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The Rest of Stephen's Sermon

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Acts 7:2-53 contains the longest sermon in the New Testament by anybody but Jesus.  The speaker is Stephen, on trial for his life before the Sanhedrin, and he is accused of a number of crimes.  According to Acts 6:11-13, he is accused of blaspheming God and Moses, speaking against the temple and the Law, and advocating the destruction of the temple and the Mosaic customs. 

As one might expect from an inspired prophet, Stephen’s defense is ingenious.  He points out that from time immemorial, the true custom of the Jews has been disregarding God’s law and God’s chosen.  Indeed, God commonly has used those rejected by His people to bring about salvation.  According to Acts 7:9-16, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers but later saved them all from famine.  In 7:17-36, Moses is the rejected deliverer. 

In 7:37-50, Stephen turns his attention to the temple.  Once again, true Jewish custom is not to worship God, but to worship idols, as revealed by the idolatry of the Israelites in the wilderness.  When they built the tabernacle and the temple, they failed to realize that God did not truly dwell in any human creation. 

In 7:51-53, though, Stephen abruptly switches course.  He accuses his audience of being as evil as their fathers and, in the rest of the chapter, is dragged out and stoned to death.  Admittedly, the text doesn’t say this straight out, but my impression is that Stephen realizes the Sanhedrin is about to jump him and skips to the end of his sermon.  He never finishes developing his arguments.

However, it’s not hard to figure out what the full sermon might have been.  In Acts 2, Peter uses the evidence of miraculous spiritual gifts, prophecy, and eyewitness testimony to establish that Jesus, though rejected by the Jews, had been made Lord and Christ by God.  Stephen would have been familiar with Peter’s argument, and he easily could have shown that as a rejected deliverer, Jesus fits into the pattern established by Joseph and Moses.  If his audience had been receptive, he could have invited them into the salvation offered by Jesus just as their fathers had benefited from Joseph and Moses.

Similarly, his comments about God not dwelling in temples made with human hands could have led easily into Jesus’ teaching on the subject.  In Matthew 24:2, Jesus predicted that the temple would be destroyed.  However, this loss would not be as dire as the Jews might think.  According to John 4:21-24, Jesus predicted a time when true worshipers would worship the Father not in a particular earthly location, but in spirit and in truth.

Today, these things are still vital to us.  We recognize that the name of Jesus is the only name under heaven by which we might be saved.  We understand that when we come to the Father through the Son, we can come to Him anywhere.  This is the truth that saves us, and it could have saved the Sanhedrin too, if only they were willing to listen.

Are Conspiracy Theories Your Religion?

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The other day, I read a fascinating article (https://medium.com/curiouserinstitute/a-game-designers-analysis-of-qanon-580972548be5) posted by my brother and friend Tim Thompson.  In it, the author argues that QAnon functions much like the live-action games he designs for a living.  In particular, he points to a quirk of human psychology that is significant to both.  It’s called apophenia, and it’s the tendency to see a pattern and form connections where none exist.

This is why, for instance, most people will look at the overflow faceplate in the picture and see a face.  It is not a face.  It is not even designed to look like a face.  Nonetheless, we glance at the plumbing fixture and see eyes, nose, and face. 

We also enjoy figuring things out for ourselves.  We get a dopamine hit out of putting a puzzle together, and our memory does a better job of retaining the answers we arrive at than the ones that are handed to us.  We tend to be more emotionally invested in those answers too.

 Other human blind spots play into this as well.  We are communal creatures and are prone to accepting what our community accepts, whether in person or online.  Conversely, we mistrust those we consider to be “other” and regard what they say with skepticism.

QAnon, and other online conspiracy theories much in vogue, exploit all of these things.  They feed their audiences “breadcrumbs”—isolated, random facts—and encourage them to assemble the breadcrumbs into a pattern.  They suggest that most media outlets are fundamentally deceptive, but that the discerning mind (note the appeal of “I figured this out!  I’m smarter than everyone else!”) can ferret out the truth.  They provide a community of true believers to help enlighten new initiates.  Once someone has bought in, they are nearly immune to counterclaims.

The author argues, and I agree, that this infatuation with conspiracy has religious overtones.  Faith, after all, is the evidence of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  I don’t think that a bunch of random celebrities flashing hand signs is the evidentiary equal of eyewitnesses who died for their faith.  Nonetheless, in both cases, once we put it all together, our new conviction transforms our worldview.

This is a problem because the Christian worldview and the conspiracy-theorist worldview are incompatible.  The Christian believes that God controls everything.  Nations rise and fall according to His will.  However, the QAnon initiate believes that a vast, shadowy conspiracy controls everything, and They are the ones who shape reality according to Their desires (world power, sex trafficking, etc.).

This is blasphemy.  It is attributing one of the attributes of God to human beings.  In my life, I have read a whole, whole lot of history.  From beginning to end, the annals of humankind are filled with blundering, incompetence, false starts, and foolishness.  The greatest and most powerful people ever to live (with the sole exception of Jesus) made wagonloads of clumsy mistakes. 

By contrast, QAnon posits a cabal that has enrolled hundreds of thousands of people, operated for decades if not centuries, succeeded in its objects, and avoided exposure (“until now!!!”).  That doesn’t sound like the human race.  It sounds like Ephesians 3:8-11.  It sounds like God.

To brethren who are worried about these things, then, I say, “Relax.”  Even if there are people out there who want to control or harm you, they aren’t that capable.  If they do come to power, it will be clumsy, bloody, and obvious, like the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, etc.  Even the Chinese, as competent as they are, can’t take away democracy in little ole Hong Kong without a lot of noise and stink.  Subtle schemes to steal away our freedom are beyond our enemies, as they are beyond all of us.

Instead, worry about God.  Trust in Him, and trust that He will keep His promises to you.  Here, I can do no better than repeat the words of Isaiah 8:12-13.  “Do not call everything a conspiracy these people say is a conspiracy. Do not fear what they fear; do not be terrified.  You are to regard only the LORD of Armies as holy. Only He should be feared; only He should be held in awe.”

Psalm 93

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Lord assumes His seat as King,
And He is clothed with majesty;
He girds Himself with matchless strength
And puts on might for all to see.

Indeed, the world is firmly fixed,
You hold it fast by Your decree;
Your throne is founded from of old,
And You are from eternity.

The floods have lifted up, O Lord,
The floods have lifted up their voice;
The floods lift up their pounding waves,
And mighty breakers all rejoice.

How mighty is the Lord on high!
Your will enforces each command;
Your holiness befits Your house,
And through the ages it will stand.

Suggested tune:  OLD 100TH
(“All People That On Earth Do Dwell”)

Obeying God Rather Than Men

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

In our Bible reading this week, we are going to encounter the story of the final confrontation between the apostles and the Sanhedrin.  The Council demands that the apostles stop preaching Jesus, but, as Acts 5:29 famously records, they reply, “We must obey God rather than men.”

In these words, we find the reason why totalitarian governments never like Christians.  Their authority cannot be total as long as we acknowledge an authority greater than theirs.  However, I also have seen brethren claim that they are allowed to resist our government in defense of their inalienable Constitutional rights.

What are we to make of this tangle?  Clearly, there are times when we must put the kingdom of God above the kingdoms of earth.  Equally clearly, there are times when we must submit to the laws of the earthly governments where we reside.  However, there also are edge cases between these two extremes.  How do we know what to do when?  Let’s look to the text of Acts 5 for some guiding principles as we try to figure out when to obey God rather than men.

First, we must SUBMIT AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE.  We see the apostles exemplifying this in Acts 5:25-26.  After the angel frees them from prison, they return to the temple and begin preaching to the crowds again.  The temple guards show up to re-arrest them, but they quickly realize that they might touch off a riot if they do.  Instead, the guards nicely ask the apostles to come with them. 

The apostles are not idiots.  They know they might be going to their deaths, and they can get away with refusing for now, thanks to the crowds.  However, rather than resisting, they do as the guards ask.  Even under extreme circumstances, they continue to submit to earthly authority.

This principle should guide our interactions with the government too.  Romans 12 tells us to be at peace with everyone so far as it is possible with us.  Romans 13 commands us to submit to the government and pay our taxes.  As a rule, Christians must obey earthly law.

Sadly, in our country these days, a lot of people seem to think that they only have to obey the laws they like, and this is true on both left and right.  I spend a fair amount of time on gun-enthusiast boards these days, and there are lots of people who talk about their plans to disobey the federal firearm regulations they see coming.

That kind of disobedience is not for us.  It does not matter if we think the taxes are too high.  We pay them.  It does not matter if we think a law is foolish, oppressive, or unjust.  We obey it.  It does not matter if we think government officials are a bunch of crooks and jackbooted thugs.  We honor them.  Human justifications are never a reason to disobey human governments.  We obey them because we obey God.

Second, we OBJECT ONLY TO CONTRADICTION.  Look at the contradiction that appears in Acts 5:17-21, 27-28.  The angel tells them that they have to proclaim the whole message of life, but the high priest says they can’t preach about Jesus anymore.  It is impossible for the apostles to honor both God’s instructions and the high priest’s instructions.  Something’s got to give, and the apostles choose to disobey the high priest.

There are a couple of things worth noting here.  First, only the law of God allows the Christian to disobey the government.  I’ve seen a lot of brethren recently arguing that they can ignore the government sometimes because of the Constitution.  Well, yes and no.  We do have the right to challenge some governmental action on the basis of our Constitutional rights, much like Paul used his rights as a Roman citizen. 

However, the way we do that is through a lawsuit, not through defiance of the law.  If we sue and the courts find against us, or if courts already have decided the issue, we must abide by that result.  In our system of government, the courts, not the people, interpret the Constitution.  To refuse to obey the government because of what we think our Constitutional rights are is not righteous.  It is sin and lawlessness.

Second, a direct contradiction must exist.  It is not enough that the government is putting our tax dollars toward an evil end, or that the government is doing something we think is ungodly.  Instead, for Acts 5:29 to apply, the government must forbid us to do something God requires or require us to do something God forbids. 

For instance, let’s say that over the next couple of years, the federal government repeals the Hyde Amendment, so that federal funds can be used to fund abortions once more.  In fact, let’s say that the government gets into the abortion business itself and starts opening and running its own abortion clinics. 

I would not be at all happy about that.  I believe that the Bible teaches that abortion is evil.  However, so long as the government is not actively demanding that Christians have or perform abortions, the conditions of Acts 5:29 have not been met.  We must continue to honor the government.

Finally, if we resist, we must RESIST RIGHTEOUSLY.  Consider the apostles’ example in Acts 5:40-42.  Even though they have done nothing wrong, the Sanhedrin has them beaten because they preached Jesus.  In response, they do two things.  First, they rejoice that they suffered on account of Jesus.  Second, they continue to preach.

Here, we see that the Bible limits both the circumstances under which we can resist and the means that we can use.  This is actually a Bible-authority issue.  One of the great themes of the New Testament is that Christians don’t fight back against oppressive governments.  When Peter draws his sword to defend Jesus in the garden, Jesus tells him to put it up.  When Saul of Tarsus was ravaging the church, no one fought back against him.  It is never, ever godly for Christians to rebel.

In fact, rather than trying to defend our comfort through force of arms, we should rejoice in our suffering.  If we are persecuted for the cause of Christ, that is nothing more than happened to Jesus Himself, and it shows that we are walking in His footsteps.  If we were of the world, the world would love us back.  The more the world hates us, the more it shows that we are imitating Him.

Instead, rather than trying to use evil to overcome evil, rather than meeting violence with violence, we must overcome evil with good.  The only weapon that early Christians wielded was the sword of the Spirit—the word of God.  They blessed their enemies and prayed for their persecutors.  They suffered and continued to love.

Though this strategy seems weak in worldly eyes, it is very powerful.  In the first century, truth and love prevailed over persecution.  The more the enemies of the gospel tried to stamp it out, the more it spread.  They lost because they were fighting against God.  If we will follow Him today, He will be with us too, and none of our enemies, no matter who they are, will be able to overcome us.

Preaching the Whole Message

Monday, January 18, 2021

Acts 5 contains a fairly convoluted series of events.  As with Acts 4, the climax of the chapter is a confrontation between the apostles and the Sanhedrin.  However, the path to the confrontation is a little more winding. 

In 5:17-18, the apostles are arrested.  However, in 5:19-24, an angel rescues them from prison so they can continue proclaiming the gospel.  In 5:25-26, they are asked nicely to appear before the Council, and only then does the famous showdown take place.

Of particular note, though, is the angel’s instruction to the imprisoned apostles in 5:20.  He tells them, “Go, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of life.”  Don’t leave anything out, even the parts that might get you arrested and killed.  Preach the whole thing.

Still today, daring to proclaim the whole gospel is divisive, and it even can be dangerous.  There are millions of people who do not want to hear the bad news about their sin, even if it is followed by the good news about salvation through Christ.  All of us have friends, neighbors, and even brethren in that boat.  There are many churches in which repeating the plain teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19:1-9 will not find favor. 

However, preaching the whole message, especially the unpopular parts, has great value.  First, it demonstrates our integrity and commitment to God.  A few years back, I was talking with a progressive friend about my opposition to the practice of homosexuality.  As many progressives do in that area, he resorted to the conservatives-are-hypocrites argument and informed me that we didn’t honor Jesus’ teaching on divorce.  “Well, actually. . .” I replied.

Declaring the whole counsel of God might open us to charges of being extremists, legalists, or fanatics.  However, it insulates us from accusations of hypocrisy.  When we say we honor the word of God, we can prove that we mean it. 

That kind of strong stand might awaken hatred from others (which, according to John 15:18-19, is nothing more than disciples can expect), but crucially, it does not expose us to contempt.  Everyone knows the difference between people of principle and those who will abandon the ideals they claim whenever convenient.  The latter are easily dismissed; the former cannot be.  Even on the cross, Jesus’ righteousness overcame the shame of His death.

Second, faithfully repeating the whole gospel finds favor with God.  Discipleship is not about convenience, either for us or others.  It is about obeying our Lord, even when it is difficult, even when we don’t want to, even when obedience costs us things we hold dear.  When we surrender our will to God’s, we reveal that we have the mind of Christ.

However, just as Jesus was highly exalted when He humbled Himself to the point of death, so too will we be exalted.  When we confess Him before men, He will confess us before His Father.  When we honor God, He will honor us.  Nobody will lose their souls for showing too much respect for God’s word, but danger lies in editing the message to suit our preferences.

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