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Study Notes:

Acts 7:1-8:8

Relentlessly Resisting God

Summary: God has a long history of doing amazing things with unexpected people and being resisted along the way, but the Kingdom always advances.

Have you ever watched a show that was part of a series, and it opened with flashbacks to earlier episodes to remind you where you are in the story?  You get that “previously on …”

Well, this morning we get something similar in Scripture as we see the story arc of God’s plan of salvation which He has been developing throughout history.  We’ll see highlight clips from the lives of people you’ve probably heard of like Abraham and Joseph, Moses and Pharaoh,  David and Solomon, and Saul of Tarsus who became Paul the Apostle.

They’ve all been part of God’s long history of doing amazing things with unexpected people, being resisted along the way, but still accomplishing His purposes and expanding His Kingdom.

We’re hearing all of this because one of the first Christians is being put on trial – the establishment claims he’s teaching lies and causing a ruckus in the Temple.  He’s going to make the case that what he’s preaching is simply the culmination of everything God has been doing throughout history.

The man’s name is Stephen, we met him last week in Acts 6 – which we don’t have time to cover again in-depth, but let’s jump back up to vs 11 to get the context for everything he’s going to say in chapter 7.  Stephen has publicly teaching about Jesus and some people didn’t like it, so

Acts 6:11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” 15 And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.

Acts 7:1 Then the high priest said, “Are these things so?”

The judge is asking – what’s your plea, guilty or not guilty?  And Stephen will respond by reminding them God has always done amazing things with unexpected people, so they shouldn’t be surprised at what He has done with Jesus.  In fact, they should notice how everything about Jesus lines up with what God always said He was doing.

2 And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.’ 4 Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell. 5 And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abraham had no child, He promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his descendants after him.

Do you see this?  God does amazing things, makes amazing promises, things that seem completely unlikely and would be impossible under any other circumstances, but God can make anything happen. 

And, He often does it with unexpected people.  Looking back, Abraham was not the most likely candidate.  At the time God called him, he was living over in Iraq, in a city called Ur, and he worshipped other gods.  There’s nothing about him that makes you say, oh yeah, he’s the one to choose to start a new nation.  But God chose Him, called Him, and used Him.

6 But God spoke in this way: that his descendants would dwell in a foreign land, and that they [the foreigners] would bring them into bondage and oppress them four hundred years. 7 ‘And the nation to whom they will be in bondage I will judge,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and serve Me in this place.’ 8 Then He gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham begot Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot the twelve patriarchs.

So we’ve seen that God does amazing things with unexpected people, but He also does it in unexpected ways.  It would have made sense if God called a man with a large family, a man with leadership experience in politics or the military.  Instead, he gave Abraham, a man with no children, the sign of circumcision and the promise of land and children because God wanted to use them for His own purposes.  And over time, those purposes came to pass.  But there were problems along the way -like 400 years of captivity and bondage – because even though God does amazing things – we often resist Him, which we see happening next as God’s chosen family proves they could have had their own reality show if video cameras existed back then because,

9 “And the patriarchs, becoming envious, sold Joseph into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and delivered him out of all his troubles, and gave him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house.

This is the theme that pops up over and over again in history: nothing gets in God’s way.  Things might not look good, they might not be going the way you want, but God is not frustrated or foiled.  His plans will still be accomplished – when Jacob’s brothers sell him into slavery, God uses that as an opportunity to make His next move – He has Joseph promoted setting up the next phase of God’s plan.

11 Now a famine and great trouble came over all the land of Egypt and Canaan, and our fathers found no sustenance. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first. 13 And the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to the Pharaoh. 14 Then Joseph sent and called his father Jacob and all his relatives to him, seventy-five people. 15 So Jacob went down to Egypt; and he died, he and our fathers. 16 And they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem.

Now again, Joseph was not the most likely candidate to be used by God if you or I were writing the story – he wasn’t the first-born son, he didn’t have a lot of experience, he didn’t earn his degree in Egyptian Political Administration from one of the top schools in the Near East.  He came up out of a prison cell in Egypt.  Like Abraham before him, he was an outsider, an unlikely candidate, used by God.

And along the way he experienced opposition and rejection.  But don’t think of that as poor Joseph, think of it as amazing God! That even though His plan is resisted, He keeps pushing forward. Even as the Egyptians enslave the Israelites over time, God is not slowed or dissuaded, He keeps pressing – He knows what He is going to do and nothing is going to stop Him. In fact, He had told Abraham about it before it even happened, remember? 

17 “But when the time of the promise drew near which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt 18 till another king arose who did not know Joseph. 19 This man dealt treacherously with our people, and oppressed our forefathers, making them expose their babies, so that they might not live. 20 At this time Moses was born, and was well pleasing to God; and he was brought up in his father’s house for three months. 21 But when he was set out, Pharaoh’s daughter took him away and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds.

23 “Now when he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended and avenged him who was oppressed, and struck down the Egyptian. 25 For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And the next day he appeared to two of them as they were fighting, and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brethren; why do you wrong one another?’ 27 But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 Then, at this saying, Moses fled and became a dweller in the land of Midian, where he had two sons.

Moses is another unlikely candidate to be used by God – he was a Hebrew, yes, but he was not with the people – he grew up separately from them and had no reason to give up everything he enjoyed in the palace for them.  But once again, God took someone from the outside, someone unexpected and even suspected, and used him to help God’s people who then rejected him. 

Is this making any connections for you yet with Stephen and the leaders he is speaking to in Jerusalem?  He’s implying to them: ’God sent you Jesus and you resisted Him just like our ancestors resisted Moses who was chosen by God.’

Fortunately, even though they resisted God’s, God wasn’t done with reaching out to the people, and He sent Moses back.

30 “And when forty years had passed, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire in a bush, in the wilderness of Mount Sinai. 31 When Moses saw it, he marveled at the sight; and as he drew near to observe, the voice of the Lord came to him, 32 saying, ‘I am the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and dared not look. 33 ‘Then the LORD said to him, “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.” ’

35 “This Moses whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ is the one God sent to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the Angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He brought them out, after he had shown wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years.

37 “This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear.’

Looking back now they could say, yeah, we really blew it by almost rejecting Moses.  Well, Stephen is reminding them – Moses told us to expect someone else to come too, another prophet and Stephen is making the case that that’s Jesus.

Then, he reminds them how, even after the people got onboard with what God was doing through Moses initially, they soon began to resist and complain – continuing the pattern:  God does amazing things through unexpected people and people tend to resist His plans.

38 “This is he [Moses] who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us, 39 whom our fathers would not obey, but rejected. And in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods to go before us; as for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. 42 Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the Prophets:

‘ Did you offer Me slaughtered animals and sacrifices during forty years in the wilderness,

O house of Israel?

43  You also took up the tabernacle of Moloch,

And the star of your god Remphan,

Images which you made to worship;

And I will carry you away beyond Babylon.’

Tell me if this has ever played out in your life – God does something amazing, things go well for you, circumstances turn around and you’re grateful for a while – a few days, maybe a week or two, but sooner or later your heart begins to drift and now you’re looking for things and wandering away from the God who did that thing for you.

Friends, we do this All. The. Time.  We are the Israelites – people who God has done great things for and yet our hearts turn back to Egypt and we go looking for others things that can help us.

Well, God doesn’t tolerate that forever, there are limits to His patience and willingness to endure our rebellion.   Sooner or later He allows us to experience judgment and pain.  But He’s always calling us back – the quote here is from the book of Amos – one of many prophets God sent to call the people back to Himself. 

Remember, God uses unexpected people to do amazing things and even though He is often resisted along the way, His Kingdom still advances.  In fact, despite all their rejection and wandering hearts, God was still in their midst as Stephen reminds them:

44 “Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as He appointed, instructing Moses to make it according to the pattern that he had seen, 45 which our fathers, having received it in turn, also brought with Joshua into the land possessed by the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers until the days of David,

David was another unlikely candidate.  He is the most famous King of Israel, but he was never a prince.  When David was growing up Israel had a king, Saul. And he had a son, Jonathan, who should have taken over after him.  But Saul resisted God and so God rejected him and sent the prophet Samuel out to look for the next king.  One day he came to the house of a man named Jesse and Jesse brought out all of his boys so Samuel could pray and ask God if any of these was the one, but none of them were. 

And Samuel said, do you have anyone else?  And Jesse said, yeah, I almost forgot, I’ve got another boy, but he’s nothing – he’s out taking care of the livestock.  That was David, and he was God’s chosen man to lead the nation.  Stephen says David:

46 who found favor before God and asked to find a dwelling for the God of Jacob. 47 But Solomon built Him a house.

David established the city of Jerusalem as the center of Israeli politics and worship and wanted to build a temple for God, but He said no, that’s your son’s job.  So Solomon did it.  But the Temple was never intended to be a cage for God as Stephen points out:

48 “However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says:

49  ‘ Heaven is My throne,

And earth is My footstool.

What house will you build for Me? says the LORD,

Or what is the place of My rest?

50  Has My hand not made all these things?’

Now, I know there’s a lot of names and information being thrown at you this morning, and the truth is, if all of it was on Netflix, you would binge watch it, but it’s hard for many of us to read stuff anymore and comprehend what’s going.  It’s a skill our culture is losing, it’s the downside of technology. 

So remember, Stephen is standing in the Temple complex on trial for proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And the people he has to defend himself against include the highest ranking priests – the people who control the Temple.  They think if and when God wants to do something, He’ll do it through and with them and they’ll know all about because after all, this is God’s house and we’re His people.

But Stephen’s point is: God has a long history of using unexpected people to come in from the outside and people have a long history of rejecting what God is doing.  And it’s all happening again Stephen says, right here, right now, with you.  He tells them pay attention to everything that’s happening around you!  Miracles are happening, truth is being proclaimed, if you would just open your hearts and ears you would see.  But instead you resist.  You have this building and the sign of circumcision in your flesh, but you’re still heathens at heart, deaf to the truth, and you have no concept of Who you’re supposed to be worshipping here – it’s all just ornaments and rituals for you.  He says:

51 “You stiff-necked and 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?

Remember, throughout history, God sent people to speak on His behalf, people to call wandering hearts back to Himself, and how were they treated?  They were persecuted by the very people God was trying to bless. 

But friends, that’s exactly the way we are at times!  God is trying to get our attention, trying to bring us conviction of sin – trying to help us see that something is wrong – that we shouldn’t do it, and we avoid the conviction, we push it off, we ignore it.  Every one of us in this room is guilty of resisting the Holy Spirit – we only vary in how much we do it and how often.

Why should God be patient with us?  What does He owe us? 

Stephen goes on pointing out the way people have always missed what God was doing.  He says, your forefathers

[…] killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, 53 who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.

54 When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. 55 But he, being 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 said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

They’re furious because they’re not used to having someone call them out.  They’re used to sitting in their positions of power and having everyone else obey.  But God is using Stephen to call them out.

And it’s not going well, but God is also comforting Stephen in the middle of the mob.  He has supernatural peace to endure the trial.  And I just want to use this moment to point out to you that God knows when you are suffering – He sees and knows – you might not be given a view straight into Heaven like Stephen was, but if you were, you would see that Jesus’ eyes are on you. He is interceding for you and offering you strength.  You are not alone.

57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; 58 and they cast him out of the city and stoned him.

You might ask: why were they able to do this when they had to take Jesus to Pilate a few months ago to be crucified?  The answer is – Jesus was killed during Passover, a massive holiday when large crowds were expected in town so Pilate also came to keep an eye on things.  At this moment he’s likely out of town and most of his Roman troops with him, at his main headquarters back up in Caesarea, so there’s a greater opportunity for spontaneous mob violence to break out like this, especially if the anger of these men has just been growing and growing – first Jesus, then the recent trials of Peter and the other apostles, now this?  They’ve finally had it!

And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

59 And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

Acts 8:1 Now Saul was consenting to his death.

At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.

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

3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.

Notice the contrast between a man possessed by Christ and a man possessed by his own ideals.  And what does that show us about how we should approach things in our life?  Do we have the peace of God, or the fury that feels we have to make things happen?  Like, this isn’t right and I need to fix it!

My friends, in this city, we’re much more likely to be Saul than Stephen.  And when we are, we’re a lot more likely to be out of touch with what God is doing.  Which by the way, we see continues to advance despite the resistance, just as it has throughout all of human history.  Yes, there was a wave of persecution sparked by Stephen’s death, but it was only like driving winds in a forest fire, spreading the blaze.

4 Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. 5 Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them.

6 And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 And there was great joy in that city.

So what do we make of all this – what is the take away for you and me today?  Why did God preserve this history for us?

The answer is: to help us see God and ourselves more clearly.  The fact is God does not change.  He is the same from eternity past to eternity future. He has always been the same God – a God of unfathomable and inexhaustible mercy and grace who uses unexpected people to do extraordinary things.  Unfortunately, we don’t change much either and we tend to have a whole lot in common with other men and women throughout history who have more often rejected and resisted what God is doing than received and joined it.

Just like the leaders Stephen addressed, we are often stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, we often resist the Holy Spirit and what He is doing in our lives and community.  Like the leaders of Israel during the Exodus, we have these great moments with God and then our hearts go wandering back to Egypt.  We deserve judgment, we deserve punishment.

But even while we resist, even while we ignore, even while we wander astray – God’s purposes and His kingdom advance.  We have seen wave after wave of this in Acts – as the Church faces the threats of external conflict and internal division – now Stephen helps us see that it’s always been this way – all throughout history. 

God’s purposes are always resisted, but they always advance.  He is unstoppable.  And shockingly, He is still working for our good.  Calling us to come.  Calling us to stop resisting and receive.  He is still speaking into our lives through His people and through His Spirit – calling us to come.

Rest in this truth church.  Rest in the work of God.  You don’t have to strive to gain and build your own little kingdom, you don’t have to work so hard to protect what you’ve got – that was the path of  Saul and the council of the Sanhedrin – a path that led to anger, rage, and ultimately violence and death.

Why not be more like Stephen?  See the warnings of history, see the warnings of lives and circumstances around you, learn from them, rest in Jesus, and experience peace with God.  Even if you lose your life in the process, you will be given joy, peace, and eternal reward.  You can become one of the unexpected people that God uses in amazing ways to advance His Kingdom as you say: my life, your way, Jesus.

Let’s pray.

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