Antioch: a Church for all. New mission field? Does that mean that we need to change our message? You hear this a lot in ministry, "If we want to reach people, we need to adjust the message to match our modern sensibilities." They were saying this 100 years ago. "Modern man doesn’t believe in these myths." The german school of theology sought to de-mythologize the texts. Theological liberalism battled the fundamentalists in the early 1900’s but while they won some of the seminaries like Harvard and Princeton, they lost the pews. 20 years ago it was John Shelby Spong, “Why Christianity Must change or Die” meaning why we must rid ourselves of the surface meaning of the texts of Scripture and our tradition and find the deeper truer truths - which of course were the same ones of the theological liberals 100 years before. In the past decade you have Brian McClaren’s “A New Kind of Christianity”. Today, you have calls for the church to change its sexual ethics, and emphasize the red-letter social justice-y parts of the Bible and not focus so much on the individual sin, and heaven and hell stuff. All of these movements sought to rebrand Christianity and repaint it in the image of the modern ethic. Amazingly, even though the stated motivation of each of these movements was to save the church for the next generation, each of these movements shared one thing in common, and that is … I’ll tell you at the end of the sermon.
But first I want to introduce you to Stephen - actually, we met him last week: Stephen, the Hellenist, next-generation leader. And here we find that Stephen is gotten himself in trouble with some of his fellow Hellenists, who accuse him of blaspheming Moses by changing the message of Judaism.
Acts 6:8 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.
The charge: “This man never ceases to speak 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.”
Is Christianity going to have to betray and violate Judaism to expand beyond Judaism? We’ll look at three things today: Stephen’s Defense, then look at Luke’s intent in devoting an entire chapter to the speech and what it means, then what God may be saying to us today through this word.
First, Stephen’s defense. I’m going to use this map and highlight two main points, one in blue and one in red and see if you can’t figure out the two main points of Stephen’s defence.
Acts 7:1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” 2 And Stephen said:
“Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ 4 Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. 5 Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. 6 And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. 7 ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ 8 And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.
Acts 7:9 “And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him 10 and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11 Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. 13 And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. 15 And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, 16 and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.
Acts 7:17 “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt 18 until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. 19 He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. 20 At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, 21 and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.
Acts 7:23 “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ 27 But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.
Acts 7:30 “Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. 33 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’
Acts 7:35 “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.’ 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. 39 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.’ 41 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:
“‘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.’
Acts 7:44 “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. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,
Acts 7:49 “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?’
Acts 7:51 “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.”
Steven’s argument has one main point, two parts. “The Law itself testifies that God moves among the nations, and condemns those who would oppose Jesus”:
- God always has been working beyond Israel, and never confined himself to a certain place. Tents - it is not until verse 47 that Stephen concedes that Solomon built a house for God, but immediately “YET the Most high does not dwell in houses made by hands”
Stephen’s argument is that this is not an innovation, or blasphemous against Moses or the law or the Temple - the real blasphemers are the one’s who want to make an idol of the place and restrict God to a particular location. So Stephen’s argument is that we haven’t changed the customs Moses passed down - they have.
- Stephen’s second argument: whenever God’s moved his people and raised up prophets, deliverers, redeemers, the law records that the majority of “God’s” people opposed them, rejected them, persecuted them, and killed them. Again, Stephen’s argument is that Christianity is not destroying the law or changing it, but fulfilling everything the law prophesied would happen when the Righteous one was revealed.
This is basically the same argument made again and again in the book of Hebrews. The purpose of the law was to point us to Christ. Now that Christ has come, the law has fulfilled its purpose, so that those who reject Christ are actually the one’s who missed the point.
Which brings us to Luke’s intent. Stephen's speech provides the theological and circumstantial push beyond Judea/Judaism. Look at the response to Stephen’s defence:
Acts 7:54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 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.” 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. 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.
Acts 8:1 And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
Notice who is there at the martyrdom of Stephen. The very person God is going to use to push the church our of Jerusalem and to the ends of the world, first as a persecutor, and then as the greatest missionary. And look what happens as a result - the church scatters through the regions of Judea and Samaria. This is a geographic expansion, but it is also a theological expansion and an ethnic expansion - its why Stephen’s speech is so important to the argument of Acts. God has always been moving - and he’s about to move again. God’s movement has always been opposed, and its about to again.
So what does this mean for us?
- God is working outside the walls. Not confined to time nor place. Work, neighbourhood. School. Family. Far away from home. God is with you. God uses providential means (Abraham’s father - not a believer moved to Haran, but Stephen points out that it was God who called Abraham while he was in Ur.
- We go because God sends. God is the Actor
- God drove the nations out before our fathers (45)
- God sent Moses as both ruler and redeemer (35)
- God rescued Joseph out of his afflictions (v. 10)
- God removed him from there and into this land (v. 4)
- He said “Go out from your land (v. 3)
- The God of Glory appeared (v. 2)
God directs our lives according to his mission. God directs individuals, God directs groups of people, God direct nations. Importantly, however, as we see happening in the book of Acts and into our own day, God directs his church by sending us on mission with the Holy Spirit leading and guiding us.
The next few chapters we are going to see what has been called the spontaneous expansion of the church - the Holy Spirit leads, but the church is a responsive church - they recognize the leading of the Holy Spirit as a sending. Our church is moving downtown. No. We are being sent. god has a plan for why we tries to buy this building and other places, but that building opened up. We must be ready.
- We must keep a tent mindset.The building cannot be our idol. Pastor Jeff’s warning. We must keep a tent mindset and know that if God has allowed us to settle into a place it is not that we are to settle down, but that we are to see it as a centre of mission. God does not dwell in houses made by hands, so while we are thankful for the building, and we use it for ministry, for the worship of God, and for the mission, it is not the saviour, Christ is. The building is not the evangelists, we are. The building is not God’s temple - we the gathered church, the people of God are.
- No Mission Without the Message: I told you that I’d tell you what all those movements had in common, remember the people I told you about in the beginning who said, we ahem to change the message or Christianity will die? You want to now what they have in common? Empty churches.
Dr. David Haskell of Wilford Laurier University published the largest comprehensive study on Canada’s mainline churches and why they were dying. And what did he find - message matters. He explains his research in a piece he wrote for the Toronto Star:
Since the 1960s, Canada’s mainline Protestant denominations — made up of the Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United churches — have lost anywhere between 40 to 60 per cent of their membership. Some research colleagues and I wanted to find out why.
We’d read the previous academic studies and there was no consensus. Many of the popular texts on the subject, written primarily by mainline theologians, suggested liberal theology was the key to growth. Liberal theology calls clergy and lay people to practice a metaphorical interpretation of the Bible and to temper their belief in supernatural phenomenon in order to make their religious message more palatable for modern audiences.
As a researcher it’s not often you make a discovery that flies in the face of conventional wisdom but, when we finished assessing our data, that’s what happened. We found it is conservative theology — with its emphasis on the factual truth of scripture and God’s activity in the world — that fuels church growth. Liberal theology leads to decline ....
We found, without exception, the clergy and congregants of the growing mainline Protestant churches held more firmly to traditional Christian beliefs — such as the belief Jesus rose physically from the grave and that God answers prayer. The clergy of the growing churches were the most theologically conservative and the declining church clergy the least. When we used statistical analysis to determine which factors are influencing growth, conservative Protestant theology was a significant predictor.
GOD IS ALWAYS MOVING. GOD IS ALWAYS SENDING. GOD IS DESIRING THE NATIONS TO KNOW HIM THROUGH THE REDEEMER RULER HE HAS SENT, JESUS CHRIST.