Sunday 19 May 2013

No holy places (Acts 7:44-60)

Boiling point

Stephen’s sermon is the longest sermon recorded in the book of Acts. That’s amazing considering how Stephen wasn’t one of the apostles. (He wasn’t one of the pastors, if you like.) Yet here he is preaching a sermon longer than any of Peter’s, longer than any of Paul’s - a sermon that gets him killed.

What was it that Stephen said that got him into so much trouble? I know that some people read a sermon like this in order to find out what not to say. They read a sermon like this in order to criticise Christian preachers like Stephen. “See what happens when you don’t keep your mouth shut!”

Indeed, there are several things that Stephen says that would seem divisive and even, insulting. He is speaking to a sensitive crowd on very sensitive matters - to do with religion, to do with God. And it is tempting simply to conclude: we should not open our mouths about God in public. We should keep that kind of religious talk indoors - in our churches, amongst Christian believers - not speak about them openly in our workplaces, in our schools or with strangers.

I wonder if some of us here today feel that way? Christianity is fine... for Christians. Talking about Jesus is OK if you are talking to Christians. Try talking to anyone else about Jesus and all you are asking for is trouble.

Today we are going to learn that there was just one reason why Stephen was killed: He believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the real reason - believing in Jesus - and it was reason enough to get him killed.

The way we are going to do is by following Stephen’s argument as he develops it from verse 44. He has three main points - or as I like to think of them, three boiling points - as Stephen cranks up the temperature in the room.

He talks about (1) God’s house, (2) God’s people and finally, (3) God’s Son. Each time, Stephen is cranking up the temperature. Each time - as Stephen talks about God’s house, God’s people and God’s Son - he is touching on a sore-point with his hearers. They get more and more upset with him. But each time, Stephen gets closer to heart of the issue and the heart of the problem. There is just one - and it has to do with Jesus.

God’s house

The first point is God’s house. It is the place where you find God. It is the place where you worship God. Stephen says God’s house was more like God’s caravan home. It wasn’t a big sprawling mansion. It was more like a small caravan you hitched up to the back of your car and took with you on holiday.

The word that is used to describe it in verse 44 is “tabernacle”, which is really a fancy word for “tent”. The reason is: everyone else was living in tents. They were moving from place to place. This was after the Exodus; the Israelites were moving through the desert for forty years. They would set up their tents one day and next week, they would pack everything up and move to another place.

Stephen tells us that God gave Moses instructions to build a special tent, called the “tabernacle”, for God. To show that God was living with them. To show that God was living like them - in a tent.

Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. Having received the tabernacle, our fathers under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favour and asked that he might provide a dwelling-place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built the house for him.
Acts 7:44-47

Eventually, the Israelites reach the promised land. No more moving around and more importantly, no more tents. They now have houses, gardens to grow their bakchois and wireless broadband. Everyone, that is, except God who is still worshipped in the same small old tent he had since the days of the Exodus.

So, one day, King David says to God, “Let me build you a proper house,” - hence verse 46, “(David) asked that he might provide a dwelling-place for God.” Some place more permanent. Some place more comfortable.

Only it’s his son, Solomon who ends up building this new house of God. What this is describing is, of course, the temple of God in Jerusalem. He gets the best architects and builders, he uses the best materials - there is gold and bronze everywhere. The temple becomes this impressive monument to the presence and goodness of God.

You think of a building like King’s College chapel which is five-hundred years old, which, today, is still an amazing place to visit and take photographs. It is a building that is meant to bring a sense of awe to its visitors, and it still does. The majesty if its size, the beauty of its architecture - it is meant to take your breath away.

It’s nothing like that tiny little tent in the desert, all worn-out and in tatters. That’s just embarassing! “Your God lives in that?”

But then look at it says next in verse 48, “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men.” King’s College is not the house of God. In fact, the temple that Solomon built - the original one in Jerusalem recorded in the bible - that is not the house of God, either! Why? Because we cannot contain God’s presence, that’s why.

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?
Has not my hand made all these things?
Acts 7:49-50

This is the first boiling point that Stephen makes: The temple is not the God’s house. In fact, there are no temples on earth that can contain God’s presence.

That is not to say that God was not with them or that building the temple was wrong. No, verse 44 clearly states that God gave the instructions to Moses to build the tent, he gave him the exact blueprints even. But what they had done since was turn the temple into a container for God. “God must be with us because we have the temple. God must be blessing us because we have offered sacrifices to him at the temple.”

And what they had missed was the fact that it was God’s presence that made the temple holy, not the temple itself. Now if Stephen was bold enough to make that point about the temple in Jerusalem, what would he say about our church building here in Cambridge?

Friends, this is not God’s house. The reason we meet here in St Columba’s is not because there is a “St” in front of the name. There is nothing holy at all about this place, compared to say, a student’s room in college with a pile of laundry that hasn’t been washed all term. (We could meet there next week if you like!) Because, friends, there are no holy places in the New Testament. The temple in Jerusalem is not the house of God and King’s College is not the house of God. No, the true house of God is where God’s presence dwells in Jesus Christ.

“The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us,” John says in Chapter 1, verse 14. Some of your translations have “made his dwelling,” but the word there is actually, “tabernacled,” as in the same tabernacle in the Exodus. That’s the word used to describe Jesus when he came as a man - “tabernacle” - and what is it saying is that the events of Exodus, the building of the temple by Solomon were all preparing us to understand who Jesus is. He is the temple.

We are not meant to use the blueprints of the tabernacle to build a bigger temple like King’s College, we are meant to see that it points to Jesus. We don’t go to a place to worship God, we come to a person. We don’t offer sacrifices at an altar, we come through his sacrifice on the cross.

That’s the first boiling point - and it’s a big one for people who feel the need to go holy places to meet with God; who feel that the church ought to reflect the Old Testament temple with priests and altars; who think that great amounts of money need to be spent making the church building a place that is majestic and dignified otherwise it will bring dishonour to the glory of God - it is a boiling point because the bible is saying they have been wasting their money and their time; they haven’t met with God because they haven’t met Jesus.

God’s people

The second boiling point is God’s people. This one really gets the Sanhedrin boiling mad. Stephen says to them, “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears.” Some of you might be thinking, “What’s the deal with their necks and hearts and ears.” Stephen is not making a crude remark about their appearance. He is actually saying that they are fake Christians. Certain parts of their bodies (ahem) are circumcised - but it’s not those parts that make them genuine. Rather it is their obedience to God’s word that marks them out as God’s people.

You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him - you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but not obeyed it.
Acts 7:51-53

Now when Stephen accuses them of resisting the Holy Spirit - in fact he says in verse 51, “You always resist the Holy Spirit” - this is not a one-off act of disobedience, but a constant rejection of God’s direction in my life. “I am always resisting the Holy Spirit.” He is saying that even right now we are saying to God, “I’m not going to listen. Nope, I don’t want to hear that.” This is a constant resistance to God’s word.

But one more thing I have to clarify, which I’m pretty sure most of us are thinking right now, Stephen is not talking about your conscience. I’m pretty sure many of us hear the words, “Resisting the Holy Spirit,” and think it is like that scene in the movies where you have the tiny angel on one shoulder and the tiny devil on the other shoulder, and you flick the little angelic you off with your fingers. That’s not what he’s talking about. It’s not your conscience struggling to do the thing you should; struggling to stay away from that sin. No, when Stephen talks about this constant, persistent resistance of the Holy Spirit, he is actually describing our natural reaction to the bible. We read these words; we close this book and we just ignore everything we’re just heard.

That’s why their hearts and ears were uncircumcised, do you see? That’s why they persecuted the prophets - Prophets were people who spoke God’s word, and they rejected them. And that’s why - verse 53 - they have “received the law put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it. Do you see?

Why is this a boiling point? Because you can receive this word and still ignore it in your hearts. Stephen was speaking before the Sanhedrin. They were the theology professors of his day. They were the evangelicals of his day. They taught the bible in Sunday School. They read their bibles every day. And yet in their hearts, they resisted what God was saying to them in his word.

Friends, I am mindful that as I stand here speaking to you from this book, many of you can’t tell whether I have been obedient to what it says. It is so important that you hold me accountable to these words - words that are breathed out by God.

In the same way, I will be asking you, “What has God said to you in the bible recently?” It’s not a test to gauge your bible knowledge but a measure of your relationship with God. I’m taking your temperature, if you like, of how things are going on in your spiritual life. I think of the prophet Jonah who ran away from God’s word. Jonah 1:1 opens with, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah.” Jonah’s response? He ran away. Running away from God’s word is the first sign of trouble in a Christian’s life. We tend to wait till it’s too late, when he or she has messed up big time. Then we ask, “What happened? How can I pray for you?” By the time that serious thing’s happened, it’s often too late in the day. The clearest measure of our spiritual relationship with God - of whether we are resisting the Spirit of God - is to gauge our response to the word of God.

That’s why it is so important that the bible be the centre of our meetings here in the Chinese Church. The Word of God creates the people of God. The Word of God gathers in the people of God. That’s the bible’s definition of the church - God’s people gathered around God’s word.

It’s not that prayer is a bad thing. It’s not that worship is a bad thing, don’t get me wrong. But neither of these define our gatherings as the church. Be careful of a church that only ever meets to tell God how they feel on a Sunday and meets to tell God what they want on a different day. Be careful of a church that only ever gathers to say a whole lot of words to God but never ever submit themselves to the word of God.

No, the word of God produces the people of God. This means that our prayers are shaped by this Word. This means our worship is shaped by this Word. God sets the agenda of our worship and our meetings and our lives.

God’s Son

Finally, the third boiling point is God’s Son and this is Stephen’s vision of Jesus as the Son of Man in glory. It’s the final tipping point and boiling point that makes the crowd go, “Enough is enough, we’re getting rid of this guy.” Up until this point, they were angry, they were annoyed. But this... this is the last straw. It’s God’s Son and Stephen’s vision of God’s Son in glory.

When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus, standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Acts 7:54-56

Now notice their reaction to the vision. It’s really important because verse 54 already tells us they were angry. Of course they were angry! But look at what they did in their anger because it tells us something very important about why they were angry.

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.
Acts 7:57-58

Two things they did: They covered their ears and they dragged Stephen out of the city. Only then, did they stone Stephen. Why?

They covered their ears because they couldn’t stand to hear any more. What they heard was blasphemy. What they heard was something that was offensive towards God - Stephen claimed he had seen Jesus at the right hand of God; that heaven itself opened up and Jesus was standing right there in front of him, at the right hand of God. in fact, he calls Jesus “the Son of Man,” which is taken from Daniel Chapter 7 to refer to the Messiah, the one who approaches God’s throne to receive all power and authority to rule and to judge from God himself. The Jews heard this and their minds screamed, “Blasphemy! Blasphemy!”

But next they dragged Stephen “out of the city.” Again why? Because the temple was holy and the city was holy.

Do you see what’s going on? In their minds, they were revering God’s word and God’s temple. In their minds, they thought they were honouring God’s word and God’s presence, even as they picked up stones to kill Stephen.

Because the final boiling point is really, the one and only, boiling point. It’s Jesus.

Many years ago, the music team was taught to play one song over and over again. We sang this song almost every week for a year. “In Christ Alone,” was sung in the English service, we even translated it into Chinese and sang it when we led the combined service. The musicians knew it so well that it was the only song we could play without scores.

My favourite verse from that song is:

And as He stands in victory
Sin's curse has lost its grip on me,
For I am His and He is mine -
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

Friends, Stephen died because of these lyrics - lyrics which we stand up and sing so freely in our church week by week - lyrics which express a truth about what we believe is happening right now: Jesus is in heaven, at the right hand of God the Father, victoriously reigning over us. He is interceding for us, “Father forgive Calvin; Father forgive John; Father forgive Paul; because of my death on their behalf on the cross.” We are bought with the precious blood of Christ.

What was it that Stephen said that got him into so much trouble? Jesus Christ is Lord. That’s basically it! It was his trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on his behalf.

He might have offended them when he talked about God’s house but that wasn’t what killed him. He might have offended them when he told them they weren’t God’s people, but that wasn’t what killed him. It was his declaration that Jesus Christ reigns in heaven. That was the final straw. You might not have such a vision from God of heaven opening up and seeing Jesus standing at his right hand, that’s true. But friends, does that mean you don’t believe this? Because the bible teaches this truth and we sing this truth. And we testify to this truth each time we confess our faith in Jesus Christ.

The greek word “martur” is where we get the English word, martyr. Today, we tend to think of martyr as someone who dies a hero’s death for a cause. We think of Stephen as a martyr because of his death for Jesus. But actually, the greek word simply means “witness”. That’s what a martyr is: someone who tells others the good news about Jesus - his death on the cross for our sins. You see, what made Stephen a martyr was not the fact that he died, but that he died speaking the truth about another death - the death of Jesus Christ on his behalf.

If you are here today and you are not a Christian, I hope you see that our biggest problem with God has nothing to do with whether we are regularly coming to church or trying hard enough to be good; no, our biggest problem with God is our rejection of Jesus. I hope you see that it is possible to be religious and still reject Jesus. It’s possible to revere God and still reject Jesus. You might have many hang-ups about God - many questions and doubts you are struggling with. Can I just say to you, the heart of your problem and my problem has to do with Jesus Christ as God’s one and only solution to our sin. He died to take our punishment of sin and he rose to bring us forgiveness for our sin.

But if you are a Christian, I hope you see that the main point of this passage is not are you suffering for Jesus but rather, are you speaking about Jesus? Do you believe the gospel enough to speak the gospel? If Stephen left out all the parts about the temple and the Holy Spirit and went straight to part about Jesus reigning in glory at the right hand of God, he would still have been killed. But he spoke from the Old Testament - giving us an overview of the history of Israel - to show us that the entire bible testifies to Jesus Christ as Lord. And Stephen died to show us that even our deaths can be used by God to testify to Jesus Christ as Lord.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
Acts 7:59-60

These are the words of a guy 100% certain of Jesus’ love for him. He prays for Jesus to receive his spirit as they are killing him. He prays for Jesus to forgive their sin as they are stoning him. Here is a guy absolutely certain that Jesus will be right there to receive him into heaven; into his Father’s presence before his throne.

And when Luke ends the account with the words, “He fell asleep,” what he is saying to us is: “That’s exactly what happened.” Luke doesn’t merely tell us he died, because, of course he did. Instead Luke tells us that Stephen fell asleep. Someone who falls asleep, wakes up from his slumber. Luke is saying that the next thing Stephen saw when he awoke from his sleep was Jesus, welcoming him into the presence of the Father.

Friends, I know some of you are afraid. Hebrews Chapter 2 tells us that Jesus died to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Some people are so terrified of dying, they live their entire lives enslaved by their fear of death. Jesus died to free us from that. I know it’s very un-Chinese to talk about death - Choi! Choi! Choi! But let us not be shy to talk about Jesus’ death which frees us not only from the final death - that second death - but also, according to Hebrews, frees us from that fear of death in this life. It means we know that our lives are always in God’s hands. It means we can trust Jesus every step of the way - he holds all the keys. And it means we want to be able to say with Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” if it means that we will be with him.

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath.
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.

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