It wasn’t spoken to me . . . but I know that it was spoken for me. As I read Stephen’s defense before the high priest and “the council,” I can’t help but think I shouldn’t disassociate myself from this passage . . . that I shouldn’t be too much of a casual spectator and, “from the stands,” applaud Stephen’s courage. That, instead, I should place myself within the story and identify with characters. And, while I’d like to be Stephen in this drama, it’s the warning to the council that hits me this morning.
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” (Acts 7:51a ESV)
Stephen recounts God’s determination to bless His people and their propensity to try and frustrate that blessing along the way. God makes a promise to Abraham. A promise of land and offspring. Abraham fathers Isaac, and Isaac, Jacob. Jacob gives birth to the twelve patriarchs, Joseph being the son of God’s favor. “And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt” (7:9). But God was with Joseph, and through him brought His people to Egypt during great famine that there, they might grow into the nation God had foretold (7:6-7).
And so the LORD God raises up a deliverer. Sends Moses to be “both ruler and redeemer” (7:35). But him too, the people of God reject. Though God intended to give them salvation from their bondage by Moses’ hand, they didn’t understand (7:25). They failed to recognize him when he was among them in Egypt. They refused to submit to him after he had led them out of Egypt with wonders and signs. And as he stood on Mt. Sinai, receiving the living oracles of God from the living God, they “refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt” (7:39) . . . and they built for themselves a calf as the object of their worship.
But God in His faithfulness and pursuit of His people continued to “move in.” From the holy ground of the mount, He determined to dwell among them in a “tent of witness” in their midst. And so the tabernacle was made, exactly as God had submitted the floor plans. Joshua brought the tent into the land when they dispossessed the nations. David desired to “upgrade” the tent into a magnificent temple. God granted David that desire through David’s son, Solomon. And God again, graciously moved in . . . His glory fell upon the place . . . and His presence was among the people.
But even then, the people made God to be a God after their own imagination and liking. He became, in their minds, a God who dwells in the places they made by their hands. They forgot that the Most High dwells in a reality where heaven is His throne and the earth is His footstool. And so, as the prophets remind us, they made Him but one of many gods they would follow. Rejecting His very presence as they did Joseph and Moses.
And now, before the council, Stephen says, “As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers 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” (7: 51b-53). They rejected the Righteous One . . . they cast out God’s Anointed.
And at the root of their rebellion, at the heart of their rejection were stiff necks . . . and uncircumcised hearts and ears . . . and resistance of the Holy Spirit. They had become stubborn, headstrong, and obstinate. Choosing their own wisdom, and their own ways, over His. They had not cut off the flesh and put on the fear of the Lord. They had not removed the call of self so that they might hear the call of the gospel. And they refused the wooing of the Spirit . . . ignored His convicting agency . . . giving Him, instead, their back and not their face.
And I can’t help but think that those who have been called to be God’s people . . . aka me . . . need to heed the warning of subtly falling into a place where we too become headstrong . . . and our hearts are drawn back to the world and it’s call to the old man . . . and our backs are given to the Spirit and not our faces. And we too, like the fathers, refuse, more and more, the Redeemer in our midst.
O’ to be faithful. To be “soft-necked” . . . and circumcised of heart and ears . . . and desiring the Spirit’s leading above all things.
By His grace . . . for His glory.