Tag Archives: Stephen

49 Days: Changing into a Stranger

“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.’”

Acts 7:23-34 (ESV)

As I write this, it’s early Sunday afternoon and not too long ago, I got home after church services and Sunday school. The Pastor’s sermon was on Acts 7:20-43 and focused on Moses. This is part of Stephen’s defense presented to the Sanhedrin in response to (false) allegations that he spoke against Moses, the Torah, and the Temple. But Pastor Randy didn’t really present it like a legal defense. He was teaching the congregation the story of Moses and he taught it using interesting tools.

OK, for the most part, he told it using Acts and we also read from Hebrews 11:23-27 as well as Joshua 1:5-9. But he also twice referred to the Talmud. Pastor didn’t cite the specific references, but he did point out something about how Jews see Moses and the Exodus, not just how Christians see Moses. I was favorably impressed. How many Baptist Pastors refer to Talmud and the Jewish perspective regarding anything we learn in church?

I was also impressed that he took the time to explain those paintings and statues of Moses that have him wearing horns on his head as the result of a translation error, and he described Moses returning from his encounters with God on Sinai as glowing so brightly that no one could bear to look at the light. He did refer to the giving of the Torah as “delivering the scriptures” but he also called those scriptures “living words.” In referring us to Joshua 1:5-9 he re-enforced (I don’t know how many people picked up on the implications) this high view of Moses and the Torah:

No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:5-9 (ESV)

Verse 8 says, This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

A Baptist Pastor is saying that it’s a good thing for God to tell Joshua that he is to meditate on the Torah day and night, to be careful to obey what is written in it, and that doing so will bring success.

Wow.

Both the Pastor’s message and the Sunday school class based on that message focused on how Moses was denied by God entry into Israel because of his disobedience and for that to serve as a warning to us to be careful to obey God’s will for our lives.

If you recall, last Sunday I was more than a little “chatty” in Sunday school class and this past Sunday, I was much more restrained. I did directly answer one of the teacher’s questions, but other than that, I only spoke when engaged in light conversation, fulfilling my desire to listen and learn.

So far, the message I’m getting is one of humility, submissiveness to God, and love for other human beings. This message was consistently presented, even when the Sunday school teacher brought up the recent elections and even when he asked what our proper response should be if two gay people came into the church.

Like I said…wow.

People continue to be friendly. Complete strangers come up to me, introduce themselves (they apparently know who I am somehow) and tell me they’re praying for me. I was asked for my last name in Sunday school this time around (I think for attendance purposes), so now, in theory, I’ve become more “findable” if anyone decides to “Google” me. That means they can potentially find this series of “meditations,” which speaks a lot more about what goes through my head than I’ve exposed in the church community.

I know this is only my second week, but I was very aware of how “disconnected” I felt in church. Like I said, everyone is friendly and all, but I don’t actually know anyone, and they don’t know me. I’m not (yet) a part of the community. They aren’t really “friends” (let alone family) yet. I suppose that comes with time, and I haven’t had to enter into a completely new environment like this in a good, long while. After Sunday school class was over, all I had to do was leave. For me, there was no conversation, no activity, no relationship that was available that would have kept me at church five, ten, or twenty minutes longer.

I’m not sure what to do except keep going every Sunday (or most Sundays) and see what develops. For the first time, someone mentioned the kids rehearsing for the Christmas program, and I realized that a few of the Sundays coming up, I won’t be attending. I guess that’s one of the limits I’m putting on “community.”

Part of what we discussed in Sunday school (well, Charlie, the teacher, did most of the talking) was how Moses’ different experiences, particularly as a shepherd, changed him and prepared him for what he needed to do to lead the Children of Israel. Charlie asked if any of us had any experiences that were as drastic as going from a “prince” in a King’s palace to being a shepherd (I have, but I kept them to myself). He asked how the experiences God put in our lives changed us and prepared us for fulfilling our role in doing God’s will.

In remembering the lesson and looking at myself, I realize that in order to fit in and become a part of this community, I’ll have to change. I’m not sure how or into what or who, but something will need to progress within me that will be for my own good, even if I can’t see what it is right now.

May we have life in which God fulfills our hearts’ desires for good.

-Siddur

The followers of Rabbi Uri of Strelisk were all poor. When another Chassidic master visited him, he asked Rabbi Uri why he did not pray that his congregants become more prosperous.

Rabbi Uri called in a follower whose shabby clothing attested to his poverty. He said to him, “Now is a special moment of grace, and you will be granted anything your heart desires. Ask for whatever you wish.”

Without a moment’s hesitancy, the man said, “I wish to be able to say Baruch She’amar (the opening prayer of the morning service) with the same fervor as the Rabbi does.”

Rabbi Uri turned to his friend. “You see now for yourself!” he said. “They do not want riches. Why should I intercede to get them something they do not want?”

We ask God for many things, but most importantly, we should pray that He enlighten us what it is that we should pray for, lest we waste our prayers by asking for things that are not to our ultimate advantage and fail to ask for what is really essential.

Today I shall…

try to think about what it is that I really need and that is in my best interest, instead of focusing on things that may seem desirable but are really inconsequential.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Cheshvan 25”
Aish.com

This is where the “trusting God” part comes in (again). I have to trust that being here, in this church and with these people (who by and large, remain strangers to me) is the right thing to do and is what God wants me to do. I have to trust that whatever way I am to change, that I do so in God’s will and that I will change into more of who I’m supposed to be and not into a stranger to myself.

Moses was a “stranger in a strange land,” and God helped him to become more of who he needed to be, ultimately resulting in Moshe, the most humble man on all the earth, and the greatest prophet in Judaism. I am also a “stranger in a strange land.” Who am I going to be?

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50 Days: Lessons in Acts and Patience

Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they 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 this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”

And the high priest said, “Are these things so?”

Acts 6:9-14, 7:1 (ESV)

When Caiaphas asked Stephen “Are these charges true,” he in effect asked, “Are you and your sect speaking against Moses, against the Torah, and against the Temple?

The charges were serious, and the trial had ramifications for the entire Yeshua (Jesus) sect (of Judaism). As a community leader over the assembly of Yeshua’s disciples, Stephen represented the beliefs of the whole community. If the court found him guilty of blasphemy or apostasy, they might turn against the whole sect.

Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Toldot (“Generations”) (pp 141, 143)
Commentary on Acts 7:1-60

Last Sunday, at the local church I attend, Pastor Randy’s sermon, as he covers the book of Acts, was specifically on Acts 7:1-19. Since the portion of Acts covered by Volume 6 of the Torah club for this coming week’s Torah reading is Acts 7, I thought it would be a good opportunity to compare what is being taught about Stephen and his defense to the Sanhedrin in my church vs. FFOZ’s viewpoint on the same event to see the similarities and differences. I didn’t get what I was looking for. Here’s why as outlined in the printed conclusions of the Pastor’s sermon last week:

Conclusion: Stephen’s sermon helps us to remember…

  1. The sovereign activity of God in choosing people, places, and timing in all things.
  2. The sovereign, abundant grace of God toward rebellious sinners always.
  3. The danger of hardening our hearts against God’s grace.
  4. The error of going through outward motions where our hearts are far from God.

While D. Thomas Lancaster in his Torah club study and Pastor Randy in his sermon series are covering identical material from Acts, the purpose and focus in each of their teachings are not at all the same. Lancaster is addressing the issue of whether or not the charges against Stephen were true; was he really speaking against Moses, the Torah, and the Temple as he had been accused of? Pastor Randy, on the other hand, was using Stephen’s “sermon” (it was actually a legal defense and not a “sermon” as we understand the term in the church) as an illustration of God’s grace and mercy to sinners who repent and turn back to God.

Kind of like trying to compare apples and oranges.

Maybe that’s a good thing, because the Sunday school class I go to after services addresses (though tangentially) the content of the lesson from the Pastor. What if the Sunday school teacher asked if the charges against Stephen were true and I answered based on Lancaster?

Of course, the allegations were not true, but was there any basis at all to the charges?

Stephen presented a pro-Temple, pro-Torah apologetic which, in essence, affirmed his orthodoxy within normative Judaism. He cited the biblically based origin for the authority of Moses and the Torah, and he told the story of the origin of the Temple. He went on to make a case for Yeshua, declaring Him to be the “prophet like Moses” who, like Moses himself, suffered His people’s rejection. In the same way, he drew in the Temple theme as he pointed out that Israel’s historical compromises with paganism contrasted against the sanctity of the true Temple. By the end of his defense, he turned the tables around. The accused became the accuser. He claimed that just as the nation of Israel historically rejected Moses, broke the Torah, and compromised with idolatry, the Jewish leadership had committed a similar crime by rejecting the appointed Messiah. (Lancaster, pg 143)

Notice that Lancaster says that Stephen accused the “Jewish leadership” of rejecting the appointed Messiah, not the “Jewish people.” Since thousands upon thousands of Jews in Jerusalem had accepted Jesus as the Messiah in the weeks and months following Pentecost, it would be very difficult to say that the Jews en masse had rejected Jesus.

Lancaster says that the charges against Stephen were absolutely false, but we tend to hear a different message in Christianity (although no such message was presented in last week’s sermon at my church):

Commentators regard it…as an ironic twist that the so-called “false charges” were actually true. For example, F.F. Bruce (from Bruce’s book, “The Book of Acts,” 1988, pg 126) says, “They are called ‘false witnesses’ because, although their reports had a basis of truth, anyone who testifies against a spokesman of God is ipso facto a false witness.” Numerous Christian commentaries insist that, contrary to what Luke tells us, the witnesses were not really false nor were their allegations really lies. From a traditional Christian point of view, Stephen must have taught against the Temple with its obsolete sacrifices, against the Torah with its cancelled ceremonial laws, and against the customs, i.e., the traditions of men. (Lancaster, pg 142)

Remember that I said not too long ago, quoting Pastor Jacob Fronczak’s article, The Five Solas: Sola Scriptura:

Even with the Masoretic traditions, though, many English readings of the Scripture can be divined from a single Hebrew text. Translation committees have to pick one. Many times readings are chosen to emphasize some Messianic prophecy which appears to point to Jesus Christ, while a Jewish translation committee might choose a different readings for the exact opposite reason. Both readings might be technically correct. However doctrinal presuppositions dictate which reading is chosen. In effect, then, when Christians have only an English Bible and no other tools, they are completely unable to interact with the Scripture – the original Greek and Hebrew texts. They are completely dependent on the work of the translator.

If our doctrinal presuppositions dictate how a passage in scripture is rendered from its original language into English (or any other modern language), the same can be true for how we interpret scripture. Even reading the ESV Bible’s translation of Acts 7:1-60, there’s nothing in the plain meaning of the text that indicates Stephen must have been speaking against Moses, the Torah, and the Temple. In fact, the vast majority of his defense reads like a simple history lesson, compressing the relevant sections of the Tanakh (Old Testament) into a few paragraphs. Stephen doesn’t appear to be denigrating the Jewish Torah and traditions but rather defending them. He only accuses the Sanhedrin of going against the Torah and teachings of Moses, in violation of what Jesus himself taught and defended.

You can see why I might be a little hesitant to speak up in Sunday school later today as I did last week.

It’s another Sunday (as you read this) and church services start at 9:30 this morning. I’ll be there again, and I’ll go to Sunday school again, and I don’t really know what I’m going to say or do. Hopefully, nothing stupid, but there are no guarantees. I’ve said and done stupid things before, even when I knew better. Telling what I understand to be “the truth” is not always defensible if I know in advance that the result will be upsetting or harmful to others. Even if I chose to speak, I would have to do so in a way that was not accusatory or offensive to others.

There is a major difference between being critical, and having a positive influence on others by saying things with compassion and true caring. When you sound critical, the person on the receiving end is likely to deny your words, which will be perceived as an attack. And then you won’t accomplish anything.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #634, Correct Without Being Critical”
Aish.com

So far, the only person at church who even knows this blog exists is Pastor Randy, and I don’t even know if he has visited here since our first meeting last week. Since it’s not likely anyone else at church knows I write these “morning meditations,” I’m more at liberty to express my thoughts and opinions here than I should be when in Sunday school.

Of course, this is only the second Sunday I will be back in church. I really need to learn to be more patient and not “shoot off my big mouth” just because the Sunday school teacher asks a question and no one answers. Silence isn’t always in invitation for me to “make noise” nor is it a reason to think that I can “correct” anyone else in their beliefs.

Maybe I should be paying more attention to what the Bible is telling me about what I need to do to make me a better person than what I think it says about making others better.