Order of Service

11th Jan 2021

Monday 8pm-9pm: Sermon Discusssion on Zoom

Wednesday 7:15pm-8pm: Prayer time on Zoom


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Blessed Assurance


Sermon

Acts 7 

As we look at the life and death of Stephen the first Christian martyr, let me start by reading to you part of a report. 

In January 2020, Open Doors, an international NGO advocating on behalf of persecuted Christians, released their annual World Watch List. The World Watch List provides an assessment of 50 countries where Christians face the most severe types of persecution. At the very top of the list, the countries which show extreme levels of persecution, we see North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, India and Syria. The World Watch List 2020 does not give much hope for the persecuted communities. Indeed, it presents a grim picture of the situation of Christians globally, making it very clear that the persecution encountered by them continues to get worse. The report identifies that, “in 2020, 260 million Christians live in World Watch List top 50 countries where Christians are at risk of high, very high or extreme levels of persecution. This is up from 245 million in 2019.”  Some reports suggest that eight people loose their lives every day because of their Christian faith, other suggest it could be more.

When we who are living in a country were we have religious freedom hear these kind of facts, we maybe begin to ask ourselves questions like, ‘Would I be prepared to loose my life for Jesus?’ However, I don’t think we can really answer that question unless we were in a situation were our lives are being threatened. There is a question we can answer however, a question I want you to keep in mind as we look at the life of Stephen. Would your present relationship with Jesus be worth dying for?


Stephen the man.

As we learned a few weeks ago, Stephen was one of the seven chosen to help the early church to care for the Hellenistic, {Greek speaking Jews,} who had become Christians.  In reading chapter 6 Luke does a very interesting thing.  He speaks about the ministry of Stephen in generalities. Stephen waited on tables and he performed great wonders and signs among the people. Stephen had a wonderful ministry, God really used him, but Luke wants us to notice his character, so he goes to great lengths  to describe Stephens inner man.  He was full of the Spirit, full of wisdom, full of faith, full of grace and full of power.

In the Book of Acts when the Greek word for full ‘pleres’ is used in this figurative sense, it conveys something more than simply "filling up to the brim" so to speak. It conveys the truth that what fills a person, controls the person. The word also carries the idea of being made complete or whole. Being full of the Spirit is really having a life that is totally submitted to the continual control of God.

Writing about Stephen, G Campbell Morgan said this:- 

‘A man full of the Spirit is one who is living a normal Christian life. Fullness of the Spirit is not a state of spiritual aristocracy, to which few can attain.' 

Stephen’s faithfulness and subsequent martyrdom was at its essence the consequence  of being filled with the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s character. This raises the question can we be truly faithful to God without being filled with His Spirit?

Luke also tells us that Stephen was full of grace. The phrase "full of grace" is found in only one other passage in the New Testament (John 1:14+), where it describes Jesus. The Holy Spirit could use Stephen because he reflected the character of Jesus. (Acts: A Logion Press Commentary) 


Stephens opponents.

We are told ‘Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they ‘could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.’ 

Try and grasp what is going here. Why did opposition arise?  What was Stephen saying that made these Jews so angry? 

These Jewish people had been brought up believing the Old Testament, now Stephen was coming along telling them that their understanding and application of the Old Testament was wrong. All that they had been taught or believed was now being undermined. They were feeling threatened, they felt their theology and identity was being attacked. Stephens wisdom could not be refuted, so they resorted to deceit, anger and violence. In a moment we are going to look at how Stephen, confronted their dubious theology. But just note that when these people felt threatened they ceased to be interested in the facts or in the truth, instead they lashed out intending to cause harm.


Stephen’s Response.

1. This is the longest recorded message we have in the book of Acts.

2. Stephen is going to show how these Jewish people had turned their theology into something that fed their egos. What I mean by this is, their understanding of God and his purposes was solely filtered through a lens of pride and selfishness. Their faith in God was basically about them and not about God. That is why they are so threatened by Stephen and that is why they became angry.

3. Stephen shows us that, the theology that shaped his character was the complete opposite to the man-centred theology his opponents had developed.


So what did they believe?

(1) Firstly they believed that the presence of God was restricted to their land.

 At this time there was a common belief amongst pious Jews that living in the land of Israel meant that you were special, you were better than others, and God approved of you more. For example the Mishnah (Rabbinic writing) stated that Israel was holier than any other land because the land produced sacrificial produce which was offered to God. It also taught that no other land was worthy of the people of Israel, and living in the land atoned for all sin. The Talmud tells us that it is preferable to live in a pagan city in Israel than in a Jewish city in the Diaspora.

In the light of this look at Stephen’s speech

A. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia.

B. before he lived in Haran.

C. So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran.

D. He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on

E. Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt.  But God was with him.

F. After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai.

G.“Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 

The point Stephen is making here is that God has never been restricted, he cannot be boxed in, he cannot be turned into a God who will massage our ego’s. 

Stephens opponents had developed a ‘them and us,’ world-view. In their thinking they he deconstructed God so much, that his sole purpose was to protect and promote their agenda.

A correct understanding and application of theology should humble us. 

In contrast to these people, Stephen had a much bigger much more realistic view of God, a God who can work anywhere, which meant that he was humble enough to lay down his life.  Stephen was beginning to threaten their understanding of God.


(2.) They believed that the temple was the ultimate place of worship.

According to the Second Temple period and rabbinic sources, the Jews believed that the temple was the place from which divine powers emanated to the world. The temple endowed sanctity to the entire city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel beyond it. Rabbinic sources established the temple’s centrality by requiring Jews to pray facing Jerusalem—and, if praying in Jerusalem, to pray toward the temple. If praying in the temple itself, one must pray toward the holy of holies. L. H. Shiffman. 

The Temple was seen by the majority of the Jewish people as the most effective manner by which to reach God and secure his favour. It would be difficult to over estimate how important the temple had become. 


Then Stephen says,

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: ‘Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool.'  What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be?"  Quoting Isaiah 66.  

When we try to relocate God to a specific building, and think in terms of a church building as being the ‘house of God,’ then we will exclude the worship of God from other areas of life. Our worship will become exclusively associated with a geographical location, dependant on formal structures and religious traditions. 

For Stephen, all of life was holy. Standing on holy ground was the norm not the exception. He understood that the universe was God’s palace, and there was no place where worship was not appropriate for those who are endeavouring to live for God.

This truth would have further enraged the Sanhedrin as it suggests that they were not as special as they thought they were, they did not have the monopoly on God, God was not confined to their temple,  God did not need their temple. The very thing they consider precious and important, was despised and forsaken by God.   


(3.) Their pride prevented them from recognising the failures of the past.  

Their thinking went something like this.. ‘We live in the promised land, we have the temple, we are the special people of God, who is like us?’

Then Stephen comes and bursts their inflated egos

a. They had continually rejected those whom God had sent.

Stephen mentions this. “This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?" Acts 7:35

"But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.’ And now they were rejecting of Messiah, Jesus Christ the Lord." Acts 7:39


b. They had a history of inconsistent devotion to God. 

Look at what Stephen said. They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’ That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and revealed in what their own hands had made. But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets: “‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offering. forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?  You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek and the star of your god Rephan. the idols you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.

They refused to learn from the past, they were revisionists who filtered their history through nostalgia. They were not realistic about their spiritual history, so when Stephen pointed out their flawed history their anger overflowed into murder.


Stephens murder.

Let me conclude by saying something about Stephens death.

a. Persecution does not make martyrs rather it reveals martyrs. Before a single stone ever touched Stephen’s body, he had died to his own agenda and desires.

b. In his death he reflected the character of Jesus, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  How could he say this? He could say this because he was a man ‘full of grace.’  

  

Good Good Father


Communion


Turn your Eyes upon Jesus


Closing Prayer