Summary: Wherever God meets His people is a holy place, not just in the Temple or in a Church building.
Standing before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council in the Temple of Jerusalem, false witnesses alleged that the Christian deacon Stephen had claimed that ‘Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and change the customs which Moses delivered us’ (Acts 6:14). Stephen's accusers argued that he had spoken against Moses and God (Acts 6:11), and against this holy place and the law (Acts 6:13).
Stephen's response was an historical exegesis of the Old Testament in which:
1. he would demonstrate the peripatetic nature of God's relationship with Israel;
2. he would show that far from changing the law of Moses, Jesus had fulfilled it;
3. and, in a masterly stroke, he would turn the tables on his accusers.
(a) God spoke to Abraham in Mesopotamia.
“The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia before he dwelt in Haran” (Acts 7:2).
This reflects the correct rendering of Genesis 12:1 - ‘Now the LORD had said unto Abram’ to get out of his country, and from his kindred, and from his father's house to a land which God would show him.
The journey began when his father Terah took his family out of Ur of the Chaldees, and they settled together in Haran (Genesis 11:31), but the past tense in Genesis 12:1 demonstrates that Abraham had heard God calling him forth before that. It was not until his father died in Haran that Abraham moved into the promised land (Acts 7:4).
Let us be careful, however, not to take this as a precedent. If we delay to obey the voice of God we may miss our opportunity to respond to the gospel ourselves, or to proclaim it to others.
(b) God was with Joseph in Egypt.
As Abraham ventured forth into the promised land, a land in which he had no possession, there was a shadowing forth of his people's oppression in Egypt (Acts 7:5-6). It was into Egypt that the patriarchs sold Joseph, “but God was with him and delivered him out of all his troubles” (Acts 7:9-10).
This echoes Psalm 105:19: ‘Until the time that his word came to pass, the word of the LORD tested him.’
God was with Joseph, even when he was a slave in Egypt, and would hear the cry of His people, even when they were later slaves in Egypt (Exodus 3:7). It is reassuring to know that, wherever God's people are, He hears their cry.
Stephen emphasises that Jacob went down into Egypt. There he died, “he and our fathers” (Acts 7:15). Their only possession in the holy land was the tombs in which they would be laid.
(c) God appeared to Moses in the wilderness of Midian.
Stephen spoke of a new Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph,” and of his oppression of the children of Israel (Acts 7:18-19). Then he introduced Moses with a complimentary euphemism (Acts 7:20), and spoke of his upbringing, learning, wisdom, and mighty words and deeds in the house of Pharaoh's daughter.
At the age of forty, Moses was already aware that he was called to deliver his people, but when he tried to force God's hand, the Israelites did not understand (Acts 7:25). How easy it is for us to go running ahead of God, but the result can be disastrous. For Moses, it led to forty years exile in the land of Midian.
In the wilderness of mount Sinai, God met Moses in the burning bush, proclaiming the place where he stood to be holy ground (Acts 7:33). Stephen's point is that wherever God meets his people is a sacred place, not just in the Temple. I repeat, wherever God meets with His people is the holy place, not just in the church, shrine or sanctuary of man's making. And he meets us in some most surprising places.
(d) Moses points to Christ.
Stephen spoke of the signs and wonders at the hand of Moses in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years (Acts 7:36). “This is that Moses,” he said, who spoke of a Prophet like himself, “Him shall ye hear!” (Acts 7:37). Moses pointed away from himself to another. Likewise Stephen showed the greatest respect towards Moses, but he wished to point towards one greater than Moses. All our discourses about the Bible should point away from ourselves, and away from even the best of saints, to Christ Himself.
The irony was, that Israel rejected Moses, and in their hearts returned to Egypt (Acts 7:39). And throughout their long history, they continued to reject God, and were eventually carried into exile in Babylon (Acts 7:42-43 quotes Amos 5:25-27).