Stiff-Necked. Who? Me?

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Intro -
Prayer: Father, we praise You and honor You. Holy Spirit teach us Your ways. Open our hearts to Your Word and give us wisdom to understand, and courage to follow you Jesus. Amen.
Acts Chapter 7.
Evangelism often involves engaging in apologetics - providing a reasoned argument for what you believe and why you believe it. Sometimes we refer to this as a reasoned defense. Rarely (hopefully) if ever, it is an actual defense. But, as we are going to see today, Stephen is giving an actual defense of himself while engaging in apologetics at the same time. Now, Stephen did not have the New Testament to work with, so he used what he did have - the Old Testament. Some of us may be very familiar with this text and the underlying Old Testament stories, some of us might not. We don’t have time to dive deep into the OT text today, but there are a few key things I will try to point out as we work through this text.
Before we dive in, I think it will be helpful to briefly review what leads to Stephen’s apologetic defense.
Hellenistic Deacons appointed (7)
“A great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” - The temple priests were becoming followers of Jesus.
Stephen was preaching Jesus and performing miracles
Hellenistic Jews rose up to dispute Stephen, but failed
The Hellenistic Jews brought Stephen before the Sanhedrin (the council) and accused him of:
Blaspheming God
Blaspheming Moses
Speaking against the Law
Speaking against the Temple
This is where we pick up today, Stephen is before the Sanhedrin charged with blasphemy and, essentially besmirching the honor of the temple and the law. What we are going to see is a masterful defense, but, Stephen isn’t just arguing against the charges, he is also arguing for Jesus while doing so.
Please open your Bibles to Acts Chapter 7 and follow along as we work through this text. There is a lot of reading today, but, this text is intended to be read in a large chunk as it is a defense of the charges levied against Stephen, while at the same time acting as an apologetic for God’s faithfulness and scripture pointing us to Jesus.
Acts 7:1- 16
Stephen defends himself against the first charge - blaspheming God - by affirming the story of Abraham through Joseph. He also makes a special reference to “the God of Glory.” This phrase appears once in the NT (here) and once in the OT (Ps 29) (and, similarly, but not exactly, in Psalm 106) The long story short is, Stephen is declaring I worship the God of Glory, I do not blaspheme Him.
Lets continue:
Acts 7:17-34
Stephen defends against the second charge - blaspheming Moses - by affirming the story of Moses, his divine calling and his faithfulness. And as we continue:
Acts 7:35-43
Stephen defends against the third charge - speaking against the Law - by affirming the Law, given by God, through Moses. Stephen probably has them agreeing with him up to this point - yeah, the God of Glory, yes, Moses, and that it is good. But, he doesn’t stop there, where he previously implied, he now expressly tells them their forefathers rebelled and were rejected by God. Stephen is also implying the Sanhedrin are guilty of doing the same thing. He is saying the Law points to Jesus, and, just like your forefathers, you reject and ignore the law. Stephen is speaking to the Jewish law experts - their collective blood pressure is beginning to rise at this point.
Acts 7:44-50
Stephen defends against the fourth, and final, charge - speaking against the Temple - by affirming the Temple’s divine origin. But, instead of lowering the blood pressure of the Sanhedrin, he doubles down and challenges their understanding of the Temple. See, they had come to believe they had God’s presence because they had the Temple. They have, essentially, in that thinking, co-opted the heathen understanding of the nations around them. In the nations around them, the house of your god was an idol. If you wanted your god to be with you, you must have an idol for that god to live in. The idol wasn’t your god, it was your god’s home. If you lost your idol or it was destroyed in a fire, your god wasn’t dead - it was a bit dishonorable or shameful for your god - but you just built or bought another idol (i.e. home) for your god, dedicated it to your god, and then your god had to dwell in the idol again. The idol was a means of bringing god to you. (Babel was this on a much larger scale)
Do you see how that thinking bled over into the Jew’s understanding of the Temple? The believed because they had the Temple, with the Holy of Holies and the Mercy Seat, built to the specifications given to them, that God had to dwell there, in their Temple. Stephen says NO, you have it all wrong - all backwards.
In the wilderness, God did not follow the tent of meeting/tabernacle - the tent of meting/tabernacle followed God. God would lead, and wherever God stopped, you brought the tabernacle to Him - not the other way around. Solomon later built the Temple in Jerusalem because that is where God was, it was the place, the home, God had prepared for them. God wasn’t in Jerusalem because of the Temple, the Temple was in Jerusalem because of God. Stephen is saying “you did not build a home for God, God built a home for you.” The implication is that God isn’t here anymore, and you need to stop sitting here and start following God again- start following Jesus.
Let’s finish the text:
Acts 7:51-60
Son of Man - Dan 7:13-14, Matt 26:63-64
How does this apply to us? Stephen calls the people he was speaking to - stiff necked - but what does that mean? This is an idiom based on a farm animal “stiffening” its neck to refuse a yoke. The yoke was the harness put on two or more oxen (or other work animals) to connect them to one another, get them working together, connect them to the plow and make their labor fruitful. For Israel, bearing the yoke was living in obedience to the covenants - stiffening the neck against this yoke was disobedience. This idiom first shows up in scripture after the Hebrews create the golden calf at Sinai. Stephen is comparing resisting the Holy Spirit, to resisting the yoke. In your bulletin I list some example questions that may uncover some stiff-neckedness in your life. Here is a quick run down of how they all tie together:
1. Certainty that you are right. (I know the right way)
2. Refusal to listen to anyone else. (Don’t bother - I already know the right way)
3. Defensive when criticized. (What are you talking about - Don’t bother - I already know the right way)
4. Making excuses for your shortcomings. (I’m not as bad as “them” - What are you talking about - Don’t bother - I already know the right way)
5. Lashing out at others. (I oughtta punch you in the nose - I’m not as bad as “them” - What are you talking about - Don’t bother - I already know the right way)
6. No desire to examine your own life. (see above)
This is not the only way to uncover stiff-neckedness in your life, but I think we see echos of these things in the Sanhedrin - and maybe we still have echos of those behaviors in our lives today. When we do these things, we quench any opportunity for the Holy Spirit to speak to us and teach us. When we stop listening, we stop learning.
Maybe it is something that is right to be upset about - like murdering babies through abortion, or people foolishly saying just because a boy identifies as a girl, he should be able to compete against real girls, biological girls, in sports. Or, maybe it isn’t something really right to be upset about. Even if it is, and you know you are right, it doesn’t mean you don’t listen to others, or need to be defensive when they criticize you, or use their poor behavior as a “measuring stick” to justify your own poor behavior, and, certainly, it does not justify lashing out - physically, in gossip, or otherwise.
If we are honest with ourselves, each of us have areas of our lives infected with the curse of stiff-neckedness.
BUT GOD - two of the greatest words ever put together - BUT GOD. In this whole narrative that Stephen gives us pointing to our stiff-neckedness, he also points to the steadfast faithfulness and love of God. From Abraham to Joseph to Moses to David to Jesus - God is faithful.
Hesed - convanental, unwavering, unchanging, beautiful, perfect, forgiving steadfast love of God towards the people of Israel, towards us, towards you...
If you are thinking - You don’t know what I’ve done, or what I’ve said, or who I’ve been, or who I’ve hurt - you’re right, I probably don’t. But I can tell you with absolute certainty, with utter confidence, positively and without reservation, whatever it is, it cannot separate you from the love of Jesus - it cannot keep you from Him - regardless of what you have done Jesus freely offers forgiveness - He offers redemption, if you just believe. How do I know this - Saul.
Saul murdered Stephen. BUT GOD. Jesus saves Saul. Murderous, stiff-necked, rebellion could not separate Saul from the hesed love of God in Jesus. Our murderous, stiff-necked, rebellion cannot separate us from the hesed love of God in Jesus. As Saul (Paul) says in
Romans 5:7–10 ESV
For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
This is what the hesed, covenantal, faithful, steadfast love of God looks like - while we were still enemies, while we were still sinners, Jesus died on our behalf, to satisfy the wrath due to us for our sin. How do we have access to that forgiveness? Faith. Paul says in
Romans 10:8–10 ESV
But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
(it = righteousness based on faith contrasted against the law of Moses)
BUT GOD. Praise Jesus.
Maybe you know Jesus, have known His peace and love and salvation, but have been feeling a bit far from Him. You trust Him in faith. Maybe you haven’t been living like you know you ought. Jesus still loves you. Stop and turn to Him today. He’s there with you. The Holy Spirit lives within you. Follow Him.
Maybe you aren’t sure if you have ever truly trusted Jesus. Maybe somewhere in your heart you still think “I’m OK, I’m not as bad as those other guys/gals.” or maybe “I’m not nearly as messed up as some of those other Christians I know, so if God is saving them, He’s got to be OK with me - I’m pretty good most of the time.”
If that is you, I invite you to repent - to turn from that thinking - to understand there is nothing you can do to save yourself - not even attending Church regularly, giving of your time and money and being nice to everyone. Salvation isn’t a matter of good and bad deeds placed on a scale. God doesn’t play favorites - we are all guilty - 100% all of us - equally - no matter how “good” or “bad” we think we are.
Think of the nations we discussed earlier and their idols, or, to bring it a bit closer to home, if you’ve ever watched the movie “Field of Dreams” about an Iowa farmer and a baseball field, the farmer heard a voice telling him, “If you build it, he will come” (the he is baseball legend “god” Shoeless Joe Jackson) - if you build the field, Shoeless Joe has to come play in your field. When we think this way - we make our works our idol - the “home” we build for God by our works and good deeds - then think that because we built it, God has to come live in it. He doesn’t, and He won’t.
God doesn’t inhabit “temples” built by our hands. That’s why Paul says that while we were still sinners, while we were still rebels - seeking to bring God to us by our idols of good deeds and works (do you see how this ties into the thinking of the Sanhedrin and the gentile nations?) - Jesus died for us and made a way for us all to be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus, and Jesus alone. We don’t build a home for God, God builds a home for us in Jesus. Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, God is patiently waiting for you to come home. Will you? Will you, in faith, as Paul says, confess Jesus is Lord and and believe in your heart God raised Him from the dead? Will you? If you haven’t ever done so, I invite you to, to set aside your faulty thinking, your ideas of being “good enough,” your stiff-neckedness, and come home to Jesus in faith.
To close today, I want to do something a little bit different. So, while the worship team is getting ready to lead us in our final song today, please stand and join with me as we recite the Lord’s Prayer together:
Close - Lord’s Prayer -
Matthew 6:9–13 (KJV 1900)
Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
It is a beautiful thing to pray in unity, yes? Let’s lift our voices to praise the One who saves...
Ephesians 3:20–21 ESV
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
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