stephen’s sermon, but not the end of his witness. A Christian life, well lived, leaves a legacy in the faith…and Stephen did just that. His boldness was not for his own glory, but sparked by the Holy Spirit in Him for the glory of God. His passion for the truth of the Gospel drove him to speak truths that were difficult for people to hear. He obviously didn’t sugar-coat anything, but laid out the raw facts of what had happened between the people and God over the years and their treatment of His one and only annointed, Jesus Christ.
Their reaction to his message mirrors exactly what he claimed of their fathers & ancestors. Nobody likes being called ‘betrayers & murderers’ but Stephen was speaking firmly and directly to a group of very hard hearts. Soft pedaling around with pretty words and overly kind analogies wouldn’t have made any headway either. This type of direct speech was necessary, even if it was unlikely to garner any results. But there was at least one heart present that would be changed by Christ. Saul’s presence at the martyrdom of Stephen must have replayed in his heart and mind later in life as the Apostle Paul. All the murderous threats, all the beatings and imprisonments that he committed, supposedly in the Name and will of God, culmintaed in acts like this.
As we GoLove people for the sake of Christ, we must know and realize that we will definitely encounter hearts like hard-pack soil. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t still try to scatter some seed. It’s not easy work to share with resistant hearts, but we are better off taking the time to share the truth at least once with people while we have the opportunity to do so. We have the knowledge, and the faith, and so we also harbor the responsibility and have accountability to God Himself to do so. No Christian is exempt from evangelism. No Christian is given a free-pass out of sharing the truth of the Gospel message, and we cannot pretend that silence is a viable option. in 1 Peter, we are reminded that suffering for the sake of the Gospel is to be counted as an honor. Paul & Silas sang hymns as they were jailed for their faith. Peter and John rejoiced after being flogged because they had been counted worthy of suffering for the Name.
Stephen’s example is a reminder to us that we are not to hold our lives so dear as to ignore the calling put on them. We are Christians first and foremost. We do not seek comfort, but the salvation of souls. Time is of the essence, opportunites should not be allowed to slip by. As we GoLove, we find that that love does things, it moves and speaks through us & we must absolutely own it as a first priority. A passionless Christian is probably just someone wearing a mask crying, “Lord, Lord.” It’s not a fun thing to say, but the salvation working in us changes us, and someone who claims Christ, but remains unchanged has likely developed a loose allegiance to an idea, desiring a savior, but not submitting to His Lordship.
Stephen submitted to the uttermost. He wasn’t extraordinary, just first in a long line of devoted hearts. If our discipleship doesn’t bring us to uncomfortable places and times, then we need to seriously reevaluate what we say we believe and come humbly to Christ, ready to submit our whole selves to Him.
“44 Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the testimony in the wilderness, just as He who spoke to Moses commanded him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Our ancestors in turn received it and with Joshua brought it in when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers, until the days of David. 46 He found favor in God’s sight and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built Him a house. 48 However, the Most High does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands, as the prophet says:
“49 Heaven is My throne,
and earth My footstool.
What sort of house will you build for Me?”
says the Lord,
“or what is My resting place?
50 Did not My hand make all these things?”
God knows our needs. He does not react to our needs or desires. He needs nothing we can offer. Here in Acts 7, Stephen remids the Sanhedrin that the tabernacle and the temple that they are so attached to, so proud of, isn’t something that God needs in order to be worshipped. He doesn’t require an edifice in order to dwell among His people or to receive sacrifices. God has accomodated the human need to have a set place to do things, but He doesn’t need a building in order to be worshipped. The earth is His, and everything in it, so why would He require something extra in order to interact with mankind? God is not deficient in any way, He does not lack or need.
Stephen is saying this to them because the crowd He was addressing was so hung up in their rituals, rites and ceremonies that they had lost sight of the bigger picture. God didn’t need any of those things they were so worked up over. Instead, He instituted them so that we would have what we needed in order to worship Him consistently. That repeated minsunderstanding, about Jesus tearing down the temple, was something that really struck a chord with them. They saw that as a kind of ‘ultimate insult’ against who they were and the honor of God. At the end of chapter 6, this comes up yet again just before Stephen begins his sermon.
We forget that God doesn’t -need- us in order to be worthy of worship. God doesn’t have human attitudes or issues of selfishness. He isn’t sustained by our singing and sacrifices, and even if there were no church budilings anywhere, God would still be glorified. We spend a lot of time and effort on things that are simply not the ‘main thing’ because we think too small when we think of God. And often when we think of God and His expectations, we are actually thinking about our own wants and needs and desires, rather than what He has actually asked for…
The issues that Stephen was addressing with the men in the Sanhedrin are issues that people still get hung up on today. People reverence a church building or a tradition more than God Himself. They get upset over the decorations on the inside of the church, or the style of music, or how people dress rather than concerning their own hearts with God Himself. The temple didn’t make the people of Israel, and the worship center doesn’t make the church. It is so much more than these basic, physical things. But being small and finite, we forget this and get hung up in the details rather than getting hung up in God.
As we GoLove people, we need to make sure that we are portraying an accurate picture of who God is, what His expectations are of us, and how we are to properly reverence and worship Him. And that means we have to move beyond what is simply a human need and look to what God really and truly desires of us, not what we think He “needs.” God doesn’t want pews and stained glass. God wants our hearts.
“17 As the time was drawing near to fulfill the promise that God had made to Abraham, the people flourished and multiplied in Egypt 18 until a different king who did not know Joseph ruled over Egypt. 19 He dealt deceitfully with our race and oppressed our ancestors by making them leave their infants outside, so they wouldn’t survive. 20 At this time Moses was born, and he was beautiful in God’s sight. He was cared for in his father’s home three months, 21 and when he was left outside, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted and raised him as her own son. 22 So Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his speech and actions.
23 As he was approaching the age of 40, he decided to visit his brothers, the Israelites. 24 When he saw one of them being mistreated, he came to his rescue and avenged the oppressed man by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He assumed his brothers would understand that God would give them deliverance through him, but they did not understand. 26 The next day he showed up while they were fighting and tried to reconcile them peacefully, saying, “Men, you are brothers. Why are you mistreating each other?”
27 But the one who was mistreating his neighbor pushed him away, saying:
“Who appointed you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me, the same way you killed the Egyptian yesterday?”
29 At this disclosure, Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he fathered two sons. 30 After 40 years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight. As he was approaching to look at it, the voice of the Lord came: 32 “I am the God of your fathers — the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” So Moses began to tremble and did not dare to look.
33 Then the Lord said to him:
“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have observed the oppression of My people in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to rescue them. And now, come, I will send you to Egypt.”
35 This Moses, whom they rejected when they said, “Who appointed you a ruler and a judge?” — this one God sent as a ruler and a redeemer by means of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out and performed wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness 40 years.”
Just like God’s provision of a sacrifice for Abraham pointed toward Christ, so does the people’s treatment of Moses. God uses things to get our attention, different circumstances to help grab our attention and help us to see whatever it is He is doing. In all of His plans and in all of the people He used to redeem & rescue Israel over the years, He was pointing toward something better, something more permanent. He was also using the experiences of the people to show them that they needed Him, that they were in need of a savior.
That’s he funny thing about sin, it blinds us to itself. There is oftem so much justification, so much false reasoning we have cobbled together, that we become blind to the actual issue and wind up seeing more of what we now feel entitled to, what we see as an actibity or a lifestyle that we deserve to live out. So, the darkness closes in and covers over our hearts and minds until our justified and rationalized behaviors become the new ‘normal’ and stand out in front of us as the acceptable alternative for a life ‘well lived.’
Sometimes people who need rescued don’t know they need to be rescued until they realize that they are in their final moments. Again, just like the venom from a snake bite may cause paralysis, and eventually death, we don’t understand the consequences until we begin to fall victim to them, losing the ability to move and get help. Sin is mre like venom, something that works inside, and less like quicksand or some external force. Because usually, sin doesn’t so much swallow us whole all at once as it does enter into our bloodstream from a small entry point, working its way through our system, slowly working it’s disasterous effects on our whole body. You can walk away from quicksand, you can grab a rope and get pulled out. But you cannot run from the venom coursing through your veins. It is inescapable.
And so God showed the people that it wasn’t just slavery that they needed to escape from, but from the internal oppression that had set up shop in their hearts and minds. It wasn’t enough that they should be physically free, their hearts needed to be healed from the ravaging effects of slavery as well. It isn’t uncommon for victims of abuse to see their situation as something that’s acceptable, something they deserve, and so we see the Israelites longing to go back to Egypt just after they were rescued. “We had it so much better there.” they would say, missing the larger more important point. They were still captive in their hearts, and God, thorough His loving provision and care, would show them that they were indeed valuable and that they were indeed loved.
The redemption that God provided through Moses was a physical redemption, and that pointed us toward our need for Jesus who wouldn’t just redeem the physical world, but who also redeems our souls.
As we GoLove people, we need to understand that they won’t see the bigger picture right off the bat. Their life’s work of rationalizing and justifying sin must be undone by the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts and minds. It doesn’t change overnight, but as we know, it begins a whole new life’s work to reject the bad and live for righteousness instead. Jesus makes it possible to be made new, but many also reject Him, and so it is going to be a difficult task to convince them of the venom that courses through their veins. Trust the Holy Spirit to do His part, and we should each be faithful in doing our own as we trust in Him.
1 “Is this true?” the high priest asked.
2 “Brothers and fathers,” he said, “listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran, 3 and said to him:
“Get out of your country
and away from your relatives,
and come to the land
that I will show you.”
4 Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. From there, after his father died, God had him move to this land you now live in. 5 He didnt give him an inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground, but He promised to give it to him as a possession, and to his descendants after him, even though he was childless. 6 God spoke in this way:
“His descendants would be strangers
in a foreign country,
and they would enslave
and oppress them 400 years.
7 I will judge the nation
that they will serve as slaves, God said.
After this, they will come out
and worship Me in this place.”
8 Then He gave him the covenant of circumcision. After this, he fathered Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; Isaac did the same with Jacob, and Jacob with the 12 patriarchs.”
There is a lot of trust, faith even, that begins God’s story of redemption through Abram and his future offspring. From the very beginning, faith has been the hinge-point. Abram and his family had to trust God when they left where they were living to begin this new life with Him in the lead. They relocated again after his father died in Haran before settling in Canaan. But even then, Abram lived as a nomad, travelling with his flocks and herds as the seasons changed, in the land God promised to his descendants. Then God promises, along with the land and it’s abundance, a period of oppression and slavery under a foreign thumb.
What kind of promise is that?
“I’m going to set you and your family here, but first, you are going to be slaves.”
Would you want to listen to that promise? Would you even consider it as an option? Probably not.
But Abram did…and we ask “Why?”
Because Abram knew that he was dealing with YHWH Elohim, and not some capricious human being or false god. He wasn’t going to move him around just to mess with him. He wasn’t going to allow his grandchildren and great grandchildren to go into slavery just because He thought it might be fun. YHWH Elohim had a greater plan in mind and Abram believed him. Hebrews tells us that God credited it to him as righteousness. Trust and faith cannot be separated. It would be silly to say otherwise. Trust is part of the definition of faith. And Abram had faith that God’s plan was bigger and better than anything he could ever have divised for himself, and that if there was something difficult to deal with along the way, that God had a greater purpose in mind for it. God didn’t cause the Israelites the pain of their future slavery, He allowed it, and there is a great difference to understand there.
When Stephen began this sermon to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7, he began with the reminder of suffering and redemption. This element was a common theme through the life and history of the Jewish people. God gave direction, the people listened for a short time, they became apathetic & rebelled, they were faced with the consequences for their sins and upon their repentance, God saved them.
Over and over again, God saves them.
And it all began with Abram & the faith he had in God’s ability to make good come from the mess of life. And God would do this within the rhythms of His grace. The constant pulse of His great love, the beating of His heart, would be a comfort to His children all throughout their history with Him & He promised this to Abram form the very beginning. He promised His presence through the good (inheriting lands and the expansion of his family) and through the bad (oppression, slavery and pain.)
Stephen wanted them to remember in their hearts what they knew in their minds: that God loved them and had a plan that was bigger then them or their own wisdom. God’s plan was deeper, wider and stretched further than the control they were trying to exercise over it, and in turn, Him. Stephen began this first and last sermon trying to get them to recall the faith they were supposed to have in God and in His ability to save His people, and so he told the story of their collective hearts in an attempt to get them to see the role that Jesus played in this great love story.
AS we try to GoLove people, we need to remember these rhythms of grace as we speak and serve, teach and share with them. We need to take their hearts on the journey that God has mapped out, show them His heart in His dealings with people, and express His concern for the souls of men, His role in seeing justice done and freedom brought into the lives of all of us who are oppressed by sin. Even if it is our first and last ‘sermon,’ it will be totally worth it to speak the love of God to a hurting heart.
“8 Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some from what is called the Freedmens Synagogue, composed of both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking.
11 Then they persuaded some men to say, “We heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God!” 12 They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; so they came, dragged him off, and took him to the Sanhedrin. 13 They also presented false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop speaking blasphemous words against this holy place and the law. 14 For we heard him say that Jesus, this Nazarene, will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” 15 And all who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
When the Holy Spirit is at work in someone, it should be obvious that there is something greater at work in them and through them than is naturally available to that person, and that is exactly what is happening with Stephen here in Acts chapter six. “Full of grace and power,” “performing signs and wonders,” “having a face like the face of an angel,” these attributes show that Stephen had submitted himself to the work and authority of God. He was being used, alongside of the gifts that God had given to him, preaching, reason/logic/wisdom. He was being wholly used by God, in the ways that God desired to use him. Stephen was not superhuman in his ability to reason, but he became so much more than the sum of his parts when he became a follower of Jesus Christ, when he was baptized and received the Holy Spirit.
God used Stephen’s natural ability to speak, paired with the wisdom and reasoning that the Holy Spirit had imparted to him, to speak His truth, to communicate His message, and the result was a man of God that was powerful in word and deed. He was so passionate, so well spoken, that the authorities didn’t know what to do with him, and so they employed the same tactics they used on Jesus just a few months earlier. They drummed up false witnesses, threw out libelous accusations and did whatever was necessary to rile up the crowds against him. Oftentimes, we will find that living in the plan and desire of God is going to make us anything but popular with those who oppose His will and desire. The truth that we speak will not go down smoothly, and so they fight back, they press against it, and violence has been a common method that they employ to drown out the truth of the Word of God and to quell the movement of the Holy Spirit of God.
But we see something distinctive here, and in the coming chapter, from Stephen. Stephen does not lash back at them as the world woudl expect. He speaks from reason, he speaks from knowledge and understanding. He doesn’t fly off the handle. Instead, he becomes even more plain in speaking the truth. The Holy Spirit uses the knowledge that was already planted in his prepared heart and mind, and presents an undeniable argument to this crowd of accusers.
As Christians, we have all been given ample resource through the Scriptures to have reasonable answers for the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. As Christians, we know that we have the evidence that the world needs to see to help bring their hearts and minds around to the glorious truth found in the Gospel message. But we must engage with it, and internalize it, not just trust in its proximity to us. “Sure, the Bible has answers, I just don’t know what they are or what it says.” is not a valid answer for a mature Christian. We have been given a wealth of information, of reason, an apologetic that cannot be beaten by any argument the world can present to us. But we must engage with the Word, we must examine the Word, we must know the Word in order to be able to use the Word and to be used by the Holy Spirit in defense of our faith.
Too many Western Christians spend too much time watching television & movies, wasting time on the internet, rather than engaging with the Word of God intentionally, daily and growing through it. Many of us are like hammers with no handles. We can drive the nail in, but it takes so much more time and effort to accomplish what needs to be done. Something that should have been a simple task becomes a deep labor because we are not prepared. And from a ministry perspective, so many simple daily problems could be faced and taken care of if more people would just open the Word and take time to digest what they read and find there. If they would just meditate on what is being presented to them by the Holy Spirit, pray for an increased wisdom, and then put that desire into practice, bettering themselves through a thorough examination of the Word.
Stephen was a powerful voice of Biblical reason in the face of strong adversity, and he passed the test of effectiveness and still today stands as a witness for us. But it wasn’t the might and power of Stephen that won the day, it was the Holy Spirit at work in him that prevailed, and that would keep him strong in these last few moments of his life, given over in service for Christ who saved him.
As we GoLove, we should desire to become ever more effective witness for Christ, and that must begin with prayer and a thorough examination of the Word.