The Heart of the Old Testament
April 21, 2024

The Heart of the Old Testament

Preacher:
Passage: Acts 7:1-53

Let's Get Jesus Right

To be a solid church, we want to get Jesus right. We want to know Jesus as his closest disciples knew him. We want to be a church that understands what Jesus has done, once for all, and that embraces what Jesus is continuing to do in the lives of his people, from the times of the Old Testament to the present. And when we open the Bible to the book of Acts, we can see how Jesus affected the lives and the message of his followers.

Of the seven major speeches we’re going to look at by Jesus’s followers, we’ve already looked at two. Both of those speeches were given by a man named Peter, who was one of the Twelve disciples who were closest to Jesus. But Jesus had many more disciples beyond the twelve. And that included a certain man by the name of Stephen. Stephen, it turns out, was a gifted communicator. And he really knew the Old Testament Scriptures.

Stephen helps Christianity to spread in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish religious leaders start to feel threatened. They gather together some fake witnesses to accuse Stephen. And they drag him before a council of priests and scribes and other Jewish elders to be interrogated. We’ll see how he answers them in Chapter 7. Please turn there in your Bibles with me. I’ll be reading Acts 7, from verse 1 to 53.

[PRAY AND READ TEXT]

I want to unpack the text tonight under three points: First, The Old Assumptions Are Challenged. Second, the Old Testament is Clarified. And Third, The Old Mistakes Are Repeated.

The Old Assumptions Are Challenged

So first, The Old Assumptions Are Challenged.

In order for this trial, and Stephen’s speech, to make sense, you need to understand why all this talk about Jesus made the Jews upset. But you don’t need to be an expert in ancient Jewish religion to figure this out. If you read your Bible carefully, you can figure out what the Jews at this time believed to be essential for true religion. Look back at the end of Acts, Chapter 6, verse 13. Notice what Stephen is accused of. “…[T]hey 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 Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”

You’ll notice here that Stephen is accused of speaking against two things – against this holy place, referring to the temple in Jerusalem, and also against the law – the law of Moses with its long list of customs and rituals. Since Stephen is accused of speaking against the temple and the law, it must mean that these two things were seen as important in the Jewish religion. The temple and the law of Moses were two things that must never be threatened or questioned. The Jews were convinced that these two things were essential, not just for their religious activities on the weekend, but for life – for knowing how to live.

Now, you’ll see in the text says that false witnesses were the ones who brought these charges against Stephen. But it would seem that Stephen actually had been saying these things. The witnesses may have been false in that they misrepresented Stephen’s arguments, or maybe they weren’t real witnesses and were just being paid to testify against him. But when the high priest asks, “Are these things so?” Stephen doesn’t respond by saying “Your excellency, all these accusations are ridiculous.” Instead, Stephen argues, from the Old Testament, that the temple in Jerusalem and the law of Moses are not at the heart of the true Jewish faith! And they never have been.

Well, you might say, that’s all well and good that Stephen is challenging those old assumptions of the Jews. But I’m not fixated on a temple or an old legal code. This is no problem for me. Yet the Christian message continues to challenge the assumptions of our time, too. Americans today have different beliefs – different assumptions – that are challenged by the truth claims of Christianity. Plenty of people who are convinced that ultimate life meaning rests on things like self-expression and a self-determined gender identity. There are plenty of people who assume that the point of life is to make as much money as you can, or to have as much fun as you possibly can. Even Christians have bought into unbiblical assumptions, that real spirituality must include a certain style of worship music, or a special kind of vibe, or a certain level of cultural trendiness.

Yet we must understand what’s really at the heart of true religion. Stephen walks through the Old Testament and explains that the rightly-lived life centers upon Jesus.

The Old Testament Is Clarified

This is my second point: The Old Testament is clarified. Stephen clarifies that Jesus Christ lies at the heart of the true Jewish faith, which now continues under the name of Christianity. The thing of central importance isn’t the temple. It’s not the law of Moses. It’s Jesus.

You may notice, though, over the course of this long sermon, Stephen doesn’t mention the name of Jesus. At all. Just once, in verse 52, Stephen refers to Jesus directly, calling him the Righteous One. But he doesn’t say his name. And so it might seem like Stephen’s speech here has very little to do with Jesus.

But as Stephen explains the flow of the Old Testament, I want you to notice four things.

First, Stephen emphasizes that the Christian faith affirms the relevance and authority of the Old Testament. Stephen isn’t anti-law of Moses. He isn’t anti-Old Testament. Quite the opposite. He embraces the history of the Old Testament, the fatherhood of Abraham, the covenant, the worth of Moses, the glory of David – He affirms that the Scriptures are true, weighty, and relevant.

So if you find Christians or churches who speak as though the Old Testament has no connection to the New Testament – that it’s worthless and unrelated to the church today, they aren’t in step with Jesus’s disciples. The God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New. The Scriptures are reliable and binding and should be respected as the very Word of God.

Here’s the second thing I want you to notice. Stephen denies the centrality of the temple. Stephen shows that the temple couldn’t be essential, because key figures of the past still had access to God’s presence and favor without it.

Stephen talks about the father of the Jewish nation, Abraham. In verse 2, he marvels, the God of glory appeared to our father Abraham. It’s an incredible statement. A human creature of dust has seen the glory of the eternal, transcendent God. Surely this must have happened in some sort of special temple, right? Actually, Stephen points out, the answer is no. Likewise, in verse 9, after Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph becomes a slave in Egypt, we’re told that God was with him, without the temple! Stephen even points in verse 20 out that the great prophet Moses, when he was born, was beautiful in God’s sight. Moses found favor with God without the temple. Later on, Moses built a sacred tent for worship, called the tabernacle. But verse 44 indicates that the tabernacle was just a replica that followed a heavenly pattern. Stephen recalls that Joshua led the people into the promised land without the temple. David, we’re told in verse 46, found favor in the sight of God, also without the temple. And after the temple is finally built, the prophet Isaiah declares the word of the Lord, saying “Heaven is my throne, and the earth 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?” The temple in Jerusalem isn’t central to our faith.

Here’s the third thing to notice: Stephen denies that the customs of Moses are central to the true Jewish faith. They aren’t the basis for God’s relationship with his people. Instead, that special relationship is ratified with Abraham, before the law of Moses. The relationship between God and man is built on God’s promise – on the promises of God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The law of Moses doesn’t establish this relationship. Instead, the law flows out of God’s covenant relationship with his people. So the length and gravity of the law of Moses is supposed to direct our attention, not to its own greatness, but to the greatness of the promise which has come before it.

And in verse 37, Moses himself testifies, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.” Moses recognizes that he isn’t the Supreme prophet. The customs he gives aren’t ultimate. But they are pointing ahead to a coming prophet who, Moses says, will be like him.

And here’s the fourth thing Stephen clarifies from the Old Testament. He shows us how Jesus is foreshadowed and anticipated in the Old Testament. Stephen drops a hint of this in the life of Joseph. He explains that the patriarchs, Joseph’s brothers, were jealous of him (just like the Jewish leaders were jealous of Jesus). But Stephen’s main emphasis here is to show that Jesus is the “prophet like me” that Moses predicted.

Verse 24 reminds us how Moses saved one of his enslaved brothers by striking down the Egyptian who was beating him. And verse 25 says, “He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand – but they did not understand!” The people reject Moses. They despise him, sneering, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?” And Stephen picks this idea up again in verse 35 – “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ – this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer.” And now, Stephen says, God has sent a rejected prophet – a prophet like Moses – to rule and redeem His people.

See, Moses wasn’t the ultimate prophet. But God gave Moses a great teaching, and allowed him to experience great rejection, because Moses was a preview of the

greater prophet to come. Someone better than Moses is now here, Stephen says. We must pay attention to Jesus.

The Old Mistakes Are Repeated

But here’s my last point. The Old Mistakes Are Repeated.

Stephen knows who he’s in the room with. He’s talking to the very people who planned Jesus’s death. And he wants them to understand that they have turned away from true religion. They’re repeating the same mistakes as their unfaithful fathers who lived in the days of Moses. What did their fathers do? Verse 39: “Our fathers refused to obey [Moses], but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt.” Verse 41: “And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the work of their hands.”

So Stephen gives us the telling signs of false religion. False religion rejects the one God has sent. And false religion instead rejoices in the work of our hands. False religion boasts in what we do, in what we make, in what we accomplish. It delights in the power and wisdom of mankind instead of adoring the glory of the true, everlasting God.

The Jews boasted in the temple – a house built by human effort – and they boasted in their ability to observe the customs of Moses, because they didn’t rejoice in God. They refused the one God sent to be their ruler and redeemer. And they instead boasted in the works of their own hands.

And this is why, by the time Stephen finishes his speech, he no longer stands as the one accused. But he brings an accusation against those who have abused and distorted true religion. “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in your 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.”

Christianity in the Old Testament

Christianity isn’t a new replacement for the Old Testament. But Christianity is, in fact, the only true expression of the Old Testament. Though we no longer have earthly priests who sacrifice animals in an earthly temple, this is because Jesus has gone, once and for all, into the heavenly Holy of Holies to offer himself as a sacrifice for our sins. Moses was raised up to rule God’s people and redeem them from slavery and death in Egypt. But God has now sent someone greater than Moses to rule you and to rescue you from dying as a slave to sin. Will you repeat the same old mistakes from ages past? Will you resist the Holy Spirit, and boast in yourself? Or will you rejoice and boast in the work of Jesus?

In the verses that follow here in Acts 3, the people refuse to change. They reject, not just the New Testament, but the whole Scripture. They plug their ears, and put Stephen to death, just as they did to Jesus. Please! Don’t harden your heart. Don’t repeat these same old mistakes! Let’s pray