Sunday 12 May 2013

The reason for rejection (Acts 7:17-43)

“We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.”

“We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

Moses was a national hero; a religious icon. For Stephen to say anything remotely negative about Moses was tantamount to blasphemy. Moses was the man of God responsible for saving the people of God.

So it would have surprised them to hear Stephen speak so powerfully from the life of Moses; recounting the events of the burning bush, the escape from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the giving of the Ten Commandments. Moses was, indeed, a man of God. But Stephen’s point was this: Moses was a man rejected by the people of God.

Rejection. What characterized the life of Moses more than anything else – more than success, more than power – was rejection. Verse 35, “This is the same Moses whom they had rejected.” Verse 39, “But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him.”

I want us to see two things from today’s passage:
1      The reality of rejection
2      The reason for rejection

The reality of rejection

The first point is the reality of rejection. Rejection is real. It is part of everyday life.  Every time you apply for a new job you risk being rejected. Every guy who asks a girl out for the first time risks being rejected. There is something real – something almost necessary about rejection – that teaches us boldness, that teaches us humility; that prepares us for the challenges of everyday life.

Conversely, those who do not learn to deal with rejection – those, who live their whole lives free from rejection – are often those who end up being crushed by rejection. That is what we see in the life of Moses.

At the time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for in his father’s house. When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.
Acts 7:20-22

As a child, Moses was privileged and protected. Adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, raised a rich man’s son, sent to university to be educated “in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” (verse 22) Moses had a privileged and charmed life.

Yet at the same time, his was a protected life. At a time when Hebrew babies were being killed in an act of genocide by Pharaoh, who in verse 19, forced their fathers to “throw out their newborn babies so that they would die,” Moses was raised for three months in his own father’s house, and then in Pharaoh’s house.

At a time when his Jewish brothers were forced to work as slaves, Moses went to Cambridge and got his degree with honours. Moses was protected from harm, from discomfort; he was even protected from death.

But God would not protect him from rejection.

When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. He saw one of them being ill-treated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defence and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. The next day Moses came upon two Israelites, who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, “Men, you are brothers; why do want to hurt each other?”

But the man who was ill-treating the other pushed Moses aside and said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?” When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.
Acts 7:23-29

At forty years old and in the prime of his life, Moses thought he was the perfect guy to save his people. If he were alive today, he would be the ideal candidate to run for Prime Minister. That must have been why God has blessed me with all this privilege, so he thought. He had the smarts, the money, the political influence; he was physically strong – strong enough to kill that Egyptian who was ill-treating his fellow Israelite.

And yet instead of the praise and adulation Moses thought he would receive, what he got instead was rejection. “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” Notice in verse 27, how the man pushes Moses aside. “Don’t think I’m afraid of you,” he seems to be saying, “I saw you kill that man yesterday.”

Just like that, Moses packs his bags and runs for his life. For the next forty years, he becomes a foreigner – a nobody. Quite different from his first forty years of privilege. No one was protecting him now. Moses ends up raising sheep. He has two kids. This is his life now: as a nobody in a foreign land working a 9-to-5 job looking after smelly animals.

But it is after these forty years, that God choose to reveal himself to him.

After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to look more closely, he heard the Lord’s voice: “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.
Then the Lord said to him, “Take off your sandals; the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.”
Acts 7:30-34

God reveals himself to Moses. “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” “I have seen their oppression,” “I have heard their groaning,” “I have come down to set them free.” God reveals who he is and what he is about to do. He is going to save his people.

Only, at the end, God says, “I am going to send you.” Now, that’s surprising. If God is going to do all these things, why does he need to send Moses? Why does he wait forty years for Moses to grow old in desert before sending him?

Stephen tells us why in verse 35. It was so that Israel would recognize that it was God who had sent Moses, and the way they were to recognize him was by their rejection.

This is the same Moses, whom they had rejected with the words, “Who made you ruler and judge?” He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out of Egypt and did wonders and miraculous signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the desert.
Acts 7:35-36

Remember the question of the Israelite man who threatened Moses back in verse 27: “Who made you ruler and judge?” God waited forty years to answer that question. “I did.” The one they rejected became the one God elected. Rejection is real, and if you are to be of any use to God, the bible teaches us that rejection is necessary. It is an essential marker of God’s servant: You will be rejected. Expect it. Prepare for it.

But a valid question to ask is: Why? Why is it necessary for God’s servant to be rejected? The answer is: God is a rejected God. The answer is: Every single one of us, who have been created by God, have rejected him as God. That was the nature of the question, “Who made you ruler and judge?” We do not want to be ruled by anyone, even by the one who is rightfully our Ruler and our Judge.

This is what the bible means by sin. A lot of people think sin means breaking a rule or doing bad things. And that is true of the religions of the world which teach us ways to make up for our sins by doing this and doing that, and it is perhaps the biggest difference between Christianity and any other world religion which teaches us what we need to do: Christianity teaches us what God has done.

Because what we see here is a God who saves his people while they are still sinners; while they are still rebelling against him as God. God has compassion on them. He sees their suffering. He still hears their cries for help. And he sends the man whom they have clearly rejected to be their saviour. “This same Moses whom they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’” God himself made him ruler and judge, that’s who!

That was important for the Israelites to recognize. But it was also important for Moses to recognize – that God did this. Last week, a brother asked me a question about humility. He said, “How do we stay humble when preaching the gospel?” That question really pierced me because, honestly, I had just been saying some very proud things leading up to that question. We were talking about ministry and I was boasting about the growth we have been experiencing here in the English Congregation.

I answered him in this way, “By confessing our sin. By being real with our sin.” The number one way we stay humble is by realizing how sinful we are and how rebellious we still are against God. I keep trying to steal glory from God. I keep putting myself in the place of God and that’s my sinful nature working its way out – even in the context of church, even in the context of serving Jesus. That is just how sinful I am.

And when God humbles us to show us how we have rebelled against him, and still forgive us through the blood of Christ, we realize how unworthy we are and how gracious our Father is. He clothes us with his grace. He restores us in his love.

It wasn’t the first season of protection and privilege that made Moses suitable as God’s man; it was that second season of humility and rejection that prepared him as God’s servant. Such that when Moses did lead Israel out of Egypt and did all those miracles and wonders in Egypt and Red Sea and in the desert, it would be clear that it wasn’t Moses who did these things; it was God. “I am the God of your fathers,” God says to him. “I have seen. I have heard.”

“And I will save.”

2. The reason for rejection

Secondly, we see the reason for rejection.

This is the Moses who told the Israelites, “God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.” He was in assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him from Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.
Acts 7:37-38

Here, Stephen begins to draw the connection between what happened with Moses in the desert and what it means for us today. Remember back in Chapter 6, Stephen is accused of changing the customs “Moses handed down to us.” Here Stephen talks about the “living words” which Moses received and then “passed on to us”.

And what Stephen is saying is: There is a connection between what happened then and what is happening today in the church. There is a connection between what they did then and what we do today as the church. And what Stephen is giving us is the reason why Christians meet today as the church and the reason is this: We are gathered together by God’s word. That is the bible’s definition of a true biblical church – God’s people gathered around God’s word. (In fact, the word “assembly” in verse 38 is the same word elsewhere translated as “church” - ekklesia)

Moses was a prophet. His job was to be God’s spokesman; to speak God’s words on God’s behalf. “This is what God says,” is a common phrase the prophets of the Old Testament tend to use, or “Thus saith the Lord,” as the older King James bible put it.

What Moses passed down to us was not a set of rules nor a series of traditions but “living words.” This is not an academic lecture. We are not reading a story about an interesting man in ancient times. God is speaking to us by his Word through his Spirit, and these words we are reading are able to bring life! That’s why the bible is at the centre of our gatherings here at the Chinese Church. We want to hear God’s voice. We want to know God’s will. And we receive this through God’s word.

But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.
Acts 7:39

What is new here? Didn’t we already learn that the people rejected Moses back in Egypt? Well, this rejection happens after Egypt. Before, you could almost understand their rejection – they were bitter, they maybe resented Moses for his wealth and pride, they didn’t want help from some rich stuck-up kid doing them any favours.

But this is after Egypt; after Moses has rescued them from slavery and after he has brought them safely through the desert. This is after Moses had spoken to them God’s word. We read, “They refused to obey him.” Such was the extent of their rejection of God’s word that in their hearts they would rather be slaves all over again.

What we see here is a rejection of God’s salvation. That might sound foolish at first. Why would anyone reject salvation? The answer, according to Stephen, is: We want to be our own saviours.

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 reveled in what they own hands had made.
Acts 7:39-41

The Israelites make their own gods. They made an idol and rejoiced at what their own hands had made. “Look! Look at my god! This thing I made that has saved us!”

We want to be our own saviours so badly that even after we have experienced God’s blessing – even after we have called out to God for help and he answers by rescuing us out of that trouble, out of that illness, out of that dangerous situation – we turn around and say, “Isn’t it a good thing I remembered to pray.” “Isn’t it good that I’m serving in the music ministry.” We steal God’s glory by claiming the credit for ourselves.

This is the reason for our rejection of God: We want to be self-saviours. We want to be our self-gods. But there is a second reason for our rejection and it is this: God gives us over to our rejection. He allows us to carry on in our rejection.

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 offerings
for 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.

Acts 7:42-43

The worst thing that God can do to us in this life is not to punish us for our rejection. Rather it is to let us carry on in our rejection. “God gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and the stars.”

One day God will punish such rejection, I’m not saying he won’t. Hence verse 43, where he sends them back into slavery, back into exile as punishment. But long before that, God had poured out his judgement in a different sense: He lets go of them. They say to him, “I don’t want you, I don’t need you.” And it gets to a point where God simply says, “OK.” He gives them what they want and that is a chilling thought.

Romans 1 says, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” What follows is the phrase, “God gave them over,” repeated three times: “God gave them over,” “God gave them over.”

When God gives us over to our rejection, he gives us over to our selfishness, he gives us over to our wickedness and we spiral down this hole of self-centredness thinking how wonderful it is we can now do everything we want our way, oblivious to our own self-destruction and God’s judgement over our sin.

What this is, is a preview of hell. Friends, there will be no repentance in hell. There won’t be people in hell going, “I’m sorry, I can’t take it anymore, I’ve made a mistake.” Rather hell is a place where men and women continue to shake their fists against God as they stand under his righteous anger over their rejection.

Why would anyone reject God’s salvation? Because we want to be gods over our own lives. The bible calls this idolatry. Idolatry is not going to temples and bowing down to statues - I mean, idolatry is more than that. Idolatry is making god in own image, manufacturing a god we control. An idol can be our career, our good looks, our intellect, our money, our family, our abilities, our ministry, our achievements. An idol is a god of our own making; a god in our own image.

The God who takes our rejection on himself

Let’s pause and take a step back for a moment. Why does Stephen summarise the life of Moses in terms of rejection? We have been talking about some pretty heavy issues here – sin, idolatry, judgement – and if I were Stephen, facing an angry mob, I would be want to be careful about causing more offence than I’ve already done. Why does Stephen highlight this theme of rejection in the bible? Is he trying to get himself killed?

In one sense, Stephen is simply being bold in his witness of Jesus. He doesn’t back down from proclaiming the gospel. But in another sense, what Stephen is doing is actually helping his hearers to see and understand the gospel.

Think of it like this: When someone is really angry with you; when someone is furious with you and is shouting abuse at you – what rarely works is to hold up a mirror to that angry person and go, “See how silly you look when you’re angry!” If anything you’ll just make him even more furious!

I say this because it is tempting to use what we have learned about sin and rejection to make people more hostile than they need to be; to try to provoke them by saying, “See how sinful you are!” On the surface, it might appear as if that is what Stephen is doing.

But look again at how Stephen repeatedly says, “This is the same Moses” – in verse 35 (“This is the same Moses”), in verse 37 (“This is the Moses”), in verse 40 (“This fellow Moses”). Now that is really important because what Stephen is doing is not simply drawing attention to our rejection but to the one we have rejected. Or put it another way, Stephen is showing us our sin by showing us even more clearly the one we have sinned against.

Friends, that is how we truly understand our sin. The bible doesn’t simply catch us out and go, “Aha, gotcha! You sinned!” It shows us our sin by showing us the God we have sinned against.

The clearest picture of that is the cross. On the cross we see true effect of our sin, the true hideousness of our sin by seeing the one we have sinned against. We see Jesus bearing the judgement of our sin upon himself by taking our rejection upon himself. He was rejected by his friends. He was rejected by his own nation. Ultimately in the cross, he was even taking the rejection of God.

The bible says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Think about that. God made Jesus, who was sinless, sin. Notice, it doesn’t say he made him sinful. That what we expect. We expect it to say, God put our sin on Jesus and made him as if he was sinful. But what it actually says is: God turned him into sin itself. Now why does it say that?

To show us that on the cross Jesus took our sin not simply by taking our rejection, but by taking the rejection of God. I think, that was the reason Stephen wanted us to understand how all of us have rejected God. So that on the cross, we see Jesus taking all our rejection upon himself, and more than that, Jesus taking our punishment for our rejection of God upon himself. God made him sin when he poured out his anger – when he poured out his rejection – upon the only sinless one who ever lived, Jesus.

Why? So that through his rejection, we might be accepted. “So that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

With his dying breath, Stephen says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts 7:59) “When he had said this, he fell asleep,” (Acts 7:60), meaning, Stephen would one day wake up. That’s the reason his death is described as falling asleep – Stephen would open his eyes again to see Jesus, accepting him as a brother, bringing him into the presence of his heavenly Father.

Friends, why should God accept you into his presence today? What basis would you want God to accept you into heaven? Your goodness? Your tripos results? Your sincerity?

In God’s wisdom, he has so ordained that our rejection would be the very means of our acceptance. The only basis of our acceptance before God is the cross of Jesus Christ where the Son of God took our rejection upon himself. In exchange, he covers us with his righteousness. God accepts us as a father does his own son, in love and in fullness of joy.

Yesterday, we were at Andy’s baptism where he explained baptism with these words, “Baptism, for me, is like coming home to God.” If you think of it, that is a really strange thing to say. Why? To be baptized means to identify with the cross. It means when Jesus died, Andy died, When Jesus was raised, Andy was raised. But what Andy said was also wonderfully true – to be baptized is to be welcomed home by our Heavenly Father. He says to us, “You are my Son.” Because he looks at us and he sees Jesus, he accepts us as his own dear Son.

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