Charges were falsified in order to accuse him of blasphemy as his rivals could not withstand his wisdom. And so he was brought to the council and the high priest asked if those things said were so. The man on trial was Stephen, one of the seven chosen to serve and he had been accused of speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God (Acts 6:11), i.e. against the holy place and the law (Acts 6:13). But unlike his Lord Jesus who did not say much when he stood trial, Stephen gave a long sermon that exposed their hypocrisy and ignorance, i.e. they had failed to realize that they were the ones who had been rejecting the laws Moses gave and had confined the Almighty God to a man-made temple. And so Stephen was martyred, not so much for preaching Jesus as the Messiah but for his boldness in speaking the truths.
So questions were asked concerning the holy place during a bible study session on this passage at YAM. And so let me ask the question here, i.e. have we also confined God to a man-made temple? What do I mean? I believe many of us would have the sanity not to bring breakfast into the sanctuary with the intention of consuming it during service. I suppose we do so because we are entering God’s presence, i.e. into holy place, and it wouldn’t be right to be eating and drinking away as if we are going into a cinema to watch a movie. But what happens on other days? I remember entering the sanctuary when there was a band practice going on. A musician was busying setting up his equipment and I was looking at his drink that was left lying on the pew. He noticed the pastor and sheepishly took it out. I didn’t say anything and was not giving him that glare for daring to bring drink into the sanctuary. I was actually more concerned that he might accidently spill it and soil the carpet. Now I wonder how he would have reacted if the practice had been at the MPH. Would it be ok for him then?
And talking about the MPH, didn’t we use it for 11am service once upon a time? So didn’t we treat it as a holy place back then though we feast in it on other occasions? If it is fine to do so in the MPH but not in the sanctuary, then I believe we have confined the Almighty God to our man-made temple. God is omnipresent and does not dwell in house of cedar. But don’t get me wrong! I am not saying that we can treat the sanctuary anyhow but that we should exercise extra care not to make the place a stench because it is specially designated for people to purposefully come and meet God in reverent worship and not because God lives in there. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple should warn us regarding this. Furthermore I believe the whole building is consecrated for the work of the kingdom and as good stewards we should treat all facilities with the same care. And whichever room we use to worship God, that room becomes a holy place just like the sanctuary. And when we are entering God’s presence to worship him, let us not come late and leave early, dress inappropriately or give greater attention to our gadgets, which I believe is a bigger problem for us today. And let us also not act like godly saints when we enter in but behave otherwise when we step out of it. For in doing so we become like Stephen’s accusers and we stand guilty of hypocrisy and ignorance as well. And if someone would dare to speak the truths and expose us, will we also stone him?
Now coming back to Stephen’s story, most of us would know that a persecution arose as a result and many disciples were scattered across Judea and Samaria and they spread the gospel there. I have often heard how preachers use this account to teach that God sent a persecution to disperse the disciples because they were not willing to leave Jerusalem and go into the world as instructed. While I understand their zeal for the field and concern for the lack of workers, I do not think we are doing justice to the text in teaching so and it only serves to scare people into mission work. I agree that there are accounts in the Bible where God raised up enemies to persecute his people because of disobedience but not in this instance. In fact we are told that the apostles remained behind in Jerusalem when they were the ones who should be dispersed. So did God’s plan backfire and the wrong people were scattered instead? Therefore I believe the proper interpretation is simply this: the gospel spread into Samaria because a godly man was ready to die for his faith. Stephen’s story reminds us of Jim Elliot, the missionary who was killed while evangelizing to the Acuas in Ecuador. They were willing to lay down their lives for the gospel and they did not die in vain. For God used others to continue the good work they had started and bear fruits for the kingdom, people like Philip in Acts and Elliot’s wife in Ecuador. Therefore their stories ought to encourage us to step forth in faith and trust God for the outcome than to put us on a guilt trip.
Finally allow me to end with two more lessons on Stephen. First, remember that he was not martyred for preaching Jesus as the Messiah but for speaking against the two most important tenets of Judaism. But he didn’t do so intentionally in order to provoke the Jews and cause the persecution. It was they who falsely accused him but he stood up to their accusations with courage and boldness. Likewise, we are called to preach the gospel to the lost and not to provoke other religious groups, stir up unnecessary troubles and hinder the gospel work instead. Can you discern the difference between the two and be bold to stand courageously for the gospel when the situation demands? Second, remember that Stephen was one of the seven chosen to serve as deacons. Back then, it would have been an honour for one to be chosen and I doubt any of them would hesitate to step forth or be reluctant on ground of humility. For biblical humility is not about assuming that one is not good enough to lead or serve but to be meek and humble when doing so.
September 29, 2013