February 15, 2004
What is the most damaging lie that has ever been told? I don't suppose there has ever been anything worse than Satan's lie to Eve- that God could not be trusted. Satan couldn't have done more harm if he had chased Eve around the garden with a battle ax.
Politicians have noticed how effective lies can be. As we enter another election year- the whoppers will fly! Many careers inside and outside of politics have been killed and saved by lies.
What's the worst lie someone has told about you? How much damage did it do? Whatever it was, I hope you've gotten over it, or forgotten it.
Two false witnesses spoke up at Jesus' trial. They said Jesus was going to destroy the temple and erect it again in three days. It doesn't seem like such a horrible lie. If you don't think Jesus is capable of such a feat, what is the point? Except that to the Jews the temple was the most sacred building on earth. It would be the equivalent of suggesting that God had rejected them! It would be like threatening to demolish Congress and the Whitehouse!
Early in the book of Acts a man filled with God's Spirit and God's wisdom came to prominence in the church. His insight from God helped him understand some things that the apostles like Peter and James would not understand for a few more years yet. He was ahead of his peers and his leaders in understanding God's plan. Specifically, Stephen saw that Jesus was very serious when He said in Matthew 28, "Go and make disciples of every nation."
Peter and the apostles were still trying to reform Judaism. Stephen understood that the law of Moses was a God given step on the journey back to God, but it was not the final step. He would not undervalue the law, but neither would he worship the law of Moses. In fact, God had done something so powerfully wonderful that the Jewish system of religious rituals have become redundant, even obsolete! As an educational track these traditions could be helpful- like learning to add, subtract, divide and multiply is helpful in knowing Algebra- but the one big concept these small steps of religious law were pointing to had been fulfilled.
Stephen was so persuasive in making this point, that the best minds of Judaism could not defeat his reasoning. So they did what any evil person would do; they did what Satan did; they lied.
Acts 6: 8-15
The Jewish teachers of Jesus' day and Stephen's understood their religion to be static, changeless, immovable, stationary. They held to three eternal pillars of faith. First, the land they were living on was "The Holy Land." Second, the law of Moses was God's complete revealing of how to live right. Third, the temple was the place to perform the rituals needed to bring people back to God. Essentially, God had become a tribal deity, belonging to them alone. They had all the secrets and no reason to share.
Sectarian Christian groups still make these kinds of claims, "We know the true truth. If you don't come to us, you will be lost." This is not an exclusive fault of first century Judaism. A variety of little and large groups in the Christian faith think they have cornered the majority of good stuff about Jesus.
Stephen understood that God was the God of the whole world- not just a tiny pocket of land located on a strip of coast at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. He understood that God was trying to reconcile every tribe and language and family. Not just one tiny ethnic and cultural group.
This thought was deadly dangerous to those with a vested interest in their religion. If you made a profit off of temple rituals this was not the kind of thing you wanted to hear at Saturday morning Sabbath class. So they arrested him on trumped up charges.
Stephen makes his point by recounting the history of Israel- which they were all familiar with. Their own history teaches them that God is not restricted by territorial boundaries or buildings. He spoke to Abraham in Mesopotamia. He worked powerfully through Joseph in Egypt. And the one person most responsible for the Jewish people and their faith (the person more significant that the patriarchs, the kings, and the prophets) -- Moses -- never set foot in the promised land. But wherever God would meet him, that place was holy ground.
Furthermore, they had a history-long habit of rejecting God's anointed means of rescue. How long did it take before they recognized that Joseph was God's plan to save them? How many times did they try to reject Moses? How many of God's prophets had they killed? "Are we seeing a pattern yet?", Stephen seems to be asking.
Furthermore, they had invested far too much value in the going-nowhere temple. God's plan, in fact, His literal blue print, was not for a temple, but a tabernacle. The tabernacle was a symbol that gave rise to a far more accurate picture of God and His people than the temple could. The temple was immobile and fixed to one spot on earth. The tabernacle was a structure ready to go.
Images are basic. They determine how we live. Our mental image of God (no idols forcing us to stay in the realm of ideas a little longer) must be as close to true as possible for limited thinkers like ourselves. Otherwise our spiritual lives will be lived in terminal confusion. Some things are OK to be confused about...hockey rules and geometry to name a few. Accepting a false idea of God gets you into the same kind of trouble, however, that Eve found herself in...basically the trouble we all experience.
It was no accident that Jesus arranged for one of the strongest images connected to His work to be the cross! The cross reveals God's broken body and poured out blood freely given as an act of atonement. The Bible says in Romans 5:8, "but God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." The cross is not confined to a place or time, a language or a people. It speaks more of what God has done for us than what we must do for God. The cross is a picture of a bridge or the symbol of a door. Too often religion communicates the image of walls- keeping people out. The cross is an invitation that says, "Dear (you), I want you with me this much! Love, God!"
When you don't want to listen to someone, what is your preferred way of shutting them up? What if that person is God? With God, you can't go to another room and close the door. I hope you know that...but you can stay busy, so busy that you don't notice God. You can play the radio and read magazines, or go sky diving. Or you may join the church choir, lead a Bible study, and raise money for a new sanctuary. That is kind of what the Jews of Jesus' day were doing. They heard enough of Jesus and Stephen that they knew they didn't like it. So they became very busy -- busy saving their religion. They did a bunch of religious stuff so that they couldn't hear God. They even held a religious trial.
Religion has a long history of helping people close their ears and minds to the voice of God. When was the last time you heard the voice of God? Do you know your personal "sin that so easily entangles?" In other words, where are you most inclined to resist the Spirit's voice? What's the thing that tempts you to cover your ears and run?
The Jewish people of the first century would've gladly listened to God- if He would've consented to remain confined with in their system...if He would have stayed in His box. God won't do that! For them or for us! He won't honor your homemade ideas of a god who looks more like a Santa Claus or a beloved grandmother. He won't play along with your wrong religious convictions.
God has revealed Himself in Jesus and His written word. Jesus will be Lord or Judge. He is right now at the right hand of the Father, giving access to God, whether you are Jew or Gentile; rich or poor; man or woman; strong or weak. The door has been opened for you by Jesus!
Wherever you find Jesus, you can know that that is holy ground; that is the Kingdom of God. If Jesus is not at the core of your life, no matter how religious you are, no matter how influential or attractive your place of worship, you are on worldly ground.
If Jesus is in charge at the core place of your life, you can have the assurance that whatever happens to you in this life -- perhaps you experience the same things as Stephen -- the unimaginable happiness of eternal life is yours. In John 11: 25 "Jesus said to (Martha), I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies." When your physical life is over, will you see the Son of Man at the right hand of the Father?