Day 320: Acts 7-8; Stephen, Persecution, and Scattering

Today’s post, at least as I write it, is going to be mostly not my voice.  I think that what Stephen says here is probably one of the most important speeches in the Bible with the exception of the teachings of Jesus Himself.  Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit rehashes the whole story of God’s faithfulness throughout the history of the Jewish people and how He has brought them to this point.  He lays out for them all the things that have happened, the things that are recorded in the Law and the Prophets, of which these folks are supposedly experts, and how they all lead up to Jesus.  I have marked a lot of the names and parts of the grand narrative of the Bible that Stephen really covers, linking them all of what we talked about in the first month of this journey through the Bible, and also some of the narratives of Joshua, David, and Solomon.  I encourage you to re-read this speech and as you do create some space for yourself to remember these stories, remember what we talked about, and remember all that God has indeed done to bring them to this point right now.  We have the opportunity right now to take a step back and, rather than reading individual portions of Scripture, to see if from a “bird’s eye view,” or perhaps more appropriately a “God’s eye view” of all that has taken place.

Apart from this speech, and the subsequent stoning of Stephen, we read of the scattering of the believers, the movement out of Jerusalem because of the great persecution that begins and takes place.  While this may see horrible, at least on the surface, for those of us that are reading it, this scattering actually facilitated the spreading of the early Church outside the city of Jerusalem into the areas of Judea and Samaria, just as Jesus says at the beginning of Acts.  Though their center still remains in Jerusalem, where the Apostles mostly stay, the outward movement that is precipitated by this persecution is really the beginning of the movement outward towards the “ends of the earth.”  Notice too that immediately we read that people are coming to faith outside of Jerusalem because of the preaching that is taking place.  The Holy Spirit is alive and well and very much at work in all that is going on here!

And Stephen said:

“Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’  Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living.  Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child.  And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years.  ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’  And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.

And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household.  Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food.  But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit.  And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh.  And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all.  And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers,  and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.

“But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph.  He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive.  At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son.  And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.

“When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel.  And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian.  He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’  But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying,‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?  Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’  At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.

“Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush.  When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord:  ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look.  Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.  I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’

“This Moses, whom they 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 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, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’  And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.  But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:

“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices,
    during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
You took up the tent of Moloch
    and the star of your god Rephan,
    the images that you made to worship;
and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’

“Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen.  Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.  But it was Solomon who built a house for him.  Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by 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 what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?’

“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.”

Day 173: Psalms 103-105; How Great is Our God

Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!

These are fitting words for the psalms that we read through today!  All three are psalms of praise that tell of the many acts and words of the Lord and all three proclaim His glory and splendor!  I don’t honestly think that there is a lot to be added to these Psalms… I think that they are best re-read over and over.  I would encourage you to do that today!  Take time to read these Psalms at least two more times.  As you do this, take time to think back over the past 6 months… over all that we have read and encountered in the Scriptures.  Do you remember the times that the psalmist is talking about?  Take some more time to think about the things in your life… how have you seen God at work in your day to day walk?

PSALM 103-105 are psalms of praise and thanksgiving that are written anonymously.  Each is didactic in nature, with psalm 105 actually being more of a historical account of God’s amazing works in redemptive history.  Though all three reference times past, they can also draw our attention to God’s work in the present and in our own lives as well.

Day 16: Genesis 48-50; The Death of Jacob

As I read this passage, there are two or three things that really stand out to me.

First, as we talked about two days ago, on January 14,  when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he alludes to the point that all that had happened to him was ordained by God for the good of many people.  Neither Joseph nor his brother could have ever known what God was up to that day when they sold him to the Ishmaelite traders.  Yet God remained faithful to Joseph and to the house of Israel, watching over and blessing Joseph.  Now, through him, many people were saved in this time of famine.  Through this, God has also kept His word to Abraham, when He made the covenant with him in Genesis 15, which we read about on January 4.  God even reassures Jacob of this on their way down to Egypt.  All things are happening according to the will of God, in God’s perfect time, and though none could ever have seen it, even the move to Egypt was part of God’s plan, not simply for food during a famine, but so that they would be able to flourish, protected by the most powerful nation on earth at that time.  More on this in the coming days as we venture into Exodus.

The Second thing I think of when I read this is the power that words have.  We saw this, but maybe didn’t talk about in much, in the blessing of Jacob and Esau on January 8.  When Issac blesses Jacob he can’t just take it back and give it to Esau.  The words have been spoken and cannot return to his mouth.  Here is the same with the sons of Joseph and the sons of Israel.  Israel speaks a blessing over the sons of Joseph, claiming them for his own and blessing them as members of his own household.  He then speaks words of blessing over his sons, “blessing each with the blessing suitable to him.”  What is important about this?  Well, as we read on they will all come true!  At the end of each of our worship services we also speak words of blessing which we call the Benediction.  I think too often we just see these as nice words to end the service.  What if they were words of empowerment, words that sent us into the week and reminded us that the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is with us?  Though it would seem that words are a dime a dozen in this day and age of social media, advertisement, and the like, I think really the only thing that has changed is our mentality about them.  Are the Words of Scripture changing you?  Blessing you?  Empowering you?

Finally… we shall leave the book of Genesis with an extra look at some verses: Genesis 49:8-12.  There was a bit of trivia on January 11 about Judah and the town of Bethlehem.  Take a second look at these verses, the blessing of Judah.  There is some foreshadowing here again, words that are spoken that we will see again later.  What words in this blessing strike you as familiar?  What do you see foreshadowed here?

Day 15: Genesis 46-47; Home coming… or going?

So Joseph is alive, Israel is happy once again, and God has once again been faithful to His covenant promise by providing for Israel and his family during the time of intense drought.  What a beautiful picture of this family reunion that takes place too.  Israel coming down from the land of Canaan sees for the first time in what has probably been over twenty years, his beloved son.  Its like the scene from a movie:  Joseph jumps out of his chariot, running at full speed towards his old father, tears streaming down his face.  They embrace and cry on each other’s shoulder, weeping for joy!  The family is once again whole.  Glory be to God!!

The writer here, presumably Moses, makes a point here that will be important in our reading in a couple of days.  Did you notice it?  Another genealogy.  For the longest time I had always skipped over those.  To me they were just long lists of names I couldn’t pronounce that contained people that weren’t important to the whole story.  While the first two things there are true (they are long lists of names that I still can’t pronounce), these people are important to the story.  As the “nation” of Israel (aka. Jacob’s family) goes down to Egypt, they are but 70 people in all.  Yet there are important things about those 70 people.  Jacob’s son Levi has a child from a Canaanite woman, who is included in here.  Joseph’s children, born of an Egyptian woman, the daughter of a heathen priest are included in here.  These children are members of the covenant and are found to be under the promise of God despite their rather shady heritage.

Later on in Israel’s history, God’s people wouldn’t be caught dead with a foreigner, with a gentile as they called them.  However, they forget that many of them have gentile blood (at least a bit of it) running through their veins.  God wasn’t about excluding, but about including.  Already there are several nations represented within the “people of God” and God knew this.  He didn’t put them out of the promise because of their lineage, but rather made them part of His chosen people.  Again, this is not because of anything they had done, but because of God’s love and grace.  Maybe this is a lesson for us as well?  Too often we tend to make judgment calls about who is in and who is out… I think we might be surprised.  God is not about keeping people out.  God is about bringing people in that ALL the nations of the earth will be blessed!

Day 14: Genesis 43-45; Joseph reveals himself

I wouldn’t presume to speculate on how much time passed between the first visit of Joseph’s brothers and the second, but I have to imagine that it wasn’t a matter of days.  I wonder what Joseph was thinking during that time, or what Simeon, bound and imprisoned in Egypt almost as a ransom for Benjamin, just waiting for his brothers to return.  What would the brothers being thinking during this time?  Everyone is just waiting for something to happen, unsure of what to do next.

Yesterday I spoke of Joseph having a little fun at his brother’s expense.  I can’t say that I wouldn’t do the same in his position.  But today is different.  Today Joseph truly tests his brothers to see if they have changed.  Again I wonder what would have happened had the outcome been different.  We can leave that to speculation, because the fact is that it seemed to Joseph that things had changed.

Joseph’s big reveal to his brothers is one of the more famous verses in the Bible about providence.  It takes a very mature person to see things they way Joseph sees them.  He had every excuse to remain angry at his brothers, but whether it be through time or from simply growing up, Joseph is able to step back from his situation and see God at work.  In some of the first posts of this year we talked about providence, and God’s sustaining of creation, working through all situations to bring about His will.  Here is a very prime example of it.  Joseph’s brothers meant evil upon his by selling him to those traders.  They meant to never see Joseph again.  Yet even in that evil act, which God allowed to happen even if He didn’t like it or applaud it, God brings about the greater good for the Israel and his sons.  In many ways this is the essence of God’s providence in the world, the nature of His sustaining of His creation that we spoke about on Day 1.  We are human, created with free will and tainted in sin.  We do things that we mean for evil, or maybe that we simply know aren’t good.  Yet God doesn’t remove His love from us when this happens, but sustains us and upholds us in it, even if He doesn’t applaud our actions.  And He is always at work, whether we can see it or not, bringing about His will for the world.

I have experienced this in my life.  Have you?  How has God been at work in your life even in the bad things that you do or that happen to you that bring about the greater good?

Day 12: Genesis 37-39; Joseph and the technicolor dream-coat?

The story of Joseph has been popularized in the last 50 years with its entrance into the secular arts arena.  Movies and musicals have told and retold this story in a variety of ways, yet I think they don’t quite get to the base of what this story is trying to convey.  While we really only get the first third of the story of Joseph here in this reading, already again we can see the providence of God in Joseph’s life.  Joseph’s life is spared multiple times in these few chapters, from his brothers and, what really isn’t mentioned, from his master in Egypt who really had every right to kill Joseph for the violation of his wife.  Yet we see that God continues to watch over him, blessing him at every turn and blessing those that are with him in much the same manner for the sake of Joseph.  God is clearly at work in this, even though, like with the dreams, Joseph doesn’t really know how this is all going to turn out in the end.

The other story that we read today, the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 is a rather unique one.  As I was reading it, I was thinking to myself “what can we glean from this story?”  I do have to think that this is yet another example of how God continues to work through a family full of dysfunction.  While it would not necessarily have been known at the time, the father of the clan of Judah, from whom eventually Jesus would come, gives in to the lusts of his flesh and does what has been forbidden from the sons of Israel (Jacob) by taking Shua to be his wife.  He has three sons, all but one of which survive… and then winds up having a child with his daughter-in-law, who really is quite innocent in the whole scheme of things until she deceives Judah by dressing like a prostitute (as if he should even be considering such things anyway).  One could say that tricks and manipulation have been played on the family of tricksters and manipulators (what goes around comes around?).  In any case, God saw fit to include this in the Bible.  This can be added to the list that we shall make of Jesus’ dysfunctional (or maybe less desirable) ancestors; a list that will include the likes of Rahab the Prostitute, Ruth the outcast, and Bathsheba the wife Uriah (who isn’t named in Jesus’ genealogy but is there nonetheless).  It is important to note that, those the sons of Jacob by Tamar are conceived in sin and deception, they are included into the blessing of Israel and the line of David and Jesus.  Is there something you have done that you think makes you unusable to God?  I believe that God is telling us here that He is much bigger than any of our sins and can use us despite of our imperfections.