Acts 7 - The Pilgrim Mentality Promise and Fulfilment
Acts 7 - The Pilgrim Mentality Promise and Fulfilment
Acts 7 is not the best known passage in the Scriptures. Except for the last part, which deals with Stephen's martyrdom, it seems simply a wordy, wandering and not very interesting account of Israel's history. But is this just a ramble or has Stephen got a clear purpose in mentioning the historical events he points out to us? And in this is he saying something to us today?
This chapter contains the account of Stephen's defence to the charges brought against him by the Jewish Council. These charges related to two areas, firstly, "this holy place", that is, the temple, and, secondly, "the law" (6:13). Stephen, they alleged, had said that Jesus would destroy the temple and change the customs Moses had handed down (6:14).
Now there, we might think, is the opportunity for presenting a clear defence in the form of a two-point sermon: Jesus' attitude to the temple; Jesus and the law. But instead of that Stephen gives an account of the history of Israel. What has he got in mind?
We want to leave aside most of the details and point out the main threads that are woven into his account here. In this way we'll see how he defends himself. But we'll see much more than that. Here is a mentality, an approach to the Christian faith that we need seriously to wrestle with today.
Stephen is more or less being accused of changing his religion but in opening up his defence he clearly speaks as from within the Jewish faith. His aim is to show that the coming of Christ is the natural outworking of all that was given to the Jewish people in their special relationship with God and that he — not the Council — represents the real Jewish faith. So he addresses these Jewish leaders as "brothers and fathers" (v.2). He speaks as one that belongs to their family circle and he speaks about Abraham as the father of all of them — "our father Abraham". He thus defends himself against the implied charged that this is a new religion that he is promoting. It is the old religion — as it really was.
It's interesting too that he speaks of the God of glory (v.2). The God of glory was connected in their minds with the temple: there his glory had shone forth. So Stephen takes up a theme that was important to them — the temple — and, as it were, goes behind the temple to the God whose temple it was. He's saying: you're interested in the temple, but what did the God of glory, the God of the temple, do? And the answer is that he gave promises and brought them to fulfilment. This is the first thread that goes into the "pilgrim mentality": promise and fulfilment.
The Promises Given⤒🔗
In the opening part of this address, it is the life lived by faith in the promises that is specially emphasised.
So he mentions Abraham the father of the Jewish people. Here is Abraham in a stable settled existence in Ur of the Chaldees, a civilised prosperous place. He's asked to leave there and set out on a journey. He's not told where he's going — just to go. He's got nothing to base his action on except faith in the promise that God will show him a land (v.3). He gets a long way on his journey — to Haran where they temporarily settle. When his father dies, Abraham moves off again in accordance with the command and promise, "Go to the land I will show you". Stephen is showing that at the very beginning of their people's existence it was faith in the God-given promise that counted.
Abraham's life continues in that vein — a life of outward uncertainty moulded by attention to the promises. When he gets to the land that God has spoken about, he doesn't immediately come to own it. Rather he is given more promises (v.5). God promises the land to him and to his descendants. As he has got no children, the implication is that God is promising him not only a land but a family as well.
Then there come other prophecies and promises connected with their inheriting of the land. They will live as strangers, indeed as slaves, in a foreign land. In due course God will judge that nation, bring them out from there and settle them in the Promised Land (vv.6-7). This promise was sealed and ratified by the giving of the covenant of circumcision (v.8)
See the impression that Stephen is creating. He is saying: look at the beginning of our people. Their experience was based on promise. For hundreds of years, that is what regulated their lives. That's what matters: promise, faith, fulfilment.
Waiting for the Promises←⤒🔗
Stephen then goes on to sketch out the story of how they waited for the fulfilment of these promises. So he recounts in particular the story of Joseph, showing how God led his people through difficult experiences and in strange ways in which their faith was put to the test. "He gave him no inheritance ... yet he promised" (v.5) sums up the outlook of the people throughout this period. They were looking in faith for God to work out what he had said. They had nothing to go on — except God's promise.
This is brought out again in the reference to the death of the Patriarchs. Jacob died in Egypt and was buried in Sychem (v.16). That was a token of his faith: he believed that that land would be his — that's why he insisted on being buried there. But all that he actually possessed of that land was a family cemetery. The way of faith was hard and long; God promised but didn't fulfill for 400 years and more. Meanwhile, they waited and waited, but they waited in faith, not looking to their outward circumstances — as strangers in the land or as slaves in Egypt — but keeping hold of the promises.
And finally the time came for the promises to be fulfilled (v.17). The process may have taken a long time, but the time of fulfilment came. God raised up Moses and through him the people left Egypt according to the promise of God made years and years since. What's this got to do with the fact that Stephen is accused of speaking against the temple and of changing the law that was given to Moses?
Law and Temple: Promises of the Future←⤒🔗
If we apply this to the particular charges laid against Stephen, we get the impression that he is saying that law and temple fit into this pattern: they too are promises to be fulfilled.
Moses' laws contained a promise for the future: they were shadows representing what had to come. They fitted in with the pattern of promise and fulfilment that the patriarchs knew. As the patriarchs had received a promise and were always looking to its future fulfilment, so it ought to have been with respect to Moses' laws. They pointed forward to a greater sacrifice, the lamb of God that would take away the sin of the world.
The temple too was a shadow of what was to come. When David had proposed building a temple, God's message to him in summary was this: you want to build me a house; but what matters is the house that I will build for you (2 Samuel 7:5, 11). God looked not to the temple but to the royal lineage which David would head, a lineage which ended in Jesus. Jesus was important not the temple. Moreover, Jesus saw the temple as a picture of himself. "Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days" (John 2:19). He spoke of his body, he spoke of his church. The temple was a sort of prophecy of another house that was to come: Jesus and his people. So Stephen is saying: you've forgotten the idea of promise and fulfilment which was so prominent in the lives of the fathers of our faith. That's what I'm speaking about: I, not you, am the true son of Abraham.
Promise and Fulfilment: A Life Style←⤒🔗
Besides having a theological slant, suggesting a fresh interpretation of law and temple, Stephen's message has a very practical application.
He's really making the accusation that they are all taken up with past realities: the physical temple at Jerusalem; the rites and ceremonies laid down by Moses. But that, he is arguing, was never the basic orientation of the people of God. It was a life of faith that they were asked to live. The promise, not the temple, was in the forefront of their thought. God's purpose for the future, not the laws laid down in the past was the main focus of their attention. He is speaking then about the basic orientation of the lives of God's people: the future not the past; the promise not the law.
He is probably also saying that the life of faith is a life of variety and openness; where people live as pilgrims. There was outward uncertainty; there were strange and often apparently adverse things happening in the remarkable outworking of God's purposes. They couldn't settle down, because they were waiting for what was to come. Stephen is implying that that has been neglected in their outlook. They've got everything cut and dried, laid down, inflexible and unchangeable. They've forgotten that life is a pilgrim life, looking to the future not the past, looking for fulfilment. They've got stuck in a rut, entrenched in the past, their minds closed to what God is doing, their eyes blind to his working. They can't see fulfilment when it is staring them in the face, because they've become orientated towards something else. They've lost the openness to God's working that the fathers had.
So this contains a very challenging message about the basic orientation of our lives.
The Christian life is a life of trust in the promises. It isn't a code of ethics — like the law of Moses; it isn't a ritual to follow — like the rules associated with the temple; it isn't a system of sound theology which we embrace. It is a promise to be laid hold of. We begin our Christian life by resting on the promises of the gospel and resting on the promises is what keeps us going day after day. Our basic orientation is that we walk by faith and not by sight. Whatever is not of faith is sin. Acts of worship and service, of obedience and charity, are empty unless they are the product of a living faith.
The Christian life is a pilgrim life. It is not a life of putting down roots in this world and surrounding ourselves with an accumulation of indispensible material things. It is not a safe life where everything is cut and dried and all uncertainties are removed. It is a life on the edge; a life of openness to God's leading; a life which involves willingness to go into the unknown at the command of God. Are we flexible and mobile, ready to move at God's command, like these early pilgrims, to change our pattern of living in obedience to his command? Have we avoided the temptation to settle down and become close minded and cease to be pilgrims? The result of that is that we no longer see God's hand at work and no longer expect to see him at work.
The Christian life is one of future expectation. There are still unfulfilled promises: promises relevant for today about ourselves, about the church; promises for tomorrow about death and heaven, the coming of Christ and future glory. Our look has to be backward, yes, in a way that Abraham's wasn't, to what has already been fulfilled. But our basic orientation must still be like his. To the future, for the best is yet to be.
Do we have the pilgrim mentality that focusses on promise and fulfilment?
Rebellion and Rejection←⤒🔗
Stephen's line here is that rebellion and rejection were characteristics of the nation's conduct and he alleges that that's the explanation of what happened to Jesus. He sketches out three series of events which all follow this pattern of rebellion and rejection. They all have a connection with the life of Moses.
If the Israelites, enslaved in Egypt, had been a believing, pilgrim people as their fathers had been, they would have been saying: "I wonder when the promised deliverance is going to come". Moses certainly expected to be recognised as God's appointed deliverer (v.25). But one of his own people greets him: "Who made you ruler and judge over us?" (v.27). The enormity of this rejection of Moses is seen in that he was indeed God's chosen deliverer, "sent by God himself, through the angel that appeared to him in the bush" (v.35).
Here's the sequence of events: a promise given, a promise overlooked; the appointed deliverer despised and rejected. Stephen's argument is that this sequence of events is repeated constantly in the course of their history.
Stephen deals now with Moses' experience after bringing the people out of Egypt. The privileges given then are emphasised. As Moses himself had, through an angel, received a message of God, so God spoke to the whole congregation in that very same place and in that very same way (v.38). As the patriarchs had received the promises, so the people then had received something as precious to live by: the living oracles of God.
But once again there was a spirit of rebellion. They rejected Moses and in their hearts they turned back again into Egypt (v.39). Worse still, they said to Aaron: "make us gods" (v.40) — a reference to the making of the golden calf and to the idolatry connected with it. As a result of this rebellion God turns from them and gave them up to the sinful path they had chosen (v.42). Their conduct was therefore characterised by idolatry and so God drove them into exile beyond Babylon (v.43).
Here there is a pattern quite similar to the first. There was a promise given and rejected; God's deliverer despised. Here God's oracles are given and rejected; God's worship despised. And something worse: God turning from them because of their rebellion.
Stephen here is rewriting the history of God's people, giving a different but quite appropriate slant to it. The members of the Sanhedrin would have described other events as the keynotes of their history — the manna and the Jordan dividing; David and Solomon and the building of the temple. Stephen says: your outlook is coloured, you've forgotten a vital element. You've to remember the dark side of things: there was always a proneness to forget the promises and to despise God's Word; to rebel and reject and be rejected. The reason why he says that is because they themselves, according to Stephen, are following the very same pattern.
This series too can be grounded in Moses' days. Moses gave not only the law — which Stephen's opponents are so keen to uphold. He also gave a promise — a promise of a prophet who was to come (v.37). Stephen doesn't say who the promised prophet is, but he clearly implies that, because there were such promises, the Jewish leaders could be expected to be forward looking and expectant like the patriarchs had been. But in fact they had shown the same spirit of rebellion and rejection which had characterised the people in Moses' day.
His charge against them is made in strong words (v.51). Their rebellion and rejection are clearly portrayed: they are stiff-necked — incapable of bowing to the will of God. They are uncircumcised in heart and ears — like pagans, unresponsive and heedless to God's word and promise. They are resisting the Holy Spirit.
This is, in fact, repeats the pattern of rebellion characteristic of their fathers (v.52). Their fathers persecuted and killed the prophets who had held out promises to them. They have followed in their fathers' footsteps by betraying and murdering the Just One. So the pattern of rebellion which was evident throughout their history reaches its climax in their rejection of the Christ.
The overall theme then which Stephen is developing is that whereas he, by implication, follows in the footsteps of the patriarchs in that he has looked for the fulfilment of the promises, they have, by their rejection of Christ, shown themselves to be characterised by the spirit of rebellion and rejection which marked their forefathers. The distance, separating us from them, may blunt the force of this argument, but how telling it really was is evident from the violent reaction that it provoked: they were furious, gnashed their teeth, covered the ears from such heresy, yelled at him, dragged him out and stoned him.
Israel's history was woven out of contrasting strands of faithfulness and rebellion. Naturally, it was the strand of faithfulness which was generally highlighted and with which a connection was claimed. Stephen is seeking to redress the balance and to identify their present conduct with the dark strand that run through their history.
The pilgrim that journeys along life's path must have a balanced view of those who have trodden the path before him and who have shaped his outlook and he must make a sincere appraisal to ensure he is a true heir of all that is positive. Our own history is not uniformly one of glorious faithfulness. At 1900 the stance taken in resisting a dilution of our Reformed testimony was no doubt necessary and brave and worthy of people who were not motivated by worldly considerations, but could the same be said of the ensuing court case and the infighting that so disrupted the church for the next 20 years or so? The Disruption was indeed a glorious example of sacrifice for principle but there were those caught up in the movement for other reasons. In the preceding century, there were those who kept alive the evangelical faith but in general it was Moderatism that held sway. Further back, when my maternal forebears were suffering for their Covenanting convictions, my wife's forebears were probably practising paganism in Wester Ross or under spiritual darkness in Skye.
As a church and as individuals we like to think that we are the living representatives of all that is best in Scottish ecclesiastical tradition. It would be nice to think so, but Stephen reminds us that there are two ways of looking at history. The tragedy of the Jewish elders was that they saw themselves as representatives of the one stream when in fact they belonged to the other. They stand as a warning to all who place great weight on their historical antecedents.
Temple and Tabernacle←⤒🔗
Stephen has been accused of speaking against the temple. What exactly he said isn't clear, but such was the attachment of the religious leaders to the temple and the worship conducted in it that they think this is a matter on which they can press charges. How does Stephen defend himself?
Normally, we emphasise the similarity between the tabernacle, where the people worshipped during the earlier part of their history, and the temple, which became the focus of attention later on. Here Stephen contrasts them.
To Stephen, the tabernacle was the original symbol of God's presence with his people: it was ordained by God through Moses and was patterned on a heavenly original (v.44); in comparison, his description of the temple must strike us as somewhat downbeat: "but it was Solomon who built the house for him" (v.47). Indeed to call it a "house" places it in sharpest contrast with the tabernacle. That speaks of something permanent, immobile and inflexible — a different structure entirely from the tabernacle which was flexible and movable, capable of being easily dismantled, transported and reassembled.
It is not surprising then that the ideas with which he associates tabernacle and temple are in contrast too. There is what we might call a "house of God mentality" which is different from a "tabernacle mentality".
To him the tabernacle speaks of God's ongoing presence with his people in widely different situations. The tabernacle was there in the hardships of their desert journeyings (v.44); there too in the stirring times of conquest under Joshua; and there still in the prosperity and development of David's reign (v.45). To have a tabernacle-oriented mentality is to have the consciousness that wherever you are, God is there. It is consistent with the pilgrim spirit, for the God of the tabernacle is a God that moves with his people.
What is associated with the temple is something very different. Stephen feels the need to repeat what in fact Solomon himself recognised: that God doesn't dwell in temples made with human hands (v.48). By drawing attention to this he is combatting a spirit of attachment to a building such as his accusers are demonstrating. He's accusing them of a house of God mentality. If people say: "he's resident there; that's his dwelling place", then they tend to limit him and restrict him. They need to go to Jerusalem to find him. So they've tied him down and their expectation of him is lessened.
This is the line of argument which Stephen develops in the quotation which he makes from Isaiah 66:1-2 (vv.49-50). A house of God mentality does not sit well with a realisation of the majesty of God. To make his dwelling place Jerusalem tends to obscure the fact that heaven is his throne. To see him as confined to a resting place tends to detract from his glory as creator.
So to Stephen there are two outlooks: his opponents, with their devotion to a physical temple, which they view as the house of God, are blind to the greatness and majesty of God. They are blinkered and circumscribed and that is why they are opposed to Stephen's message. His own outlook, on the other hand, fits in with the view that God's presence was depicted in the tabernacle: a God who is with his people whatever their outward circumstances — a pilgrim God accompanying a pilgrim people. Thus he's open to the sense of progress and development in the realm of religion that the coming of the Christ brought.
To limit God's presence or blessing to a particular place — to follow the house of God mentality today — can be as stultifying and limiting as it was to the Jewish leaders in Stephen's day. But the tabernacle mentality is that of the true pilgrim. He sees life as a journey: no fixed abode, always moving forward at the command of God; no putting down of roots, but mobile and flexible as God directs. And as the pilgrim moves down whichever path God directs, so he rests in the confidence that God isn't shut away in some far off temple, but moving with him — a pilgrim God with a pilgrim people.
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