Tomorrow I’m preaching out of Acts 6 and 7 on the story of Stephen. Stephen lived on the corner of Heaven Street and Earth Boulevard, at the place where the two intersect. Here is where the things of heaven merge with the things of earth. Stephen’s wisdom, peace, and power come from making his abiding place here. Here Stephen experienced “days of refreshing” (Acts 3:19) as foretastes of the ultimate unity of heaven and earth (Ephesians 1:10), of the reconciliation of all things whether on earth or in heaven (Colossians 1:19-20), and of the restoration of “everything” (Acts 3:21).
Now the Sanhedrin accused Stephen of disparaging the Temple, the place where it was believed that God connected with earth. The Diaspora Jews of the Synagogue of the Freedmen complained, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” (Acts 6:12-14) Whooaaa – Stephen is playing with fire, and things are getting hot! Many a pastor has gone down in flames as a result of “changing the customs handed down to us.” I can feel the heat as Stephen speaks.
Stephen’s point is that, on the contrary, the Temple leaders do not understand their own tradition, which is actually about a Movement to redeem and restore all things rather than an Institution-as-museum of human hand-made things intended for God’s pleasure and habitation. N.T. Wright helps us understand what is really going on here between Stephen and, ultimately, the Sanhedrin.
The God-Movement is a story, The Story, The Grand Narrative, with (suggests N.T. Wright) five Acts. This is about how to read the Bible; viz., as a 5-Act Play.
• Act One: (Creation) Whatever means God uses to create the world it’s a crucial feature of the play that creation is good and that humans are in God’s image.
• Act Two: (Fall) God’s good creation is full of rebellion: evil and idolatry become real features of the world.
• Act Three: (Israel) The story of Israel as the covenant people of God for the world. This act begins with the Abrahamic covenant and ends with the Jewish anticipation of an event in which God will liberate Israel from spiritual exile and reveal himself as the world’s true King.
• Act Four (Jesus) The story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. As the climax of the narrative it represents the inauguration of a new kingdom in which death and sin are being reversed throughout all of creation. Many of the OT teachings, as well as some of Jesus’ teachings, have played out their intended purpose.
• Act Five: (New Testament and the people of God). The New Testament forms the first scene of this act. The church is the people of God, in Christ, for the world; their job is to act in character: to live out Act Five by showing the world the true way of being human and to bring about God’s victory over evil on earth. This largely involves living out (“improvising and retelling”) God’s story and gospel – namely that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead to ‘put the world to rights.’
o From N.T. Wright, The Last Word; and Acts for Everyone: Part One.
So, view the Bible this way.
Then, understand this. Acts I – IV are over. Done! Does that mean they were unimportant? Of course not. For example, on my recent trip to Kenya, I flew a Boeing 747 from Amsterdam to Nairobi. Upon landing I left the 747 behind. I did not need it to traverse Nairobi and beyond. But, of course, it was an important “chapter” in the story of my Africa trip. Analogically, the Mosaic Law and the Solomonic Temple of Act III in God’s Grand Narrative were important. But in Act IV God does (another) new thing. And in Act V God does a really new thing when he says, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own…” (1 Corinthians 6:19)
Stephen tries to reduce the shock effect of challenging tradition by showing that God is not and has never confined to the Temple. He says:
“The Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
“‘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?
Has not my hand made all these things?’”
Historically, God transcended the Temple when he appeared in glory to Abraham. (Acts 7:2) God then theophanized Moses with a burning bush. (Acts 7:30) Abraham and Moses built their homes on the corner of Heaven and Earth, receiving their instructions there. But the Temple, during the time of Jesus, was without the presence of God. Jesus told the Temple leaders that they shut the door to the kingdom of heaven. The open portal was now closed. But not for Stephen.
Stephen was full of wisdom and grace and did great wonders and signs. When he spoke, there was divine authority in his words, so that “they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.” The sun roof of Stephen’s house faced the glory of heaven, and “all who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” Stephen’s heart made its abode at the intersection of heaven and earth. Ben Witherington says: “The point of this expression is to convey the idea of a person reflecting some of God’s glory and character as a result of being close to God and in God’s very presence... Stephen has been endowed or imbued with the divine presence, and he is now prepared to speak the authoritative word to God’s people, whether they are spiritually prepared to receive it or not.” (Witherington, Acts: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 259)
The problem is that the Temple leaders have had their own hands too much on things. Normally, on earth, “hand-made” is cool. There are certain hand-made guitars that are very expensive because their craftsmanship makes for a far better and more beautiful instrument than mass-produced guitars. When I was in Nairobi I went to an outdoor market where African women from many different tribes were making hand-made jewelry before my eyes. I thought “Sweet!” as I bought some for Linda. But when it comes to God and the Movement “hand-made” is neither cool nor sweet. It’s very bad, bitter news. In fact, it’s when humans start to get their hands on the things of God that church goes bad. Like the hand-made total-earth-idol the people of Israel made while Moses was taking up residence on Heaven-Come-to-Earth Street.
For years I’ve heard people say “I wish we could get back to “church” as it used to be. Like: “back to the ‘traditional’ church.” They usually mean “church” as it was in the 1930s. Or the 1950s. Or the 1980s. Or whatever decade they are from. I agree and disagree with people who say this. I agree that I want church as it used to be. I disagree that this means the 20th century. I want first-century “church” like when Act V of God’s Grand Narrative begins, with people like Stephen who stand in that place where heaven and earth come together, who understand the new things God is doing, and who do not end up worshiping the things and traditions their own hands have made. In this regard: Woe to all who build churches by their own hands and end up worshiping their own traditions rather than the Living God who is never boxed in by the work of our hands. NTW says: “As we consider our own traditions, and think of them lovingly since they ‘prove’ that we ourselves are in the right place in our worship and witness, perhaps sometimes we need to allow the story to be told differently, and to see whether we ourselves might be in the wrong place within it.” (NTW, A1, 119)
Stephen gets killed by the religious earth-dwellers. But just before he dies he sees an open heaven. "Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”" Is that amazing or what? His impending martyrdom has not caused him to panic, pack his bags, and leave the heaven-earth interlock. There Stephen is, in the Moses-place, in the Abraham-place, in the Jesus-place, on the corner of Heaven Street and Earth Boulevard. There was an “open heaven,” with the “heavenly court, suddenly superimposed upon the earthly one.” (N.T. Wright, Acts Part One, 122) We have a heavenly court-room scene, a heavenly throne-room scene, a portal into the throne-room of God, and there is Jesus advocating for Stephen. Do you think that gave Stephen some confidence? And some love, as he says those words that come only from heaven, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
You and I, as Jesus-followers, are portable sanctuaries through which God is doing his fresh, new thing. Pitch yourself, like a tent, in that place. Let Stephen-things come forth.