Bible Study with Jairus – Acts 7

 

In Acts 7, we find the story of Stephen being stoned to death. As we consider Stephen’s tragic death, we see two types of people: people of faith and people of fear. Stephen, a person of faith, saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. The angry crowd, people of fear, could not see the heavens opened. Instead, they covered their ears and stoned Stephen to death. We must ask ourselves: Are we people of faith who can see into the throne room of God, or are we covering our ears and seeing nothing but the material world around us?

Are we those who see the heaven opened, or are we persecuting those who see heaven opened?

Bill Johnson, an American Charismatic pastor says that each new wave of God’s work in the world is persecuted by people instrumental in bringing about the last wave. This is not limited to persecution between denominations. Even within the Charismatic church, each new movement is persecuted by the previous movement.

For example, when the charismatic movement was just emerging, many charismatic denominations were persecuted by their previous evangelic denominations. One of the big charismatic sects, Denomination A, was persecuted by traditional evangelical churches. Neville Johnson, an Australian prophet, says that Denomination A also participated in making up lies about future prophets. Regarding the prophet who has been accused of claiming to be Elijah, Johnson says, “The prophet William M. Branham did not claim to be Elijah and there were tapes to prove that he had said that he was not Elijah. This [accusation] was made up by the people of Denomination A.” If Neville’s statement was correct, then the once-persecuted Denomination A also participated in persecuting others.

In addition, the church in Canada that initiated the Toronto Revival was originally a church of the Vineyard Movement. But when the revival began, John Wimber, the leader of the Vineyard Movement, excommunicated the church. This type of persecution has been seen not only in the Charismatic movement, but in many religious groups throughout the history of Christianity.

In Acts 7, the persecutors were the Pharisees, scribes, elders and priests. They were the elite of the elite, and they believed they knew all they needed to know about God and the Bible. They believed they had mastered the truth, and that their persecution was an outflow of their dedication to God. Why did Israel’s elite make this mistake? Why were they unable to see heaven opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God? Why did they cover their ears and beat Stephen to death? 

Rather than condemning the Pharisees, scribes, elders and priests, we should consider our own lives. We must be careful not to degenerate to the same degree. We must make sure that when others see new revelations of God, we do not cover our ears, condemn them as heretics, and try to kill them out of service to God.

 

Entrenched Preconceptions and Traditions

What is the root cause of this hard-heartedness that rejects others’ experiences of God? Often, entrenched beliefs and traditions can cause us to fall into rigidity. After a person reaches 40 years old, they often solidify their existing knowledge and slowly become stubborn and narrow-minded. Instead of being open to new beliefs, we often believe whatever we like—what we have always believed. As we grow older, we need to continue to learn from each other’s strengths. We need to work to understand different perspectives held by different churches and denominations, so that information and truth can flow freely and we can obtain different perspectives and fresh information.

While I lived in London, I had a discussion with a roommate who was also Chinese. She found out that when cooking Chinese food, I heated the oil first, then put in ginger and garlic to sauté, and finally added vegetables. She told me I was wrong: I should put vegetables in first, and then add ginger and garlic. I explained that I’d watched my mother cook since I was a kid, and she always did it this way. She replied with the same response. Both of us were imitating our parents, and both of us thought the other was wrong.

This small example shows the powerful influence of traditions. We all grow up in a specific environment. When others teach us specific things, we naturally form specific ideas and preconceptions. We must be careful not to let these traditions keep us from learning and growing.

 

In Stephen’s sermon, he shared a familiar story from Israel’s history. Why did he tell a story that would have been so familiar to his Israelite listeners? Why is his information recorded in such detail? Why did the story cause the Israelites to hate Stephen to the point of killing him?

At the end of chapter 6, the Israelites accused Stephen of “speaking against this holy place and the law” (Acts 6:13). At the beginning of chapter 7, the high priest asked Stephen to give his defense against these accusations: “Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1). In response, Stephen began to tell the story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. He explained how the Israelites worshiped the golden calf under Aaron’s leadership and later worshipped other idols. After that, he mentioned Joshua, David, and Solomon, and criticized the Israelites for killing prophets throughout the ages and for not observing God’s law (7:2-53). By this time, the Israelites were very angry, and they stoned Stephen to death.

While at first glance it seems that Stephen was just repeating Israel’s history; he was telling the stories from a new angle. He drove home a point that the religious leaders did not appreciate. He illustrated how the Israelites killed the prophets and refused to abide by the law. Stephen’s narrative retold the same events, but with a different emphasis. His narrative differed powerfully from the narrative of those who killed him. This is the power of different narratives. Stephen’s interpretation challenged the long-held narrative and traditions that the religious leaders held.

Throughout the ages, many kings and dictators have attached great importance to the power of controlling narratives. How you tell a story will eventually affect people’s thinking and make them form a strong perception and prejudice. One way to break this perception and prejudice is to retell the story from a different angle, with different conclusions. This narrative will challenge the mindset of the people who hear it and force them to rethink. Although the stubborn people refused to change, and even killed Stephen, his efforts to change the narrative were definitely not meaningless. His efforts eventually changed Saul’s (later to become Paul’s) view of the world.

We learn in Acts that God appeared to Saul (Paul) after Stephen was put to death. Why did God wait so long to appear to Saul? If Saul, who was renamed Paul was chosen by God when he was in his mother’s womb, as we learn in Galatians, why did God wait to appear to him until after Stephen’s martyrdom? If God had appeared to Paul earlier, the needless persecution of Paul towards believers could have come to an end earlier.

However, God chose to allow Saul to witness Stephen’s martyrdom before calling him to apostleship. Listening to Stephen’s new narrative and witnessing Stephen’s martyrdom must have had a powerful impact on Saul’s life. God wanted Paul to hear Stephen’s interpretation of Israelite history. This event would prepare him for encountering God.

In Acts 8, Jesus appeared to Saul on his way to Damascus. This appearance was not only a result of God’s sovereignty, but also a natural consequence of Stephen’s narrative and testimony. We can have the same spiritual experience today. As we remove the veil of our preconceptions and traditional mindsets, we will encounter God. Many times, our preconceptions and traditions prevent us from grasping certain spiritual truths. They prevent us from entering into deeper spiritual experiences.

When our hearts are turned to the Lord, the veil will be removed

In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul said that Moses covered his face with a veil so that the Israelites would not gaze at his shining face as it slowly lost its glow (2 Corinthians 3:13). Then Paul changed the narrative and said that the Israelites’ minds were hardened when they read the old covenant. Only through Christ is the veil lifted (2 Corinthians 3:14). Paul goes on, “Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:15-18)

Paul was telling us here that the Israelis’ prejudice while reading the Old Testament was a veil which prevented them from knowing Jesus Christ. When their hearts were turned to the Lord, the veil was removed. Once the veil is removed, we can use the mirrors of our hearts to reflect the glory of the Lord and slowly change into his image.

If the glory of the Lord is like the sun, then the Israelites’ preconceptions were like a dark cloud. On a cloudy day, the sun is still shining, but the dark clouds obscure the sun. Similarly, the dark clouds of Paul’s preconceptions needed to be removed so he could see the bright light of Jesus’ truth. If he had not heard Stephen’s sermon and adjusted his narrative, he might not have been able to respond to this encounter with God.

This truth is demonstrated by the fact that his traveling companions did not see the light. The light of Jesus’ presence was there, but only Paul saw it. Why are unbelievers unable to see God’s light? Because the veil in their minds prevents them from seeing the light. A small insulator can block the power of electricity, and a small prejudice can keep us from understanding God’s truth.

Stephen’s narrative enlightened Saul, who was standing nearby. Paul was a prominent Pharisee whose thinking was shaped by the Israeli narrative. Paul had been circumcised on the eighth day and belonged to the tribe of Benjamin (Galatians 3:2). He was educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of their fathers (Acts 22). Paul was zealous for God, believing that his persecution of Christians was a service to God. At that time, the veil in his heart had not been removed. However, Stephen’s sermon helped open Paul’s mind.

Stephen’s sermon included historical stories familiar to the Israelites such as Paul, but his conclusions were completely different from traditional teachings. Stephen said in Acts 7:51, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit. Under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, this sentence must have administered a strong psychological shock to Paul.

This experience is not unique to Paul. I am a Chinese immigrant who encountered Christ here in America. At our church, we preach to both Americans and Chinese immigrants, but we often find that immigrants are more open to the gospel. We’ve often wondered why this is the case. We’ve concluded that since many Chinese students have never heard of the gospel, they respond in amazement and acceptance when they hear about Christ. However, many Americans have heard about Jesus since childhood. They are very familiar with the Bible, and this familiarity has become a veil in their hearts which prevents them from knowing God. Familiarity with God does not equal intimacy with God.

This is not only true in evangelism but also applies to helping Christians to know the Bible. Many Christians already have fixed preconceptions about the meaning of certain Bible verses. Their knowledge of these verses has become a veil in their hearts. When they read the Bible, they are unable to get fresh revelation because they feel they already know what that verse is saying.

 However, when we remove the veil of our existing knowledge of God’s word and pray humbly before God, He will give us new revelation of his truth. These revelations can illuminate and change our lives.

 

God opposes the proud

 

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). Pride blinds us to realities that are obvious to others. Pride exaggerates our blind spots.

A story from Chinese history illustrates this point. After China established the Republic of China in 1912, a warlord named Yuan Shikai seized power as a president. Deep down, he still hoped to be a feudal emperor of China. However, all the people in the country were against it. So his son and others made a fake newspaper which reported that the people all over the country wanted him to become emperor. They gave this newspaper to Yuan Shikai. Yuan Shikai was a very smart person, but he failed to realize this was fake news. His blind spot and pride led him to make a big mistake. After he became emperor, he received fierce opposition from the whole country and soon died.

This story demonstrates that we should avoid pride. If our church is not open to learning from other denominations and the light that God has given us, we will not have access to the whole story of God’s revelation. We will make wrong judgments because of incomplete information.

The root cause of pride is overconfidence in our own understanding of God. Some Christian groups believe that their understanding of the Bible is absolutely correct. They often fall into the trap of pride. It’s impossible for any Christian or denomination to completely, fully grasp the truth in an absolute way. When we think we have mastered the truth, we are in a dangerous place spiritually.

 

Stephen passed the baton to Paul

Like a relay runner, Stephen had finished his journey and handed the baton to Paul, another fast runner. When Stephen finished his race, he was lifted into the presence of God. When Stephen gave his testimony, a seed was planted in Paul which would later grow into maturity. Paul would imitate the legacy Stephen left behind.  

The blood of martyrs is a seed which later produces great fruit for God. Stephen testified for the Lord and was not afraid to die. As he was being martyred, he forgave his persecutors, just like Jesus did before his death. Stephen imitated the Lord, like a mirror reflecting the glory of the Lord. Stephen mirrored Jesus so well that when Paul looked at Stephen, he could see the glory of Jesus Christ reflected on Stephen’s face. 

Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Paul probably had his own experience in mind when he said this. Stephen was like a mirror. When Paul looked at Stephen’s face, full of glory, he could see the glory of Jesus reflected, as in a mirror. Jesus Christ is the radiance of the glory of God (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus Christ reflects the glory of God, and Stephen reflected the glory of Jesus to Paul. At the same time, Stephen was able to look into heaven and see the glory of God reflected in the mirror of Jesus’ face. 

Many Israelites did not see the vision that Stephen saw. Instead, they stoned him to death. However, Paul was deeply moved. He not only saw the glory of God reflected in Stephen, but he later glimpsed the glory of Jesus himself: “the heavens are open, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God ” (Acts 7:55)!

God’s work among his chosen people on earth is like a relay race. Stephen ran faithfully and finished the race. He left a left a good testimony and example for Paul to follow. He then handed the baton to Paul, who became one of the best runners the kingdom of God had seen.

Paul compares the work of God to an athlete. He said, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. But I discipline my body and keep it under control.” (1 Corinthians 9:25, 27). Paul was a very good and disciplined athlete. He also finished his race, won his crown, and received his reward (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

We can imitate Stephen and Paul today

When we know Christ like Stephen did, we can reflect Christ and have a strong testimony to others. Our testimony can help remove the veil of misconceptions in others’ minds, helping them become great servants of God, like Paul. Conversely, if we don’t know God deeply and personally, we lose our effectiveness for Christ.

In addition to imitating Stephen, we can also imitate Paul. We can take up the mantle of those who have gone before us, living up to the standard set by our predecessors. We can follow their example of faithfulness to the mission of God.

When others give a strong testimony of love for the Lord, we must let go of our preconceptions and fixed mindsets. We must not cover our ears. Instead, we must open our hearts to see the vision of the Lord that they see.

Are we following the example of Stephen and Paul, who saw the heaven opens? Or do we cover our ears? These questions are worth pondering.