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Why Stephen died: Where God's glory is focused today

What is God's geography? Where is God's glory seen today? Our geography shows us a lot about who we are, and what we do as a civilization. Our geography, such as the big cities of our world -- Sydney, London, New York, Paris -- reveal the glory of our western world.

There are many different opinions about where God is seen today. Is the picture of God's greatness today seen in the image of a man hanging upon a cross? Is it seen in Rome, in the Vatican? Or is God's magnificence seen in the shrine at Mecca called “Ca'ba?” Is that the holy place? Will God's glory be seen if the Jews rebuild their temple in Jerusalem? Is it seen in church buildings, or in worship services? Or is it seen today in miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit? Thankfully, this is not a just a contemporary issue.

The place of the Temple in Christianity (Acts 6:8 – 7:1)

Acts 6:8 – 7:60 is all about this question: It was a time in the history of the early church when the word of God was spreading, and the number of disciples in Jerusalem was increased rapidly, and even a large number of priests had become obedient to the faith. Stephen was a man “full of God's grace and power.” He was chosen as a leader because he was full of faith and the Spirit. However opposition arose against Stephen because of arguments he was having with certain men. People began reporting, 'we have heard Stephen's preaching, and it's blasphemous against God and Moses' (Acts 6:11). Stephen was brought before the highest tribunal of the Jews - the Sanhedrin – and the high priest questioned him, "Are these charges true?". And so in Acts 7:2 Stephan began what seems to us like a very lengthy reply.

The key to understanding Stephen's reply is understanding the charges laid against him. The charge has two sides: blasphemy against the law of Moses (Acts 6:11) and blasphemy against the temple of God (Acts 6:13). And the evidence they bring is their testimony that they have heard Stephen preach that Jesus will (1) destroy the Jewish temple, and (2) and change the Jewish law (Acts 6:14).

All this came from their general opposition to the gospel. When the Church started in the first century, Jewish Christians began changing the whole way they think about the temple. They believed that it was no longer necessary to go to a priest and bring sacrifices to the temple, and in fact that because of Jesus the whole temple ministry was now obsolete. All of a sudden these Jewish followers of Jesus began to break with the customs of their law, by eating pork and seeing it as no longer necessary to observe circumcision and the Sabbath. On top of all that, Stephen's preaching sounded like he was saying that the temple will be done away with all together, and that Jesus has changed the law. It is understandable that this would bring opposition. In their view, this was opposing God because the temple and the law were from him.

Their opposition to the gospel is similar to the arguments that still go on today in religion. Today, if a notable Christian were to publically speak out in the name of Christ, against the “holy places” in Orthodox or Catholic churches, or in Islam or any religion, opposition would immediately arise. The vilification laws of Victoria may even incriminate him.

However, Christians themselves fall into the same error as these religion leaders (Stephen's opponents): When Christian churches begin to treat their church building as a type of Temple, they too need to hear carefully Stephen's reply.

The 'place of the law' in Christianity has also often been a topic that has caused arguments to flourish amongst Christians. There are those today that would say, for example, that Christians must keep the Sabbath, because it is holy; it is a timeless, unchanging law of God – and those who don't are charged with desecrating what has been handed down from God. They too need to look at Stephen's reply.

Stephen's Sermon (Acts 7:2-56)

You'd expect Stephen's reply to address the charges laid against him. Why his long history lesson? There's an important lesson to be learnt here from Stephen's method: He didn't argue back at them in the way they attacked him. Before he even answered them specifically, he took them to the Bible, and without making any assumptions, he set out the theology of the Bible itself. That's also the approach we need to take when we come up against arguable matters today.

The Jews that opposed Stephen grew up with the Bible, but Stephen's point was also that they were actually biblically illiterate. They needed educating because they didn't know how to interpret the Bible and how to apply it. Today also we need to make sure we ourselves don't fall into that category.

However, Stephen didn't simply repeat the history already given in the Bible, as if this group had never heard it before. He was actually constructing a theology from the Bible, and it was all about 'glory', which was the root issue of his opponent's argument, and also all about changing 'geography'.

Stephen began by answering the question behind their argument: Where is God's glory seen? And he began by looking at the times and places when God has revealed his glory in Israel's past.

The time of Abraham (Acts 7:2-8)

“The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia...” This is the claim of the Bible, but notice, he was still in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). Before Abraham had any descendants, before he owned even a single a foot of the the promised land, before the law, and certainly before the temple, God had made himself known in all his glory.

And what did that mean for Abraham at that time? Was he to start treating that place as holy and set up camp there permanently? No, he left that land, because from the very beginning, God's glory was always about his plans for the future. God made promises that were to involve changes and moves, not just in their geography, but also in where and how they were to worship God.

The time of Joseph ( Acts 7:9-15)

Now the God of glory was with Joseph, in Egypt - the secular world of that day - even through the sons of Israel had sold him into slavery. God rescued him and exalted him to the right hand of the king, to rule over his entire kingdom. Why? To bring God's salvation to God's people, Abraham's starving descendants. But this wasn't where it was to stop. The fulfilment of God's promise still lay in the future, because Jacob and his whole family all ended up in Egypt, where they all died.

The time of Moses (Acts 7:17-36)

Once again, the time had changed because of where God was up to in fulfilling his promises. Now it was Moses to whom the God of glory appeared. And interestingly, at this time the Lord said to him, the place where you are standing is holy ground (Acts 7:33). Moses wasn't in the 'holy land', nor did he yet have the 'holy place'. He was out in the desert. What did this mean for Moses at that time? The God of glory had appeared to set his people free (Acts 7:34). So he didn't stay there. God sent him back to Egypt at that time. Why? So God's glory could be seen in the change he was about to bring as Moses led Israel out of Egypt and did wonders and miraculous signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the desert (Acts 7:36).

This was that Moses whose own people rejected with the words: 'Who made you ruler and judge over us? This was that Moses who had fled from them to live in the desert as a foreigner. And yet, this was that Moses who brought them salvation and who God used to show his glory.

The time of the law (Acts 7:37-43)

Now Stephen's words began to relate specifically to the charge they brought against him about the Law. Stephen replied that when Moses received the law, the God of glory gave them his word to obey (Acts 7:38). Now God's time had come for them to leave Egypt behind and move towards the future God was bringing them into. But instead, they refused to obey God and they rejected Moses and “in their hearts turned back to Egypt”. Instead, they made for themselves other gods. They rejected God's glory for idols. And so when they did finally enter God's promised land, it was only to be kicked out of it again, into Babylon (Acts 7:43).

And sadly, this is the same thing Stephen's hearers also did. They too had received the law but not obeyed it (Acts 7:43). They had charged Stephen for 'speaking against the law', but Stephen replied, 'you have not obeyed the law!'

The time of the temple (Acts 7:44-50)

Now Stephen's words began to specifically relate to the second charge that they had brought against him about the Temple. Stephen replied that the Tabernacle, which preceded the temple, had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. It was a pattern of the glory of God that Moses had seen in the desert. But it was never more than a pattern, and Israel should have know this. Even in the time of David when God allowed Solomon to build him a dwelling place in the temple, Israel should have known that “the Most High does not live in houses made by men” (Acts 7:48).

But Stephen's hearers treated their temple in Jerusalem as a “holy place” (Acts 6:13) even though it was not even the temple Solomon built. And for speaking about it's destruction, which was something that the Old Testament prophets did, they had charged Stephen with “blasphemy” against God himself! They had idolised the temple when it was only a temporary pattern of the future reality that God was bringing. They had charged Stephen with 'speaking about the temple's destruction', and Stephen replied, 'you have made the temple your idol'.

The time of the cross (Acts 7:51-53)

Up until this point Stephen had made a very repeated and significant point to his opponents: God's glory that was seen in the past was about his saving acts for them through those he sent – even the temple and the law pointed to the future change that God was going to bring. But they had always opposed God's change by rejecting those he sent, by disobeying his law, and by committing idolatry.

Stephen, now pulling this all together into one big conclusion, pointed his finger straight at his accusers: 'This is exactly what you are like' (Acts 7:51). For just as the Israel of the past had persecuted the prophets who pointed out these sins to them, and just as they even killed those who predicted the coming of the Messiah, so too, now, this group of Jews were the very ones who had betrayed and murdered the Messiah! They had charged Stephen with speaking against God's glory, and now rather than clearing himself, Stephen turned the charges on them: 'you are rejecting God's glory.'

What does it mean for our world today? The purpose of the law was to point out human rebellion, and the purpose of the temple was to provide for human rebellion. And so the message of both the law and the temple was that people are sinful. And the reaction of the Jews to the law and the temple actually prove this message. For they rejected the law, and they idolised the temple, both of which showed their sinfulness all the more.

Responses to Stephen (Acts 7:54-56)

It's not surprising that when Stephen's opponents heard this, they were furious. But in the midst of their anger, right when they were about to respond to him, Jesus himself burst into the scene and gave his response first.

The time of Jesus now (Acts 7:54-56)

Stephen right then looked up to heaven and saw God's glory and Jesus was there! Jesus was standing in the glory of God! This was not a vision he saw at his martyrdom. It was a vision immediately at the end of his sermon. It was a conclusion to his message provided by Jesus himself to justify everything Stephen had told them. But it also is a vision showing the time we are in right now; the stage in the revelation of God's glory that Stephen's sermon had left off.

Jesus' response, on the one hand, proved Stephen's very point: Once again the God of glory has appeared to his people, but it was not tied to the physical pattern of the temple at Jerusalem, or their land or their law, but in God's man who he had used to bring deliverance to God's people. Once again God had as brought his change. Jesus wasn't seen there as the man they killed. The time had come for God to lift him up to his right hand as the glorious Son of Man. And now it is where Jesus is standing in heaven that we see God's glory. It is now where Jesus is that God calls his “holy place”.

Their response (Acts 7:54 – 60)

Stephen's contemporaries responded again to God's glory with rebellion. If in Acts 7:54 after his sermon they were furious at him, now they want to kill him. Their reaction to him proves the point of Stephen's message, because they do exactly what their father's had done – they reject God's glory, that had now appeared again, by killing Stephen.

Our response

The law and the temple, correctly understood, have always taught that God's glory is not fixed to places and things in this world, or certain way of doing things, but has always been located in God's own rule as King from heaven through the man he's appointed to bring salvation. And that means, God's glory is now seen in Jesus.

We need to make sure we figure out how to understand the place of the law and the temple in the Old Testament, and not fall into the trap of going backwards. Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement need to hear Stephen's sermon: We mustn't mimic what is past. We can do that by imitating the temple ministry of the Old Testament, or by simply carrying over into Christianity aspects of the law, or by naively imitating the earthly ministry of Jesus, whether it was his miracles or him hanging on the cross.

Jesus has now changed how we understand all this. Stephen died to show that where God's glory is seen in the world today has changed. And Jesus appeared to show that his own place in the world has now changed. He's now not in the world. He is now glorified in heaven where he is moving us toward the future where he is going to change everything again.

This means we need to be very careful about how we think about places and things and ways of doing things in Christianity. We need to resist the temptation to idolize things of this world by focusing on what is temporary: church buildings, baptism, worship styles, the gift of tongues – all of which are temporary and will pass away. Our focus should always be on things above, which are eternal, where Christ is seated, and on the future that Christ's coming will bring.

And it also means we need to do away with all attempts of bringing God's glory in this world by anything other than by speeding the coming of Christ himself: Rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem will not bring God's glory, but praying “come Lord Jesus” will; singing special songs in a special order in a special church service in a special building will not bring God's glory, but speeding Christ's return by preaching the gospel and living a godly life will; looking upon a picture of a man handing on the cross will not show you the glory of God, but letting his word reveal to you the exalted Lord Jesus will. Come our Lord Jesus!

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Cook, David. Teaching Acts (Christian Focus Publications, 2007).