The Story of a Stiff-Necked People

The text for today's message is too long to read all at once I think, namely, Acts 7:1–53, but I invite you to turn to it anyway because I will try to guide us through it, reading key verses and trying to understand why Stephen said what he said.

As I sat pondering and praying yesterday about what Stephen's message has to do with me and with us as a people, the applications that came to my mind with the most force have to do with this book we are offering you today (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) and with the new Worship Center we are building.

What's Going On in Acts 6–7

But first let me remind you what is happening here. Stephen was a brilliant and spiritual man. Acts 6:5 says he was "full of the Holy Spirit and of faith." Verse 8 says he was "full of grace and power." Verse 10 says his opponents "could not resist the wisdom and Spirit with which he spoke." And even after he was arrested, verse 15 says that "his face was like the face of an angel" as he was accused in the court.

In spite of all this (or maybe because of all this) the response to him was vicious. The charges against him are given in 6:14: "We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth [1] will destroy this place, and [2] will change the customs which Moses delivered to us." Earlier in verse 11 he had been accused of speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God. So Stephen is on trial for opposing Moses and his customs and God and his temple.

So in Acts 7:1 the high priest gives Stephen a chance to defend himself, "Is this so?" he asks. And Stephen does a very strange thing. He tells a story—a condensed version of the history of Israel. He starts with Abraham at the beginning (in vv. 1–8). Then (in vv. 9–16) he dwells on Joseph and how the Israelites came to Egypt. Then he spends a long time on Moses (in vv. 17– 44). Then he closes with a brief reference to Joshua and David and Solomon (in vv. 45–50).

Finally, he draws his conclusion from this history. Acts 7:51–53: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One [Jesus], whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it."

So what was Stephen's defense? He had been charged with speaking against Moses and the law, and against God and the temple. His defense is that history proves the opposite: it is Israel as a people that have stiffened their neck against God and resisted the Holy Spirit. They persecuted the prophets of God, and they killed Jesus the Son of God, and now they are about to kill a man "full of faith and the Holy Spirit." They are the ones who need to give an account, not Stephen.

We will look at their response next week.

Two Ways Stephen's Message Ministers to Us

What we need to do today is let Stephen's message minister to us in at least two ways. He says that Israel "Always resists the Holy Spirit." This means, first, that God had been working for Israel again and again with repeated acts of mercy and patience and long-suffering throughout their history. And it means, secondly, that they had repeatedly hardened their hearts and stiffened their necks and stopped their ears to the work of God.

So I think God wants to speak to us about two things today:

1. Encouragement

He wants us to be encouraged by the story of his patience and long-suffering with a rebellious people—that he is "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and forgives iniquity and transgression and sin" (Exodus 34:6–7). He is not eager to punish. He is eager to forgive and move on with repentant and humble people.

2. Warning

He wants us to be warned that there is an end to his patience. There is a resistance to the Holy Spirit that goes so long and so far that God hands a person over into the power of his own sin. You see this in the words of verse 42: "God turned and gave them over to worship the host of heaven." So the second way God wants to minister to us today is to awaken us to the awesome truth that we can resist him so long and want other things so much more than we want him, that he finally turns away, stops convicting, stops giving the gracious feelings of guilt, and hands us over entirely to our sin (cf. Romans 1:24, 26, 28) and ultimately to the demonic gods like Moloch and Rephan (v. 43).

Both Are Words of Grace

And please remember that both the promises of God's patience as well as the warnings of his judgment are words of grace this morning. And they are very relevant to us in this very moment—they have to do with this book and they have to do with our new Worship Center, and with other things in your life as well.

Examining the High Points of Israel's History

I think the best way to hear God's encouragement and warning this morning is to take some of the high points of Israel's history where we see both their rebellion and his mercy.

The Choosing of Abraham

Let's begin in the middle of verse 2: "The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, 'Depart from your land and from your kindred and go into the land which I will show you.'" According to verse 4, Abraham makes it half way to the promised land and settles in Haran. But God is merciful and does more than merely tell Abraham to go on to the promised land; he actually moves him—exerts some special power on Abraham. Verse 4b: "And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living."

So God's mercy begins with choosing Abraham out of all the peoples on the earth to inherit the promised land; and God's patience begins by giving Abraham an extra push to get all the way to the promised land when he had settled half way in Haran.

Joseph's Arrival in Egypt

Look next at the way Joseph, one of Abraham's great grandsons, comes to Egypt from the promised land. Verse 9: "And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt." So here is another instance of resisting the will of God. They were jealous that God was speaking to them through Joseph and even implying that they might some day honor Joseph as their superior.

But verses 9b–10 say, "But God was with him, and rescued him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him governor over Egypt." In other words, in and through the jealousy and resistance of the patriarchs, God was patient and merciful, and kept on working for their deliverance. They rejected God's word in Joseph's dreams, but God, instead of judging them, used their very sin to bring rescue to them when they ran out of food and had to come begging to Egypt and their hated brother.

The Raising Up of Moses

The next illustration is Moses. God raises him up as a deliverer for his oppressed people in Egypt, but when Moses makes his first appearance to help his people, they resist him, as they did Joseph. In verse 26 he tries to break up a fight between two Israelites, "Men, you are brethren, why do you wrong each other?" But verse 27 says, "The man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?'"

So they reject their deliverer as they did with Joseph and as they will do with Jesus, and he flees into exile in the land of Midian. But there God's patience and mercy move him to send Moses back again. Verse 34: "I have surely seen the ill-treatment of my people that are in Egypt and heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt."

So in verse 36 we see Moses, the rejected ruler and deliverer, saving the people: "He led them out, having performed wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years."

The Golden Calf and Wilderness Wanderings

But again, in spite of all this patience, verses 39–41 say, "Our fathers refused to obey him [Moses], but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, 'Make for us gods to go before us; as for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and rejoiced in the works of their hands."

For many of them, God's patience came to an end at that point. Verse 42 says, "God turned and gave them over to worship the host of heaven." In other words, since they reject the true worship of God and want idols made with their own hands, God gives them up to the reality behind all idols, namely, demons. So verse 43 says, "You took up the tent of Moloch, and the star of the god Rephan."

But even then God did not cease to show mercy to all of them. In verse 45 it says that the Israelites "dispossessed the nations which God thrust out before our fathers." So even after the idolatry in the wilderness, God fought for Israel and gave them the promised land.

A Temple "Made with Hands"

Finally, Stephen gets to the point of the temple—the accusation against him. He points out that Solomon built God a house (v. 47)—the temple they prize so dearly and that Jesus said he would destroy and build again in three days—and he says in verse 48, "Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands."

And right here we get to the heart of Stephen's warning for us in this message. What was the root evil in all this resistance to God's will? Why did they resist the Holy Spirit (v. 51)?

I found the key in a parallel phrase in verse 41 and verse 48. In verse 41 Stephen says that they offered sacrifices to the idol and "rejoiced in the works of their hands." And in verse 48 he says, "The Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands."

The root evil in many in Israel was that they derived their joy—their fulfillment, their meaning, their sense of significance—from what they could achieve with their own hands. Verse 41: "They rejoiced in the works of their hands." They wanted a kind of god and a kind of worship in which they could demonstrate their own power and their own wisdom and their own righteousness and their own morality and their own religious zeal. They got their joy from what they could achieve and not from God. Especially not from a God so free and so great and so sovereign and so self-sufficient that he gets all the credit for everything good, and won't let himself be limited or controlled by anybody's man-made temple.

The temple in Jerusalem had become for many in Israel a symbol of what they could achieve—the work of their hands. And therefore the worship there had become a subtle form of self-worship—all very religious, using all the right language, but coming from uncircumcised hearts and stiff, unsubmissive, self-exalting necks.

What Jesus Destroyed

When Jesus said he would destroy the temple and build another in three days "not made with hands" (Mark 14:58), he meant he would destroy this kind of religion. Stephen saw it as clearly as the noonday sun, because he was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. He did not look to the achievements of his own hands or to the performances of his own power. He looked to God in faith and relied on the Holy Spirit for power, so that "the God of glory" (v. 2) would get his glory.

Two Messages God Wants Us to Hear

This morning God wants you to hear two messages: one is that he is a God "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, showing faithfulness to thousands and forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin." He does not turn from us or stop pursuing us because we have sinned once or twice or ten times or seventy times or seventy times seven times. If you can still repent, he is still pursuing you.

The other message this morning is a merciful warning: Don't get your fulfillment from the works of your hands or from the achievements of your own strength.

I take the warning first for myself and all the authors of this book (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). Will I rejoice in God and in his truth and in his mercy, reflected imperfectly here, or will I rejoice in the work of my hands and my mind? Will this book prove to be a tent of meeting given by God for a meeting with God himself, or will it be for me a golden calf in which I can boast? That's the issue raised for me by Stephen this morning.

And finally the issue for all of us as we enter the new Worship Center in a few weeks is the same. It will be beautiful. We will delight in its brightness and its size and its acoustics and its commons and its nursery. And O how great will be the danger that we fall with Israel, and rejoice in the work of our own hands; and that we turn the work of God into a symbol of our achievement so that our worship there becomes a form of self-worship and an abomination to God.

Heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool. What house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things? (Acts 7:49–51)

Rather, may the work of our hands (whether books, or worship centers, or anything else) lead us ever to rejoice in "the God of glory"—"from whom and through whom and to whom are all things. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen" (Romans 11:36).