The Mirror of the Old Testament (Acts 7:51-53)
I. A Chronological Connection
You're probably not counting, but in case you are, then you know this morning's message is number twenty-two in our series through the Old Testament (OT). I pray your time in these ancient books has been revealing, rich, and spiritually refreshing. The reason I point out the number of messages thus far, is that, this morning, for the first time, our main text is coming from the New Testament (NT), rather than the OT. You might wonder why.
Well, if you were able to read Acts 7 this past Friday, than you probably have a good idea about why we're focusing on this chapter this morning. Stephen, who was one of the seven men selected at the beginning of Acts 6 to oversee the church's ministry to widows, this man is now standing (in chapter 7) before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council (the same men who 'tried' Jesus), and he (Stephen) is providing for them an overview of their national or ethnic history.
Beginning with Abraham, Stephen (over the course of almost fifty verses), walks his listeners through key moments in Israel's history, all the way up to Solomon's construction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. Now think about why that's significant for us. The rest of our readings this past week left us generally in that same spot in the OT story: the reign of Solomon and the building of the Jerusalem Temple.
So I thought that chronological connection between Acts 7 and the readings from the first half of 1 Kings provided us with a good opportunity to stop and ask this: “In terms of big and broad 'takeaways', what has God revealed to us so far from the OT story?” Though we could and should answer that question in many important ways (and—spoiler alert— we'll do this again a month from now), Stephen has given us here one of those answers. Turn over to Acts 7:51-53.
II. The Passage: “As Your Fathers Did” (7:51-53)
Before we dig into that smaller passage, we need to understand something about the whole passage, about the whole context here. We need to understand that Stephen was not invited here to teach an OT survey class; nor was he talking about key moments from Israelite history in order to impress his listeners or pass some kind of oral exam. No. Stephen was responding to charges. He was speaking in light of accusations that had been lodged against him.
Now, even if we didn't have a record of the specific charges, I think we could figure out the nature of these accusations. How? By taking note of what Stephen is emphasizing in his defense. What may at first appear to be an overview of key moments in Israelite history is really a message... about Moses. In 7:1-8, Stephen reminds us that Abraham was promised land, but also that his descendants would be slaves in another country. In 7:9-16, the story of Joseph describes exactly how those descendants ended up in that other country (which turned out to be Egypt). You see, it becomes clear that Stephen simply wanted to get us to Egypt. And he did this because that's where the story of Moses begins.
For almost 30 verses (from verse 17 to verse 44), Stephen is solely focused on the story of Moses. And when he finally moves on from Moses, he does so using the topic of the Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting that God had instructed... Moses (!) to construct (v. 44) “according to the pattern” God himself had revealed. The final section before Stephen's conclusion, verses 45-50 simply focuses on how Israel went from that Tent in the desert to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Okay. So why did Stephen spend so much time here talking about Moses? Well, wonderfully, God has preserved for us (through the historian Luke) that record of the specific charges against Stephen. We find those at the end of the previous chapter, in Acts 6. Look with me at 6:8–14...
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.  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.  But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.  Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”  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,  and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law,  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.”
Ah. The picture is becoming clearer, isn't it? Stephen was accused of speaking against Moses, against the Temple, and against God. Therefore, it makes sense why he focuses so much on Moses here. But even more important in understanding this passage is how Stephen focused on Moses. The crux is of his argument is clearest in Acts 7:35–39. Look at what he tells them...
“This Moses, whom they [the Israelites] 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.  This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years.  This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’  This [Moses] 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.  Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt...”
Brothers and sisters, it is that section that sets us up for Stephen's stinging conclusion in our main text, in 7:51-53. Listen to where Stephen brings his listeners after this lengthy address...
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 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, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
1. The Issue is Stubbornness (vs. 51-52a, 53)
As the one who stands accused, consider the indictment Stephen brings against them in verse 51...“Stiff-necked” and “uncircumcised in heart and ears”. Those are two very common OT expressions that use parts of one's physical body to communicate something about the spiritual self. We find the same imagery combined, by none other than Moses himself, in Deut. 10:16.
Moses declared, “Circumcise [remove] therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.” Literally, that last phrase is “no longer stiffen your necks”. What needed to be circumcised from their hearts? Stubbornness. Nehemiah 9 describes this same Israelite attitude.
(v. 29) And you warned them in order to turn them back to your law. Yet they acted presumptuously (arrogantly) and did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your rules, which if a person does them, he shall live by them, and they turned a stubborn shoulder (Another body part!) and stiffened their neck and would not obey.
Where does this image of a stiff-neck come from? I think it's the opposite of the Hebrew word for repentance (which is literally the word 'turn', as we see there at the beginning of Neh. 9:29—God's desire was to... “turn them back”). Imagine someone walking on a path toward destruction who stubbornly jerks their shoulder away from the person trying to warn them, locking their neck (i.e., locking their gaze) on the path ahead. Undeterred. Dead set. Again, this language of a hardened heart, of a stubborn or obstinate disposition is, sadly, quite common in the OT.
2. But Stubborn How? (v. 52b)
But why did Stephen bring this OT indictment against the Israelite leaders of his day? Because they (not he) were the ones who were acting against Moses and God, for they were doing exactly what their ancestors had done to Moses, and later (again and again), to the prophets.
And their spiritual stubbornness was clearest in their response to Jesus. You see, what Stephen declared about Moses was even more true about Jesus. Verse 35: “...this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer...”. Verse 36: Moses came “performing wonders and signs”; how much more Jesus? But as with Moses, they rejected Jesus. Verse 38: Moses may have “received living oracles” from God through an angel, but Jesus was the living oracle, the “Word” made flesh. In fact, verse 37, when Moses declared, “‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’”, he was pointing toJesus. That's confirmed by Peter in Acts 3. But again, in terms of how they responded to Jesus, the same Jewish council before whom Stephen stood could also be described with the words of verse 39... “Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside...” How did they thrust him aside? They (v. 52) “betrayed and murdered” him.
God had been present with them in the person of Jesus, but they rejected him, and now they were harassing Stephen partly over a building that could never truly house “the Most High”. But let's be clear: Stephen's indictment here was spoken in love. In fact, it was the most loving thing he could have told those men; as he attempted to rouse them spiritually. How do we know he spoke with love? From the final verse of this chapter. As they were also murdering him, we read that (look at v. 60) “he cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.'"
III. Your Old Testament
So think about what Stephen has provided for us in terms of an OT takeaway. I think what we learn here is that one of the major morals of the scriptural story we've been reading (at least up to this point) is this: God wants us acknowledge, to regularly acknowledge, the fact that human beings are spiritually and disturbingly and relentlessly and disastrously... stubborn. And in this way, the OT should be like a mirror to us. Just as Stephen called his listeners to see themselves in and be sobered by the ancient stories of the OT, God is calling us to do the same today. Do you recognize your own stubbornness in these ancient stories?
Being spiritually stubborn is not always best depicted by the image of an obstinate child (though it's the first image in my mind) or an abrasive and arrogant adult. Sometimes those images are helpful because that is exactly what we're like. But those can also become caricatures by which we excuse ourselves. Sometimes our spiritual stubbornness is like the painfully passive neglect of a bitter spouse, or the calm words of the smiling friend who always has an excuse for why he can't ever be there for you. Sometimes we don't recognize those as expressions of stubborn-ness, but they are. That stiff-neck, that hardened heart, that implacable resistance can be depicted in many ways, but all of it has this in common: it will not yield to God's word or work. It resists and rejects what God is doing; especially God's correction.
Notice I'm offering two applications this morning in light of Acts 7... 1) recognize and repent of your spiritual stubbornness, and 2) be intentional about using the OT as a mirror in terms of both conviction and conformity to God's word and work. Let's unpack both those points a bit:
Recognizing and repenting of our spiritual stubbornness is part of what Elder Steve talked about last Sunday when he shared with us the church father Augustine's wise word from 1600 years ago, “The beginning of knowledge is to know oneself to be a sinner”. And Psalm 32 provided us with the helpful image of the horse or mule that (v. 9) “must be curbed with bit and bridle”. Apart from God's grace, friends, that is us; all of us. What feeds a sinner's stubborn-ness? Many things. Pride. Fear. Worldly desire. We stay stiff-necked on our selfish and sinful paths because we... seek man's praise over God's, or we believe it's the only way to stay safe, or because we like what the world has to offer more than God's spiritual blessings.
But praise be to God that we serve a Creator who can and does... soften the hearts of stubborn creatures like us! The prophet Ezekiel spoke in advance of the Messiah's ministry to the spirit-ually stubborn: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26) But even after receiving that new heart, stubbornness can be a struggle, can't it. That reality of that struggle is a good reminder of much we need to...
Be intentional about using the OT as a mirror. The Apostle Paul affirmed this when he talked to the Corinthians about the stubbornness of the ancient Israelites as they resisted Moses and God, and the judgment God meted out. This is what Paul told his readers: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11) As you read through the OT, brothers and sisters, recognize yourself in Eve's doubt and distrust, see yourself in Abraham's fear and Moses' pride, recognize how you, like the emancipated Israelites, often minimize your past slavery; identify with David's lust and Solomon's excess; recognize how you, like Israel and Judah, often push aside the prophetic word in order to make room for fleshly excuses.
But do all this knowing that the same Scriptures that bring conviction... also bring comfort. The mirror that reveals our sinful ugliness is also a window onto the incomparable vistas of God's beauty. Yes, the OT confirms our sinfulness. But it also confirms God's faithfulness... to speak life... and to send a Savior. Like too many of their ancestors, Stephen's listeners had rejected that Savior. But by God's grace, He, Jesus Christ, is our “Ruler and Redeemer”. Amen?
How's your neck this morning? I know mine can often be way too stiff. We need to pray, “Father, please show me how and why I'm being spiritually stubborn. Soften my heart and turn me. Let me be humbly responsive to your good and gracious guidance... through you word, through brothers and sisters, through your discipline, and ultimately, through your Spirit's empowering.”
And we can do this regularly as we allow God, through his word (both OT and NT), to show us what we're really like. Even as those redeemed, I think our tendency is too often to maximize the sinfulness of others while minimizing our own. Therefore, in love, God wants to use his word as a mirror.
But He reveals to us hard things like our spiritual stubbornness after first revealing hopeful things; specifically the Good News about Jesus. Stephen's listeners responded to this 'mirror' with an eagerness to put him to death. But let us respond, in light of Jesus, with an eagerness to put to death... what is earthly in us (using Paul's words from Colossians 3:5). As we do this, I believe God will also give us eyes to see Jesus more clearly, and a greater grace to reflect his heart to those around us. That's how Stephen's story ends, isn't. This is Acts 7:54–60...
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.  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.  And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”  But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him.  Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him...[look at v. 59] And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  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.
other sermons in this series