Friday, June 17, 2011

So On That Day a Severe Persecution Occurred - Acts 6:8-8:40

Acts 6 reminds me of how certain people have the tendency to throw around “stock charges” at people who say things about the Bible they don’t expect or not in the way they’re used to hearing them…even if the sentence doesn’t have to do with the charges themselves, the tendency of many is to jump to that conclusion without hearing them. I feel this is what’s happening to Stephen. “This guy’s saying slanderous things against Moses and God! He’s saying Jesus will destroy the temple and change the customs Moses handed down to us!” Yes, we need to be weary of ferocious wolves who want to devour God’s flock, but we also need to humble be the Bereans who check the Scriptures to verify the truth. Instead of knocking down straw-men and using parodies of debate, we need careful and thoughtful listening and humble speaking.

Now, Stephen’s speech reminds me that primarily in the Bible God is giving us a story, not just abstract principles about how to get to heaven. 

Stephen worked from the big picture and sort of “out-flanked” the charges of slandering Moses' Torah and Temple. This reminds me, too, how Stephen obviously knew his Scriptures and how they were, it’s safe to assume, read to him or by him regularly. Of course, much can be said about what he highlights and doesn’t, but that’s for another day or a different forum. However, I will just say how skillfully Stephen brings out Moses as the rejected rescuer, and refers to the Temple as being corrupted into a place of idolatry (the opposite of its purpose, and a common critique by the Prophets). He turns the charges from himself onto the council in a profound and scathing way (“You stand with Joseph’s brothers, the Israelites who rejected Moses, the calf builders, and those who killed the prophets! I stand with Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon and the Prophets!). It’s been said, “The best defense is a good offense.” And this makes you think, Stephen must have known what the outcome would be. Why do it here? And what a Christ-like comment to make at his execution (Luke 23:34). He saw heaven open as he was vindicated by Jesus, the Son of Man. So he prays, “Forgive them!” A martyr who calls down blessing and forgiveness instead of cursing and judgement! This account of Stephen’s martyrdom is a vivid indication that we all need to have our own traditions retold from Scripture from time to time to see if we’re standing on God’s side!

A modern example of Stephen’s tactic would be someone accused for their radical foreign policy who tells the history of America, starting from the pilgrims, through the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World Wars to lead up to where he wants the debate to be framed. And I’m sure once certain key figures or battles would be mentioned, then people would be ready to take sides. 

And then we have two fascinating stories about a man named Philip.. Most assume he's the same as the "deacon" mentioned in 6:5 (and interestingly, later in 21:8 he's called an Evangelist). Now, with Philip as God's instrument, we get two episodes of the Spirit working with two groups whom the Jews didn't expect God's Spirit to come to, Samaritans and out-right Gentiles (non-Jews). But Jesus' mission was for his people to be witnesses not just in Jerusalem and Judea, but in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And Stephen's death is what brought this missionary activity about explosively.

I'll just highlight some broad points. It seems that Luke is interested in showing how the Samaritan outreach wasn't to be dismissed as something eccentric or atypical. So they sent the leading figures, John and Peter to "confirm" them in the faith and show the Spirit they would receive isn't anything second rate or odd, but the same Spirit Jews also had. And about Simon the "Magos". We see that Spirit can't be brought under any type of human control. It's the spirit of the Lord God and, like the wind (John 3:8), he blows "where and when he wants." And this is just what we see with Philip and the Ethiopian.

Man would I love the know how Philip started from there and told the good news about Jesus! The suffering servant, is of course, Isaiah's sort of cryptic "job description" of the type of figure who'd rescue Israel from the fate of her exile, someone who'd fulfill and accomplish God's promises and purposes and be that saving light for the nations which Israel failed to be herself, someone who'd bring new covenant (Isaiah 54) and new creation (Isaiah 55), and be a blessing even for outsiders, yes, even eunuchs (Isaiah 56)!

Anyways, I do need to admit the following. There's an odd part of me that's always dreamed of getting an Isaiah scroll and reading this part outside a church or synagogue, just so by chance someone might ask me, "Do you understand what you're reading?" One can only dream...

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Reformation True

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