Acts 7:54-8:1 – Humility and Hubris

A 10th century depiction of Stephen’s martyrdom

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

And Saul approved of their killing him.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. (New International Version)

Although I am a trained in biblical exegesis and hermeneutics (interpreting Scripture) I believe that most insights come from making simple observations about the text. So, I want to point out: Stephen was not martyred by the Romans, a religiously pagan group, or Gentile people; he was martyred by those of his own ethnicity, by the people of God.

They weren’t simply unhappy with Stephen. The Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council) were incensed with him, so mad that they were grinding their teeth at him. The council truly believed Stephen was a blasphemer of God, that what he was saying was so subversive and religiously radical, they could stone him to death with a clear conscience, as if it were upholding God and God’s Law.

The result was not only the death of a humble man; it also sparked an intense persecution against the church which caused a new Christian diaspora. Many believers in Jesus now found themselves as Christian refugees trying to eke out a living and worshiping Christ in foreign places.

I wish I could say the greatest opposition I’ve ever experienced as a Christian came from non-Christians who simply misunderstood and misinterpreted me. However, my most hurtful wounds have come from the hands of church folk, believing they were acting on God’s behalf by exacting an emotional martyrdom upon me with the stones of gossip, slander, backbiting, blame-shifting, and outright lying.

Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.

Whenever I encounter persons who no longer attend church and have no intention of ever returning to any local congregation, I get it. I understand. I’ve been there. Yet, although the church is sometimes like a woman of disrepute, I still love her, and will do whatever I can to edify her and not repay evil with evil.

Stoning a believer, either actually with physical rocks or virtually with metaphorical stones, is akin to persecuting Jesus himself. That’s because Christ so closely identifies with his people that it is as if he is a head, and his followers are a body – joined together in a vital union.

So, when Christ’s Body is subjected to hermeneutical hubris in which one group of people insists there is only one way to interpret Scripture, and then uses it’s authority and structures of power to force compliance on another group, the result is persecution.

And that is precisely why Christians can abuse other Christians.

Rather than discerning that all Christians belong to God, one narrow-minded and small-hearted group excludes all other groups who disagree with them as blaspheming the name of Christ.

Insisting, for example, that a literal interpretation in the only means of understanding the Bible’s authority is to ignore and abuse the actual and real authority which exists with the Bible. I am in no way encouraging an “anything goes” type of approach to Holy Scripture that lets it say whatever you want it to say. 

What I am stating is that the biblical writers themselves employed different methods of interpretation, as well as the early church fathers (which is one reason I hold to the interpretive guides of the ancient Christian creeds, i.e. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed).

Far too often churches stick to a particular interpretation because they believe they are keeping biblical fidelity. This is many times born of a fear that Christendom will be lost, and society will sink into an abyss of egregious sin. The irony is that many churches are sinking into forms of abusive and ungracious behavior by fighting battles that Scripture itself never calls them to fight.

The binary thinking of “I’m right and you’re wrong” is not an approach you’ll find in God’s Holy Word.

Even if the Sanhedrin in Stephen’s day intended on upholding the holiness of their God and the rightness of their cause, the impact it had on the church was death and diaspora.

Unfortunately, throughout Christian history, the tables have too often turned with Christians persecuting Jews. I myself would like to avoid being the persecutor. If I kill anything, may it be putting to death my own sin.

Gracious God, as your Son humbled himself on this earth, so may your church walk continually in such humility that believers everywhere work together in unity for the sake of gospel of grace as a blessing to the world in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Revelation 17:1-18 – A Vision of the End

“The Whore of Babylon” by Hans Burgkmair, 1523

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters.With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.”

Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

BABYLON THE GREAT

THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES

AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH

I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.

When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. Then the angel said to me: “Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns. The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.

“This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.

“The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. They have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast. They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.”

Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until God’s words are fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” (New International Version)

Today’s New Testament lesson is the beginning of a long and elaborate vision of the Apostle John. The vision includes a woman and a scarlet beast, and the angel’s interpretation of what John saw.

An Incredible Vision

“The Whore of Babylon” from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible.

Consistent with Old Testament’s imagery depicting the relationship between God and people, John’s vision is of a prostitute whom the kings of the earth committed adultery. This great offense will not be overlooked. It is provoking divine wrath.

The prostitute sits on a scarlet beast, an imposing and rather incredible looking creature with seven heads and ten horns. The woman and the beast signify and portray the pinnacle of opulence, extravagance, and luxury. Yet, she is also the ultimate depiction of corruption, indecency, and irreverence.

The great prostitute influences all the world. She is the evil genius behind the blood of the Christian martyrs. The woman deceives and connives so that she can wreak her violence against the saints of God.

John appears to be slack jawed with all this. The prostitute’s seductive influence has been so great that nations fall to her erotic power. She is so diabolically smooth, her presentation so marvelous, that even John is mesmerized by her.

Why Are You Astonished?

The angel’s question to John is akin to saying, “Well, what did you expect? The Wicked Witch of the West? Evil is much more sinister than an ugly old woman. Unrighteousness cloaks itself in nice garb. Snap out of it, man!”

Astonishment and awe belong to God, not some alluring vision of beauty. The enticement only traps humanity into a sticky web which the Black Widow can feed upon. The woman and the beast are doomed to destruction. Their time is imminently near.

John (and us) must see beyond the surface presentation to the darkness within. Antichrist is not only a person but the evil systems which feed upon helpless humans caught in the web of seduction.

The End Times

The leaders of the earth, deceived and smitten by the temptress, ally together to wage war on all that is right, just, and good – all the while believing they are fighting for beauty. It will eventually climax at Armageddon, the place of final victory over all the malevolence.

The Lamb shall overcome the nefarious forces of corruption. The faithful followers of God need only to persevere and see the punishment of the wicked. Please keep in mind that none of this has a timetable for us to chart. Biblical time revolves primarily around events, not precision clockwork.

It is not our task to walk around predicting dates, nor is it to point fingers at anyone we don’t like as being the antichrist. There’s plenty of shock-and-awe in the Apocalypse of John without us adding to it with our half-baked ideas of the end times.

The world, as it presently exists, is distorted by sin. And we humans tend to be ill-equipped in discerning the difference between The Great Prostitute and Lady Wisdom. What the book of Revelation does for us is show, with alarming symbolism, just how difficult it can be to navigate this old fallen world.

So, let us run to God; trust in the Lamb; and be filled with the Spirit.

Sovereign God, you are slow to anger and abound in steadfast love. Grant to national leaders the wisdom, courage and insight needed for this time of change and uncertainty. Give to all who exercise authority determination to defend the principles of freedom, love and tolerance, strength to protect and safeguard the innocent and clarity of vision to guide the world into the paths of justice and peace. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Acts 7:30-40 – Full Acceptance, Not Partial

“After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.

“Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’

“This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.

“This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people. ’He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.

“But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and, in their hearts, turned back to

Egypt. They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’ (NIV)

We humans are a confusing paradox of sinner and saint. We are majestic people, created in the image and likeness of a good God. We are also profoundly fallen, touched by sin in every area of our lives. Our hearts exist with both light and darkness, having the capacity for both incredible altruism as well as inexplicable evil.

So then, it will do no good to retreat into binary definitions of people as being either good or bad. No, we shine and shadow at the same time. What really gets us into a terrible mess is when we ignore or deny our shadow selves. We then demonize the other while claiming purity for ourselves.

This is precisely what occurred with Stephen and a group of his fellow Jews who refused to acknowledge their shadow side. And it resulted in Stephen’s stoning and death. Whereas Stephen lifted and brought to light the unseemly aspects of their collective heritage, the people wanted nothing to do with it. In our present day, the response might be something like, “Quit being so negative. We focus on the positive. Expel this recalcitrant troublemaker once and for all!”

Oy. Acceptance cuts two ways. We must accept both our blessings and our curses. And acceptance of reality will not occur apart from a solid self-acceptance of who we are and how we are feeling in any given situation. On the practical level, it works something like the following story…

Several years ago, I went on a leadership retreat in the Canadian wilderness. We were so far out in the sticks that we needed special first aid training before leaving because if someone got severely injured it would be hours before any medical attention could be received. There was no cell phone service, no towns, no anything except mile after square mile of wilderness. 

One day, it was very windy and several of us were on a lake canoeing to a destination. It was late May, which means the water was still ice cold in Canada. One of the canoes capsized and we had to act quickly and deliberately – which was no small feat in a stiff wind. More than fifteen minutes would result in hypothermia for the two people in the water.

I did not like being in that situation. In fact, I didn’t much like the Canadian wilderness. Too many black flies and giant mosquitoes for me. My shadow side was coming out. But here I was, and I had to accept the reality I was in. One of the lessons I learned in that moment was that acceptance can sit alongside other reactions and emotions.

For example, a person can be outraged by an injustice, as Stephen was, and accept that it is a reality. Acceptance does not mean complacency or giving up. We can accept something while at the same time trying to make it better.

I also needed to accept what was happening inside of me. I was cold and worried. Trying to push those feelings away would have only added to the stress of the situation. If I failed to accept what was true about myself, I would be less able to deal with the situation, and so, would compromise my ability to help two people at risk.

I needed to accept the whole circumstance, including myself. Accepting what is inside gave me more influence over the situation, not less. Self-acceptance became the key to acceptance of unwanted conditions, and more importantly, acceptance of one another as human beings.

In that moment of rescuing two people (which ultimately proved successful) I became aware of a part of myself – the part that gets afraid and irritated – and chose not to stuff it or deny its existence. I became the guy who talked to the panicked people in the water and kept them as calm as possible so that the others could get them out. I was able to do my part to help fearful people because I acknowledged and accepted my own fear.

Unlike my situation, however, Stephen’s experience ended in martyrdom. Just because we respond rightly is no guarantee that everything will work out for our benefit. Rather, we say and do the things we must say and do, while leaving the results to a sovereign Lord. It is our responsibility to work on ourselves, not others. And acceptance is the path to get there, all of it, not just part of it.

Jesus, let your mighty calmness lift me above my fears and frustrations. By your deep patience, give me tranquility and stillness of soul in you. Make me in this, and in all things, more and more like you. Amen.