by Samantha Shrauner
It is a natural defence to attack when we are confronted by our own wrongdoing. When we feel the danger of accusation, we rush to blame others or silence those who speak against us. As Christians, how do we react when Scripture reveals our wrong thinking and wrong actions? How can we guard against our inclination to harden our hearts when we are confronted by the truth of God’s word?
Every person who has put their trust in Christ has the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. In this power, not our own natural inclinations, we can read the Bible with a true view of ourselves. Diligent study of Scripture in the power of the Holy Spirit enables Christians to know God’s word, love God’s character, and proclaim God’s Saviour.
In Acts 7:1-53, Stephen is on trial for rejecting God’s law and God’s holy temple. In his defence against these charges, Stephen uses the Old Testament to display his commitment to God and to demonstrate that his accusers are the ones who have rejected God.
Stephen uses Scripture to reveal God’s character, illustrate Israel’s pattern of rejecting God, and bring the people to a moment of clarity about God’s Messiah.
Through this passage we can learn why it is imperative that Christians immerse themselves in God’s story in the power of God’s Spirit.
The God who Calls and Delivers
Read Acts 7:1-34
In the eyes of Stephen’s accusers, rejecting God’s law and God’s temple were equivalent to rejecting God himself. Throughout Stephen’s speech he demonstrates his great respect and devotion to God. He begins by announcing the work of “the God of glory” (Acts 7:2). Darrell Bock discusses Stephen’s portrayal of God as a faithful rescuer and concludes, “Stephen is no blasphemer.”(1) In fact, Stephen’s trust in God and knowledge of his character stand out from those who accuse him.
Stephen illustrates from the Old Testament that throughout Israel’s history God has called leaders and delivered his people from hardship. He begins his defence by recounting the way that God called Abraham and set him apart. Stephen appeals to the very beginning of the nation of Israel to show who God is and how he is at work among his people. God promised Abraham a land for his descendants, foretold a time of oppression, and gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision to set his people apart. When Joseph was sold into slavery three generations later, “God was with him” (Acts 7:9). God used the wicked act spurred by jealousy to rescue his people from famine. God called Abraham and Joseph, and God used them to deliver Israel from life-threatening disaster.
When the pharaoh of Egypt enslaved the Israelites, God did not turn away from his people. God saved the infant Moses from exposure in the wilderness. In God’s provision, not only was the child’s life spared, but he was raised in Pharaoh’s house and given a world-class education. Moses sought to intervene when his people were mistreated, but his fear of reprisal for the murder of an Egyptian caused him to flee and become a shepherd in the wilderness. Even there God did not abandon him. Instead, God appeared in the wilderness and sent Moses to rescue the Israelites from slavery. God has heard the affliction of his people and has come near to deliver them. In their moment of great need, God called Moses and delivered his people from slavery.
We cannot have an honest understanding of ourselves and our wrongdoing if we do not start with the God of glory.
From beginning to end the Bible demonstrates that God is powerful, just, and compassionate.
If we want to to read the Bible with a willingness to address our sin, we must come ready to see who God is and what he has done for us. Stephen showed God’s character through God’s Word and the story of what God had done for Abraham and Moses. When you desire to know God more, immerse yourself in God’s story and search for God’s character.
As Stephen demonstrates, the Old Testament is foundational for an understanding of God’s character and God’s work. It can be difficult to understand the Old Testament, which feels more foreign and removed than the New Testament. However, it is vitally important for Christians to read and know all of God’s word. We cannot expect to be mature and complete believers if we neglect much of what God has revealed to us in Scripture.
The study of the Bible in the power of the Holy Spirit enables us to know God more closely and live more faithfully.
Come to the Bible as often as you can and study diligently. Read passages in their context rather than picking out individual verses to get a sense of what’s happening in the larger story. Study under people who love God and who have dedicated their lives to teaching Scripture. Stephen shows how the study of Scripture can have a lasting witness.
To know God and make him known, immerse yourself in God’s story.
A Pattern of Rejection
Read Acts 7:9-43
In the 1970s, the archbishop of Uganda was a man named Janani Luwum. When dictator Idi Amin rose to power, Luwum spoke out against the atrocities he was committing. Eventually Janani Luwum’s courage cost him his life. Explaining his commitment to stand against evil, Luwum is quoted as saying, “The best way to show that a stick is crooked is not to argue about it or to spend time denouncing it, but to lay a straight stick alongside it.”(2) In Acts 7, next to the straight stick of God’s righteous and compassionate character, Stephen lays the crooked stick of Israel’s rejection of God and the rescuers he sends them.
At every turn God’s people take the opportunity to reject God and the rescuers he sends. Joseph’s brothers were full of jealousy and sold him into slavery. Moses was not accepted as a deliverer but was run out of town as a criminal. Even after Moses led the people out of Egypt with great power and wonders from God, the people turned away. They chased after idols with reckless abandon. Stephen says that the people “turned back to Egypt” (Acts 7:39)— what a terrible indictment of those who have just been rescued from slavery!
The history of rejecting God is tragic, but we have much to learn from Stephen’s address to those who would accuse him of rejecting God. Stephen lays the pattern bare and invites us to examine our hearts and learn from the mistakes of the past. Bock says that Stephen is effectively asking his accusers, “Do you appreciate your own history enough not to repeat its mistakes?”(3) Their ancestors had rejected the rescuers God had sent, and Stephen’s accusers are guilty of rejecting God’s perfect rescuer the Messiah. They put Stephen on trial for speaking against God, but Stephen makes the case that they are the ones who are guilting of rejecting God.
As we read, we should be confronted by the same question: do we appreciate Scripture enough not to repeat the mistakes of those who came before us? It is difficult to see the truth of our sin reflected when we open the Bible, but this is an essential part of growing in holiness and love for God. When the straight stick of Scripture reveals how crooked your life is in comparison, it is tempting to react with anger and hardness of heart. Instead, ask for the help the Holy Spirit offers and immerse yourself in God’s story. This study requires diligence and humility, because it is not our natural inclination to expose our sin or to read the uncomfortable parts of the Bible. We do not want to recognise our own crookedness. But the end of the study is not a heart that is crooked and ashamed, because God is at work to restore us and bring us to maturity. In humility recognise where you have repeated the mistakes of those who have come before, and turn to the God who delights to straighten crooked sticks. Come to the Bible willing to learn and to change, and immerse yourself in God’s story in the power of God’s Spirit.
A Moment of Clarity
Read Acts 7:44-53
Stephen’s address ends with a dramatic confrontation between God’s holy power and humanity’s proud rebellion. Stephen is accused of rejecting God’s temple, but he uses the Old Testament to remind his accusers that God himself has made clear that he is not constrained by the temple. God made heaven and earth— what kind of house could people possibly build that would contain him? Their accusation against Stephen reveals that they do not appreciate the words that God has given them. They say that Stephen has profaned the temple, but in their Scriptures God makes clear that the temple cannot contain or restrict God. Stephen turns their accusations against them. The men who would condemn Stephen for rejecting God have themselves turned against the God they claim to serve. They received the law given to them by God, but they did not keep it (Acts 7:53). Just as their ancestors persecuted the prophets, these leaders have betrayed and murdered God’s righteous Messiah. They missed the point and they killed the man they should have exalted as God’s rescuer.
In Jesus we see the clearest meeting point of the parallel streams of the Old Testament.
God is righteous and faithful, and sends a rescuer to his people in their need.
The people have a history of rejecting those that God has sent because they fail to learn God’s character and turn to him with their whole heart. Jesus, the perfect and final rescuer, received the cruellest rejection from the people whom God had set apart to serve him. Stephen builds a case from Scripture to show how Israel has missed the one they have anticipated for centuries, because they have consistently rejected the people that God has sent to serve and rescue them.
Stephen’s accusers knew God’s Scriptures, but they missed what all the Scriptures were pointing toward. We can learn from their failure and read Scripture with the big picture in view.
From start to finish, the Bible tells one complete and consistent story about God’s persistent work to save people from sin and reconcile them to himself.
The Bible covers centuries and was written by diverse people in diverse genres, and in the Old Testament it can be difficult to see how parts fit into the bigger picture. But with patient and faithful study, it becomes clear that the whole Old Testament points forward to the rescuer who would make all things new. Stephen shows us how God was at work in the Old Testament to pave the way for a Saviour. When we study all of Scripture, we can learn more about the Messiah who is promised in the Old Testament and revealed in the New Testament. When you long to know Jesus better, in the power of God’s Spirit immerse yourself in God’s word.
Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God transforms hard hearts into living hearts. Even with the indwelling Holy Spirit, however, admitting sin and failure is still enormously difficult. There will be hard-hitting moments of clarity when we recognise that we have turned away from the God who loves us and rescued us from sin. When those moments come, resist the temptation to harden the heart that God has made soft. Do not turn away from the God who rescues and saves, instead turn to the Saviour who is the centre of every word of Scripture. Go to the Bible to see God’s character and his delight to rescue those who turn to him. Read with a willingness to recognise where you have turned away from God, and come to God with a contrite and humble heart.
Learn from God’s word and draw near to God again.
In the power of God’s Spirit, immerse yourself in God’s word.
(1) Darrell Bock, Acts, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 285
(2) John Sentamu, “Meeting Janani Luwum,” accessed 30 June 2020, https://aby97.archbishopofyork.org/john-sentamu/uganda/meeting-janani-luwum
(3) Bock, 307