James Patrick’s Blog

October 2, 2009

Promised Land in Acts, part two [I&NC #10]

Acts 7:2-53 – Stephen’s long speech to the Sanhedrin before his martyrdom might appear to some readers to be a vain attempt by a condemned man to delay the inevitable and prove that he was actually a good Jew who knew his Bible stories.  By no means!  In this sermon Stephen was expertly retelling the story of God’s people to religious leaders accustomed to putting themselves in the shoes of their ancestors.  By recounting certain features of their history rather than others, he was making a series of uncomfortable theological points, getting his hearers so increasingly riled that they finally covered their ears and shouted to drown him out, and stoned him into silence.  Perhaps it was the points made in this sermon that Paul [Saul] couldn’t get out of his head (Acts 7:58–8:3) as he sought to purge the land from the followers of this false prophet Jesus, one who taught that the Temple and the commands of Moses were to be done away with (Acts 6:11-14; cf. Deut 13:1‑15).  Here we will ‘listen’ to Stephen’s speech through the ears of first century Jews, by applying each story to ‘our’ own time:

7:2-8 is the story of the father of the ‘circumcision’ (the Jewish nation), Abraham “our father”, who was directed by God to move to “this country in which you are now living”.  However, despite the promise of this land as “a possession, and to his descendants after him”, ‘our father’ was given “not even a foot of ground”.  The first implication is therefore that although ‘we’ also, like our father, are living in our promised land, we will be given ‘not even a foot of ground’ to inherit, perhaps not for hundreds of years yet.  The second, subsidiary implication is that there will indeed be judgement on “whatever nation to which they will be in bondage”, after which the nation will be brought back in to worship God in their promised land.  This assurance of eventual vindication against the Greeks and Romans would hardly, however, make up for the clear warning that ‘our’ nation will soon become “aliens in a foreign land … enslaved and mistreated for [hundreds of] years”.

7:9-35 continues with the story “as the time of the promise was approaching” for fulfilment of the covenant of land for the descendants of Abraham.  First of all, ‘our fathers’ “became jealous of Joseph and sold him”, but “God was with him”, not only rescuing him from all his afflictions, but making him governor over the nations.  In a similar way, Moses, who was “lovely to God”, a “man of power in words and deeds” who was “approaching the age of forty”, was still “disowned” by his own brothers who objected to the idea that God might make him “a ruler and judge over us”.  Nevertheless, God “has sent” this same disowned wonder-worker to be “both a ruler and a deliverer” for his oppressed people.  The third implication is unmistakeable – this was a time when the Jewish people were expectantly looking for the fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecies and the arrival of the Messiah (Dan 9:24-25), the One who would restore Jewish authority over the land.  However, despite being beloved of God and powerful in words and deeds, Jesus was disowned by His brothers who were jealous of the authority God had given Him to be their ruler and deliverer.  Even so, God delivered Him from all His afflictions and made Him ruler over both His own people and the nations.

7:36-40 focuses in on the reaction of the Israelite nation to their deliverer Moses while he was among them, as the time approached for the covenant of promised land to be fulfilled.  Moses performed “wonders and signs” not only at the beginning of his ministry but throughout the time of their journey through the wilderness, as a pattern for the “prophet like me” he foresaw whom God would raise up “from your brethren”.  Moses was not only among the congregation in the wilderness, but also received revelation directly from God through the ‘angel of the Lord’ who travelled with ‘our fathers’; thus he received not just the written laws recorded in the books of the Pentateuch, but also “living oracles to pass on to you”.  Even so, “our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him” and in their hearts chose slavery and idolatry instead, particularly after he was no longer visibly among them.  The fourth implication is a powerful denunciation of the way the Jewish nation had treated Jesus during His ministry and even afterwards, despite their expectation of an imminent fulfilment of the Messianic age.  Although Jesus proved Himself to be the ‘prophet like Moses’ with both His miracles and His remarkable ‘living oracles’, explaining and superseding the written Law of Moses, even so ‘you’ were disobedient to the voice of God revealed through Him.  ‘You’ denounced Him as your deliverer, and in your hearts instead you chose slavery (to the Roman authorities) and idolatry (of the Temple system), and all the more now that Jesus is no longer visible among you.

7:41-50 shifts attention onto the significance of the sanctuary and later Temple in God’s purposes for Israel.  In the days of Israel’s rebellion against Moses, they chose to make sacrifices to “the works of their hands” in which they rejoiced.  In response, God turned away from them also, and “delivered them up to serve the host of heaven”, because the sacrificial worship they made in the tabernacle was in reality made not to God but to the images that they themselves had made.  As a result, God promised to send the nation into exile in Babylon.  ‘Our fathers’ did actually bring that tabernacle with them into the land, but when David who had “found favour in God’s sight” asked if he could find a permanent “dwelling place for the house of Jacob”, God’s response was to deny any need for either a Temple or a permanent physical location for His presence (cf. 2 Sam 7:6‑7).  His son Solomon did build the Temple, but God repeated through later prophets His continued rejection of a need for Temple and holy place.  The fifth implication explains why Stephen was accused of speaking against “this holy place”, just as the fourth implication touched on how Jesus’ ‘living oracles’ superseded the Law of Moses and “the customs which Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:11-14).  More important than the sanctuary itself is the object of the nation’s worship, and just like ‘your fathers’, in your rebellion against God you are actually making sacrifices not to Him but to the glorious ‘works of your hands’, the impressive Temple full of your own self-honouring adornments in which you rejoice (cf. Luke 21:5-6).  God has no special attachment either to this building or to this place when it is not honouring Him, and He will remove you, like your fathers, into exile from the land.

In 7:51-53 Stephen has finished his retelling of Israel’s history and made his points loud and clear, and now in conclusion he makes explicit what had been implied, and condemns his hearers in language as vehement as any of the Old Testament prophets.  The reference to his hearers receiving “the law as ordained by angels” but not keeping it (7:53) may be a straightforward accusation of not observing the Law of Moses, which was traditionally said to have been delivered to Moses via angels, but it is also possible that the reference is equally an accusation of disobedience against the ‘living oracles’ that Jesus Himself brought to the people (7:38).  It appears that the Early Church recognised that the ‘angel of the Lord’, who interacted with Moses and led Israel through the wilderness (Exod 3:2‑6, 13‑17; 13:21; 14:19; 23:20‑23; 24:9-11; 33:1-3, 12-20; Isa 63:8-14; Heb 1:4–2:9; Jude :5; cf. 1 Cor 10:4; Rev 14:14‑16), was Jesus Himself in a pre-incarnate form.

In this sermon He had effectively accused the Jewish leaders of rejecting their appointed deliverer despite God’s vindication of Him, ignoring His miracles and ‘living oracles’ that superseded those of Moses, and worshiping the works of their hands rather than the God in whose Temple they trusted.  As a result God had decided they would be taken into exile and be mistreated in foreign lands for hundreds of years, not inheriting even a foot of ground in the land that God had promised to give to Abraham and to his descendants after him.  God did not need a building or physical location in which to dwell, and neither did He have to fulfil His covenant promise of land with that particular generation that rejected His Servant (cf. 7:45).  Stephen’s speech clearly teaches the covenant of land made with Abraham and his physical descendants, and despite prophesying judgement and exile on his own generation, he also implies an eventual return of the nation from exile to “serve me in this place” (7:7).

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