Monday, December 21, 2009

A Lesson Never Learned: Stephen's Defense in Acts 7

Stephen's defense is interesting as it summarizes the history of Israel then drops a bombshell in the conclusion:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.
Stop and ask, "Where did that come from? Why the sudden turn from the history lesson to open attack?"

The Incident
The background and beginning of the incident is given in 6:8-15 and is important to set the argument. Stephen had ministered to the Hellenistic widows and was spreading the gospel in word and deed. Being unable to debate him successfully, some instigated men to say that Stephen was speaking "blasphemous words against Moses and God" and "against this holy place and the law." Likewise he was accused of wanting to "destroy this place" and to "change the customs that Moses delivered to us." While the beginning accusations were generalized in order to get some attention, the actual issues came forth before the Sanhedrin--the demise of their temple and traditions.

Stephen's defense forms a pattern of alternating divine command (C) and people's disobedience (D):

        (C) Covenant to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (2-8)
        (D) Selling Joseph into slavery (9-16)
        (C) Rescue of Moses (17-22)
        (D) Moses' incorrect attempt to help (23-29)
        (C) Moses called to lead people (30-34)
        (D) Moses rejected as leader (35-43)

Up to here the emphasis is placed on Moses as God's anointed leader and the subsequent rebellion by the rabble, fellow Israelites, his siblings, and the spies. Time and again this chosen leader (and by inference God himself) was rejected.

Then Stephen turns his attention to the temple:
        (C) Tabernacle as God's witness (44-46)
        (D) Solomon builds a temple (47-50)

This last may be a surprise but is key to the argument.  David desired to build a dwelling place, but YHWH refused promising one who would come later to build the house he wanted (2 Samuel 7:12-13). David assumed Solomon was that one and gathered materials (1 Chronicles 22:2-5) and designed the temple (1 Chronicles 28:11-19) for the latter's construction effort. Solomon completed and dedicated the temple with YHWH responding by filling the temple and placing his glory there.  Notice how God describes his action:

And the Lord said to him, "I have heard your prayer and your plea, which you have made before me. I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time." (1 Kings 9:3)
Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: "I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice." (2 Chronicles 7:12)
Notice that the Lord referred to the temple as Solomon's. This was not God's dwelling place: he already had one. It was neither God's plan nor purpose for Solomon or any of his offspring build a temple until the one came to whom it was rightfully appointed. That was God's privilege alone. John Chrysostom points out this fact nicely.
"But a Tabernacle,” say you, "there was (the Tabernacle) 'of Witness.'" (v. 44.) (Yes,) this is why it was: that they should have God for Witness: this was all. "According to the fashion,” it says, "that was shown thee on the mount:” so that on the mount was the Original. And this Tabernacle, moreover, "in the wilderness,” was carried about, and not locally fixed. And he calls it, "Tabernacle of witness:” i.e. (for witness) of the miracles, of the statutes. This is the reason why both it and those (the fathers) had no Temple. "As He had appointed, that spake unto Moses, that he should make it according to the fashion that he had seen.” Again, it was none other than He (Christ) that gave the fashion itself. "Until the days of David” (v. 45): and there was no temple! And yet the Gentiles also had been driven out: for that is why he mentions this: "Whom God drove out,” he says, "before the face of our fathers. Whom He drove out,” he says: and even then, no Temple! And so many wonders, and no mention of a Temple! So that, although first there is a Tabernacle, yet nowhere a Temple. "Until the days of David,” he says: even David, and no Temple! "And he sought to find favor before God” (v. 46): and built not:—so far was the Temple from being a great matter! "But Solomon built Him an house.” (v. 47.) They thought Solomon was great: but that he was not better than his father, nay not even equal to him, is manifest.[1]
Stephen's Conclusion
Having illuminated the hard hearts of the ruling Jews, Stephen turns on them to show they were just as cold and rebellious as any other leaders throughout Israel's history who turned aginst what the Lord desired, as Martin Scharlemann gives it:

Stephen did not deny the charges raised against him; instead, he confronted the Jewish High Council with what amounts to a radically different interpretation of the Old Testament. He introduced a new dimension into the contemporary understanding of the Old Testament. He did so in his eloquent testimony to the conviction that the whole story of God's redemptive work had reached its fulfillment in the coming of that Righteous One (Acts 7:52), whom the community of God's law, as the Jews thought of themselves, had betrayed and put to death.[2]
The Lesson
Stephen, as the Lord Jesus, died pointing out the error of the established religious authority who had collectively forsaken God's intention and had "always been disobedient to God and assumed that they could domesticate him in their temple and enjoy his favor."[3] This same attitude has developed among believers seeking to honor God but on their own terms and using their own methods. The best of intentions is no replacement for obedience to revealed truth. While God might bless his word as it goes forth in power, there is no substitute for obedience. The end does not justify the means. King Saul lived to regret his presumptuous decision to not wait for Samuel (1 Samuel 15:22-28). We are to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15) and not swerve from it.

[1] Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. XI (Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans.;Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 108.
[2] Martin Scharlemann, Stephen: A Singular Saint (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1968), 57.
[3] G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (I. Howard Marshall: Acts; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 569.

1 comment:

El Rodrigo's brother, "El Rodrigo" said...

Thanks for sharing your insights and studies here Steve. It's not Hy-Vee, and I don't always get up to study at 6 (ish), but I'm enjoying your blog!