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Bible read me 2The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 8:1-3

Saul Ravages the Church

And Saul approved of his execution.

And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

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Acts 7 related the apologetic and death of Stephen, the first martyr.

Only his final words and his stoning are in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

Over the past few weeks, I have discussed what he said to the temple court and why.

Stephen, one of the first deacons, was also divinely given the gift of ‘doing great wonders and signs among the people’ (Acts 6:8). He also spoke openly about Jesus in Solomon’s Portico (Porch) at the temple. For this, he was arrested on charges of blasphemy: blaspheming God, Moses, the law and the temple. Acts 7 contains his address and the council’s action against him.

Stephen first got the council’s attention by saying he had revered the same traditions as they and respected the history of the people of Israel. He related the story of Abraham, then of Joseph.

At that point, he accomplished two objectives: holding his audience’s attention and defending himself against the charge of blaspheming God.

As Stephen related his scriptural knowledge of the early patriarchs, he also indicted his audience for rejecting Jesus. His reason for mentioning Joseph was to get them to realise that Joseph’s brothers treated him the same way the Jews treated Jesus.

Stephen went on to discuss Moses scripturally, to show that he had not blasphemed him. He began with Moses’s childhood, then his early adulthood, which included self-exile to Midian. After 40 years, an angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told him he would be going to Egypt to deliver the Israelites.

He then discussed the next part of the apologetic: the Israelites’ rejection of Moses and their turning to idolatry, which was part of their way of life for generations to come. God had left them to their own devices.

What Stephen did throughout his entire apologetic — case for, defence of religious doctrine — was to demonstrate that God’s chosen people had rejected those He sent to them. Similarly, they had rejected Jesus. Stephen exhorted them to consider those rejections very carefully.

Finally, Stephen had to defend himself against charges that he blasphemed the temple. He ended his apologetic by accusing the Jews of rejecting the Holy Spirit. That enraged them and they took him outside of Jerusalem to be stoned.

Among them was Saul, later Paul the Apostle. Acts 7 ends with this (emphases mine):

58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Matthew Henry’s commentary has this analysis:

Now, the stoning of a man being a laborious piece of work, the witnesses took off their upper garments, that they might not hang in their way, and they laid them down at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul, now a pleased spectator of this tragedy. It is the first time we find mention of his name; we shall know it and love it better when we find it changed to Paul, and him changed from a persecutor into a preacher. This little instance of his agency in Stephen’s death he afterwards reflected upon with regret (Acts 22:20): I kept the raiment of those that slew him.

Before I begin with today’s verses, it is also useful to look at the King James Version, which adds to the drama of the reality in Jerusalem.

I will be returning to these in the commentary below:

And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.

And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.

As Acts 8 opens, St Luke tells us that Saul approved of this execution (verse 1). We know how on fire the converted Saul — the Apostle Paul — was for Jesus Christ. He dominates the letters of the New Testament. Therefore, just imagine what he was like pre-Damascene conversion. I’ll return to this later, but he was a powerful man, both as Saul and as Paul.

For now, both Matthew Henry and John MacArthur believed that Saul had a lot to do with Stephen’s death.

MacArthur says:

He was involved from the very beginning of this conflict with Stephen …

And Saul was the leader, and it may have been that right there at the death of Stephen, he got the whole deal organized. “At that same time” it says. He might have pulled that mob around him, and the very seed of bloodshed was Stephen was dying, was the thing that really spawned the group of people that followed this man Saul around to kill Christians.

Henry’s commentary tells us that Paul probably asked Luke, the author of Acts, to insert the part about consent in the first verse as an expiation for his subsequent guilt:

We have reason to think that Paul ordered Luke to insert this, for shame to himself, and glory to free grace. Thus he owns himself guilty of the blood of Stephen, and aggravates it with this, that he did not do it with regret and reluctancy, but with delight and a full satisfaction, like those who not only do such things, but have pleasure in those that do them.

Saul wanted to ensure the Church died, hence St Luke’s mention of ‘a great persecution’ against Her in Jerusalem. MacArthur explains:

Now we don’t have any of the gory details of what Saul did specifically, we only have some general terms. But whatever it was, it resulted in the people being scattered all over everywhere and being driven out of the city. He just drove them out, and I am sure that the ones who were driven out were dominantly the Hellenistic Jews, the Grecian Jews who didn’t really belong there. And it may have been in these early times that the whole movement was still associated with Stephen as a Grecian Jew.

They fled to Judea and Samaria.

Only the Apostles stayed in the city. There were many converts in Jerusalem and they needed the Twelve. No doubt, they were also intent on converting more Jews. It could be that, as the Apostles came from the area near Jerusalem and spent the feast days there that there was a certain comfort level. It is possible that the converts who had lived in or near Jerusalem all their lives felt the same way.

John MacArthur explains that a whole host of dynamics were at work at this time, good and evil. Stephen’s death was a turning point for the Church, and Acts 8 demonstrates that. The Church was now largely leaving Jerusalem — God’s chosen who had rejected His Son — for the Gentile world. Also observe that what Jesus said quickly came true:

Here’s what Jesus says to be the pattern of the expansion of the church: “But ye shall receive power after the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be witness unto Me.” Now here comes the pattern. “Both in Jerusalem and all Judea.” Now, Jerusalem was a city in which, which was in Judea, as a province or country. And so He said “In Jerusalem and all Judea, then in Samaria, and then the outermost part of the earth.” Now there you have the outline of the book of Acts. First in Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, then the world. And so in 8, we’re beginning to move out of Jerusalem, into Judea and Samaria; the gospel extending. And the Samaritans, I think, in the mind of God, formed a perfect bridge to the Gentile world, because the Samaritans were half-breeds. They were part Jewish, part Gentile. And so it was a little extension, then to go smack into the Gentile situation … So chapter 8, then, is the beginning of the church moving out. And it’s a sad thing in a sense, as well as a great thing, to see the gospel move out. It’s a sad thing to see the door shut on Jerusalem.

Therefore, although the Church remained there, Jerusalem was no longer the main focus. It was now time for the Church to expand elsewhere, to more favourable audiences. As we have seen in the preceding chapters in Acts, whenever there was a setback, God and the Holy Spirit gave the fledgling Church more grace and fortitude to move forward.

Here’s MacArthur’s take. I like his analogy of fire, very much befitting a discussion of the Holy Spirit:

The Holy Spirit is in the business of turning negatives into positives, of taking disasters and turning them into miracles. You can’t blockade the Holy Spirit. He likes to take those kind of tragedies and turn them into victory.

If you’ve been with us in our study of the book of Acts, you know what He’s done with Peter and John. Every time they got in a hopeless situation, it just was a greater opportunity to preach the gospel. Every time they got into a negative scene, the Spirit of God turned it into a positive. Every time the persecution arose, the preaching followed right on its heels. And God allowed the gospel to reach into areas and the hearts of people who could never otherwise be reached, other than through persecution. It’s kind of like trying to stamp out a fire, and the harder you jump on it, the more you scatter the embers and start fires all over everywhere. And that’s exactly what happened. They started jumping all over the church in Jerusalem and all they did was send the embers all over the world, because that’s how the Holy Spirit works.

Verse 2 tells us that Stephen had a dignified, religious burial. Our two commentators differ in their interpretation of ‘devout men’.

MacArthur thinks that the ‘devout men’ were, in fact, pious Jews who thought that his stoning was wrong. He reasons this from the wording:

If they were referring to Christians, it would have said “believers,” or “the brothers,” or something. But it says “devout men”. That’s a term that has to do with pious Jews. And what it says is this: “There were some Jews in Jerusalem, though not Christians, who still believed that the murder of Stephen was wrong.” That’s kind of nice to know. There was still some fertile soil for the gospel in Jerusalem. The apostles stayed; devout men carried Stephen.

Under Jewish law, criminals had to be buried, although Jews were not allowed to lament over them. Yet, these men openly and emphatically lamented him:

So in a very real sense – and incidentally it was probably very public. What they were doing there was reacting by protest to the murder of this man. Now here’s some fertile soil for the apostles to reach for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Henry surmised that they would have been fellow converts, which I am more inclined to believe, since Stephen was very holy and had been very visible at the temple during his brief ministry. Also, what Christians would have disowned such a man? Here is Henry on the devout men:

Stephen’s death bewailed by others (Acts 8:2)– devout men, which some understand of those that were properly so called, proselytes, one of whom Stephen himself probably was. Or, it may be taken more largely; some of the church that were more devout and zealous than the rest went and gathered up the poor crushed and broken remains, to which they gave a decent interment, probably in the field of blood, which was bought some time ago to bury strangers in. They buried him solemnly, and made great lamentation over him. Though his death was of great advantage to himself, and great service to the church, yet they bewailed it as a general loss, so well qualified was he for the service, and so likely to be useful both as a deacon and as a disputant. It is a bad symptom if, when such men are taken away, it is not laid to heart. Those devout men paid these their last respects to Stephen, (1.) To show that they were not ashamed of the cause for which he suffered, nor afraid of the wrath of those that were enemies to it; for, though they now triumph, the cause is a righteous cause, and will be at last a victorious one. (2.) To show the great value and esteem they had for this faithful servant of Jesus Christ, this first martyr for the gospel, whose memory shall always be precious to them, notwithstanding the ignominy of his death. They study to do honour to him upon whom God put honour. (3.) To testify their belief and hope of the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

It could have also been a mix of new Christians and empathetic Jews attending to Stephen’s burial.

Verse 3 brings us back to Saul and his vigilance and violence in going house to house to rout Jerusalem of Christian men and women.

The King James Version mentioned above says that Saul ‘made havock’, which means laying violent waste and ruin to something, in this case, the Church. Saul wanted to achieve the wanton destruction of Christ’s holy Bride.

Henry gives us a chilling description of Saul, a Pharisee, by the way:

Paul owns that at this time he persecuted this way unto the death (Acts 21:4), and (Acts 26:10) that when they were put to death he gave his voice against them …

He aimed at no less than the cutting off of the gospel Israel, that the name of it should be no more in remembrance, Psalms 83:4. He was the fittest tool the chief priests could find out to serve their purposes; he was informer-general against the disciples, a messenger of the great council to be employed in searching for meetings, and seizing all that were suspected to favour that way. Saul was bred a scholar, a gentleman, and yet did not think it below him to be employed in the vilest work of that kind. (1.) He entered into every house, making no difficulty of breaking open doors, night or day, and having a force attending him for that purpose. He entered into every house where they used to hold their meetings, or every house that had any Christians in it, or was thought to have. No man could be secure in his own house, though it was his castle. (2.) He haled, with the utmost contempt and cruelty, both men and women, dragged them along the streets, without any regard to the tenderness of the weaker sex; he stooped so low as to take cognizance of the meanest that were leavened with the gospel, so extremely bigoted was he. (3.) He committed them to prison, in order to their being tried and put to death, unless they would renounce Christ; and some, we find, were compelled by him to blaspheme, Acts 26:11.

MacArthur says that Saul genuinely believed he was doing the right thing:

Galatians 1:13 proves that: “Just as you heard of my manner of life in time past, in the Jew’s religion. How that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God and wasted it. And profited in the Jew’s religion above many my equals and mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. I thought I was pleasing God. I was so zealous for my religion.” But he was wrong.

MacArthur calls our attention to the KJV word ‘haling’, the antiquated form of ‘hauling’:

He just hauled them out of the houses. It means dragging, literally. It’s used in John 21:8 of dragging the fishnet in with all the fish. Remember when Peter caught so many fish he just dragged them? That’s what he did. He grabbed them, dragged them out into the street, and threw them in jail.

From this, we can better understand the violence of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9. It had to be that way.

Acts 8 goes on to follow the ministry of Philip in Samaria, which we will encounter next time.

As there are special Sundays coming up for the next few weeks, Forbidden Bible Verses will resume in June 2017.

Next time: Acts 8:4-8

Bible spine dwtx.orgThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 7:44-50

44 “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. 45 Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 46 who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.[a] 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,

49 “‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
    or what is the place of my rest?
50 Did not my hand make all these things?’

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This post concludes the apologetic of Stephen, who defended himself against charges of blasphemy in the temple court.

Stephen, one of the first deacons, was also divinely given the gift of ‘doing great wonders and signs among the people’ (Acts 6:8). He also spoke openly about Jesus in Solomon’s Portico (Porch) at the temple. For this, he was arrested on charges of blasphemy: blaspheming God, Moses, the law and the temple. Acts 7 contains his address and the council’s action against him.

Stephen first got the council’s attention by saying he had revered the same traditions as they and respected the history of the people of Israel. He related the story of Abraham, then of Joseph.

At that point, he accomplished two objectives: holding his audience’s attention and defending himself against the charge of blaspheming God.

As Stephen related his scriptural knowledge of the early patriarchs, he also indicted his audience for rejecting Jesus. His reason for mentioning Joseph was to get them to realise that Joseph’s brothers treated him the same way the Jews treated Jesus.

Stephen went on to discuss Moses scripturally, to show that he had not blasphemed him. He began with Moses’s childhood, then his early adulthood, which included self-exile to Midian. After 40 years, an angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told him he would be going to Egypt to deliver the Israelites.

Last week’s post discussed the next part of the apologetic: the Israelites’ rejection of Moses and their turning to idolatry, which was part of their way of life for generations to come. God had left them to their own devices.

What Stephen did throughout his entire apologetic — case for, defence of religious doctrine — was to demonstrate that God’s chosen people had rejected those He sent to them. Similarly, they had rejected Jesus. Stephen exhorted them to consider those rejections very carefully.

In this final part, Stephen had to defend himself against charges that he blasphemed the temple. Therefore, he gave a true, scriptural account of its history, beginning with the tent in the wilderness, crafted according to God’s instructions to Moses (verse 44).

Exodus 25 documents those instructions fully. Although it was portable, God commanded parts of it to be made out of gold, silver, bronze and semi-precious stones.

There was the Ark of the Covenant:

16 And you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you.

On top of the Ark was the mercy seat of pure gold:

21 And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. 22 There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.

God also commanded that a Table for Bread be made out of acacia wood and gold:

29 And you shall make its plates and dishes for incense, and its flagons and bowls with which to pour drink offerings; you shall make them of pure gold. 30 And you shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me regularly.

Finally, there was the elaborate Golden Lampstand.

God was preparing the people of Israel — His chosen — for Christ. The Table for Bread had the holy bread of the Presence, a precursor to the Christian Holy Communion.

The Golden Lampstand was to be tended such that its light never went out, suggesting the light of Christ: the Light of the World.

Recall that in Revelation 1, Christ tells St John of the seven lampstands: the seven churches.

GotQuestions.org has a good article on the lampstand in the Bible, excerpted below (emphases mine):

In the tabernacle, the lampstand was to be placed in the first section, called the Holy Place (Hebrews 9:2). The lamp was to be tended by Aaron and his sons so that its light never went out. The lampstand was to give forth light day and night (Exodus 27:20–21). The lampstand’s being the only source of light points directly to Christ as being the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5). Jesus is the “true light that gives light to everyone” (John 1:9) and the only way anyone can come to the Father (John 14:6).

Jesus also calls His church the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), not of their own doing but because Christ is abiding in the church (John 1:4–5). A Christian who is shining with the light of Christ will live a godly life (1 Peter 2:9). Scripture is overflowing with references that compare and contrast light and darkness, believer and unbeliever, right up through the book of Revelation. In Revelation 1:20 Christ says the “seven lampstands are the seven churches.” The churches of Christ are to walk in the light of God (1 John 1:7) and spread the light of the gospel so that all people will glorify God (Matthew 5:16).

There is other symbolism in the lampstand: it was made of one piece, as Christ is one with His church (Colossians 1:8); the six branches (6 being the number of man) plus the main shaft equals seven lights (7 being the number of completion)—man is only complete in Christ (John 15:5).

Returning to Stephen, he said that when Joshua led the Israelites, God had cleared the Promised Land — Canaan — of Gentiles so that it could be theirs. The tent of witness continued (verse 45).

What follows are verses of interest about the Promised Land.

Joshua 3:10:

10 And Joshua said, “Here is how you shall know that the living God is among you and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites.

Joshua 23:9:

9 For the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day.

2 Chronicles 20:7:

Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend?

Acts 13:19:

19 And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance.

Returning to Stephen’s apologetic and the tent of witness, he said that the people continued to use it for worship until the time of King David, who found favour with God and wanted to build a dwelling place for Him among His chosen (verse 46).

Stephen wisely omitted mentioning David’s sins, of which he had later repented. One of these, which relates directly to the history between the tent of witness and the first temple is documented in 1 Chronicles 21, where David disobeyed God and took a census of Israel. God then used David’s seer Gad and an angel to bring the king to repentence by building an altar to Him:

1 Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.

But God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel. And David said to God, “I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.” And the Lord spoke to Gad, David’s seer, saying, 10 “Go and say to David, ‘Thus says the Lord, Three things I offer you; choose one of them, that I may do it to you.’” 11 So Gad came to David and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Choose what you will: 12 either three years of famine, or three months of devastation by your foes while the sword of your enemies overtakes you, or else three days of the sword of the Lord, pestilence on the land, with the angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the territory of Israel.’ Now decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.” 13 Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man.”

14 So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel, and 70,000 men of Israel fell. 15 And God sent the angel to Jerusalem to destroy it, but as he was about to destroy it, the Lord saw, and he relented from the calamity. And he said to the angel who was working destruction, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the Lord was standing by the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.

18 Now the angel of the Lord had commanded Gad to say to David that David should go up and raise an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.

25 So David paid Ornan 600 shekels[a] of gold by weight for the site. 26 And David built there an altar to the Lord and presented burnt offerings and peace offerings and called on the Lord, and the Lord[b] answered him with fire from heaven upon the altar of burnt offering. 27 Then the Lord commanded the angel, and he put his sword back into its sheath.

Returning to Stephen and his apologetic, he said that it was King Solomon, David’s son, who built the first temple (verse 47). That is documented in four places in the Old Testament, one of them being 2 Chronicles 3:1:

1 Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord[a] had appeared to David his father, at the place that David had appointed, on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.

Stephen then gave his audience a warning about the temple: that God does not dwell in manmade houses (verse 48). To support his argument, he cited Isaiah 66:1-2 (verses 49-50). God’s throne is in heaven. The earth is his footstool. Anything man can build to honour God comes from things God Himself created.

John MacArthur analyses this. Ironically, the words in verse 48 came from Solomon himself:

Solomon said, when he built the house for God, “It’s not going to hold Him.” And Stephen’s saying, “I’m not blaspheming the Temple, friends. I’m saying God is bigger than the box you’ve got Him in, and I’m only saying what Solomon said. So don’t accuse me of blaspheming your temple. Solomon would be accused of it, too. Look what he said.”

Stephen’s citing Isaiah 66:1-2 offered further support for Solomon’s words and the fact that whatever we build in homage to God is, really, nothing much in His eyes.

Matthew Henry’s commentary points out that what matters is making God’s world a place that honours Him in all things, beginning with us and the state of our souls:

And as the world is thus God’s temple, wherein he is manifested, so it is God’s temple in which he will be worshipped. As the earth is full of his glory, and is therefore his temple (Isaiah 6:3), so the earth is, or shall be, full of his praise (Habakkuk 3:3), and all the ends of the earth shall fear him (Psalms 67:7), and upon this account it is his temple.

Acts 7:51-60 are in the three-year Lectionary for St Stephen’s feast day, December 26. However, they bear discussion here to give you the end of the trial and what happened next.

Stephen ramped up his indictment of the temple leaders, accusing them and their people historically of persecuting anyone God sent to them up through and including Christ. He charged them with a continuous, stubborn, historical rejection of the Holy Spirit. Just as bad, he accused them of not keeping the law:

51 You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”

That was the final straw:

54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.

Death by stoning was on its way. Stephen became the Church’s first martyr.

Stephen had held a figurative mirror up to them, making them look at their hypocrisy and spiritual blindness. They could not respond in any way other than with murderous anger. Even then, they never repented.

MacArthur offers this insight regarding Jesus’s words coming to fruition:

Jesus, speaking to Israel, Luke 13:28, “There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth when ye shall see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrown out.”

See, the Jews had waited all along for the kingdom. They had dreamed of the kingdom. The King came, offered them the kingdom, and what did they do to the King? They killed the King. They forfeited the kingdom. Jesus says, “You’re going to spend forever grinding your teeth at God when you see you didn’t get into the kingdom.”

And in Matthew we have it again, in chapter 8 and verse 12. Listen to these words. They’re fearful words. “But the sons of the kingdom,” you know who that is? That’s Israel, the rightful heirs to the kingdom. “Shall be cast into outer darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Then you go on in Matthew to chapter 13, and you have it all over again. Whenever you hear something once in the Bible, it’s absolutely important. Whenever you hear it repeated over and over again, it is extremely important. Matthew, chapter 13, and verse … 41, “The Son of Man shall send forth His angels and they shall gather out of His kingdom all those that offend and them who do iniquity and cast them into the furnace of fire. There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” You know, hell’s going to be full of mad people, angry people. Verse 50, “and shall cast them into the furnace of fire. There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

Chapter 22 of Matthew, verse 13, Jesus isn’t finished. He says, “Then said the king to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, cast him into outer darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'” You find it again in chapter 24 of Matthew as He’s still talking about the kingdom. Verse 51, “shall cut him asunder, appoint him his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

God was merciful to Stephen before he died. Note how St Luke describes him and the moment before the Jewish leaders took him out of Jerusalem to be stoned to death:

55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

Stephen was brimming with faith — and forgiveness — until the horrific end. What a role model for Christians:

59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

In closing, it’s worth pointing out verse 58:

58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.

MacArthur does not mention Saul in his sermon. However, Matthew Henry states that this is the Saul who would convert and become Paul, the last Apostle, who actually referred to Stephen in his ministry:

Now, the stoning of a man being a laborious piece of work, the witnesses took off their upper garments, that they might not hang in their way, and they laid them down at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul, now a pleased spectator of this tragedy. It is the first time we find mention of his name; we shall know it and love it better when we find it changed to Paul, and him changed from a persecutor into a preacher. This little instance of his agency in Stephen’s death he afterwards reflected upon with regret (Acts 22:20): I kept the raiment of those that slew him.

Saul and Stephen, incidentally, are the subjects of next week’s verses.

Next time — Acts 8:1-3

Bible ancient-futurenetThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 7:35-43

35 “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ 38 This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. 39 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will 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.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:

“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices,
    during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
43 You took up the tent of Moloch
    and the star of your god Rephan,
    the images that you made to worship;
and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’

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Stephen, one of the first deacons who was also divinely given the gift of ‘doing great wonders and signs among the people’ (Acts 6:8). He also spoke openly about Jesus in Solomon’s Portico (Porch) at the temple. For this, he was arrested on charges of blasphemy: blaspheming God, Moses, the law and the temple. Acts 7 contains his address and the council’s action against him.

Stephen first got the council’s attention by saying he had revered the same traditions as they and respected the history of the people of Israel. He related the story of Abraham, then of Joseph.

At that point, he accomplished two objectives: holding his audience’s attention and defending himself against the charge of blaspheming God.

As Stephen related his scriptural knowledge of the early patriarchs, he also indicted his audience for rejecting Jesus. His reason for mentioning Joseph was to get them to realise that Joseph’s brothers treated him the same way the Jews treated Jesus.

Stephen went on to discuss Moses scripturally, to show that he had not blasphemed him. He began with Moses’s childhood, then his early adulthood, which included self-exile to Midian. After 40 years, an angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told him he would be going to Egypt to deliver the Israelites.

Today’s verses are a continuation of the discourse. What Stephen did throughout his entire apologetic — case for, defence of religious doctrine — was to demonstrate that God’s chosen people had rejected those He sent to them. Similarly, they had rejected Jesus. Stephen exhorted them to consider those rejections very carefully.

The angel led Moses — the man the Israelites had rejected — back to Egypt to free them from bondage (verse 45). Note that Stephen quotes the Israelites. They said the same things to Moses that the Jews of Jesus’s time said to Him. Matthew Henry explains:

Now, by this example, Stephen would intimate to the council that this Jesus whom they now refused, as their fathers did Moses, saying, Who made thee a prophet and a king? Who gave thee this authority? even this same has God advanced to be a prince and a Saviour, a ruler and a deliverer; as the apostles had told them awhile ago (Acts 5:30), that the stone which the builders refused was become the head-stone in the corner, Acts 4:11.

Stephen gave full praise to Moses throughout his discourse, thereby proving that he was not blaspheming him at all.

He pointed out that Moses performed ‘wonders and signs’ in Egypt, at the Red Sea and in the wilderness (verse 36).

Stephen then reminded the temple court that Moses told the Israelites that one day a prophet would come from their midst (verse 37). That was a clear reference to Jesus.

John MacArthur says (emphases mine):

You say, “Well, how does that present Christ?” Listen, they knew everything about Christ, and if they looked at the facts they’d see that Christ paralleled Moses in every way. You see? That’s the point. They knew all the facts. For example, Moses was a deliverer from among his own people, a Jew. So was Jesus Christ. Moses came down from a palace to release men in bondage. He condescended. So did Jesus Christ. Moses offered himself to Israel and was rejected and then went and raised up seed among the Gentiles …

Moses was rejected the first time but accepted the second time, and so will be Jesus Christ. Moses was a great redeemer. So was Jesus Christ. Moses leads people out of bondage. So does Jesus Christ. You can talk about Moses as a type of Christ over and over and over. Moses is even a shepherd. So is Jesus Christ. So Moses said, “You look, and when you see one like me, you listen to him. He’s your Messiah.” And they had looked, and they had not seen. And Jesus said of them, “You are blind leaders of the blind.” They couldn’t see anything. Blind. So the history of Moses is the foreshadowing of the history of Christ.

Stephen continued, saying that Moses was the one appointed to be with the Israelites in the wilderness. It was Moses who received the oracles — the Ten Commandments — which he then gave to God’s people (verse 38).

Note that Stephen said ‘living oracles’, thereby demonstrating that he knew the Commandments are still to be obeyed. Therefore, Stephen defended himself successfully against the accusation that he blasphemed the law.

With regard to verse 38, in some translations, ‘church’ is used instead of ‘congregation’. John MacArthur explains that the Greek word used was ‘ekklesia’, meaning ‘called-out ones’, or God’s chosen people who were called out of Egypt.

MacArthur says that we mustn’t confuse ‘church’ with the Christian church. It’s more of a congregation:

The New Testament church doesn’t start until the Day of Pentecost. There was no church in the wilderness as we know it … The reason he calls the group of Israelites the called-out ones is because they were called out of Egypt, not because they were the body of Christ, the church. So let’s call them a called-out congregation.

Stephen then pointedly related to the temple court audience that the Israelites rejected Moses a second time, turning to Egyptian pagan ways (verse 39):

 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside …

This happened when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive God’s law. He stayed there a long time, long enough for the Israelites in their disobedience to ask Aaron for idols (verse 40). They were so impatient for Moses’s return, saying they didn’t know what had happened to him, that they wanted false gods instead.

Stephen mentioned this as a clear indictment that the Jews had not changed.

MacArthur explains:

This is a shot. “Whom our fathers would not obey.” He says, “You want to talk about disobedience to God’s laws, then check your own history. You’re always going back to the sanctity and sacredness of your forefathers. They were the ones that were disobedient. “Whom our fathers would not obey, but thrust him from them, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt.” They said “Nuts” to Moses. “We want to do what we did in Egypt.”

Remember what they did? Moses was up there getting the law, and what are they doing? Making false gods that they learned about in Egypt and worshipping them at the foot of the mount where Moses is getting the law. Israel’s not so sacred. Their fathers weren’t so to be esteemed. They sure couldn’t boast of the fathers’ loyalty to Moses or the law. They weren’t loyal to Moses or the law. They rejected Moses even at Sinai. They rejected God’s law even while it was being given. They didn’t even wait to hear it. They rejected it before they even knew what it was.

MacArthur tells us that the Israelites knew what they were doing. Oral tradition about their forefathers had been passed down through the generations, from earliest times. Consider Abel:

Listen, they knew enough of the law to know you don’t worship the gods of the Egyptians. Abel knew that. Abel knew to make a sacrifice to the true God, didn’t he? … He knew it, and if he knew it, he did it by faith, and if he did it by faith, faith is based on revelation. “Faith cometh by,” what? “Hearing.” Therefore, he had to hear something. He operated on faith. They knew to worship the true God, and they knew to sacrifice only to Him.

Stephen went on to describe the Israelites’ heinous disobedience while Moses was receiving the law from God. They constructed a golden idol then celebrated their handicraft (verse 41).

MacArthur tells us that Aaron tried to dissuade them from constructing this calf, or young bull:

He said, “If you’re going to do this, then you’ll have to bring all your earrings, your gold earrings and your gold ornaments.” And it may have been that he wanted to stop them from doing it by putting the price so high they wouldn’t want to give up those things. But they did. Maybe he figured that if I’ll get them to do that, they won’t be willing to. But they did. They brought it all, melted it all down and made a golden calf, a golden bull.

MacArthur explains the significance of the golden calf:

the young bull would be the fact that the Egyptians worshipped Apis and Mnevis, two bulls. One was supposed to be Osiris reincarnated. The other was the sun god reincarnated. And so they worshipped these two bulls, and this is Egyptian worship. They had learned this in Egypt.

This ‘rejoicing’ that Stephen spoke of was more of an orgy. MacArthur says:

the Book of Exodus tells us that they took their clothes off and they were in naked shame, carrying on a sexual orgy in the worship of this young bull. All the time, Moses is up there communing with God. Boy, you talk about contrast, friends. You’ll never see a more stark one than that.

Stephen is just absolutely indicting the land of Israel and the nation of Israel for rejecting God all the way through.

Upon his return, Moses was furious to see all that had gone on while he was receiving divine law. God was even angrier. God wanted to destroy His people, but Moses prayed, asking for His mercy instead. So, God ‘turned away’ and left them to their own devices (verse 42). The ‘host of heaven’ refers to the stars and planets.

MacArthur reminds us:

God said, “I’ll only slay 3,000, and let the rest live.” But none of them ever entered the Promised Land. All they did was live 40 years wandering all over the place. And Moses was so mad he slammed down the tablets of stone and broke them all over everywhere and had to go back up and get another set.

Matthew Henry points out that when God left the Israelites to their own devices:

they walked in their own counsels, and were so scandalously mad upon their idols as never any people were

Stephen, in relating this history lesson, went on to quote Amos 5:25-27 (verses 42, 43):

25 “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26 You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves, 27 and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.

‘Damascus’ in Amos 5:27 is ‘Babylon’ in Stephen’s context, by the way. It is thought Stephen said ‘Babylon’ to emphasise the captivity of Israel.

Henry offers a detailed analysis of these last two verses — Acts 7:42-43. God asked if His people had offered Him sacrifices during their time in the wilderness. Notice how He addressed them as ‘O house of Israel’, implying He had chosen them and they, in turn, rejected His law for them:

No; during all that time sacrifices to God were intermitted; they did not so much as keep the passover after the second year. It was God’s condescension to them that he did not insist upon it during their unsettled state; but then let them consider how ill they requited him in offering sacrifices to idols, when God dispensed with their offering them to him.

As for Stephen’s audience:

This is also a check to their zeal for the customs that Moses delivered to them, and their fear of having them changed by this Jesus, that immediately after they were delivered these customs were for forty years together disused as needless things.

Henry then explains the horrors of the Israelites’ gods and idols, which they worshipped from that point until their much later captivity in Babylon ended. This lasted for generations:

Moloch was the idol of the children of Ammon, to which they barbarously offered their own children in sacrifice, which they could not do without great terror and grief to themselves and their families; yet this unnatural idolatry they arrived at, when God gave them up to worship the host of heaven. See 2 Chronicles 28:3. It was surely the strongest delusion that ever people were given up to, and the greatest instance of the power of Satan in the children of disobedience, and therefore it is here spoken of emphatically: Yea, you took up the tabernacle of Moloch …

Then there is the matter of the universe:

Some think Remphan signifies the moon, as Moloch does the sun; others take it for Saturn, for that planet is called Remphan in the Syriac and Persian languages. The Septuagint puts it for Chiun, as being a name more commonly known. They had images representing the star, like the silver shrines for Diana, here called the figures which they made to worship. Dr. Lightfoot [a Bible scholar of Henry’s era] thinks they had figures representing the whole starry firmament, with all the constellations, and the planets, and these are called Remphan–“the high representation,” like the celestial globe: a poor thing to make an idol of, and yet better than a golden calf!

God’s ultimate punishment was to send the Israelites to captivity in Babylon. After that, their idol worship ended.

MacArthur sums this up for us:

So in a short little statement, Stephen recites the history of idolatry in Israel, from Sinai to Babylon. And you know they had the law all that time? They had the law. All those years they had the law. They had teachers of the law, scribes and everybody. They just kept rejecting, rejecting, rejecting, rejecting. So Stephen says, “Don’t accuse me of blaspheming the law. Check your own history.”

MacArthur says that nothing has changed, even today:

If Jesus had been our Messiah, all of those great Jewish leaders would’ve known He was our Messiah. We wouldn’t have missed it.” That’s one of the things that Jews even argue about today. “Why, with all of the great rabbis and teachers of the past, they would know if the Messiah came. They wouldn’t have missed him.”

That is why Stephen framed his apologetic the way he did:

And Stephen says, “Guess what? You missed Moses. Guess what? You missed Joseph. You never picked up on Joseph until the second time around, and you never picked up on Moses until the second time around.” And when is it they’re going to pick up on Jesus? The second time around. That’s no argument at all. “We would’ve known.” Your history proves you didn’t know. “You do always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers have done, so do you.” “You’re right on schedule. It always takes two times to get through to you.”

Scripture says that the second time around will be too late.

Let us pray for those who reject Christ, whoever they might be. Let us pray for them to be delivered from spiritual blindness and carnal captivity.

Stephen’s discourse continues in next week’s instalment.

Next time: Acts 7:44-50

The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 7:30-34

30 “Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. 33 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’

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My previous post, published before Holy Week, continued an exposition of Stephen’s self-defence in the form of an apologetic, possibly the first Christian one, to the temple court.

Stephen, one of the first deacons who was also divinely given the gift of ‘doing great wonders and signs among the people’ (Acts 6:8). He also spoke openly about Jesus in Solomon’s Portico (Porch) at the temple. For this, he was arrested on charges of blasphemy: blaspheming God, Moses, the law and the temple. Acts 7 contains his address and the council’s action against him.

Stephen first got the council’s attention by saying he had revered the same traditions as they and respected the history of the people of Israel. He related the story of Abraham, then of Joseph.

At that point, he accomplished two objectives: holding his audience’s attention and defending himself against the charge of blaspheming God.

As Stephen related his scriptural knowledge of the early patriarchs, he also indicted his audience for rejecting Jesus. His reason for mentioning Joseph was to get them to realise that Joseph’s brothers treated him the same way the Jews treated Jesus.

Stephen went on to discuss Moses scripturally, to show that he had not blasphemed him. He began with Moses’s childhood, then his early adulthood, which included self-exile to Midian.

Today’s verses are a continuation of the discourse.

Although we all know the story of Moses and the burning bush, there is a lot to look at here.

These verses tie in with Exodus 3, which tells us that when this took place, Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro. Moses’s wife’s name was Zipporah.

One day, 40 years after Moses left Egypt, he was in the wilderness of Mount Sinai — the same as Horeb, the mountain of God (Exodus 3:1). John MacArthur says the two names are used interchangeably.

An angel appeared to Moses in a burning bush (verse 30). Although it does not happen frequently, spontaneous combustion has been known to occur in that part of the world. Some modernist theologians think that the bush self-combusted, however, Matthew Henry tells us (emphases mine):

the bush, in which this fire was, though combustible matter, was not consumed

Henry explains that the bush was a symbol not only of the state of God’s children at the time and a revelation of God’s presence — what MacArthur says is the Shekinah Glory — but also a foretelling of the Messiah:

it represented the state of Israel in Egypt (where, though they were in the fire of affliction, yet they were not consumed), so perhaps it may be looked upon as a type of Christ’s incarnation, and the union between the divine and human nature: God, manifested in the flesh, was as the flame of fire manifested in the bush.

Moses was amazed at the sight and approached the bush (verse 31).

Incidentally, John MacArthur says that the Greek word for ‘sight’ is oramah. The Greek word pan means ‘all’. This is the etymology of the word ‘panorama’.

When the Lord God announced Himself, Moses looked away (verse 32). His awestruck state moved from wonder at a natural phenomenon to the fear of God.

Henry says the fire was the Son of God:

He trembled, and durst not behold, durst not look stedfastly upon it; for he was soon aware that it was not a fiery meteor, but the angel of the Lord; and no other than the Angel of the covenant, the Son of God himself. This set him a trembling.

MacArthur explains why God introduced Himself as He did:

God was establishing the covenant again. God said, “I promised Abraham, ‘I’ll bring you into the land and it’ll be yours.’ I repeated it to Isaac. I repeated it to Jacob.'” God is coming back to Moses as the covenant God, you see? He’s coming back to Moses with the promise of the fulfillment of the covenant that He made that they would go into the land.

Henry gives the same explanation but goes further, emphasising the words ‘I am the God’, which means that after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob departed this mortal coil, they were only physically dead. Their souls are still alive. Henry explains that Jesus said the same in Matthew 22:31-22, about which I wrote in 2016:

For if the death of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, cannot break the covenant-relation between God and them (as by this it appears it cannot), then nothing else can: and then he will be a God, (1.) To their souls, which are now separated from their bodies. Our Saviour by this proves the future state, Matthew 22:31,32. Abraham is dead, and yet God is still his God, therefore Abraham is still alive. God never did that for him in this world which would answer the true intent and full extent of that promise, that he would be the God of Abraham; and therefore it must be done for him in the other world … (2.) To their seed. God, in declaring himself thus the God of their fathers, intimated his kindness to their seed, that they should be beloved for the fathers’ sakes, Romans 11:28,De+7:8.

Henry points out that the Apostles and, here, Stephen, the Hellenist (Greek) Jew who converted, was actually showing respect for Moses and understood the love of God — much more than his Jewish audience:

Now this is that life and immortality which are brought to light by the gospel, for the full conviction of the Sadducees, who denied it. Those therefore who stood up in defence of the gospel, and endeavoured to propagate it, were so far from blaspheming Moses that they did the greatest honour imaginable to Moses, and that glorious discovery which God made of himself to him at the bush Now the preachers of the gospel preached up this covenant, the promise made of God unto the fathers; unto which promise those of the twelve tribes that did continue serving God hoped to come, Acts 26:6,7. And shall they, under colour of supporting the holy place and the law, oppose the covenant which was made with Abraham and his seed, his spiritual seed, before the law was given, and long before the holy place was built? Since God’s glory must be for ever advanced, and our glorying for ever silenced, God will have our salvation to be by promise, and not by the law; the Jews therefore who persecuted the Christians, under pretence that they blasphemed the law, did themselves blaspheme the promise, and forsook all their own mercies that were contained in it.

The Lord told Moses to remove his sandals because he was standing on holy ground (verse 33). Henry tells us that this was because Moses was about to deliver his people from captivity, therefore, fulfilling the Covenant that God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:

When God had declared himself the God of Abraham he proceeded, 1. To order Moses into a reverent posture: “Put off thy shoes from thy feet. Enter not upon sacred things with low, and cold, and common thoughts. Keep thy foot, Ecclesiastes 5:1. Be not hasty and rash in thy approaches to God; tread softly.” 2. To order Moses into a very eminent service. When he is ready to receive commands, he shall have commission. He is commissioned to demand leave from Pharaoh for Israel to go out of his land, and to enforce that demand, Acts 7:34.

The Lord gave Moses his divine commission (verse 34). The Lord saw the suffering of His people. He heard their cries for freedom. He descended to Moses that they might be delivered. And Moses would fulfil that plan.

Henry tells us that this holds true today for the Church:

Observe, (1.) The notice God took both of their sufferings and of their sense of their sufferings: I have seen, I have seen their affliction, and have heard their groaning. God has a compassionate regard to the troubles of his church, and the groans of his persecuted people; and their deliverance takes rise from his pity.

Henry reminds us that Christ delivered us, bringing us to salvation:

(2.) The determination he fixed to redeem them by the hand of Moses: I am come down to deliver them. It should seem, though God is present in all places, yet he uses that expression here of coming down to deliver them because that deliverance was typical of what Christ did, when, for us men, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven; he that ascended first descended.

Furthermore, God’s plans are sovereign. They will succeed:

Moses is the man that must be employed: Come, and I will send thee into Egypt: and, if God send him, he will own him and give him success.

What an encouraging thought to ponder during the week ahead. God does not ignore our plights. God is fully aware of what we are going through.

With regard to Stephen, as Matthew Henry’s commentary states, he understood the role of Jesus as Messiah. Stephen explained that to his audience in light of Scripture and with reverence. The men in the temple court accused him of multiple counts of blasphemy. Yet Stephen was not the blasphemer. They were.

Stephen had not finished his discourse. There is more to his apologetic which my next two posts on consecutive Sundays will discuss in more detail.

Next time — Acts 7:35-43

The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 7:23-29

23 “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ 27 But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.

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Today’s verses are a continuation of Stephen’s address to the temple court.

Stephen was one of the first deacons, whom the Apostles appointed along with five other holy and wise men from the Hellenist (Greek) Jews. Acts 6 gives us the account of how and why the Apostles chose them.

As the Church at this time was centred at the temple in Solomon’s Portico, the Jews, including the religious leaders, could see and hear thousands of converts every day. They knew that the Apostles were teaching and doing miraculous healing, the way Jesus did. The threat to the Jewish authorities was expanding. It was bad enough that Jews from Jerusalem were becoming followers of Jesus, but now Jews from other nations were, too.

Stephen was brought before the temple council to defend himself against four charges of blasphemy: blaspheming God, Moses, the law and the temple. Acts 7 contains his address and the council’s action against him.

Stephen first got the council’s attention by saying he had revered the same traditions as they and respected the history of the people of Israel. He related the story of Abraham, then of Joseph.

At this point, he accomplished two objectives: holding his audience’s attention and defending himself against the charge of blaspheming God.

As Stephen related his scriptural knowledge of the early patriarchs, he also indicted his audience for rejecting Jesus. His reason for mentioning Joseph was to get them to realise that Joseph’s brothers treated him the same way the Jews treated Jesus.

Stephen offered the first Christian apologetic: a defence of — reasoned case for — Jesus, in this case, as Messiah.

In last week’s verses, Stephen began his scriptural account of Moses: from the time of his birth through to his early adulthood. Please read that linked post if you haven’t done so, as it will help clarify today’s reading.

By the time Moses was born, several generations had passed since Joseph’s time. A new Pharaoh came to rule. He did not know the history of how the Israelites came to be there. Nor did he know the story of Joseph. Hence, he enslaved the descendants of the twelve patriarchs of Israel.

Despite having been adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and educated in all the best Egyptian traditions, Moses never forgot that he was an Israelite. Aged 40, he decided it was time to meet his family members (verse 23).

Matthew Henry tells us of Moses at this point in time, as described in Acts 7:22: ‘mighty in his words and deeds’. Emphases mine below:

He became a prime minister of state in Egypt. This seems to be meant by his being mighty in words and deeds. Though he had not a ready way of expressing himself, but stammered, yet he spoke admirably good sense, and every thing he said commanded assent, and carried its own evidence and force of reason along with it; and, in business, none went on with such courage, and conduct, and success. Thus was he prepared, by human helps, for those services, which, after all, he could not be thoroughly furnished for without divine illumination. Now, by all this, Stephen will make it appear that, notwithstanding the malicious insinuations of his persecutors, he had as high and honourable thoughts of Moses as they had.

Stephen did not speak of Moses’s stammering, only his greatness. This was to clear himself of the charge of blaspheming Moses.

However, as with his account of Joseph, Stephen was trying to tell the Jewish court that their ancestors rejected leaders such as Joseph and Moses to their detriment. Stephen was using Joseph and Moses as comparative figures for Jesus. The Jews rejected Joseph, Moses and Jesus.

Through his apologetic, Stephen wanted to convince his audience that Jesus is Messiah.

Back now to our reading. Stephen said that Moses saw one of the Egyptians — probably a foreman — oppress one of the Israelite slaves. Moses, in turn, fatally struck the man (verse 24). Moses saw the Egyptian abuse one of his family members and wanted to avenge his kinsman.

Moses knew:

that his commission from heaven would bear him out

However, he also worked on the assumption that his kith and kin would recognise that he was one of them and that he was sent to deliver them from bondage to the Promised Land (verse 25):

he supposed that his brethren (who could not but have some knowledge of the promise made to Abraham, that the nation that should oppress them God would judge) would have understood that God by his hand would deliver them; for he could not have had either presence of mind or strength of body to do what he did, if he had not been clothed with such a divine power as evinced a divine authority.

But that was not the case.

The incident elicited a lot of talk because, when Moses returned to the slaves the next day, they were quarrelling (verse 26). Some must have been saying, ‘He did a good thing. Could he deliver us? Is he fulfilling the promise made to Abraham?’ Others no doubt took the opposite view, ‘Who does that guy think he is?’

Moses, wanting them to make peace, asked why they were quarrelling. Instead of responding rationally, the Israelite contending with his neighbour pushed Moses aside and asked who made him judge and ruler over them (verse 27). He went further by asking if Moses was going to kill him, too.

Henry warns us about people like this:

Proud and litigious spirits are impatient of check and control.

That response was Israel’s rejection of Moses. That Israelite who spoke to him so aggressively was stubborn and spiritually blind. That is what Stephen was trying to convict the Jewish court of: a similar but infinitely more serious rejection of Jesus.

John MacArthur says of Moses:

He had done the first thing. He had shown that he was going to defend them. But they didn’t get the message. They understood not. So blind, they were blind to their own redeemer, their own deliverer, the one who was going to take them to the Promised Land. It was the time of promise, verse 17 said it, and it was time to go, but they weren’t going to go because they weren’t going to accept the deliverer.

Jesus came and offered a kingdom. They didn’t accept the King. Did they get the kingdom? No, it was postponed. Moses came and said, “I’ll give you the Promised Land.” Did they get the Promised Land? Forty years later they got it. No, 80 years later, because they didn’t believe when the redeemer came the first time. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Verse 26, “And the next day he showed himself to them as they strove.” He came down there and two of them were arguing. He not only came to defend them from their enemies, he came to make peace among them. He was the truest kind of deliverer. His plans were not only political, they were personal. He not only saw the deliverance of Israel as a nation, he saw himself as a peacemaker between individuals. That’s the heart of a real deliverer, isn’t it? Great man.

Thus rejected, Moses exiled himself to Midian, where he fathered two sons (verse 29). MacArthur tells us:

Remember his wife, Zipporah? He married her over there and he fiddled around in the desert for 40 years herding sheep.

Stephen’s point to the court about Moses was that God postponed Israel’s deliverance because they were stubborn, blind, aggressive and disobedient. He punished them with 40 more years of slavery and another 40 in the journey to the Promised Land. Many Israelites died during that time because they rejected Moses in the first place. Had they accepted him, they would have adhered to God’s timetable.

Although Stephen did not know this — he was the first martyr — their rejection of Christ resulted in the destruction of the temple decades later by the Romans in 70 AD: God’s punishment. It was never rebuilt.

Yet, although he was convicting his audience of spiritual blindness and brutal rejection, Stephen wanted to open their eyes, to give them insight into Jesus as Messiah. Stephen was saying, ‘Accept Jesus as I accept Him as the Deliverer, the Promised One, the Messiah’.

Henry says that, with this apologetic, Stephen cleared himself of blaspheming Moses. Furthermore, he indirectly warned the court not to reject his message about Jesus, the way their ancestors rejected Moses. Finally, he warned them, again indirectly, that if they did reject Jesus as Messiah, God would take Him away from them in favour of the Gentiles.

The next reading continues Stephen’s discourse on Moses.

Forbidden Bible Verses continues after Easter.

Next time: Acts 7:30-34

The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 7:17-22

17 “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt 18 until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. 19 He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. 20 At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, 21 and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.

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Acts 7 is about one of the first deacons of the Church, Stephen, who became the first martyr.

Acts 6 tells us how the Apostles chose Stephen and six other men to serve as deacons: ensuring charity was dispensed and handling any donations.

All of these deacons were beyond reproach and were Hellenistic — Greek — Jews.

As the Church at this time was centred at the temple in Solomon’s Portico, the Jews, including the religious leaders, could see and hear thousands of converts every day. They knew that the Apostles were teaching and doing miraculous healing, the way Jesus did. The threat to the Jewish authorities was expanding. It was bad enough that Jews from Jerusalem were becoming followers of Jesus, but now Jews from other nations were, too.

Stephen was brought to the temple council to defend himself against four charges of blasphemy: blaspheming God, Moses, the law and the temple. Acts 7 contains his address and the council’s action against him.

Stephen first got the council’s attention by saying he had revered the same traditions as they and respected the history of the people of Israel. He related the story of Abraham, then of Joseph.

At this point, he accomplished two objectives: held his audience’s attention and defended himself against the charge of blaspheming God.

As Stephen relates his scriptural knowledge of the early patriarchs, he is also indicting his audience for rejection of Jesus as Messiah. His reason for mentioning Joseph was to get them to realise that Joseph was treated by his brothers the same way the Jews treated Jesus.

Stephen offered the first apologetic — defence of, reasoned case for — that Jesus is Messiah.

In today’s verses, Stephen begins his talk about Moses. Recall that Joseph was Pharaoh’s right hand man when a famine hit Israel and Egypt. Joseph’s brothers and his father Jacob were in Israel. The brothers went to Egypt for grain, the supply of which Joseph managed. Pharaoh invited the brothers to bring their families and Jacob to live in Egypt.

The historical setting for today’s verses is many generations later. The leaders of the twelve tribes have long since died. So has the kind Pharaoh. The people of Israel are still in Egypt, but greatly multiplied, so that they are now the size of a small nation. God was ready to return them to their own land, as He had promised Abraham (verse 17).

There was a problem. A new Pharaoh came to rule, one who did not know the great things that Joseph had done (verse 18). Consequently, he cared nothing for the Israelites. This new king made slaves out of the people of Israel and made them kill their children (verse 19) probably as a means of genocide.

Stephen mentions this because he is indicting the Jewish leaders of trying to kill the infant Church.

Matthew Henry offers this analysis (emphases mine):

Now Stephen seems to observe this to them, not only that they might further see how mean their beginnings were, fitly represented (perhaps with an eye to the exposing of the young children in Egypt) by the forlorn state of a helpless, out-cast infant (Ezekiel 16:4), and how much they were indebted to God for his care of them, which they had forfeited, and made themselves unworthy of: but also that they might consider that what they were now doing against the Christian church in its infancy was as impious and unjust, and would be in the issue as fruitless and ineffectual, as that was which the Egyptians did against the Jewish church in its infancy. “You think you deal subtly in your ill treatment of us, and, in persecuting young converts, you do as they did in casting out the young children; but you will find it is to no purpose, in spite of your malice Christ’s disciples will increase and multiply.”

This period in Israel’s history was the time when Moses was born (Exodus 2). Stephen described him as ‘beautiful in God’s sight’ (verse 20). Moses’s parents brought him up for three months hidden away at home. Then his mother placed him in a basket, which she made waterproof, and set him in the reeds by the river bank.

Pharaoh’s daughter found the basket and a servant opened it to find a crying baby. Moses’s sister was on the sidelines watching. She approached Pharaoh’s daughter, who was quite taken by this beautiful infant, and offered to find ‘a nurse from the Hebrew women’ to feed the baby (Exodus 2:7). This canny girl fetched her mother — Moses’s mother — and took her to Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses’s mother was paid to nurse her own son and when he was old enough, she took him to live in Pharaoh’s opulent palace. Pharaoh’s daughter took Moses as her own son and gave him that name because it sounds like the Hebrew for ‘draw out’, i.e. she drew him out of the water.

Now back to Acts, where Stephen said that Moses grew up to be well educated in Egyptian ways and very accomplished as an adult (verse 22).

John MacArthur describes Moses, saying that the ancient Jewish historian:

Josephus says that the history tells him that when Moses walked down the street, everybody stopped doing what they were doing just to look at him, because he was so striking and so handsome. So he was quite a man. But even as a baby he was exceedingly fair, handsome child.

So Moses was adopted as the son of Pharaoh, with all the benefits. You can imagine what kind of benefits went with being the son of Pharaoh. So he lived in the palace …

He was an amazing person. Not only exceedingly fair and handsome, not only with all of the ability that was his just by virtue of his birth and his inheritance physically, heredity, but what was his by the education that he got in Egypt. I mean, the Egyptians, they tell us, knew geometry and medicine and astronomy, and they were very advanced, and Moses was a remarkable man, with all of that natural ability coupled with the finest and most comprehensive education available in the ancient world. And he was going to be God’s deliverer, to lead Israel to the land of promise. He was mighty.

With this introductory discourse on Moses, Stephen cleared himself of the charge of blaspheming him. He paints a highly positive picture of the man. Of course, Moses was far from perfect as a leader of the twelve tribes, and there were times when he disobeyed God in memorable ways. However, MacArthur says:

But, you see, Stephen stays away from all that. He’s defending himself against blaspheming Moses, so he just praises him.

So far, so good. Stephen had more to say about Moses, which I’ll cover in future posts.

Next time: Acts 7:23-29

Bible oldThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 7:9-16

“And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him 10 and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11 Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. 13 And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. 15 And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, 16 and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.

———————————————————————————————-

Last week’s post featured the first part of Stephen’s address. If you have not had a chance to read it, please do, as it explains his circumstances and why he speaks as he does.

In short, Stephen must defend himself against four charges of blasphemy by the temple court: blasphemy against God, Moses, the law and the temple. Last week’s verses demonstrate that not only did he capture the attention of his accusers but he also defended himself against the charge that he blasphemed God.

He goes further in his address with the following objectives. Matthew Henry’s commentary summarises them well (emphases mine below):

1. He still reminds them of the mean beginning of the Jewish nation, as a check to their priding themselves in the glories of that nation; and that it was by a miracle of mercy that they were raised up out of nothing to what they were, from so small a number to be so great a nation; but, if they answer not the intention of their being so raised, they can expect no other than to be destroyed. The prophets frequently put them in mind of the bringing of them out of Egypt, as a aggravation of their contempt of the law of God, and here it is urged upon them as an aggravation of their contempt of the gospel of Christ. 2. He reminds them likewise of the wickedness of those that were the patriarchs of their tribes, in envying their brother Joseph, and selling him into Egypt; and the same spirit was still working in them towards Christ and his ministers. 3. Their holy land, which they doted so much upon, their fathers were long kept out of the possession of, and met with dearth and great affliction in it; and therefore let them not think it strange if, after it has been so long polluted with sin, it be at length destroyed. 4. The faith of the patriarchs in desiring to be buried in the land of Canaan plainly showed that they had an eye to the heavenly country, to which it was the design of this Jesus to lead them.

The patriarchs in verse 9 are the sons of Jacob, each of whom led a tribe of Israel. They were jealous of Joseph whom they sold into slavery in Egypt. However, God was watching over Joseph, who had great problems. John MacArthur reminds us that Joseph:

went to work for a guy named Potiphar who had a wife who had her eye on Joseph. And she really liked Joseph. So she got him in a compromising thing. He was over there where she was, in her bedroom. And she started making advances to him, trying to seduce old Joseph. It’s your heart, Joseph.

And you know what he did? He ran. Smart thing, Joseph did. He put those old wheels in motion and he was gone. Didn’t fool around. Just avoid the temptation. He took off running. You know what happened? She got his coat. Mmm-mmm-mmm, incriminating evidence. So she reported that this thing had happened, that Joseph had, you know, done this to her, and she had his coat to prove it. And he wound up in the clink. False accusation. Put him in prison.

Why is Stephen talking about Joseph? Because there is a parallel there with Jesus:

You know how Jesus got captured and put in prison? By false accusation. They had a mock trial and they brought forth false witnesses. Just like Joseph.

Stephen’s words are brilliant (verse 10): God delivered Joseph ‘out of all his afflictions’. MacArthur explains:

Joseph got out. And when he got out of there, he went to the next place, to Pharaoh himself. Sat on the right hand of the Pharaoh, the king of the land.

Here is another parallel with Jesus:

Do you know that the men delivered Jesus, in fact they delivered Him into the grave, and God took Him out of the grave and exalted Him to His right hand. Joseph, again, is a picture of Jesus. Joseph found the lowest kind of humility and was lifted to the loftiest exaltation. So was Jesus Christ. Joseph is a picture of Jesus.

This is an excellent way of getting these men to come to the idea of Jesus. It’s a great apologetic — defence of, reasoned case for — Jesus being the Messiah.

MacArthur gives us a third parallel:

Joseph, rejected by Israel, his brothers, was accepted by Gentiles in Egypt. You got that one? Jesus, rejected by Israel, turned and founded His church among whom? Gentiles. Continues to be a picture of Jesus.

Stephen continued his account of Genesis by mentioning the famine affecting that part of the world (verse 11). Joseph had masterminded the pharaoh’s silos and was storing grain in them for the Egyptians. Word reached Joseph’s father Jacob that Egypt had grain set aside in reserve. Jacob sent Joseph’s brothers to Egypt in search of grain (verse 12). Here we have Joseph in the most exalted position, in charge of the grain stores while his brothers have nothing. MacArthur tells us:

When Joseph went to Egypt, famine came. And his whole family back there in Canaan found no sustenance. They had rejected their leader. Do you know what happened to Israel when they rejected Jesus Christ? They fell into a spiritual famine and they still exist in it, don’t they? Sure they do. The famine is a type of Israel’s blindness today. They have no spiritual sustenance at all. None at all.

Note that Stephen is careful to say that Joseph’s brothers did not meet him on their first visit to Egypt. However, they did meet on the second visit (verse 13), at which time Pharaoh also made their acquaintance. Again, this refers to Jesus:

When is Jesus going to be made known to Israel? At His first coming? At His second. It’s the same type again. The first time, rejected, sold for envy. The second time, accepted.

Joseph summoned Jacob and his eleven sons — along with their families — to Egypt (verse14). All of Israel was in Egypt. MacArthur tells us:

That’s a picture of the fact that at the Second Coming when Jesus is revealed, who’s going to get saved? Part of Israel? All Israel. Romans 11, “All Israel shall be saved.” Again, perfectly typified in the life of Jesus, the whole picture of Christ.

Jacob died in Egypt (verse 15) but was buried:

at Machpelah in a cave up at Hebron.

Genesis 50 tells us:

12 So Jacob’s sons did as their father commanded. 13 They carried his body to the land of Canaan and buried it in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre. Abraham had bought this cave and field from Ephron the Hittite to use as a burial place. 14 After Joseph buried his father, he returned to Egypt, along with his brothers and everyone who had gone with him to bury his father.

His sons were buried in the tomb Abraham bought from Hamor’s sons in Shechem (verse 16).

MacArthur says:

And there is a picture of Israel entering into the kingdom relationship.

Therefore, Stephen’s purpose in telling the story of Joseph, was to point out that the Jewish leaders were gravely sinful in rejecting Jesus.

Stephen was not finished. His address continues next week with Moses.

Next time: Acts 7:17-22

The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 7:2b-8

“Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ 4 Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.

—————————————————————————————————–

Before we come to today’s reading, it is worthwhile recapping Acts 6, which is part of the three-year Lectionary readings for St Stephen’s feast day. He was the first martyr.

Because the first Pentecost took place during the Jewish feast of the first harvest, Jews from all over the ancient world had gathered in Jerusalem.

Among them were many new converts, including Jews from Greece, the Hellenists (Acts 6:1). The Hellenists complained that their newly converted widows were receiving less in charity than the widows of Jerusalem and surrounds. Whether this was a sound complaint, we do not know. However, the Apostles decided that keeping track of charity and collecting funds for the new Church would limit the time they spent teaching and healing.

Therefore, they instituted deacons to take on the charity work — to ‘serve tables’ (Acts 6:2). The word ‘deacon’ is not used as such in Acts 6, but this essentially was what the position involved. Matthew Henry tells us that the Greek words for serving tables are

diakonein trapezais–to be deacons to the tables, Acts 6:2.

The Twelve directed all the disciples — which now included several thousands of converts — to name seven men who were (Acts 6:3):

of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom …

Henry explains:

These must be, First, Of honest report, men free from scandal, that were looked upon by their neighbours as men of integrity, and faithful men, well attested, as men that might be trusted, not under a blemish for any vice, but, on the contrary, well spoken of for every thing that is virtuous and praiseworthy; martyroumenous–men that can produce good testimonials concerning their conversation. Note, Those that are employed in any office in the church ought to be men of honest report, of a blameless, nay, of an admirable character, which is requisite not only to the credit of their office, but to the due discharge of it. Secondly, They must be full of the Holy Ghost, must be filled with those gifts and graces of the Holy Ghost which were necessary to the right management of this trust. They must not only be honest men, but they must be men of ability and men of courage; such as were to be made judges in Israel (Exodus 18:21), able men, fearing God; men of truth, and hating covetousness; and hereby appearing to be full of the Holy Ghost. Thirdly, They must be full of wisdom. It was not enough that they were honest, good men, but they must be discreet, judicious men, that could not be imposed upon, and would order things for the best, and with consideration: full of the Holy Ghost, and wisdom, that is, of the Holy Ghost as a Spirit of wisdom. We find the word of wisdom given by the Spirit, as distinct form the word of knowledge by the same Spirit, 1 Corinthians 12:8. Those must be full of wisdom who are entrusted with public money, that it may be disposed of, not only with fidelity, but with frugality.

Henry says that the seven men chosen were not among the disciples at the first Pentecost but those who had converted and received the Holy Spirit afterwards. Furthermore, their names were Greek, implying they were Hellenists (Acts 6:5). Perhaps this was a better way of ensuring charity was distributed equally to Hebrew and Hellenist alike.

Henry tells us more about these men:

Nicolas, it is plain, was one of them, for he was a proselyte of Antioch; and some think the manner of expression intimates that they were all proselytes of Jerusalem, as he was of Antioch. The first named is Stephen, the glory of these septemviri, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost; he had a strong faith in the doctrine of Christ, and was full of it above most; full of fidelity, full of courage (so some), for he was full of the Holy Ghost, of his gifts and graces. He was an extraordinary man, and excelled in every thing that was good; his name signifies a crown. Philip is put next, because he, having used this office of a deacon well, thereby obtained a good degree, and was afterwards ordained to the office of an evangelist, a companion and assistant to the apostles, for so he is expressly called, Acts 21:8. Compare Ephesians 4:11. And his preaching and baptizing (which we read of Acts 8:12) were certainly not as a deacon (for it is plain that that office was serving tables, in opposition to the ministry of the word), but as an evangelist; and, when he was preferred to that office, we have reason to think he quitted this office, as incompatible with that. As for Stephen, nothing we find done by him proves him to be a preacher of the gospel; for he only disputes in the schools, and pleads for his life at the bar, Acts 6:9,7:2. The last named is Nicolas, who, some say, afterwards degenerated (as the Judas among these seven) and was the founder of the sect of the Nicolaitans which we read of (Revelation 2:6,15), and which Christ there says, once and again, was a thing he hated. But some of the ancients clear him from this charge, and tell us that, though that vile impure sect denominated themselves from him, yet it was unjustly, and because he only insisted much upon it that those that had wives should be as though they had none, thence they wickedly inferred that those that had wives should have them in common, which therefore Tertullian, when he speaks of the community of goods, particularly excepts: Omnia indiscreta apud nos, præter uxores–All things are common among us, except our wives.–Apol. cap, 39.

The Apostles prayerfully laid their hands on this group of seven men (Acts 6:6), which also included (Acts 6:5):

Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas …

Thus ordained, the first deacons went about their duties.

Stephen was filled with such grace and faith that he performed (Acts 6:8):

great wonders and signs among the people.

Henry tells us that wonders and signs were not restricted to the Apostles:

It is not strange that Stephen, though he was not a preacher by office, did these great wonders, for we find that these were distinct gifts of the Spirit, and divided severally, for to one was given the working of miracles, and to another prophecy, 1 Corinthians 12:10,11. And these signs followed not only those that preached, but those that believed. Mark 16:17.

A group of devout Jews from abroad — Greece, Asia Minor and freemen (freed slaves) from Rome — took issue with Stephen’s actions (Acts 6:9). However, he responded with such divinely inspired wisdom that they had nothing more to say. So, they took their hostility further and made up lies about him, saying he had blasphemed Moses and God (Acts 6:11). Having cooked up a lie, they then used it to agitate the scribes and elders in the temple (Acts 6:12), which produced the desired result. Stephen was brought up before the council at the temple. Acts 6:15:

15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

This brings us to Acts 7, which begins with the high priest asking Stephen to explain himself.

John MacArthur tells us about the charges of blasphemy levelled against Stephen:

He had been charged with blasphemy against God, Moses, the law and the Temple, the most sacred things in the mind of any Jew. And he had to answer the charge. But he knew what he believed, and he knew why he believed it. And he answered it. And I think it’s important to notice that he answered the charge with Scripture. He defended the faith not in vagaries of philosophy, not in logic, but in verbal testimony to the Scripture. And he even quotes it repeatedly verbatim, which shows something of what he must’ve known about Scripture.

Historical Jewish tradition says that the great rabban Gamaliel — from last week’s post on Acts 5:33-42 — trained Stephen in Scripture. Gamaliel certainly taught St Paul and he might well have taught Barnabas also.

Stephen’s speech is a magnificent lesson in apologetics, a defence of the Christian faith, not being sorry for it, as apology generally means today.

Before we look at it in more detail, MacArthur posits that Stephen’s ministry to the Hellenists was a means of moving the thrust of the new Church along and out of Jerusalem:

It was now time for operation number two, which was Judea and Samaria, moving out from Jerusalem. Now, Stephen became the key to this thrust, for many reasons. In the first place, they needed to get better organized in order to step out. The church was falling into some internal problems because they weren’t structured right, so in chapter 6 they got organized. They chose seven Spirit-filled men to handle the business of the church so the apostles could be free to preach and to pray …

And so Stephen was important to the progress of the church because he was taking over responsibility that freed the church to go. Secondly, he was important because he was a preacher, a New Testament prophet, and he preached to foreign Jews. So he began to extend this from the Palestine Jews to the Hellenist, or Grecian, Jews, who would come into Jerusalem.

Ultimately, Stephen’s ministry ended in martyrdom, which further assisted the Church at that time:

immediately following his death, chapter 8, verse 1 says, “And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem.” The death of Stephen precipitated the persecution of the church. And, as you know, when the church gets persecuted, the church gets going.

And so the persecution came, and immediately they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, which is right on target, right on schedule, exactly where God wanted them to go. Phase two begins to move. And it isn’t because God sent them out there directly. It’s because the people in Jerusalem started persecuting them and they fled to those places.

Stephen’s speech explains early Jewish history concerning the covenant and promises that God fulfilled for the people of Israel. Today’s reading is only the first part, relating how Abraham was called by God from Mesopotamia to inhabit a new land (verses 2, 3).

Note that Stephen addressed those gathered as ‘brothers and fathers’. In other words, ‘I am one of you’. Left unspoken for now is that he understood that God wanted them to believe in Jesus, the Messiah.

He also referred to ‘the God of glory’ and ‘our father Abraham’, further evidence that he was not blaspheming and that he had reverence for the Almighty and the great persons in Scripture.

Stephen went on to say that Abraham accepted God’s instructions and moved to Haran, then on to the present land ‘where you are now living’ (verse 4). Yet, God didn’t leave Abraham an inheritance of land, but told him it would belong to his offspring (verse 5). This was incredible, because Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children. She was sterile. Furthermore, they were advanced in age. So, Abraham spent time alone with their servant Hagar. Nine months later Ishmael was born. However, Ishmael was not part of God’s plan for Abraham.

Yet, Abraham’s faith was such that, even though his understanding of that plan was imperfect, he did not question God or His design for him and his people.

Then, as Stephen related (verses 6, 7), God had more news for Abraham: his offspring would be slaves to others, toiling in a foreign land for 400 years. (MacArthur tells us that it was 430.) Then, His people would be released from bondage and come to worship Him in their own land.

God made a covenant with Abraham, one of circumcision (verse 8) for every male in his family down through the generations, including slaves and foreigners. Abraham circumcised Isaac eight days after he was born. Circumcision continued with Isaac’s son Jacob and so on, encompassing all twelve tribes of Israel and their descendants.

What Stephen did here was to express his faith in God’s sovereignty. MacArthur explains:

Stephen’s saying, “I realize the destiny of Israel’s in the hands of God.” Do you see what he’s saying? That’s what he’s recognizing. “I know that God is running the show. I believe in the God of Israel, who called Abraham, who took the children of Israel into Egypt, who brought the plagues on Pharaoh and got them out of Egypt, who presented the great deliverer, Moses. I believe it all,” is what’s saying. He’s establishing himself in relation to the God of Israel.

This accomplished two things for those listening to Stephen in court:

He has captured their attention by reciting the history they love to hear. And I’ll bet you he was a dynamic speaker. It says that they couldn’t resist his spirit. And I think they just ate it up. And the second thing he accomplished was, he defended himself against the charge that he blasphemed God. He did believe in God. He did not believe God was unholy, unsacred. He believed God was the holy God of glory, the very God of Israel.

What Stephen was moving towards by recounting their common history as Jews was this:

The third thing he wants to do is indict them for sinfulness and rejection. The fourth thing is to present Messiah.

The story continues next week.

Next time: Acts 7:9-16

I hope everyone had an enjoyable Christmas!

Best wishes to all those who are celebrating Boxing Day!

File:Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo 008.jpg

This painting, The Holy Family with dog, hangs in Madrid’s Museo del Prado. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo painted it between 1645 and 1650. He was born late December 1617, baptised January 1, 1618 and died on April 3, 1682. Find out more here:

Thoughts on Christmas

December 26 is also the feast of St Stephen:

St Stephen, the first martyr

Learn about Boxing Day:

Boxing Day – a history

For those visiting family and friends today, have fun.

For those who are already back at work, may the Christmas spirit live on in your hearts.

Boxing Day clip artHappy Boxing Day to readers living in countries where December 26 is a public holiday.

December 26 is also the feast day of St Stephen, the first martyr.

My previous posts for this day continue the Christmas theme:

Come let us adore Him

Keeping the hope of Christmas alive

Thoughts on Christmas (Murillo’s Holy Family with dog)

Concerning today’s illustration, a clearer, black and white version of George Cruikshank’s 19th century engraving can be seen at The History Notes.

On the subject of Boxing Day, journalist Cameron Macphail wrote a fascinating and witty history of December 26 for The Telegraph. I highly recommend reading it in full.

A summary follows.

Why ‘Boxing Day’?

Boxing Day was observed in some sense — if not as a public holiday, then as a day of giving — going back at least a few centuries.

In the 17th century, Samuel Pepys recorded Boxing Day preparations in his diary.

Gift boxes were for servants and tradespeople.

Servants worked on Christmas Day for their employers. Boxing Day was their day off and the opportunity to be with their own families. Employers gave each servant a box with a gift, bonus and, sometimes, Christmas leftovers.

The first weekday after Christmas was also the time when customers gave a present or a sum of money — gratuity or account settlement — to tradespeople.

Macphail cites Pepys:

… a diary entry from December 19th 1663:

“Thence by coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there, and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas.”

Five years later Pepys was not feling so generous complaining in a December 28th entry from 1668:

“Called up by drums & trumpets; these things & boxes having cost me much money this Christmas.”

St Stephen

St Stephen is the patron saint of horses.

Macphail says this is why so many horse races and hunts are held on December 26.

The Irish refer to December 26 as St Stephen’s Day rather than Boxing Day.

Other amusements

On December 26, the British continue their Christmas celebrations with family activities.

These include attending the theatre or participating in charity events.

Football fixtures are played around the country. These used to take place on Christmas Day afternoon until the late 1970s, when they were thought to detract from spending the day together as family.

In more recent years, Boxing Day is the date when post-Christmas sales begin. Whilst the men in the house can watch football, women can go to the shops.

Additional Christmas holidays

If December 26 falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the following Monday is always a public holiday in the UK and Ireland. This is the case in 2015.

Boxing Day is also observed in Commonwealth countries such as Canada, South Africa, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

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