Jesus warned his generation about their failure to understand themselves (Jo 8:31-33). In our passage, Stephen does the same with a speech that draws down on Israel’s history. His hearers are mistaken about it, which means they are mistaken about God, which has led them to be mistaken in their attitudes and ways. This is a danger which continues in our day.
In his address to the Jerusalem council (Ac 6:15), Stephen subversively attacks their confident belief in who they are and what they know. They see themselves as the inheritors of Israel’s promises, prophecies and laws. But they should remember they are also the children of rebels who despised Moses’ living words (v38) in favour of their own perverted desires (v39). Moses was a failure in their eyes: taking them out of a country they wanted and giving them a God who let them down. They preferred a different form of God (v40), a golden calf of their own making (v41), around which they could indulge orgiastic worship (Ex 32:5-9). As the prophet Amos later pointed out: they were a generation condemned to die in the desert (v42; Am 5:25-27). But did that change the nation into a faithful people? No. In Amos’ time they still rebelled and ended up exiled in Damascus (Am 5:27). And did that change them? No. Later, more of them ended up enslaved in Babylon, as Stephen highlights in his twist on Amos (v42). So Stephen wants his hearers to see that Israel’s long history of sin has yet to be resolved. His listeners may be serious, religious people who love their Bibles, but they’ve been reading them wrongly.
Mistaken reading of the Bible still continues and we need to take care. Lots of people saying ‘the Bible says’ doesn’t make them right. Impressive speakers saying ‘the Bible says’ doesn’t make them right. As we read we must watch out for biases which lead us to hear support for our life-choices, exposing the sins of others but never our own. Jesus has provided many resources and teachers to help us with his book. We must use them to help us hear the Bible rightly.
But what danger does mistaken Bible reading bring? Mistaken theology: wrong ideas about God. Though God gave Israel clear ways to worship and know him (v44), they preferred their more accessible idols (v43). The people failed to know God and, says Stephen, nothing has changed (v51). His generation are hindered in their learning from, and of, God. This is why they rejected Jesus, even after all the miracles (Ac 2:22). We human beings have a deep tendency to want God on our terms, replacing or reinventing him to suit our purposes. That’s why the first two commandments address these issues (Ex 20:3-6). It’s also why we have so many religions. But, as Stephen shows, it’s not just those without the Bible who are prone to this. Christians are too & we have to fight this trait in ourselves. It’s not easy. We need: humility; ears which truly listen to the Bible; minds which question what we are taught; hearts which pray for our teachers and fellow listeners; a sensitivity to our sore points which lead us to skip some parts of the Bible. And we need a willingness to re-examine our decisions to see if we really are following the Bible’s lead.
The last point is vital. Mistaken judgements flow from mistaken reading and theology. Stephen shows this in regard to the temple. God gave a tabernacle (v44). It remained unchanged for a long time (v45). David felt bad about that and asked to build a temple (v46). But God had made no such request (2 Sa 7:5-7): David’s idea was good but not necessary. So though Solomon did build one (v47), its importance should not be overstated – as Isaiah showed (v48-50; Is 66:1,2). Yet those around Stephen have done so, which is why they will soon react violently (v54). Their example is a warning to us. If we get the Bible and God wrong, our judgement is harmed. We may think something good which is actually bad, and vice versa. We may extend something God has said into implications it doesn’t have. We may ignore our sin, like Israel’s rebellion, and we may exaggerate our good ideas, like Israel’s temple-building. Care is needed by us not to make such mistakes. We need to obey what God has actually said and seek wisdom for the rest of life.