Wednesday 29 May 2013

Persecution (Acts 8:1-8)

The beginning of worldwide missions

Acts 8 is the beginning of worldwide missions in the bible. Jesus promised this would happen when he said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) He promised that the message of the gospel would not be restricted to just one people in one place but that it would go out into the world - “to the ends of the earth.”

In the coming weeks we are thinking about what that promise means for us.

Was Jesus giving this command to a special group of people - to missionaries - to go to another country, to preach in a different language?

Is missions something we do in addition to our mission as a church - as sort of an optional extra - in addition to reaching people here in our city?

Does it make sense to send people overseas? Isn’t it easier to send books, to send money or to put the gospel on the Internet?

What kind of special training does a missionary need? How to raise money? How eat spicy food?

We will be thinking through these questions - on what missions means for us - as we go through the book of Acts in the coming weeks. But today as we look at just the first few verses of Acts Chapter 8, which record for us the beginning of worldwide missions, what I want us to see is God’s sovereignty over missions. Missions is God’s idea. Missions is the unfolding of God’s plan.

Because what is so clear from these verses in Acts 8 is: No one would have done it this way. The church is being destroyed. Christians are being persecuted. And God uses this as a springboard for missions - to send Christians out into the world as missionaries.

Three points from today’s passage: (1) The surprising context of missions, (2) The surprising audience in missions, (3) A sovereign God over missions.

A surprising context; a surprising audience and finally, a sovereign God.

1. The surprising context of missions

The first thing we see is a surprising context: Persecution. That’s the context that sends these Christians out into the world as missionaries.

And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
Acts 8:1-3

The church was at this point, several thousand strong. The last headcount we had was in Acts Chapter 4, where it says there in verse 4, “the number of men grew to about five thousand.” Notice, that was just the number of men. It is a conservative way of saying, these are the number of household heads - the number of men - who had committed themselves to Jesus; meaning the church was, at the very least, much larger than five thousand at this point.

But here we read in verse 3 that Saul began to destroy the church, going from house to house, to drag “both men and women” into prison. And what this tells us is that this was personal. Saul didn’t target just leaders. He didn’t go just for the men. Every individual believer - male and female - was a target.

This says something about how he set out to destroy the church. Saul didn’t write a nasty letter to the newspapers nor did he set fire to a church building (because, of course, there wasn’t one). No, when the bible talks about the church, it isn’t referring to a building or an organisation but a people. The church is the gathering of believers. Saul attacked the church - Saul tried to destroy the church - by attacking Christians personally. He went into their houses. He put them into prison. And for the moment at least, it looked like he was succeeding in destroying the church.

The church was scattered. No one could meet in Jerusalem, it was too dangerous, and everyone had to leave their homes. It became illegal to have bible study even in your own living room.

What would you do? Find another church? There wasn’t one. Remember, at this point, the one and only church was in Jerusalem. Perhaps you could start another one: Your pastor could to plant a new church in Milton Keynes where it’s safe. But all the apostles are still in Jerusalem. In a weird turn of events, everyone else is forced to leave town but the apostles remain in Jerusalem. Everyone else has to pack their things, leave their homes, look for new jobs in a new place with zero Christian friends.

But what they also do is preach the gospel.

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
Acts 8:4

In other words, they become missionaries. These Christians who weren’t trained as pastors, who weren’t sent by a mission organisation like COCM. They were just ordinary believers. They preached the word wherever they went.

Here is the surprising context of missions: It’s persecution, yes, but moreover it is faithfulness in preaching the gospel in season and out of season. They had been scattered - dispersed - from their homes, and that must have been painful and difficult. It must have felt discouraging. The Greek word diaspeiro where we get the English word dispersed makes me think of the Chinese Church, actually. We are the diaspora Chinese, spread across the globe. That’s why you can walk down Regent Street and have tim sum, Sichuan hot pot, Cantonese roast duck and bubble tea, because having been dispersed we have brought with us these elements of who we are with us to our new homes - our food, our culture, our language.

And really, the bible is saying to us, have we brought the gospel with us? “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” We don’t always move home because of the best of circumstances. Some of us lose our jobs and some of us are forced to live in a neighbourhood where there isn’t a decent takeaway for miles and miles, arrrgh(!) But these guys who had just had their lives threatened because of their faith in Jesus, who didn’t have another fantastic church like the Chinese Church to go to - these guys who had lost everything - still had something amazing to share with their neighbours. The gospel.

These are the first missionaries. It’s a surprising context that creates the opportunity for them to be missionaries - the persecution of Christians, the destruction of the church. That is, they didn’t have a conference. Peter didn’t get up to speak and then pray for a special call whereby those who felt a burden would come forward to commit themselves to mission. No, they were kicked out of their homes. Many, if not, most didn’t want to leave their homes.

Yet wherever they went - wherever God sent them to make their new home - they spoke the gospel. Some of us read, “they preached the word,” in verse 4 and think of a preacher on Sundays who stands up front with a microphone. No, all these guys did was tell people about Jesus. That’s what it means. The word can be translated “evangelise,” or even, “gospelled.” They were gospelling the gospel. Everywhere they went, they weren’t shy about telling people the good news about Jesus. They were gospelling the gospel.

This wasn’t an accident. It was intentional and deliberate - yet at the same time, it was natural. Telling people the gospel isn’t just for missionaries. It is a mark of any Christian who knows the gospel. Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses.”

What was surprising was the context: They were under pressure. I’m sure many of them were discouraged. Yet in the midst of this, they continued to tell people about Jesus. So far in Acts, we’ve seen the apostles do this. Last week, we saw Stephen do this at the cost of his life. But here, we see all Christians involved in gospelling the gospel.

2. The surprising audience of missions

Next, we see a surprising audience. Picking up from verse 5, Philip preaches to the Samaritans, who were the half-Jews, who were the BBC’s of their day - just mixed up, in terms of their identity and religion.

Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. So there was great joy in that city.
Acts 8:5-8

Next week, we see that this was such a controversial thing - for the Samaritans to become Christians - that the apostles Peter and John had to make a trip from Jerusalem to see it for themselves.

Historically, the Samaria was part of Israel that was once taken over by a foreign superpower, Assyria, who brought in outsiders to intermarry with the Jewish locals. The Samaritans started worshipping idols and foreign gods, but then someone came in to teach them the bible all over again, but the result was a mixture of Jewish religion plus idolatrous practices.

Now the Jews and the Samaritans did not get along. You remember the parable Jesus told about the Good Samaritan? To the Jews, the only Good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. Samaritans were seen as racially inferior and religiously unclean.

And Philip decides he would go and tell the Samaritans the gospel. Notice how it is phrased in verse 5: “He proclaimed the Christ,” which in your footnotes, also says, “the Messiah.” The Samaritans only believed the first five books of the Old Testament bible written by Moses. What this tells us is that Philip was speaking about Jesus in categories they would have understood, building on the specific promise given by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15 that God would send another prophet like him to restore his people. If you are familiar with John’s gospel, where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman by the well, you might remember how she says, “I know Messiah (called Christ) is coming,” (John 4:25) to which Jesus replies, “I who speak to you am he.”

In other words, Philip would have used the bible to point to Jesus, building on their expectations and knowledge from the writings of Moses. At the same time, Philip would have had to clarify any confusions and misconceptions they had about whom Moses was talking about (in the same way a Christian today might have to clarify to a Muslim that Moses wasn’t referring to Prophet Mohammed in that same verse).

It would have taken time. We read that Philip did miraculous signs - casting spirits out of many, healing the sick - and the result in verse 6 was that his hearers “paid close attention to what he said.” The signs alone were enough. Next week, we’ll see that trusting in the signs alone can lead us away from the truth. No, the signs point us back to the truth, to pay attention to the truth, and to consider the evidence of the truth.

As a result, verse 8 tells us there was great joy in that city. These Samaritans heard and received the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s like saying: The FaLun Gong followers heard and received the gospel, or that the Mormons heard and received the gospel, or that the Jehovah’s witnesses heard and received the gospel. I wonder if we only ever engage with people of different religions in order to have debates, to do apologetics or to win theological arguments. Mission is about helping people know Jesus and respond to Jesus. Stephen preached in Samaria and the result was great joy.

3. A sovereign God over missions

Finally, we see a sovereign God over missions. The key is to see how Acts 8:1 is a reflection of Acts 1:8.

Jesus promised his disciples in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” and it is no coincidence that here in Acts 8:1 the church is scattered “throughout Judea and Samaria”.

From Saul’s perspective, he thinks he is destroying the church. From Jerusalem’s perspective, the church is finished. From the perspective of non-Christian sympathizers - the godly men who bury Stephen in verse 2 - they mourn over what has happened to the church.

But most striking of all, from a biblical perspective, the Christians appear to be under the judgement of God: The word “scattered” (in verse 1 and again in 4) evokes biblical imagery of the judgement of God that falls on the people of Babel, it evokes the memory of the dispersion of Israel from the Promised Land. Scattering was a sign of God’s judgement - Adam and Eve from the garden, the people of God in exile. Scattering is almost the biblical definition of death: to be kicked out from the presence of God, separated from the source of life and blessing.

And yet, under God’s sovereign control, this dispersion - this scattering - becomes the means of blessing and salvation. Verse 4, “Those who had been scattered preached the word.” The worst Saul can do is imprison men and women but Stephen preaches the gospel in Samaria where many are freed from spiritual imprisonment - verse 7, “evil spirits came out of many.” Even the mourning of godly men over Stephen’s death is contrasted in verse 8 with “great joy in that city.”

This reversal - from judgement to salvation; from mourning to gladness - is a picture of what God is doing through missions. It is a reminder that God is ultimately sovereign over missions. And that ought to fill us with confidence: That God is in control every step of the way. That ought to spur us towards missions: That God is saving men and women through the gospel preached to the nations.

But one last thing: That ought to soberly remind us the shape of missions. Missions is shaped not ultimately by the context nor the audience - as important as it is to keep our focus to reaching the lost - because ultimately, missions is shaped by the cross of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that what we see in this reversal? That God uses the very sinfulness of man to bring about his purposes. That Jesus, through his death and resurrection on the cross, receives all authority in heaven and earth to send out disciples to make disciples, to send out churches to multiply churches.

The apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.
2 Corinthians 4:7-11

What we proclaim and display through missions is nothing less than the cross. “We carry around in our body the death of Jesus.” That means proclaiming his suffering and joining him in his suffering. It means the shape of missions is that of sacrifice, of self-denial. It means taking up our cross to follow Jesus - dying to ourselves... but notice why. "So that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body."

In God’s mercy and wisdom, this abundant, eternal, fullness of life is displayed most gloriously through the self-denial, self-sacrificial, cross-bearing proclamation of the gospel. That was Jesus’ mission when he went to the cross - sent to die, sent to those who would reject him yet always trusting in his Father’s plan. That was the shape of his mission. It is the shape of ours.

Monday 20 May 2013

Fathers and sons (Acts 7:1-16) - MP3 recording

Preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 5 May 2013.

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Sunday 19 May 2013

No holy places (Acts 7:44-60) - MP3 recording

Recording of this week's sermon preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 19 May 2013.

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View transcript

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.

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.