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God is often doing new things, as Isaiah reminds us (Is 42:9, Is 43:19), something which we generally find rather frightening. Many of us are creatures of habit and we like the familiarity and comfort of routines. It’s this tendency to find change uncomfortable and threatening which explains much of the opposition to the gospel we find in the Bible and in our society today.
Stephen faced opposition because he was accused of speaking blasphemous words against Moses (revered by Jews as the law-giver) and God (Acts 6:11), of speaking against the holy place (the temple) and the law (Acts 6:13). The charges brought against him were false, but it is clear that, through his preaching, he was forcing people to re-think their traditional views on these subjects, something they found infuriating and were unwilling to heed. Jesus Himself had been arrested and tried for these same things (see Mark 14:57-59, Matt 26:60-61) and He had certainly talked in radical terms about the temple (John 2:19-22) and about the law (Matt 5:17-48). Religious leaders had failed to understand what He meant by these things, and this same lack of understanding was present with Stephen.
Jesus taught that the temple and the law would be superseded, meaning not that they had never been divine gifts in the first place, but that they would find their God-intended fulfilment in him, the Messiah. Jesus was and is himself the replacement of the temple and the fulfilment of the law. Both the temple and the law pointed forward to Jesus and are now fulfilled in him, as the book of Hebrews make explicit. (Heb 10:1) It was this resistance to the ‘new thing’ God was doing in Jesus which led to both Jesus’s crucifixion and Stephen’s death by stoning.
We need to be careful not to be just as stiff-necked and resistant to the changes God’s Holy Spirit wants to bring into our lives and into our churches. God’s ‘new thing’ will always stretch our faith, our understanding and our willingness to change, but we must be open to what He is saying and willing to bend with the wind of the Spirit. As Garry’s children’s song puts it, ‘are you a wall or a windmill?’ We need to allow the Holy Spirit to work in us and through us and not be like those who opposed Stephen’s challenging ministry.