Steven Concludes His Testimony
[Acts chapter 7, verses 39-50]
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When we last left off at verse 38 of Acts chapter 7, in our ongoing studies of the writings of the apostle Luke, Steven was still vigorously defending himself against the trumped-up charges of the flotilla of false witnesses that had been launched against him in a hearing before the full Jewish governing body known as the Sanhedrin. Steven had spoken at length about the chronicles of the life of Abraham and his descendants, and the achievements of Moses, and Steven’s comparing him to Christ. Just as a condemned man led ancient Israel out of Egypt, Steven argued, so had Jesus, another condemned man, led all of humankind out of the pits of hell and into eternal glory. Steven was pointing out the egregious error of the Sanhedrin, who had handed Jesus over to the Romans to be crucified. Needless to say, this wasn’t setting well at all with Steven’s accusers. And so let’s rejoin the proceedings of that fateful day, beginning at verse 39.
“But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt – we don’t know what has happened to him!’ That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and held a celebration in honor of what their hands have made. But God turned away and gave them over to the worship of the heavenly bodies. This agrees with what is written in the Book of the Prophets” ‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the desert, O house of Israel? You have lifted up the shrine of Molech and the star of your god Raphan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.‘” (Acts 7, verses 39-43)
Our ancestors, Stephen argued, were a really disobedient bunch of people who would rather worship an inanimate object than a living God. Steven was also making the observation that the Jewish people hadn’t really changed very much in all that time, which at the time of Steven’s impassioned defense was well over a thousand years! So now we can see that this was the crux of Steven’s defense – that the Jewish nation, which the Sanhedrin purportedly represented the best and brightest of, was far more disobedient to the tenets of God than Steven had ever dreamed about being! (For the back story on the events Steven was testifying about, see Exodus chapters 19-20) “That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and held a celebration in honor of what their hands have made. But God turned away and gave them over to the worship of the heavenly bodies.” In this passage, Steven was referring partly to astrology, and partly to the lunar calendar used by the Jews. God is the God of light, wrote the apostle John, and there is no darkness in him. But Steven was referring to the story of Aaron and the golden calf I mentioned above. While Moses was bringing the 10 commandments (actually, there are many more than that) down from Mt. Sinai, Aaron’s golden calf was already being actively worshiped. So Steven was telling the court that the Jewish people had insufficient discernment to correctly evaluate the things of God, which made their charges against him baseless.
Next, Steven quotes from Amos chapter 5, verses 25-27 to use against his accusers: “This agrees with what is written in the Book of the Prophets” ‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the desert, O house of Israel? You have lifted up the shrine of Molech….” ‘Molech’ was an idol from ancient Israel to whom live babies and young children were sacrificed, a very distasteful business to say the least. So now we know that Steven was comparing the Sanhedrin to a bunch of idols who were undeserving of worship. He was comparing them to baby murderers! In that same verse Steven mentions ‘the star of Raphan’, a form of worship having its origins in ancient Arabia, in what is part of Iran today. (The Americanized version is known today as the Order of the Eastern Star, a branch of Freemasonry) “Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.” Here Steven is referring to the subsequent exile of the entire nation of Israel, which you can read about in the link I provided. In so doing, Steven was implying that the entire Sanhedrin deserved the same fate. And now let’s move on to part 2 of today’s lesson.
“Our forefathers had the Tabernacle of Testimony with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. Having received the Tabernacle, our forefathers under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might become a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built the house for him. However, the Most High does not live in houses built by men. As the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?, says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?‘” (Acts 7, verses 44-50)
The ‘Tabernacle of Testimony’ Steven was referring to was the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the stone tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments, and which Moses had carried down from from Mt. Sinai after his meeting with the Lord. For an exact description of the Ark, please refer to Exodus chapter 25, verses 10-22. “…. our forefathers under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them.” With just that one sentence we can see the conflict in the Middle East goes back to long, long before Israel’s modern-day founding by the United Nations back in 1948. Sometimes I think all those Jews and Arabs don’t even remember what they were originally fighting over. That being the case, it’s time to call it quits over there in Israel, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries in close proximity. All their governments want is war, while all the people want is some personal safety, peace and quiet. “It remained in the land until the time of David….”, refers to the Ark of the Covenant being kept in a tent until David conquered Jerusalem a few years later. But it was David’s son, Solomon, who built the first Temple in Jerusalem.
However, Steven was careful to point out, “….the Most High does not live in houses built by men. As the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?’, says the Lord.” Indeed, this was and remains a teachable moment for all humankind, whether they attend church or not. Who are we, in all our collective arrogance, that we presume to build ‘houses of worship’ so that God can descend to be with us? It is we, the human race, who have this whole thing backward! It is ourselves who should be reaching up to God, not waiting in our often enormous churches for Him to come on down and visit with us. Moreover, too many people have forgotten that Jesus is our intercessor. He is like a defense attorney who is our advocate before the Father, and only through Jesus Christ can any of us approach God. “Has not my hand made all these things?‘”
Sadly, the modern church still has the same problem, but now things are much worse. The churches of Steven’s time would be dwarfed by modern mega-churches, where millions are spent on their construction while children in the surrounding neighborhoods go to bed hungry. In that respect, I would say God would be far more indignant with the materialistic modern churches in the Western world than he was with the Temple of Solomon’s time. Next week, when we conclude chapter 7 of the Book of Acts, we will read Steven’s closing arguments, which will be brief but very powerful, and we will visualize his martyrdom on the twin altars of hubris and sanctimony. Until then let’s all pray for the wisdom, the bravery and the willingness to sacrifice ourselves just as Jesus submitted himself on the cross. Until then….