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Julie Andrews, in the film ‘The Sound of Music’, endeavours to teach children the musical alphabet (do-re-mi), likening this to homophones with their meanings (‘doe, a deer, a female deer; ray, a drop of golden sun.’) She starts this famous song with the words ‘let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start’. If you have ever started watching a TV series half-way through instead of at the beginning or read a book series not realising there is a certain order to the novels, you will appreciate the wisdom of those words! Starting at the very beginning really is a very good place to start!
Stephen has been accused of speaking against the Temple and the Law in Acts 6, and we might be forgiven for finding it surprising that rather than replying directly to those accusations in his defence, he goes back to Abraham and Moses and gives a long speech which could be said to be a potted history of Israel (rather as Nehemiah and Daniel did in Nehemiah 9 and Daniel 9 respectively.) On reflection, however, we realise that this is a very important principle. Stephen went back to the very beginning. He was not side-tracked by the accusations against him, but took the time to take people back to the beginning of God’s dealing with the people of Israel, how He called Abraham and established him as the father of faith, how the people of God arose from God’s miraculous intervention in Abraham’s life and how God preserved this nation through oppression and persecution. Stephen looks at the big picture and shows how opposition to God’s ways has always been endemic to those in authority… so there is no surprise at the opposition he is now encountering. (Acts 7:1-53)
More specifically, we see here that we cannot possibly hope to understand the story of God and the good news of Jesus Christ without reference to the Old Testament. In this one chapter, Stephen refers to several Old Testament passages (Gen 12:1, Gen 15:13-14, Ex 1:8, Ex 2:10, Ex 3:5, 6, 7, 8, 10 & Ex 32:1); we can’t even begin to follow his reasoning if we’re not steeped in Old Testament history. We need to understand how ‘the problem of human sin, social catastrophe and cosmic disaster’ (Tom Wright) described in Genesis 3-11 is dealt with by God and we can only do this if we start at the very beginning and understand the bigger picture. Salvation makes little sense if we don’t really know what we need saving from or why there’s a problem in the first place.