Acts 7:1-16, 44-52 - A Fulfilled Promise and Presence (Rev. Erik Veerman)
“I am a New Testament Christian.” That statement has been said many times over the years. And usually, the one saying it is critiquing the Old Testament as irrelevant.
One person who used that phrase also said this: “Jesus’ teachings and my daily conversations with God is what’s MOST important to me.” That person probably has a red-letter Bible. You know, one where Jesus’ words are in red… as-if the red letters are more important than the other words in the Bible. Some of you are probably thinking “uh-oh, I have a red-letter Bible!” That’s ok, one of my Bibles is red-letter.
But you see, all of Scripture is inspired by God. All of Scripture is profitable for knowing God, for training us in holiness, All of Scripture points us in one way or another to our need for salvation… and how God has accomplished it.
And the Old Testament? Well, besides it being the Word of God, which makes it important, it also enriches our faith and understanding.
• The Old Testament takes us all the way back to God’s creation.
• It reveals the root and impact of sin
• It begins to unfold God’s grace as he established relationships with first a man, and then his family, and then a people, and then a nation.
• And all throughout this weaving of history, God is making promises and fulfilling them. Promises that involve land… and promises of redemption… and promises of God’s eternal presence.
• God also gives His people rules and laws that both govern them and reveal to them who he is.
• In the Old Testament, God shows his people the various kinds of sin… such as pride and idolatry and what happens when they reject Him. Idolatry is when something or someone becomes more important than God
• The Old Testament is also full of wisdom and amazing poetry. And all throughout… God is moving towards a grand climax… fulfillment of his promises and laws in Christ.
But here’s the thing about the Old Testament. Actually 2 things:
1.) First, if you are Jewish, you could get stuck in all the outward forms, and laws, and customs, and miss – totally miss the purposes behind them. It can all become hollow ceremonialism and self-righteous religious piety.
2.) Second, if you are not Jewish, you could be tempted to skip over the Old Testament altogether, thinking that it is irrelevant, full of strange practices, laws, and people that don’t matter to you.
Either way misses the boat… missed out on God purposes, and on all the blessings and benefits that God gives us through the Old Testament.
Stephen here, in this sermon, addresses both of these ways that the Old Testament is misunderstood. In fact, Stephen is culturally Greek. He grew up reading the Greek translation of the Old Testament, so he’s able to very effectively address both the Hebrew context as a Jew, yet apply the Old Testament to the church – to us, as a Greek. The beauty of this speech is how Stephen interweaves the history of God’s people and how it all comes to a fulfillment in Christ.
Kids, let’s say you had never seen the movie Toy Story before, and some friends were going to watch it. However, you were late to the party, and you started watching it halfway-through. And you are trying to figure out who the characters were. Is Woody bad or good? What about this Buzz guy. Why is this neighbor kid, Sid, torturing the toys? But the more you watch, the more it starts to make sense – especially if you watch it again from the beginning.
Well, some of the history and laws in the Old Testament may not make sense at first. But over time as your read and study it, you can see how the parts fit together. You get to know the main characters, and can see how God’s plan and purposes are worked out. And how it applies to you, and to us, to the church today.
Ok, before we jump into what Stephen said, here’s a quick reminder.
Stephen had just been accused! And his accusers first said, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God," and then they said, "This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law."
That may sound like 4 things, but it boils down to actually 2. They charged him with rejecting God… and to them, God lived in the temple. The holy place. Do you see that parallel? – between God and the temple. That’s one charge.
And they also charged Stephen with rejecting Moses… well, God gave them the law through Moses – all the ceremonial practices and laws. That’s the other charge.
They were saying that Stephen was rejecting both – God and Moses. The temple and the law. And those were 2 things that they held on to so dearly! How dare he!
That’s really important to understand... because in Stephen’s speech, he’s answering both charges.
It may feel like Stephen is just giving an overview of the history of God’s people in the Old testament.,.. from Abraham to Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and Joshua and David and Solomon. They are all in there. But Stephen is very intentional about what he’s highlighting.
He’s first answering the question of God presence…. He does this by highlighting how God was present with his people all throughout, all the way to the Temple, and to Jesus. That’s the first focus of Stephen’s sermon, which we’ll look at this morning.
And second, God’s law. That will be next week’s focus. We didn’t read the set of verses in the middle about Moses… we’ll get to those next week.
So this morning… we’ll focus on the first theme… the fulfilled promise of God’s presence.
Here’s what Stephen is saying to this Jewish court: “You got it all wrong! You’re trapped in the outward ceremonies, you’re stuck in the forms, you think God lives in the temple!” He’s saying, “No, I’m not rejecting God and Moses, no, quite the opposite. You are rejecting God, just like your forefathers. I’m elevating God and seeing the fulfillment of Moses!”
Just to be sure, Stephen is not saying, “you need to be a ‘New Testament Christian!’” No, he’s showing them that this was God’s plan all along. It all fits together, it all makes sense, and it all comes to a fruition in Christ
Promise and Presence
Ok, Let’s now direct our attention to these words. You see, the Jewish people and their leaders had elevated the temple beyond God’s purposes. To them, it represented God. It’s where they met God. God lived there.
And Stephen says to them, No, no, no. It’s never been about a piece of land or a building. You’ve misunderstood your whole history! And his speech in part is to correct their understanding.
I want you to notice something. The verses we red this morning are all about land and places. It didn’t matter where God’s people were, God was with them. Let’s look at it.
• Verse 2 – The God of glory appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia. God spoke to him there.
• Verse 4 – God was with Abraham in Haran.
• And then, God actually brought him into the land where they now live – where the temple is. But guess what? verse 5, Abraham didn’t own any of the land. Not a square inch. But God was still with him
• And in fact, verse 6, Abrahams descendants would live in a foreign land for a long time! But God would be with them, nonetheless
• In verses 7-16, Stephen reminds them about all that. About the promises to Abraham’s son, Isaac, About Jacob and his son Joseph.
• Well, Joseph is sold as a slave by his brothers. And Joseph is taken to Egypt. Verse 9. But guess what, God was with Joseph in Egypt. That’s exactly what verse 9 says. You see, Stephen is continuing to make his point that God does not live in a place. In fact, God used Joseph in Egypt to save his family. They all moved there. And God was with them. It’s there that they grew from a family into a people – the Hebrews, the Jewish people.
• Next week we’ll talk about how the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews. Yet how God was still with them! He rescued them through Moses. Stay tuned.
• Now Jump down to verse 44. After Egypt, God’s people were in the wilderness, in the desert. But guess what, God was with them there – in the tent of witness – that’s the tabernacle where God was “in their midst” as they moved around.
• Finally, verse 45, they enter the land that God had promised.
• But do you know what? …the temple wasn’t even built until Solomon. That’s verses 46 and verses 47. That’s over 400 years after they entered the land! Do you get what Stephen is saying?
• And here it is, the climax of Stephen’s speech, verse 48, look at it – “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands.”
• And then Stephen quotes Isaiah 66, to prove his point that it’s never been that way. “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool” Says the Lord.
God is not bound to the temple. He never has been. God was with his people all throughout, wherever they were. Leading and saving them. It was never about the Temple. Now, the Temple did serve an important purpose. Yes, God met with them in the temple in a special way. That happened through ceremonies and events. But God established those things to teach them. They were shadows that pointed forward to a greater reality. But the Jews had mistaken the temple, and the temple practices as the reality, not the shadows. And in doing that, they missed God in the process.
And let me say, that continues today. I’ve been to Jerusalem twice. Some of the structures still remain. For example, the temple used to be perched up on top of what’s called the Temple Mount. It’s this massive platform, 37 acres. Some of the supporting walls are 100-feet high… built with huge stones. The Temple itself is no longer there, but the Temple Mount still remains.
The temple was destroyed in 70 AD. And today, a golden mosque sits on the temple mount. The Jewish people are not allowed into the temple mount area where the mosque it. No, rather, the closest they can get to where the original Temple … is the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.
On both of my visits to Jerusalem, I visited the Western Wall. It’s a very sacred place for them. When you go in to the area, they give you a paper head covering. They also offer you a piece of paper and a pencil to write something like a prayer, because, after all, you’re close to God. You could then fold the paper and put it in one of the cracks between the stones in the wall. So I took my piece of paper… and I wrote on it: “Erik was here” and I stuffed it in the rock.
Overall, it’s a sad sight to behold. The Jewish people sit or stand next to the wall and they rock back and forth… or they put their hands on the wall. Sometimes the wall is called the wailing wall… because of their lamenting, their crying and wailing that the temple is no longer there.
Just like back then, so today, this holy place has become an idol – In other words, they’re exalting the place over and above the living God – who does not dwell in houses made by hands
Let’s go back to their charge against Stephen. They accused him of teaching, “Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place.” Well that’s actually true! Jesus had said that the temple would be destroyed but he would raise it up in three days! That’s John chapter 2. The apostle John notes that Jesus was referring to his body. Referring to his death and resurrection. At that time, Jesus was pointing beyond the temple. Beyond all the elements and signs of the temple to something greater.
When Jesus died on the cross, something happened that we don’t often talk about. We read it, but usually skim over it. But in fact, it’s one of the most significant incidents – and it happened right as Jesus breathed his last. You can read it in your bulletin – the Matthew 27 reading. “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.”
Inside of the temple was this large thick curtain – multiple inches thick. And it separated the main room of the temple from the inner room, which was called the holy of holies. In there were several things including the Ark of the Covenant, which had a copy of the 10 commandments, and Aaron’s Rod, and some of the manna – that’s the bread that God daily gave them in the wilderness. Also in the Holy of Holies was the mercy seat, and table of incense, the lampstand, and the bread of the presence. We don’t have time to go into all those details. The only one allowed into the Holy of Holies was the High Priest. And only once a year at that. And when he was in there he would intercede for the people and for himself.
Now, some of you may be thinking … “see! All that Old Testament stuff. Like, what does it mean and why is it important to me?”
The purpose of the Holy of Holies was to point to the very presence of God… and to indicate, and this is the important point, what is required to be in God’s presence. In fact, the Holy of Holies pointed back to the Garden of Eden. That’s where Adam and Eve, the first humans, communed perfectly in God’s presence… before sin. The lampstands represented trees from the garden. Two cherubim were engraved on the curtain. They pointed to the cherubim guarding the garden. And the manna pointed to God’s sustaining grace. The 10 commandments pointed to perfection in His presence. The mercy seat, in fact, was identified in Exodus 25 as where God would meet them. It all represented in one way or another, God’s presence and how to commune with him.
Each one of those things, by themselves, deepens our understanding of God and his grace. Even the priest! The High Priest had to intercede not just for the people, but for himself. These are the shadows that point to the realities. These are not the realities. But the Jewish people mistook them for the realities.
And when Jesus died on the cross - the temple curtain was torn in two. Why? Because Christ fulfilled these shadows. Through Jesus, we can come into the very presence of God. The Temple is no longer needed!
• He perfectly fulfilled the law-the 10 commandments.
• He is the one who feeds us spiritual manna. He is the manna, the Bread of Life.
• He is the perfect High Priest – we’ll spend more time on that next week.
• Through Christ, our communion with God is restored
God established the Temple to point forward to Christ. It was never about the Temple itself, it was never about the land, it was God teaching them …and pointing to a restored relationship with him, through Christ.
I have a dear friend who has been serving in the US Army for about 25 years now. Back in the early 2000s, he got his orders to deploy to Iraq. He would be gone for about a year. At the time, his wife was pregnant. She was almost due with their first child, a son. Well, they wanted their son, when he was born, to have a connection with his dad, even though he wouldn’t meet his dad in person for almost a year. This was before Skype, and there weren’t many opportunities to talk on the phone. So, they made a life-sized poster of my friend. They hung it up right next to the crib that they had set up. My friend also recorded his voice, reading children’s stories, and praying.
Soon he deployed… and his wife shortly thereafter gave birth to their son. Well, all through the first year of this boy’s life, his mom referred to the poster of his dad, played the audio of his dad reading different books and praying for him. Those were the shadows of the reality. They were pictures and things to help. But then, one day, his dad came home. They met in person, and he and his son embraced – the son recognized his dad. He was there in the flesh, the full reality. They could hug and play games, and his dad could read books and interact with him, and teach him. They didn’t need the poster any more. It served a great purpose. They could tear it down. They didn’t need the recordings any more. They could talk in person.
Now what if this young boy rejected his dad and kept pointing to the poster or wanting to listen to the recordings? Well, he wouldn’t have understood their purpose. They pointed to his dad, they were not his dad.
You see, it’s the same with Christ. The promise of land and the establishment of the temple – they were merely pointing forward to show them and to show us who the Savior is. But one day, Christ came in the flesh. His very presence was with his people. And he would accomplish what he came to do, to die and be raised, to restore our relationship with God. When Jesus came and fulfilled the promises, it didn’t diminish the value of learning from the Temple and its ceremonies. Read the book of Hebrews and you’ll see that. But the time had come for the shadows to come to an end, and for the realities to replace them. Why? because the true substance was Christ.
Application and conclusion
And, today, we’re tempted to do the same thing. To look for God in places - not the temple, of course - but to seek sanctuaries, or to think that merely going to church makes you a Christian, or to seek for God in ceremonies, or to mistake feelings for closeness to God, or to idolize people - pastors even… thinking certain people have better access to God.
But if you are a believer in Christ – if you’ve turned your life to him. Then you have the realities of God’s presence in Christ. You are a “temple of the living God,” as the Word says – because Christ is in you. Given to you. The curtain was torn for you. You don’t need a priest, you don’t need to perform a special ceremony, or go to a sacred place. You have access to God through Christ. You can come before him in prayer and you can worship him. And Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, Moses, David, and Solomon. They, too, had access to God through Christ. Through the promised one to come. The Righteous One as verse 52 highlights.
And this reality of God’s presence in Christ, now, will be the reality for eternity. In the heavenly vision God gave the apostle John, Revelation 21, he said, “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” The Lamb being Jesus.
So may we see the promises of God’s presence, fulfilled in Christ. And may we forsake all the wrong ways in which we pursue his presence, and instead come to him through faith in Christ.