The Herod family highly valued their title: King of the Jews. So much so that Herod the Great had boys under 2 years old killed in hopes of eliminating baby Jesus (Matthew 2). His son, Herod Antipas killed John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12) and wanted to kill Jesus (Luke 13:31-32). In Herod Antipas’s court he interrogated the silent Jesus in the midst of shouting religious leaders. Herod and his soldiers mocking and ridiculing Jesus, putting the purple robe of royalty on His shoulders before sending Him back to Pilate (Luke 23:1-12).
BOOKENDS AND ROBES
For Luke, the purple robe forms a front bookend to the end of his gospel and the beginning of Acts through chapter 12 where Herod (Acts 12:20-25) dons a royal robe that Josephus describes:
…he [Herod Agrippa 1] put on a garment made wholly of silver, of a truly wonderful texture, and came into the theater early in the morning. There the silver of his garment, being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays, shone out in a wonderful manner, and was so resplendent as to spread awe over those that looked intently upon him. Presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good) that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.”
That robe event provides the concluding bookmark with Herod the Great’s grandson being eaten to death by worms because of his desire for the praise of men as the King of the Jews (Acts 12:23). From the appearance before Herod in Luke 23 and Jesus’ passion until the explosive beginnings of the church through Acts 12 the Gospel begins its advancement into the rest of the world.
KING OF THE JEWS
GIVE GLORY TO GOD
Herod provides a significant reminder to all of us as we seek our own recognition, popularity and fame. Paul encouraged the church in Corinth:
”So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
It had been 13 years since Saul met Jesus on the road to Damascus and 10 years since his failed attempt to return to Jerusalem. His hope had likely been to make amends with those he had hurt and convince his friends that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah (Acts 22:17-21). That was when the disciples ‘took’ Saul and ‘sent’ him back to his hometown of Tarsus (Acts 9:30).
Now, 13 years later, Barnabas needs help with the exploding Gentile church in Antioch and we find him knocking on Saul’s door in Tarsus, asking him if he can come help (Acts 11:25-26). They would spend a year together. So, after 14 years since meeting Jesus Barnabas and Saul make their way back to Jerusalem bearing gifts from Antioch to help steel them for the predicted famine that would come.
This trip to Jerusalem has Saul being mentored in Barnabas’s shadow as Luke notes that the two of them, uneventfully, return to Antioch (Acts 12:25). At some point in their first missionary journey, however, Luke makes a couple of changes that are significant. First, he acknowledges Saul’s Greek name, Paul (Acts 13:9), and he now lists these two evangelists as “Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 13:14).
It is easy to think that Saul’s maturing in Christ happened shortly after meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus. But, a lot needed to happen for Saul to be ready to take the gospel to the world. Those 15 years represent a lot of hard work to help Saul become the evangelist, Paul. Time well spent when we consider his impact upon churches all over the world ever since then,
So many things about ourselves remind us of the Apostle Peter in his early days. He thought he could walk on water…until he saw the storm. He thought he would be faithful to Jesus to the very end, even if he was the last one alive…until he denied Jesus under pressure the third time.
THE NEW PETER
Something has changed for Peter since those days. Now he realizes that his power to accomplish anything comes from one, singular source: Jesus.
And so, when he approaches the bed of a man who has been paralyzed for years, he says clearly, with confidence: “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you! Get up, and roll up your sleeping mat!” (Acts 9:34, NLT). When he approaches Tabitha’s body he is reminded of His Savior, Jesus, who took little Talitha’s hand and told her “Talitha Koum” (Mark 5:41). Knowing that Jesus did this upon His own authority and might Peter knows where he must go. After sending everyone out of the room he falls to his knees, alone, in prayer, before taking her hand and commanding her: “Get up, Tabitha.”
LUKE’S THEME IN ACTS: JESUS
The name of the book in most of our Bibles is “The Acts of the Apostles.” Perhaps a more fitting title for this incredible book of the history of Jesus’ people and the early church is “The Acts of Jesus”. Masterly woven throughout the pages of this timeless documents is the thread of a cross, an empty tomb and the power, might and majesty of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit working seamlessly to bring about the vision of their Father.
Choosing is very different from being chosen. When we choose from many options we are being empowered. We can say ‘yes’ to some things while saying ‘no’ to others. For example, at a church pot luck, I can choose what I wish to put onto my plate. I also choose what I do not wish to have on my plate. As I get older I realize that choosing to put a little of everything on my plate needs to be modified. I now make different choices because I have the power to do so…if I choose (once again) to exercise it.
Being chosen, however, is different. When applying for a job, I hope that I will be the chosen one from among many other candidates. When it comes to jobs that I do not wish to do, my hope is that someone else will be chosen.
In choosing, I am empowered to choose. In being chosen, I hope to have the option of deciding whether or not I wish to respond; but, sometimes, it means submitting to the one who has chosen me.
CHOSEN BY GOD
Reflecting back upon his being chosen by the Lord, the apostle Paul recognized that God had set him apart before he was even born (Galatians 1:1, 15-16, NIV). The Lord made it clear to Paul, however, that accepting God’s call would mean choosing a life of suffering (Acts 9:16).
This means that it is of value to consider Saul’s upbringing in Tarsus and Jerusalem from his earliest years (cf., Acts 26:4-5; 22:3) until he received his irresistible calling from the Lord on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-31). So strongly influenced by his studies in Judaism according to the Pharisaical tutelage of Gamaliel himself that re-orienting the “Christ in me” (Galatians 1:15-16) to the way of the cross would take three years in Arabia, ten years in the region of his hometown of Tarsus and a year under the wing of Barnabas to anchor itself in the destiny that God had planned for him (Galatians 1:17-2:2).
CHOOSING TO ACCEPT GOD’S CALL
We have all been chosen by God (Ephesians 1:3-14). The question for each of us is whether or not we choose to accept His calling. For those of us who do choose to follow His lead, Paul’s life helps us do as Jesus instructed us: to count the cost (Luke 14:25-35).
Fame might seem like magic formula to wealth and popularity to some. Others will think of celebrity status as a horrible nightmare.
Consider the celebrity who walks into a room of strangers, knowing no-one; but, everyone knows him or her. In contrast, look at the introverted person who appreciates privacy and anonymity: the prospect of universal face recognition would be frightening.
Now, consider the person who loves the spotlight, celebrity status and all of the trappings of fame and fortune. And, by the way, may I introduce you to Simon the Sorcerer! This is how I read Luke’s detailed description of a man whose pride and egocentrism would have been legend in Acts 8:9-13.
Whenever Simon the Sorcerer would walk into a room. Luke assures us that Simon had been well known by every person in the room–rich and poor–in Samaria, for some time. Boasting of his own greatness people associated him with a ‘Great Power’ that came from God. His sorcery amazed everyone. People actually followed this narcissist, waiting for the next magic trick!
PEOPLE FOLLOWED HIM
9 Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, 10 and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” 11 They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. 12 But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
Assuming that the reports of these early church writers is accurate, Simon the Sorcerer never understood some of the basic tenants of the Christian faith. These begin with the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12 and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.
How difficult would it be to choose to devolve from incredible celebrity status to humble servant?
Just ask Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
It would seem that Simon Magus never got the memo.
Of course, the next question that follows, naturally, is “How am I doing with the changes I must make to become what God is calling me to be?”
Bigger and better. In our way of thinking, this is progress. Bigger. Better. Nicer. Taller. Finer. Stronger. Faster. More. These are the words we use to measure success and achievement.
The Tabernacle that Moses and and Israelites carried around the desert for 40 years was sufficient for God. He had authored its design and materials and Moses and his artisans carried out God’s instructions to the letter.
The Tabernacle sufficed as a tent of meeting between God and man for almost 500 years’ worth of High Priests. After all, at the dedication of the temple that was to replace the tabernacle, Solomon himself asked, ““But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (2 Chronicles 6:18, NIV).
Bigger. Better. Nicer. Taller. Finer.
But still insufficient.
By our standard Solomon’s Temple was among the most glorious structures of the ancient world. Yet, 400 years later the temple would be destroyed by the Babylonians, the ark of the covenant would be lost forever and the people of Judah would be exiled to Babylon.
After the return from exile, Ezra returned with his construction crew to rebuild the alter and lay out the foundations for the temple’s replacement. When the old men who remembered the glory of Solomon’s Temple saw the smaller foundation stones of its replacement, they wept in mourning (Ezra 3:11-13).
So, another 500 years later, Herod would renovate and expand Ezra’s temple into an even more grandiose and magnificent structure. This would be the pinnacle of his building projects in Jerusalem. The disciples looked around and marveled at the buildings only receive the sobering reply from Jesus that one stone will not be left upon another (Matthew 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:5-6, NIV).
Indeed, 40 years later, the Romans would raze Jerusalem–including the temple–to the ground.
Bigger. Better. Nicer. Taller. Finer.
But still insufficient.
Jesus had spoken clearly about the religious rulers and their specious, hypocritical rules about oaths and the various items of the temple (Matthew 23:16-22). When Jesus ‘cleansed’ the temple, He told the religious rulers that they had turned His Father’s house of prayer into a den for robbers (Matthew 21:12-14; Mark 11:15-17, NIV). When He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus was very clear that true, spiritual worship will no longer be identified with a specific location (John 4:19-24, NIV)
Bigger. Better. Nicer. Taller. Finer.
But still insufficient.
REDEFINING TABERNACLE AND TEMPLE
So, there was a sense in which Stephen’s accuser’s were correct when they spoke to Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple and the changing of Moses’ customs (Acts 6:14, NIV). Certainly, Jesus did predict the destruction of temple and His death, burial and resurrection was the once-and-for-all time sacrifice. There would no longer be a need for sacrifices at the temple because of what God had done through His Son, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9).
Hence, Stephen’s point, quoting Isaiah 66:1-2:
…the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
49 “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? 50 Has not my hand made all these things?’
The apostle Paul tells us that our bodies are now God’s temple (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) and that we, the church, are God’s temple (2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:19-22). The Hebrew writer locates the new tabernacle in heaven (Hebrews 9:11) and in Revelation 21:22, John tells us that God and Jesus Themselves are the temple of the New Jerusalem.
CONCLUSION: STEPHEN & THE TEMPLE
When Stephen drove his point home he had turned the tables on his accusers. It is not him but they, themselves, that have blasphemed God, disregarded the Law and Moses, and murdered the last and greatest of a line of martyred messengers that God has sent to His people.
This made his audience angry and this distinguished body of community leaders got really, really mad at him (Acts 7:54). But, once he proclaimed that he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56), that was all it took for these Jewish leaders to throw dust in the air, stop their ears, start screaming and drag Stephen out into the courtyard to publicly stone him (Acts 7:57-60). Stephen was right. Nothing had changed.
The One and Only Constant in this equation is The One, Great I AM, Yahweh! His desire has always been to receive those whose hearts are turned towards Him and His promise is to dwell among them (Deuteronomy 30:9-10; 31:6, 8). This has always been true. It certainly was truly detailed in Stephen’s speech. It is true today.
We all make plans: plans to do something, plans to not do something or plans to do nothing at all. As Winnie the Pooh is quoted in Disney’s movie Christopher Robin, “People say Nothing is Impossible, but I do Nothing all the time!”
From his earliest days Joseph knew that he was part of a plan that was larger than himself (Genesis 37:1-11; 41:16, NLT). I believe that his knowledge of God’s plan…however vague it may have been to him…was the force that sustained him through his troubles in life.
Favored by Jacob, his father, Joseph was given visions of God’s plans for him early in his young adult years. It was these visions that led him to be treated harshly by his brothers who wanted to kill him. Instead, they sold him to slave traders who, then, sold him to Potipher in Egypt (Genesis 37:12-36).
Falsely accused by Potipher’s wife (Genesis 39), Joseph was imprisoned for more than two years (Genesis 41:1) before the figurative visions of his youth began to materialize for real in his adult life (Genesis 41).
The practice of worshiping things ‘made with hands’ (Acts 7:41, 48) rather than respecting God’s purposes to be ‘a light to the nations’ (Isaiah 42:5-7) had led the religious rulers to place too great an emphasis upon Herod’s temple. So much, in fact, that they didn’t even recognize God when He came to visit them (Acts 7:51-53; Luke 19:43-44; John 1:10-11).
Our God is not limited by time and space for He created them. He is not limited by the boxes we make to understand Him and His Sovereign will. He will not be tethered to a building!
How could the religious rulers miss this truth? Hence the purpose of Stephen’s illustration about God’s activity outside of the Holy City and the Holy Temple that would be razed to the ground in only a few more decades. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Moses all dealt with a God who came to them long before they could come to Him!
LUKE’S POINT TO US
God has always been and presently is and will ever continue to be working out His plans for His universe, down to the smallest detail. He is not limited by our plans. In fact, in the lives of the great men Stephen lists in his argument, God’s deliverance came out of the midst of their suffering. This leads to the following observations.
GOD’S WILL AND SUFFERING
Suffering is not an accurate gauge for measuring God’s will.
Suffering is a tool God uses to accomplish His will.
God uses righteous, faithful people to accomplish His will.
God uses sinful, rebellious people to accomplish His will.
God children live like His children, no matter what.
God’s children will fail to live like His children.
May God give us the vision of Joseph that we may trust in God’s leading through all of the challenges, setbacks and opportunities that come our way. May His will be done in our lives so He can use us as willing participants in His glory, not in spite of the hardness of our own hearts.
If there is one place where Winnie’s motto makes no sense it is in the realm of our God, Whose plans are perpetually unfolding according to His will, no matter what.
Among the Jewish people, Moses is a very important historical character. After all, God gave them The Law through Moses and he constructed the Tabernacle according to God’s exacting directions. This tabernacle would eventually evolve into Solomon’s Temple and, finally, become Herod’s Temple.
If patience is a virtue then it should not be surprising that it is a quality of our God. The prophet Nehemiah recognized God’s patience with the people of Israel and that is probably the best place to start (see Nehemiah 9:30). So, Stephen moves on from Abraham, the man of faith through Joseph who saved his family and planted his father, Jacob, in Egypt to build a nation.
Four hundred years later, as God had told Abraham (Genesis 15:12-16), during a time of enslavement and suffering, God would deliver His people and punish their oppressors.
That time came with Moses and Stephen acknowledges this great prophet of God who became a central leader of the Jewish nation that has lasted to this present day.
It means something very different when our Creator, God, says “Trust me!” Or, at least, it should.
When the salesman says, with a wink and a nod, “Trust me!” it means one thing. Many times we conclude that this person cannot be trusted. We need more evidence from an ‘independent source.’
STEPHEN BEGINS HIS DEFENSE
As Stephen begins his reply to the accusations leveled against him he begins with common ground: Abraham. God had appeared to Abram, telling him to leave everything that was familiar to him and go to a place where he had never been. So, at 75 years of age, Abram left his relatives and traveled to Canaan (Genesis 12:4-5).
Childless at 75 years old God tells Abram that he will give the land to his descendants (Gen. 12:7). In fact, his descendants, God tells him, will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. So, “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith” (Genesis 15:5-6). Stephen recounts that God’s promise of making a great nation from Abram’s descendants would take more than 400 years.
HISTORY OF MANKIND BEFORE ABRAM
The history of mankind before Abram illustrates man’s desire to create his own destiny by his own rules. In the first round God determines that the only way to correct mankind’s course is to destroy it and start over with Noah and his family (Genesis 6:1-8). In round two the tower of Babel leads to God’s decision to confuse man’s languages in order to throttle mankind’s ambition (Genesis 11:1-9).
In the midst of this time of confusion and uncertainty, God specifically sharpens His focus upon one man and his barren wife (Genesis 12-15). With this sharpened focus, Stephen continues, God builds a nation through Isaac, Joseph and the patriarchs that spans more than 400 years (Acts 7:1-19).
With his sights set upon his concluding remarks regarding the temple, Stephen builds his case for recognizing that the God they all serve is not limited to a building or place. This is something they would all acknowledge in principle; but, something had happened to lead them to view Herod’s temple differently. Somehow, Israel’s fascination with things they made with their own hands (Acts 7:41, 48) had occluded their view of God’s plans for the world.
To obey Our Creator confronts the very core of our nature.
We want to define the rules, make our own exceptions and do things our own way. When we are honest with ourselves we know this is true in our own hearts. And we know that this describes mankind.
Give us a rule and tell us to obey and we will begin to formulate ways around it. At other times we will blatantly violate the rule and come up with excuses for why we had to disregard it.
Bottom line: we want to make up our own rules and devise our own exceptions so we can do what we want to do, the way we want to do it, whenever we please.
OBEDIENCE AND GOD’S PEOPLE
At least three accusations led to Stephen’s appearance before the highest court in the Jewish nation, the Sanhedrin. Briefly summarized, they accused him of being against God, Moses, the Law and the temple. In their minds, these were capital crimes.
In Stephen’s sermon to the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:1-53) he makes it clear that this sin problem characterized the relationship between the Jewish people and their God. Beginning with “the God of Glory” and His promise to Abraham, obedience to God was a continuing problem for Abraham’s descendants. No one in this ruling body of the Jewish nation disagreed with his analysis.
His speech to the Sanhedrin amply illustrates that Stephen was not against God, Moses or the Law. When it came to the temple, however, Stephen simply made the point that God is much bigger than a building. This was something that Solomon himself had declared when he dedicated the first temple (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chronicles 6:18) and that God, Himself had told the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 66:1-2), which Stephen quotes:
48 “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
9 “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? 50 Has not my hand made all these things?’[a
Concluding his speech, Stephen finally drives home the conclusion that will lead to his execution. In short he makes it clear that it is the Jewish people who have disregarded God, Moses, and the Law. They, themselves, compounded their resistance against all three when they betrayed and murdered Jesus Christ, their “Righteous One.” He says:
51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”
For believers in Jesus Christ, we never want to be accused of being against God, His word, or His commands. A way to prevent this from happening, I believe, is embodied in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11). Paraphrased, we might state them as follows:
•We Celebrate Our Dependence upon God.
•WeConfess Our Own Sinfulness
•We Obey By Surrendering To His Will Over Our Own.
•We Hunger To Be Like God So We Choose To Obey Him.
•Like God, We Are Merciful To Others, Not Selfish Over Stuff
•Like God, We Live Transparently Without Hidden Agendas
•We Engage Conflict With Love, Unafraid. Not Intimidated.