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Stephen's response to their accusations is a brief but thorough history of the pilgrimage of Israel and how God kept calling them out of the tribes of fallen man unto Himself. To view Stephen's discourse as a mere synopsis of their history is to miss the point altogether. Did Stephen pretend to teach the elders of Israel something that they knew quite well already? We can almost hear the ho hums rising from the yawning mouths, as this elite cast of scholars and elders sat half-listening to this nobody who dared to instruct them. Stephen's final words concealed the mystery of the church, not as an institution but as a sojourning assembly of called-out pilgrims, a people progressing toward a predetermined destination, having no continuing city. Stephen rebuked the high council for their failure to assume this nomadic posture and follow their Messiah, Jesus Christ, in the new exodus. Stephen's final words give us fresh insight into what Jesus meant when He said, "I will build My Church."

We encourage you to read Stephen's appeal (Acts 7:2-52) in its entirety, paying close attention to words like go out, came out, sent out, brought them out, come into, and so forth. God is always calling His people out and on toward the full restoration of all things. (Acts 3:21)

The Exodus and Faithful Abraham

Stephen starts his exhortation as follows:

Brothers and fathers, listen. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, "Get out of your land, and from your relatives, and come into a land which I will show you." Then he came out of the land of the Chaldaeans [Babylon], and lived in Haran. From there, when his father was dead, God moved him into this land, where you are now living. (Acts 7:2-4 WEB)

This is the first time God called a people out instead of scattering them. God called a man named Abraham out of his idolatrous homeland to sojourn with Him in a strange land. God intended to make a covenant with Abraham that would bless the world, something He could not do while Abraham lived in the land of the Chaldaeans. The purposes of God could never be realized in Babylon. The song of the Lord cannot be sung in a strange land (Psalms 137:4).

He gave him no inheritance in it, (the land) no, not so much as to set his foot on. He promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when he still had no child. God spoke in this way: that his seed would live as aliens in a strange land, and that they would be enslaved and mistreated for four hundred years. "I will judge the nation to which they will be in bondage," said God, "and after that will they come out, and serve me in this place." (Acts 7:5-7 WEB)

Here is another exodus. God revealed to Abraham that his seed would also be sojourners in a strange land, kept in slavery for 400 years. In the crucible of Egypt Abraham's seed became a nation. In the fullness of time they heard another call to come out! By the mighty hand of God, the promised seed returned to serve God in the Promised Land.

Toward the close of that 400 years, a deliverer was born among them. His name was Moses. After being retrieved from the river Nile as an infant, Moses was raised by Pharaoh's daughter and educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. As a man, he found himself in an exodus of his own. Like his forefather Abraham, he sojourned in a strange land. Moses saw the abuses of the Egyptian taskmasters and tried to deliver his people form the lash of oppression, but his deliverance ministry went wide of the mark. Beating taskmasters to death one at a time to set the people free was both tiring and ineffective. Fearing the consequences of his actions, Moses fled Egypt and became a stranger in the land of Midian.

After forty years of tending sheep for his father-in-law, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush saying, "I have seen the affliction of My people in Egypt, and I have heard their groan; and I came down to pluck them out. And now come, I will send you into Egypt" (Acts 7:34 MKJV).

Through Moses, God did mighty miracles, defeating all the magicians and gods of Egypt, climaxing with that great event just preceding Israel's full deliverance, known to the generations that followed as the Passover.

The Passover--a call to Exodus

In Exodus 12: 1-51 we find the record of Israel's last night in bondage. Each house chose a lamb without blemish. As instructed by Yahweh, they killed the lamb and applied its blood to the lintels and doorposts of their individual dwellings. Then when the death angel came that night, only those houses that had the lamb's blood applied were passed over. Everyone else suffered the loss of the firstborn. After cooking their lamb, each family was instructed to eat it, leaving nothing over. They were also instructed to eat in haste, fully dressed, with their staves in hand and shoes on their feet.

This is how you shall eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste: it is Yahweh's Passover. (Exodus 12:11 WEB)

The Passover meal itself is a call to exodus--a call to go out and worship. When a person is born again and becomes a partaker of the Lamb of God, he must be ready to travel (John 3:8). We must eat with our loins girded, with our shoes on our feet and our staff in hand, mobile and ready to follow that holy Wind wherever and whenever He leads.

As unthinkable as it may seem, people find security in bondage. They find the whole concept of exodus frightening. For hundreds of years, Israel lived in bondage being beaten by the task masters of Egypt. They lived as slaves and had their children killed by their oppressors, but there is no record that any of them tried to escape until Moses. It requires faith like Abraham's to leave the tyranny of the familiar, however oppressing it may be, and journey into the unknown.

The sound of great mourning was heard in Egypt that night as the death angel passed over, but in those dwellings with blood stained door frames there was peace. God called a remnant out of all the people on the earth and now they would come forth as distinctively His--a royal priesthood, a holy nation.

He brought them out after he had worked wonders and miracles in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea and in the wilderness forty years. (Acts 7:36 MKJV)

At this point Stephen began to reveal the motive behind his history lesson. He now made an amazing comparison that not only revealed the scope of Christ's ministry but also defined the nature of the church.

This is that Moses who said to the sons of Israel, "The Lord your God shall raise up a Prophet to you from your brothers, One like me; you shall hear Him." (Acts 7:37 MKJV)
This is He, that was in the church [ekklesia] in the wilderness.
(Acts 7:38 KJV)

"I will build my church" (A Community in Exodus)

Here Stephen described the pilgrim nation of Israel, sojourning in the wilderness, as the ekklesia in the wilderness. Ekklesia is a compound Greek word, consisting of, ek, "out of," and klesis, "a calling," a called out assembly. Moses said, "The Lord your God shall raise up a Prophet. . .like me," referring to Jesus. Was Christ like Moses in appearance or in function? Christ was like Moses in that He also led an exodus. Christ led a people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, out of the bondage of the world and religion. If Christ is like Moses, leading a great exodus, then the church is like Israel, traveling to a promised country--seeking a city whose builder and Maker is God. In that sense the true Church is still the ekklesia in the wilderness.

Jesus led the great exodus out of religion (the old wineskin). He said to Peter, "I will build My church [ekklesia], and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." These words were carefully chosen to communicate this very thought of exodus--"I will build my called out ones." Ekklesia does imply a gathering together--a congregation--but in its classical usage it had no religious overtones (see Matthew 16:18). Once again God realized His greater purposes by calling a people out for His name's sake. He birthed a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people to show forth the praises of Him who called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. (See 1 Peter 2:9.)

The Synagogues of Men

In the time of the early church, the synagogue (Greek Sunagoge) was the closest representation of what is called the church. However, it is used in scripture only once of the ekklesia. This one use was by James, who wrote to Jewish believers, who were still gathering in synagogues or in synagogue-like meetings. (See James 2:2) Either way, they had not yet come out of the old order. The intended readers of this epistle were apparently exclusively Jewish, since it is addressed "to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad" (James 1:1). James broached the subject of swearing oaths (James: 5:12), which was part of the Jewish rabbinical tradition, indicating that these congregations were still attempting to keep the traditions of their fathers. The tradition of the synagogue came out of the Babylonian captivity, and when Jesus spoke to the Jews about these gathering places, He called them "your synagogues," implying that they were not of His Father. In fact, Jesus warned His disciples that they would be tried and beaten in these buildings (ee Matthew 23:34). As we can see from the history of the Jewish exodus, it was one thing to extract the people out of Egypt, but a whole other thing to get Egypt out of the people of God. Traditions die hard.

Jesus had no intention of incorporating the old order into this new calling forth. He had not come to put His new wine in an old wineskin, nor did He come saying the old wine is better (Luke 5:39). The ekklesia that Christ builds can never be contained in the old wineskin of Judaism.

Paul further defined the ekklesia as "the Church which is His Body" (Ephesians 1:22). The living, vibrant Body of Christ stands in stark antithesis to the sociopolitical synagogue-like institution called the church. The church today represents a radical departure from the quintessential makeup of the Body, the ekklesia of Christ.

Jacques Ellul wrote,

There is in the church no association, according to the usual formula, whereby a sociological institution may also be the body of Christ, or the body of Christ may be forcibly put in sociological forms. Once the church organizes and clericalizes itself, it is intrinsically a transgression of God's order.5

The translators of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, used the word ekklesia as the equivalent of the Hebrew qahal. Qahal was used in the Old Testament to refer to the congregation or community of Israel. Ekklesia or church should not be viewed as a static institutional entity, but as a growing, sojourning, community of pilgrims.

The Greek word Sunogoge denotes a bringing together, and in its first century context would have been perceived as a calling into a consecrated building. Nowhere in scripture can we find any evidence of God establishing the synagogue as such. Synagogues were first founded in Babylon during the exile. They were the creation of religious men, and synagogue leaders lorded over the people who met there. It is not surprising that the dominant characteristic of the synagogue is the very thing which Jesus forbids in the ekklesia, oppressive top-down hierarchy. (Matthew 20:25-28, Luke 22:25-26, Matthew 23:10-12)

Two times in the book of Revelations the Greek word for synagogue is used in connection with Satan, "the synagogue of Satan" (see Revelation 2:9, 3:9). Christ had not come to build a synagogue-like institution, with consecrated buildings, chief seats and Chief Rulers, but to lead a people out of that old religious mentality into a living, relational body with Himself as the only Head. Just as Moses was anointed to lead a people out of bondage, so the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jesus without measure. For God had anointed Him to "preach the gospel to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, preach deliverance to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind and to set at liberty them that are bruised" (Luke 4:18).

Did Jesus come to liberate Israel from the Roman occupation? He had many opportunities to confront them as He spoke to Roman centurions and figureheads. We cannot find one instance where Christ criticized the Roman Empire. Who were the captors of the people Jesus came to deliver? The only human agents who fit that description were the religious rulers of that time.

Jesus did criticize the religious rulers at every turn, calling them such names as snakes, brood of vipers, whited sepulchres, etc. The religious rulers were the true captors of the people of God. They were the taskmasters of their day, not Rome. They were the ones who bound "heavy burdens and grievous to be borne. . .on menís shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers" (Matthew 23:4). They had enslaved the people by their traditions and shut up the kingdom of heaven against men (Matthew 23:13). Jesus was anointed to deliver Israel from the tyranny of its religious leaders and He is still doing the same today.

Stephen continues,

. . .to whom (Moses) our fathers wouldn't be obedient, but rejected him, and turned back in their hearts to Egypt, saying to Aaron, "Make us gods that will go before us, for as for this Moses, who led us out of the land of Egypt, we don't know what has become of him." (Acts 7:39-40 WEB)

Without doubt, religion is the subtlest form of idolatry. Its temples and sanctuaries, rites and rituals, decorations and priestly robes--which are said to exist for God's glory alone--become the venerated objects that take His place in the hearts of men. These are today's idols, the works of man's own hands, which entice the sojourner to compromise the journey and look back. This should give you a better understanding of Jesus' warning, "Remember Lot's wife."

Stephen continues,

They made a calf in those days, and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their hands. But God turned, and gave them up to serve the host of the sky, as it is written in the book of the prophets, "Did you offer to me slain animals and sacrifices Forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You took up the tent of Moloch, The star of your god Rephan, The figures which you made to worship. I will carry you away beyond Babylon." (Acts 7: 41-43 WEB)

The worship of Moloch was the worship of the sun. In the ancient world the objects of worship were chosen by one simple criterion. They worshipped what they saw as the source of life and the sun was their chief object of worship.

For 430 years Israel lived in the midst of an idolatrous nation. They had never seen anything else. Now in a time of testing, they reverted back to the ways of Egypt. Nothing except their location had really changed. Up until that time Israel knew only the works of God. They saw His mighty deeds in Egypt, but knew little of His nature and purposes. Another Witness was needed to show them the difference between the profane and the holy and to teach them fidelity to the ONE true God.

The light they needed was on the other side of the thick cloud of darkness, where He declared His name to Moses. However veiled it may have been, the Tabernacle of Witness provided a place for God to dwell among His people, for He had originally called them ALL to be His priests.

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel. (Exodus 19:4-6, NKJV)

Because of the rebellion of the people, the ark of His presence was veiled inside the tabernacle or tent of meeting from the people. The pattern of that tent spoke of a day when, with unveiled faces, we would behold His glory--a day when God would dwell openly among His people as was always His desire. Every detail of the tabernacle spoke of Christ, who later came as Immanuel, God with us. His body was referred to as the temple of his body (John 2:21), and His flesh as the veil. "By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh" (Hebrews 10:20).

Stephen continues,

The tabernacle of witness was among our fathers in the wilderness, as commanded by God, speaking to Moses to make it according to the pattern that he had seen. Which also having received it by inheritance with Joshua, our fathers, with Joshua, in taking possession of the nations whom God drove out before the face of our fathers until the days of David, who found favor with God and desired to find a tabernacle for the God of Jacob; but Solomon built Him a house. But, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says, "Heaven is My throne and earth is My footstool. What house will you build Me, says the Lord, or what is the place of My rest? Has not My hand made all these things?" (Acts 7: 44-50 MKJV)

At this point you can almost see the hackles rising on the necks of the Jewish high council. God had abandoned what He once sanctified by His presence. His presence is no longer found among rebellious men in temples made with hands, but He is found in the living stones of a new and lasting tabernacle, the body of Christ. Although He once dwelt in an earthly tent and then in the temple, He no longer does so. The finished work of Christ changed everything. The perfect displaced the imperfect, as expressed in 1 Corinthians 13:10, "But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away."

Even Solomon himself knew that man could not build God a house when he said, "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built!" (1 Kings 8:27, NKJV). He knew his best attempts were imperfect.

The author of Hebrews wrote of the New Covenant,

In that he says, "A new covenant," he has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8:13 NKJV).

We see a common thread of exodus in these scriptures--a call to leave the old and imperfect that is vanishing away, and embrace the new. George Fox explains the transforming effect this revelation had upon him.

At another time it was opened in me that God, who made the world, did not dwell in temples made with hands. This, at first, seemed a strange word because both priests and people used to call their temples or churches, dreadful places, and holy ground, and the temples of God. But the Lord showed me, so that I did see clearly, that He did not dwell in these temples which men had commanded and set up, but in people's hearts; for both Stephen and the Apostle Paul bore testimony that he did not dwell in temples made with hands, not even in that which He once commanded to be built, since He had put an end to it; but that His people were His temple, and He dwelt in them.

If Christ's once for all sacrifice made the Old Testament system with its temple, priesthood, altars, furnishings, vestments and sacrifices obsolete, why is the residue of it still evident in Christendom today? Man has done all he can to preserve this bit of classical antiquity, guarding it as if it were a priceless heirloom. Some people are even ready to kill to preserve it.

Like Peter on the Mount of transfiguration, they want to enshrine the moment by starting a building program. "Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." Peter's words were mindless. He did not know what he was saying. The Father was not impressed with enshrining the moment. He has always had one desire and model for us, "This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!" (Luke 9:32-36)

Structures built to house the works of God are built on a foundation other than Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11). Building is the opposite of following God in obedience. Jesus tried to get Nicodemus to see this when He said, "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8, NKJV).

It was this antithesis or antichrist (instead of Christ) spirit which Stephen was now going to address:

O stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so you do.
Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you have now been the betrayers and murderers... (Acts 7:51-52 MKJV)

Here Stephen confronts the root cause behind religious man's refusal to move on with God. In Christ there was an exodus from the entire temple, sanctuary building, and hierarchy mentality. Those who truly follow the Lord should not concern themselves with these things. Like Abraham, they are sojourners, not kingdom builders or raisers of religious towers. The rending of the veil from top to bottom as Jesus hung on the cross marked the end of such holy places. It was the beginning of a new age where the believers themselves are the place of God's dwelling, the temple of the Holy Spirit. Consequently He no longer dwells in, nor is He worshipped in temples made with hands, nor has He been for the last 2000 years.

Isaiah prophesied of a time when God would not be confined to Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim, but a time in which His glorious presence would make all places sacred. A time when the earth "shall be full of the knowledge of Yahweh, as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).

Wherever Jesus reigns in the hearts of true believers, the kingdom of God exists, but we still look forward to the day of full restoration of all things.

Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, "The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!" (Revelation 11:15, NKJV).

Coming to the city of Samaria, the site of Jacob's well, Jesus sat down on the well to rest. A woman of Samaria came to draw water. During their conversation the woman perceived that Jesus was a prophet. This seemed an ideal time to settle an issue that had long been on her heart.

Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship. (John 4:20 WEB)

Jesus replied,

Woman, believe me, the hour comes, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, will you worship the Father. You worship that which you don't know. We worship that which we know; for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to be his worshippers. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4: 21-24 WEB)

God's plan from the beginning was for His knowledge and glory to fill the whole earth, NOT some sanctum sanctorum atop a mountain or in some holy city. His knowledge and glory are no longer confined to specific holy sites. Salvation came through the Jews and Jerusalem was the place of God's glory for a season, but Jesus saw a time when all that would change. He saw that God was leaving the Holy of Holies in the earthly sanctuary and He invited man to come into His presence in the heavenly sanctuary in spirit and in truth. The temple that had previously contained the glory of God was obsolete. The ark of His presence had never seen the inside of Herod's temple; it had been lost for hundreds of years. The Holy of Holies was empty. Jesus knew the Father would no longer be worshipped in man-made shrines, but would be worshipped in a manner consistent with His being. His temple is made of living stones by His Spirit.

Temple worship has been discarded by God. We must not be like the elders of Israel, who found their livelihood in the system that God had forsaken. Are we passionate for His glory or ambitious for our own--promoting my ministry, my gifting, my church? It is really a matter of the heart. Just as the people of ancient Babel tried to make a name for themselves in their ambitious building program, so men today name their ministries after themselves.

Where are our treasures stored? If we seek to maintain our vested interests when the Spirit beckons, we will stiffen our necks and resist Him just as the Scribes and Pharisees did. They were not about to let Jesus, Stephen, Paul or even an angel cut into their control. They had too much invested in the temple. It was their power base. If God's glory motivates us, when He says come out, we will follow on.

Stephen's objective was to reveal an ancestral failing. Israel resisted the Holy Spirit at every stage of their journey. The new idol they worshiped was not Moloch or a golden calf, but a temple constructed by a traitorous king. It was a proud family tradition; their fathers in the wilderness had also gloried in the works of their hands. Stephen placed the High Council's devotion to the temple on the same level as the worship of Moloch. They missed the day of their visitation. They stopped following the cloud. They were to live just as their forefathers had, as sojourners--looking for that perfect city whose Builder and Maker is God. Many believers today also fail to see that the ekklesia of Christ, just like the ekklesia in the wilderness, is always in exodus--always moving on toward full restoration.

Today the church is pilgrim in name only. I (George) ran across an article on the Internet entitled, "Pilgrim Church Gets Ready to Move Again." Out of curiosity I read further, only to discover that the move consisted of selling one building and moving to another 18 miles to the east. This is the extent of the pilgrimage of the average Christian today. Having never abandoned the old order, they simply move it around from one mountain to another. Where are the sojourners?

Let us now turn to the Epistle to the Hebrews and observe the example of the great cloud of witnesses. Along with Abel, these witnesses walked by faith as pilgrims and sojourners. Their example is used to define faith itself.

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