We left off last week at Acts 7:34 as Stephen was explaining Moses’ response to God’s greeting in the wilderness.
After a 40 year sabbatical we now find God tapping Moses on the shoulder. His first response might have been, “Oy Vey, what is this!” OK, it is not likely. Since Yiddish, as a language, did not exist in Moses’ time. Let’s step into the middle of Stephen’s sermon/response…
Acts 7:35-37 “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’”
In the case of Joseph, who could have been a shepherd all his life, God needed a prime minister to rule over Egypt at the right time to bring his people into Egypt. It was very important that the Israelites have a place of relative peace until the wickedness of the people who lived in Canaan could come to completion. They lived in Egypt about four hundred years.
At the end of that time God needed a shepherd — Moses! When he was three months old he had been left in a basket in the Nile River to be rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. He grew up a Prince of Egypt! But God did not need a Prince at that time. He needed a shepherd! When he was a Prince he tried to rescue his people the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but had failed! When he tried to persuade the Israelites that he had good intentions he was rejected. “Who made you ruler and a judge?” was the reaction he encountered.
Then, 40 years later, he could have answered the question with a single word. That word would be “Yahweh” who had sent an angel to meet him in the bush that burned but did not burn up.
When he encountered this angel he had nothing to offer. He was a shepherd not even a farmer. Even worse, the farmer he worked for was his father-in-law. 40 years of labor that ended with Moses leading his father-in-law’s sheep!
Now that he no longer had any skills, other than shepherding, God sent an angel to him in a burning bush! God assured him through that angel that he had seen the affliction of his people. He had heard their groaning. And now, it was time to send Moses to Egypt to deliver the people. Moses was about 80 years old and no longer possessing any governing skills. The story is told in the book of Exodus chapter 3. When Moses heard the angel say it was time for him to return to Egypt and tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” He did not reply to God with a resounding “YES”! Instead he said something like, “Who? ME?” Moses knew that the people he was to rescue did not even know who God was. They had been parked in the in the land of Goshen. Still one of the best farming areas in Egypt. The angel gave him the words of God. “I AM WHO I AM”. A phrase that is converted to the name, YAHWEH!
The people listening to Stephen knew all these things but did not understand them the way Stephen did.
God sent Moses to be ruler and Redeemer. After a 40 year rest he now had great responsibility. There were hundreds of thousands of people who would have to be organized and taken care of. They would have at least understood some kind of regimentation because they had been slaves for at least one generation. We are not told how long it was before there was a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph and feared the people of Israel enough to take away their freedom. Stephen now inserts, for the first time, the concept of a prophet like him. Stephen saw that prophetic statement as a proclamation of Jesus coming into the world. That would happen more than a thousand years later.
In order to understand it better let’s look at Stephen’s words, Acts 7:37-38 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ 38 This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us.
Stephen wanted to be very clear that “this Moses” was the one who took the congregation into the wilderness. They were protected and guided by that angel who had met him in the burning bush. Having established that relationship Stephen goes on to make it clear that the people of Israel were not easy for Moses to lead. The words given to Moses by God, Stephen calls them oracles of God, should have been adequate to guide them as they went forward. When God gave them these living words they still did not obey him. Acts 7:39-40 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’
History has a way of intruding unpleasant reality into our lives. We know the whole story at least as far as Moses recorded it. Moses went up on the mountain to receive from God the 10 Commandments. He spent 40 days and 40 nights with God on the mountain! He did not have to eat or drink during that time. Imagine what it might be like! Not only did God give him clear instruction he also gave him two tablets of stone that he had written the 10 Commandments on. God did not take a chisel and hammer he carved those words with his finger!
Stephen reminds us that during that 40 days and 40 nights Moses was on the mountain the people took advantage of his absence and became idol worshipers. Stephen is pretty gentle in his depiction of this part of the story. While Moses was gone the people, and their hearts, returned to Egypt. More than once while they were in the wilderness they remembered the excellent variety of food they had in Egypt. At the same time, they forgot that they had been enslaved by the Egyptians.
With Moses gone from the camp they went to Aaron and told him to make them gods who would go before them. While Moses was away the children would play. Stephen left out the part where Aaron explained what he had done. He said they brought gold jewelry to him and he threw it in the fire and the golden calf came out. I’ll bet a sculptor would like to have seen that happen.
Again, Stephen jumped over a long list of historical fact going back to the time in the wilderness. It would be expected the people of Israel would have been obedient to God. After all, they were the first generation to leave Egypt and follow God’s man, Moses. Instead, they actually worshiped the pagan gods even while they were in the wilderness.
The priests must have been extremely angry as Stephen brought up the subject of their pagan worship. In Acts 7:41-43 And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: (from Amos 5:25-27) ‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 43 You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’
Again, I say, history can be very uncomfortable. Truthfully, I never thought of them worshiping idols while they were in the wilderness. They were too close to God! They saw him in the fire and cloud! They heard his voice on the cloud on top Mount Sinai. They saw his hand part the water of the Red Sea! They saw a huge rock give up adequate water to provide for themselves and their cattle. Then, for most of 40 years they simply needed to gather mana every morning and they could eat all day. Yet, while they were doing this they worshiped the evil gods they had been introduced to in Egypt. Wow! After all that they had been exposed to they still turned away from Moses and from God.
Stephen wanted them to see that they had never really been faithful to God. I can imagine this may have been shocking to the younger men that were there. I really believe anyone who studied their history would have known the things that Stephen was telling them. At the same time I do not believe they would have appreciated him sharing. Stephen goes on with the condemnation of Israel. While they were worshiping the pagan gods Moses was erecting a tent that would be called the tabernacle.
(Acts 7:44-47) “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. 45 Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 46 who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him.”
Notice that Stephen calls this tabernacle “the tent of witness” all the while they were worshiping the pagan idols in their tents or in secret meeting places. The tent of God was there with them. Can you imagine? Wherever they were in the wilderness during the daytime a column of cloud stood above the tabernacle. At night it turned into what was called a pillar of fire. How could they have ignored God? Yet that’s what Stephen presents to this group of judges.
When they left the wilderness Joshua brought it into the land God was giving them. It was King David who wanted to build a dwelling place for God. David was prevented from constructing the temple. God commended him for wanting to build the temple but he could not because he had shed so much blood in his rise to the throne. It was Solomon during the relatively short period of peace in Israel who built the temple and placed the Ark of the Covenant inside. God made it clear that he did not dwell in buildings. Heaven is his throne and the earth’s footstool.
Stephen now moves ahead to settle the issue of whether he should live or die. (Acts 7:51-53) “You stiff-necked people, 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? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Stephen understands that he is not to walk away from the situation. And why should he? These stiff-necked people always resisted God. Their fathers persecuted all the prophets. The prophets who announced the coming of the Messiah were executed. Even though the prophets had clearly announced his coming the high priests had betrayed him and murdered him. These religious leaders had received the law delivered by angels and did not keep it.
Having heard him they could stand it no longer! They were enraged and they gnashed their teeth at him.
Stephen, on the other hand, gazed into heaven being filled with the Holy Spirit and saw the glory of God. The psalmist (Psalm 110:1) saw God the father seating God the son beside himself! Mark when he recorded his gospel (Mark 16:19) said that Jesus was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.
What Stephen saw was Jesus standing at the right hand of the Glory of God. Seeing was believing for Stephen. He shouted out (Acts 7:56) “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Many of you have heard me tell this story. So you know what I’m going to say next.
Why was He standing? Just as one of us might stand to receive a visitor the Lord Jesus who stood to receive his friend. When he spoke those words the crowd took him, dragged him through the streets to the place of execution and stoned him to death.
He said two things while he was dying. First, he said “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and second, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Listening to those words and observing the face of Stephen was a young man called Saul of Tarsus. He was a Pharisee a student of Gamaliel and determined to put an end to the Christian faith. Doctor Luke reported, “Saul approved of his execution.”
This Saul led a gang who went door-to-door arresting men and women because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Later, Saul would become Paul the apostle and suffer much for the sake of the kingdom. He learned that all people have sinned and that the wages of sin is death! He would write to the Romans later that the love of God is seen in the fact that he loves us so much that he sent his son to die in our place. And, 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.
Have you trusted Jesus for your salvation? Today could be your day.
All scriptures quotes are from: The Holy Bible: English standard version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.