ACTS 6 & 7
I love Stephen in Acts 7. His connection to the Holy Spirit stirs within me a desire to go deeper. I believe the Spirit has prompted me to go deep with you today. I pray that we would receive Stephen’s kind of Spirit-filling, with wisdom and understanding. Stephen’s sermon to the Sanhedrin is long and strong, although not without a couple of questions.
The first question: why is Stephen recounting Israel’s religious history to a group of scholars who are extremely well versed on these matters? Why doesn’t he just skip to the last paragraph where he calls them out? Of course the council knows all the details of Abraham, Joseph and Moses, so I had to assume that he wasn’t giving this sermon to freshen their memory. There had to be messages within the story, but what were they?
Stephen’s accusers charged him with speaking against the Temple, so he addresses this too. Near the end of his sermon Stephen recounts the establishment of the Tabernacle and the Temple and goes on to say,
However, the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. As the prophet says, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.” (Acts 7:48-49 NLT)
The second question: why exactly did God direct them to build the Temple in the first place, only to virtually dissolve it later? Written of the prophet Haggai in the Old Testament, God was admonishing the Israelites for neglecting the work on the Temple. Why would he do this if it were not sacred and significant?
To fully answer this you need to have an understanding of the difference between God’s heavenly economy and our earthly economy in which we currently live. And before we do that, we should define the word economy so that we are all on the same page. There is quite and array of uses for this word, and we mostly hear it used on the news when referring to the stock market and the state of our country’s financial health. But this is only one indicator of an economy.
I searched the definition and went back to the original Greek. The term economy is derived from the Greek word oikonomos, which is defined as one who manages a household. (Merriam-Webster) As I see it, the term economy is the sum of all decisions being made for the overall welfare of a community. There are financial, political, religious, and cultural implications aroused from those decisions, and the result is an economy. Another economical term, which I will also reference, is currency. We often think of currency in terms of dollars, but it is essentially anything we are willing to pay or sacrifice in order to receive something of value in return, and is directly related to the type of economy in operation.
God’s heavenly economy exists outside of, and above, the world we know, and it’s there where God has his throne. Jesus tells his disciples that he goes there to prepare a place for them, and he spends the majority of his earthly ministry teaching the concepts of heavenly currency. Love your enemy. (Mt. 5:44) Turn the other cheek. (Mt. 5:39) The first will be last and the last will be first. (Mt. 19:30) Blessed are those who mourn. (Mt. 5:4) Blessed are the meek. (Mt. 5:5) This currency goes against the grain of our earthly currency. Paul says in Romans 14:7, “The Kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteous, peace and joy.”
Throughout history God has been laying the framework- through story- to depict the spiritual reality of heaven. He’s been giving us pictures, like the Temple, so that we will recognize and ultimately receive the only connection and conduit between these two economies, Jesus.
In the article on Acts 5, I mentioned the different ages where God introduced a new aspect of relationship with him. He introduced the Law of Moses after Israel was freed from Egypt. He then introduced the Promised Land after they wandered in the desert for 40 years. And after that, the Temple and the age of the Prophets. Embedded within these ages is a vast array of pictures revealing God’s spiritual reality. His purpose for each of these pictures was two-fold: 1) to aid us in our relationship with Him while we traverse the earthly economy, and 2) to give us a glimpse and hope for our future in the heavenly economy. Like the pattern we discovered last week with Ananias and Sapphira, these pictures from the Law and the Temple are meant to emphasize the centrality of God, not to become objects of our affection. Let’s look more deeply into Stephen’s sermon
WE NEED SALVATION
Stephen emphasizes salvation. First and foremost, an understanding of this heavenly economy is of little importance if we don’t receive our salvation from Jesus. He is the conduit between the heavenly and the earthly; the only way we can access the eternal. Stephen demonstrates God’s provision for salvation, by going through the scriptures the council knows intimately. He reveals a pattern that is hard to miss. The council’s ancestors, the patriarchs of Israel, rejected Joseph. Joseph suffered and later rose to a position of power and authority and then offered a way of salvation from the famine plaguing the land. Moses, too, was rejected by his Hebrew brethren and later returned in a position of power and authority and offered a way of salvation from their slavery. Can you see the picture of Christ in each of these examples? Christ was rejected by the council, he suffered and died, rose again, and is now seated at the right hand of God. He offers a way of salvation.
The heavens are separate and distinct from the earth where we live. However, because of Christ and his immense love for us, the heavenly can join the earthly, almost like a settling, dense fog. When Moses ascended to the top of Mt. Sinai to meet with God or when God would descend on the Tabernacle, it describes the scene as filling with a heavy smoke. If it weren’t for stories and pictures like these, we might miss it. And some still do. While God’s plan for our earthly economy has evolved throughout time, from the old covenant to the new covenant, each plan and picture has pointed to God’s heavenly economy, which is constant and unchanging.
A HOLY TENSION
The Apostle Paul had an experience where he was caught up to what he called the 3rd heaven, and it altered him permanently. (II Cor. 12:1-10) It gave him perspective that’s not readily available considering our human limitations. Although he wasn’t permitted to share everything he experienced, Paul doesn’t shy away from the fact that there’s a holy tension that resides within the believer. We are living in a world where we do not belong. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 4:20), but we are to continue living as good citizens here on earth, paying our taxes and being kind to our neighbors. (Rom. 13:6-10) Tension. It’s perfectly fine to eat meat, but don’t eat meat if it causes someone to stumble. (I Cor. 8) Tension. Everything is permissible but not everything is profitable. (I Cor. 6:12) Tension. It results from operating in an earthly economy with the currency of the heavenly. Tension from living with the hope of a promise that we won’t receive in this world apart from Christ’s second coming.
Stephen mentions Abraham in his sermon. Abraham was given a promise of land and progeny, and he had faith in this promise despite the fact that he and his wife were barren. Stephen is sure to point out that he never received the full promise in his lifetime, and in fact neither did the next three generations of descendents (the patriarchs of Israel). We don’t know whether or not Abraham was given a glimpse of the eternal that God had already created, but we know from the Apostle Paul that this promise to Abraham included much more than earthly descendents and a small plot of land we call Israel. Paul says we are grafted into the seed of Abraham. The covenant with Abraham was binding for Israel in both economies, even though Abraham didn’t get to see it during his lifetime.
DO WE HAVE TO WAIT FOR HEAVEN?
I’ll raise the obvious question. Like Abraham, do we have to wait for our promise of heaven? Yes and no. Once again, tension. Paul says in Romans, all of creation groans to be made full with Christ. (II Cor. 5:2) And that is our promise, that one day we will be reunited and clothed with Christ in heaven. Because sin entered the world through Adam in the Garden of Eden, it brought about a curse upon all of creation. So, on this side of heaven we are limited in our ability to absolutely remain in Christ. However, God does not intend for us to resign ourselves to misery under this curse of sin. Jesus has made a way for both economies to work together.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 NLT)
Answer this, what is the definition of eternal life? The concept of eternal life was not widely discussed during the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth. The Sadducees in fact did not believe in any type of resurrection, so there was not a prevailing understanding of this term to mean life after death. Jesus uses this term eternal life multiple times in John as he teaches, but it’s not until the 17th chapter of John that he provides a definition.
Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3 NIV, emphasis added)
Wait…what? He didn’t say, “Now this is eternal life: my people will go to heaven if they trust in me?”
Follow me for a minute. The scriptures are clear for all believers that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. (II Cor. 5:8) As soon as we die, we will join the Lord. Will there be any barriers at all to knowing Christ when we are present with him in heaven? No. The curse of this world will be removed and we will know him fully! But there’s more. Can we know him now? Yes, most definitely, yes! Knowing him is eternal life, and when we seek to know him, we can experience eternal life now. I’ve been on this quest for years and I am convinced we don’t have to wait until we die. This, my friends, is the holy grail! When we know him deeply and intimately, we ARE abiding in him, and what does that mean? If you’ve been following my articles on Acts, you’ll know the answer. It means we are plugged in and filled with the Holy Spirit, Christ IN us, the conduit to the eternal economy. Righteousness, peace and joy
Stephen glowed with the fullness of the Holy Spirit. His eyes were opened and he could see that heavenly kingdom. I think there is every indication that he was experiencing some of heaven even while being stoned. Peter rejoiced at the opportunity to suffer his lashes for the sake of Christ. These are of course very dramatic renditions of what we will likely experience, but honestly Stephen and Peter were normal people like the rest of us. They lived out their purpose. When we are living out our purpose, plugged in and filled with the Holy Spirit, who’s to say what God will or will not do? When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we are connected to that heavenly economy.
The Sanhedrin missed this. They focused their attention on this world and placed their affections on the Law and the Temple, the pictures of God, and not on God himself. The scary thing is…it’s easy to do. Are we inappropriately wedded to the doctrine and symbols and rituals of our faith? Are we placing our affections on the practice itself rather than allowing the practice to usher us into his presence? Let’s not miss the opportunity to experience Heaven on Earth.