Acts 7:17-43, 51-53 - Rejecting God, His Law, and His Promised One (Rev. Erik Veerman)
“Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Those words were spoken by Spanish philosopher George Santayana, but quoted by others… like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Let me say it in a different way. “If you forget history, you are doomed to repeat it.”
In other words, the same patterns of history tend to happen over and over in different ways. Actions lead to consequences. Certain political and philosophical beliefs lead to certain outcomes. When we fail to see certain things that happened in history, we are prone to have those things happen again.
That is essentially what has been happening here in Acts 6 and 7. This is our second week looking at Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin – which was the religious tribunal. These were well educated men. They know their history. So Stephen is not trying to educate them by giving them an overview of their history. No, instead, Stephen is responding to their accusations. He’s highlighting a couple very specific things in their history that answer their charges. Basically he was saying that they have blind spots. They’ve failed to see certain thing in their history, and they are on the path to repeat them.
Their first blind spot we looked at last week. They had accused Stephen of rejecting God by rejecting the temple. And so Stephen answered that charge by highlighting their history. That God was with his people no matter where they were. We looked at the different examples that Stephen highlights. Abraham and his immediate descendants. God was present with them. God does not live in houses made by man. In fact, some of the verses this morning about Moses continue that theme. Look at verse 30. Moses was in the desert near Mount Saini… And God appeared to him in a burning bush… spoke to him. God was not waiting for him in the promised land. He was not in the temple or Jerusalem. He’s there with Moses. And God says, “take off the sandals from your feet, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” That’s a direct response to their charge against Stephen. The Jewish people said Stephen was speaking against the “holy place” And Stephen responded that the “holy place,” the “holy ground” is wherever God is with his people.
Again from last week, Stephen was not rejecting the temple. Rather, it served a good purpose, it pointed to Christ. Yes, God presence was there in a special way - His glory had filled the temple at times in the past – but it was long gone. I didn’t say this last week, but part of Pentecost – part of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit to God’s people is the presence of Christ. The ongoing ministry of Jesus in us and through us. That’s how we are temples of the living God.
So that was last week, their first historical blind spot.
And their second blind spot dealt with Moses and the law. Let me give you the summary, and then we’ll work through Steven’s response. The Jews here were all high and mighty. They held Moses up as their guy. He was their man. The central figure for them in their theology. And they accused Stephen of rejecting Moses. Well, here’s what we’ll see today. Stephen called out their hypocrisy! He’s was saying to them, “You forgot your past. Your ancestors actually rejected Moses. And you are heading down the path to reject him, too… and the one that he promised.” They were the ones who rejected Moses and the law – even though they thought they were upholding them.
Let’s jump down to the end for a minute. Verse 51. He called them “stiff necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears,” and then he said, “you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you” Those weren’t just random curse words. No, God had called them stiff necked in the past. We read one example of that earlier in Exodus 32.
Have you ever ridden a horse? If you want to steer a horse, you move the reigns one way or another… But some horses are “stiff necked.” They’re stubborn. They don’t want to be directed. They resist the reigns with a stiff neck. That’s where that comes from. Back in this day and age, it referred to steering an Ox, but the idea is the same.
They were not letting God direct them through His Word and Holy Spirit. As we go through this, you’ll see, Stephen wasn’t the one breaking the law and rejecting Moses… rather he was being more faithful to the law and promises. But this Jewish crowd, in stubbornness, they missed the heart of the law and the promise of Christ because of their stiff necks, resisting the Holy Spirit.
Let me put it this way, we need to be bobble head Christians. Not in a wishy-washy kind of way… but we need to allow God to direct us with His Word and through His Spirit. To allow God to show us our sin and our failures. To not let God’s law become religious motions that we go through, forgetting God’s redemption in Christ. But rather, seeking obedience as an outworking of our faith in Christ.
I wanted to say that up-front… because as we work through this, Stephen highlights different ways in which they and their forefathers rejected God and His Spirit.
Ok, let’s go back to the charges against Stephen… the end of chapter 6.
Regarding Moses and the law, they accused Stephen of three separate things. First they said Stephen was speaking blasphemous words against Moses. We’ll come back to blasphemy in a second. Next, that he was speaking words against the law. And last, they said this… chapter 6 verse 14. “we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place [we considered that last week]… and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”
To them, Stephen rejected Moses, rejected the law that God gave through Moses, and he even taught that Jesus himself said that the customs that Moses gave needed to change.
To them, it was blasphemy. Blasphemy is when someone either claims to be God or when someone rejects God or sacred things. So to them, Stephen was blaspheming God. And the penalty for blasphemy? Death. That’s why this was so serious to them.
So the Jews, in their minds, were exalting Moses… and they claimed Stephen was rejecting Moses.
Stephen responded that it was actually the opposite. They and their forefathers were the ones who rejected Moses all along.
• First, Stephen reminded them of helpful background. Verses 17-22. That Moses was supposed to be killed as a baby boy in Egypt, just like the rest of the Hebrew baby boys. But God saved him through Pharaoh’s household! The Pharaohs were the kings of Egypt’s. God had a plan for Moses. That’s why in verse 20, it says Moses was beautiful in God’s sight. Pharaoh’s daughter took him in. Moses was raised with an Egyptian education. He had all the benefits of being part of Pharaoh’s family. And God gave him wisdom.
• But for the Hebrews, this would have been terrible. They would probably have thought that it was be better for Moses to be dead than grow up as an Egyptian.
• If you’ve ever seen the Disney movie Prince of Egypt. Even though it has some inaccuracies, it actually portrays this pretty well. Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s household. He had access to the family – he was one of them. And God would eventually use that to save his people.
• Ok, here’s where Stephen began to list the ways that the Hebrews rejected Moses
• Verses 23-28. Moses knew he was a Hebrew. And one day he stood up for a Hebrew slave being oppressed. And Moses killed the Egyptian to save one of his own. But the word got out, and rather than being grateful – the people rejected Moses. They said “who made you a ruler and judge over us!” Notice that’s quoted in both verse 27 and verse 35. The first rejection of Moses.
• In verses 30-34, Stephen reminded them about the burning bush. That it was actually God who made Moses a ruler – God had chosen Moses to redeem his people.
• God spoke through Moses, God redeemed His people through Moses. God used Moses to lead them through the Red Sea . He spoke to Moses at Mount Saini, giving the people the law. All that history is summarized in verses 36 and 38. We’ll come back to verse 37
• And then, here it comes: Verse 39. Despite all that, it says “Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt.” They rejected Moses again. And how ironic! It was Moses who grew up as an Egyptian, but the Israelites were the ones returning in their hearts to Egypt.
• Isn’t this our same temptation? If you are a believer in Christ, you have been called out of your sin, out of your slavery, out of your idolatry – called away from all those things that replaced God in your life. Yet the idols of our day – prestige, comfort, sensuality, power – You name it. We’re tempted to get pulled back to them. And replace God with them. And that includes good things that can be turned into ultimate things… like money, sports, sex, career, children, clothing, entertainment, and video games.
• Going back to the Israelites… their rejection of God and Moses got so bad – verses 40-43. they made a golden calf, they offered false sacrifices, and they worshiped the false gods.
• They forgot God. I mean think about it. They had witnessed amazing things. God had freed them from bondage in Egypt in a powerful way through signs and wonders. God parted the red sea. He destroyed the Egyptian army going after them. Yet despite all that, they rejected God and the man that God had used to free them - Moses
Stephen was saying to them: “you forgot important details of your history – your own people’s rejection of God and Moses. And now you are doomed to repeat it.”
Now, if they were to respond to Stephen, they probably would have said – “Even though some of our forefathers rejected Moses, we certainly don’t.”
But that wasn’t even true. Let me give you two ways that they rejected both God and Moses:
First, they rejected Jesus… the very one that Moses prophesied about. Let’s go back now to verse 37. Stephen said to them, “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’” Stephen is directly correlating Moses to Jesus.
I want you to notice something. In their charges against Stephen, they used the phrase “THIS Jesus of Nazareth” … and they went on to critique Jesus’ teaching. “This Jesus.” The word “this” in the Greek is “houtos.” It’s not a negative word, but they are using it to emphasize Jesus. “this very Jesus” is what Stephen was teaching.
And notice in Stephen response:
• Verse 35 “this Moses” and “this man God sent”
• Verse 36 “this man led them out”
• Verse 37 “this is the Moses”
• Verse 38 “this is the one… who spoke at mount Saini”
Stephen is rhetorically noting that “this Moses” is the one that God called. Just like “this Jesus” in their accusation. Jesus was sent by God as well.
The parallel is this: Just like their forefathers rejected Moses, so they are rejecting Jesus.
In fact, besides both being rejected, there are several other parallels between Moses and Jesus.
• Both are deliverers. Moses delivered God’s people from slavery in Egypt. Jesus delivers his people from slavery to sin. Stephen calls Moses a redeemer in verse 36.
• Both are prophets. Verses 37 and 38. Moses brought God’s word in the form of the law, and Jesus is the word of God, fulfilling the law.
• Moses is referred to here as a ruler and judge – two descriptions that match descriptions of Jesus.
• And both are mediators between God and men. We read and we sang about Moses mediating. And Jesus is the great meditator between God and men
So you see, by rejecting Jesus, they were rejecting Moses. In verse 52, Stephen even says they “betrayed and murdered… the Righteous One”
This is why he called them “uncircumcised in heart and ears.” Basically Stephen was saying they were unbelievers. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant promise. And by rejecting Jesus, they were no longer people of the promise. First, it was a heart matter. Now, heart in the Bible does not mean feeling. Today we say, “I’m following my heart” and we mean our feelings. Heart here is our will – what we hold on to dearly, what motivates us deep within.
If you are not embracing Christ…. Meaning he is not the center of your life. If you haven’t come to him for salvation, turning your life over to him… then you are “uncircumcised in heart” You need to embrace him and receive him.
And part of believing is hearing. “Uncircumcised in heart AND ears” That means hearing the good news, that Christ died for sinners. That means filling you mind with truth and grace… not philosophies and worldviews that are not aligned with the Word… but rather with Christ and the Gospel.
Rejecting Jesus is rejecting God and Moses.
Rejection of God Law.
Ok, the second way they rejected Moses… is they rejected his law.
The Jews were the ones saying that Stephen rejected the law and rejected the customs of Moses. But in reality, they were the ones who rejected the law. The very last verse we read this morning, verse 53 says “you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” By the way, that word “angels” is the same word in the Greek for messenger.
Earlier this last week I was thinking about this - which law is Stephen referring to them breaking? We categorize the Old Testament law into three kinds:
1.) the moral law, meaning the 10 commandments – its about morals, do this, don’t do that, etc.
2.) the ceremonial law. That’s the sacrificial system –all the regulations about when and how to atone for sin with the blood of animals. That kind of stuff.
3.) the civil law – that’s like the various customs and criminal penalties, and what is clean and unclean.
The moral law, The ceremonial law, and the civil law. And I was going back and forth trying to figure it out. I mentioned this to Coleman last Wednesday evening at youth group… and he had a very insightful comment. He said, “well back then, the Jews didn’t have those categories of the law. The law included all the them.” That was like the “aha” moment. Thanks Coleman.
And actually, there are allusions to all 3 types of law. In their accusations against Stephen, they referred to the customs of Moses – the civil law. Stephen brought up the sacrifices in verse 42 that their forefathers weren’t doing – the Ceremonial law. And the moral law, the 10 commandments, were alluded to back in verse 38 regarding Mount Saini and the oracles of God given through Moses. Which they were outright breaking in their false witness and idolatry.
They were breaking the whole law, all of it. And by doing so, they were rejecting both Moses and Jesus.
You see, Jesus fulfilled the law. All of it. The civil and ceremonial law were no longer needed. Just like last week… remember, the temple was a shadow of the full reality of God’s presence through Christ. So also all the sacrifices and the priests. They all point to Christ, to Jesus sacrifice on the cross. Christ is the Great High Priest… we don’t need priests anymore. We have access to God through Jesus and His Spirit in us.
And the moral law? Jesus submitted to it in perfect righteousness. He accomplished what we couldn’t accomplish… perfectly obeying the moral law for us. Unlike the other laws, the moral law doesn’t go away. No, it’s still there for our instruction and sanctification, but Christ fulfilled it in His righteousness.
So, Stephen was not rejecting Moses, no, he saw Christ as fulfilling Moses. Instead, they are the ones who rejected Moses, failing to see the law’s fulfillment and breaking it.
And we know the rest of the story. We looked at it a couple weeks ago. Stephen’s martyrdom and the scattering of the church, all for God’s purposes.
Overall, Stephen’s speech is a beautiful portrayal of the whole counsel of God applied to a situation. One commentator I read said this, “Deep knowledge of the Scripture allows one to have a worldview that differentiates what is in the world from what a child of God should think, be, and do” He goes on, “It is a particularly powerful moment when the Scripture is applied in such a way that it exposes what is really going on.” When God’s Word, all of it, becomes central to your life – when you believe it and know it – God will use His Word directed by His Spirit… to help you discern the world around you… and to know how to respond and live faithfully to God in Christ.
As we come to a close, let’s step back and consider the significance of this moment in Acts. Stephen’s sermon is a big transition point in the book. A couple weeks ago we explored the scattering of the church. We saw that God used Stephen’s martyrdom to send the church to the rest of Judah and to Samaria.
Well, there was also a break at this point. From this point forward, Christianity was no longer a sect of Judaism. No, this was the separation. Stephen made clear that Christ fulfilled the Temple and the Law, and the old was to pass away because the new had come. With Stephen’s martyrdom, the persecution, and this clear divide on these central matters of faith - the church would now launch forth to bring the Gospel to the world.
And remember who was there, who was listening in on Stephen’s eloquent defense. Saul, himself… who would become the apostle Paul. And even though God hadn’t turned Saul’s heart yet to Christ... Stephen’s speech, no doubt would come to Paul’s mind as he connected all the dots from all of his knowledge and training in the Hebrew Scriptures and their fulfillment in Christ.
And today… even though most if not all of us don’t have Jewish heritage, we can still look back on Abraham and Joseph and Moses and all the faithful men and women of the Old Testament…. And we can celebrate their role in God’s plan of salvation. We’ve been grafted into Christ. And all of these dear saints our now our spiritual ancestors, through Jesus. We can see and embrace their history as our history, fulfilled in Christ, so that we don’t repeat the failures of the past. And one day, we will be worshiping God with them – with these saints, and with Stephen, in eternity with our savior.