When The Truth Can't Be Handled
I haven’t had a cup of Starbucks coffee since this pandemic began. Well, I’ve had Starbucks coffee. I’ve just been brewing it myself. I’ve been hesitant to eat out, to get coffee, so since this shutdown began i’ve not been to starbucks. Until this morning. I decided to be brave and I pulled into the Starbucks drive thru and ordered my favorite. A Venti Dark Roast. As I started to pull away and go to the pick up window, my car wouldn’t move. I pressed the gas pedal and the engine revved but the car stood still. Then I realized. I had put the car in park. Duh. You can’t go anywhere when you’re stuck in park.
Some of us have been stuck in our spiritual lives. We placed ourselves in park, and we haven’t been able to get going again. Our default mode of operation is sitting still and it’s because of something in our lives that is keeping us stuck where we are. It’s called unforgiveness.
We were going along fine and something happened with someone and we allowed that incident to stop our growth. We held a grudge. We stopped our movement. All because we couldn’t move forward after someone did that to us. We were victimized.
We’ve been playing Scrabble the last week or so. She beats me every game. I asked her to play the other night and things finally started going my way. She said, I know what’s going to happen here. You’re going to win and you’re not going to play again because you are really only playing until you’re able to beat me and then it won’t be fun. She was onto something. I had to save face, prove I could. So I’ll play again tonight or tomorrow night win or lose.
But we allow things to get to us and we determine that until that other person moves, after victimizing us, we are not going to play anymore. Strangely, our refusal to relate and to hold their “wrong” over their head places us in a preferred posisiton. And we don’t realize that it’s not hurting them. It’s hurting us.
And that truth is hard to swallow. And most of us on this day know what that’s like.
Stephen was chosen. When there had been this argument about the daily distribution, the sharing of food, among the hellenists and the Hebrews. Stephen was chosen to serve. To be a deacon, a worker, a servant of the early group of people known as “The Way” or Christians.
Like anyone else, Stephen had his opinions. And maybe not so much like everyone else, he had a knack for just sharing them. Whether he thought this was best or he was moved by the Spirit, he chose to share his opinion before the Sanhedrin.
How do you get an audience with the Jewish High council, the Sanhedrin? You become a servant like Stephen did, and you do the miraculous.
Read Acts 6:8-15
8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Notice that 8th verse. Stephen, full of grace. Full of Power. Did great wonders. Did great signs. Among the people. It got the Jewish leaders attention pretty quick.
So, much like they had with Jesus, they pulled together some false stories and some false witnesses and drug Stephen before the Sanhedrin. That’s how yuou get an audience with the Jewish Sanhedrin.
So Stephen took it as an opportunity. It’s not every day you have the opportunity to share your thoughts on current contemporary matters. So Stephen did.
Everybody on the Sanhedrin would have revered Jerusalem, and they would have loved, loved, loved their temple. If anything was necessary to their understanding of worshipping God, it would have been the temple. Dietary laws, important. The Jewish scriptures, necessary. The place of worship- the temple- it was absolutely at the top of their list of necessities. The temple meant everything for worship.
And Stephen, probably wasn’t prepared to disagree completely, but because he had this new faith in Christ, he wanted to share it. And so, it would become necessary for those listening to broaden their horizons a little bit, and Stephen wasn’t going to waste this opportunity to help them.
So, as you read through his speech before the Sanhedrin you will notice something. Stephen doesn’t talk too much about the temple, he actually talks quite a bit about the tabernacle. The tent of meeting. The portable worship space.
Stephen, in his speech talks about the call of Abraham. Then he recounts the entire history of Israel. Isaac. Jacob. Jacob’s 12 patriarch sons. Joseph. Egypt.. Moses. The Egyptian Moses Killed. Yikes. Moses on the run. God in the bush. Moses before Pharoah. Moses in the Exodus. Moses on the mountain, crossing the seas, Moses with golden calf worshippers… and then, Moses … and the tent of witness, or then of meeting, or tabernacle. The tent that represented worship to all of them until the time of David. The place where God dwelt by their ancestors, much like they believed God dwelt in the temple. Yes, Solomon finally built a building, a home for God. A place for God to live instead of a portable place where God could meet.
Then Stephen did something unthinkable. He told them that God didn’t need a tent or a building, a tabernacle or a temple. God didn’t reside in a structure, He resided in Jesus.
And that Jesus, well, you folks just killed him.
Be sure you understand. They weren’t mad because Stephen accused them of murder Look at the 54th verse.
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.
No. They didn’t mind being accused of killing Jesus. They thought he had it coming.
What upset them was that Stephen said Jesus was God. And that was blasphemy.
Stephen knew it. He knew it before he spoke it. But he couldn’t keep quiet.
Israel once worshipped God who dwelt in a tent. Then they changed.
Israel next worshipped God whodwelt in a building. Things could change again.
Because God next came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. And rather than center their worship around traditionally held concepts of holiness in a tent or holiness in a building- they needed to understand that the holiness of God was now resident in a person- Jesus Christ.
And if they could get hold of that thought, everything would change. Their hearts especially.
but they had hard hearts. So they got enraged instead.
You see, what Stephen said was not only offensive- Blasphemy. It was also apostasy.
Stephen was trying to shake the status quo. Religion had always been a land, a law, and a structure.
Stephen wanted to help them shake that status quo to see Jesus as the Messiah.
And everyone that heard it believed it was an attack on everything that they held dear. The official, popular thought was that God resided in a temple, not in a person. So Stephen, you are an apostate, a blasphemer, and a seriously endangered person.
‘they ground their teeth at him.” Who does that? Seriously angry people.
55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
The council was angry with his speech. But now, he is looking to heaven and claiming to see God.
Interestingly, Jesus had spoken to this very Sanhedrin before he was crucified. The high priest asked if he was the son of God... In Mark 14.61-62
61 But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” 62 And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
62 And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
The effect of Stephen saying he was seeing the son of man standing at the right hand of God probably did several things. First, it said he confirmed what Jesus said to the Sanhedrin. But also, he was blatantly speaking blasphemy at seeing God and they would have none of this.
They really had 2 choices. Earlier, Peter and the apostles had been arrested and charged with apostasy. They received thirty nine stripes and were set free. They could have given Stephen this.... but it would have left open the possibility of some thinking they believed what Stephen was saying, and they couldn’t do that. If they did, they would have to repent and admit their being wrong in the case of Jesus. So they went with blasphemy. It would shut Stephen’s mouth. permanently.
What Stephen says and sees is very important. First, the glory of God. The son of man standing at the right hand of God.
By declaring that the glory of God is present and so is the son of man, Jesus… well, it implied that the divine nature of God was present in Jesus. And if He is standing at the right hand of God, well it says something about the possibility that Jesus had access to God and could give us access to God. And that was blasphemy again.
Stephen was in deep trouble. You didn’t say these things to the Sanhedrin.
But remember, Stephen did.
Please note, Stephen is referencing scripture here. Psalm 110:1 to be specific.
1 The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”
There’s something Stephen did, however, with this scripture. In the Psalms the lord is seated.
When Stephen looked, the Lord was standing.
Some think Jesus stood up to welcome Stephen. Maybe.
There’s a better option though.
Every person who was brought before the Sanhedrin to witness against Stephen had to stand. That’s what witnesses must do. they have to stand, and even though their testimony wasn’t true, they stood as witnesses.
Interestingly, Stephen’s speech would have been given standing. As a witness. Stpehen could have defended himself, told as many lies as his accusers and possibly gotten off the hook. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He was that committed to Jesus. So as a witness, he stood before the council and was a witness for Jesus knowing his fate.
And Jesus- who the psalmist says sits at the right hand of his father. Jesus, who himself said he would sit at the right hand of his father. jesus, who Stephen saw standing. I’d like to think he stood up as a witness for Stephen.
As Stephen stood before an earthly court and faced his fate, Jesus stood up before the ultimate judge of heaven and pleaded his case.
I like that picture.
57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Did the Sanhedrin order Stephen’s execution? Not sure.
Did the crowd lose it and just mob execute him? Possibly.
But what I want us to see together is this. The witnesses. They laid their coats down and began stoning Stephen.
In Jewish law, those witnesses had to throw the first stones. And they did.
And as the rocks pounded his body. As his arms and legs and face began to bleed their life out of Stephen. Stephen does one more unthinkable thing.
Look at Acts 7.59-60
59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
In what appears to be an almost mirror image of the last moments of Jesus, Stephen says two things.
First, Jesus, receive my spirit. Jesus, Lord, take me to you. I want to be where you are.
But Jesus- as my legs give way and my lifeblood drains out- Jesus. Forgive these people who are throwing these stones. Jesus, let these people somehow some way experience what I have been blessed to have experienced. The unrelenting, unlimited, undeniable grace of your forgiveness for my sins.
Because they think that they are executing me… but every stone is killing them too. So Jesus, don’t let that happen to them. Jesus, let them find forgiveness not only from me- because how could I hold this against them when you hold nothing against me? Lord, not just my forgiveness. Lord let them know true forgiveness from you.
And with that , Stephen dies. And the vision of Jesus became the reality of Jesus. And in his dying, his accusers experienced something of what it means to follow Jesus Christ.
When We Forgive We Start To Live
When We Forgive We Start To Live
For Stephen, death was imminent. The stones were flying. And what would have prolonged that death more was if he became angry with his accusers, bitter with his murderers. And I know what you’re thinking- how do you do that. I know because I’m thinking it too.
But it’s really the part of the story we most need to understand.
We can’t live until we start to forgive. And though the blood was pouring out of his wounds, his soul and spirit were walking into heaven. And Jesus was standing up to not only witness for Stephen but to welcome Stephen home.
Stephen forgave because he’d been forgiven. Stephen loved much because he ‘d been loved much. Stephen learned to love much because he’d been forgiven much.
And friends, if we struggle with forgiving others, perhaps the issue is that we ourselves haven’t been forgiven. Maybe we haven’t forgiven ourselves. Maybe we haven’t asked God for forgiveness. One thing is sure- He will forgive us.
And when we’ve experienced that unrelenting love that forgives all of our sin and makes us clean. There is no way to withhold that from others. We who are loved much will love much.
And when we let go of our grudges and our anger and our desire to hold something over our opponents we live. We really live.
Problem is, we don’t want to deal with the truth sometimes. We can’t handle the truth. But He can.
And when He does, amazingly we can too.
As Jesus forgives our truth, He gives us the grace to forgive others .