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We've been looking at this faithfulness of God to his promise: "I will be your God and you will be my people." And we said previously that the faithfulness of God can be described as love. We used John Calvin's definition of faith here: "A firm and certain conviction of God's benevolence toward us based on the freely given promise of Christ, revealed to our minds and sealed to our hearts by the Holy Spirit."  

The "firm and certain knowledge of God's love for us." That's God the Father. "Based on the freely given promise of Christ." That's God the Son. "Revealed to our minds in the scripture and sealed to our hearts by the Holy Spirit." That's God the Spirit. 

We as heirs of the Scottish Presbyterian heritage can sometimes have a faulty view of faith. I once heard a Lutheran colleague in St. Louis say that we sometimes miss the mark on faith. And he made a point that has stuck with me. He said, "let's say this pen represents Christ and your grip on the pen represents faith. You sometimes focus almost exclusively on the grip: how tight is it? How good is it? Are all five fingers gripping the pen? etc." 

I say Scottish Presbyterians because this bug made its way into Scottish Presbyterianism that caused them to doubt their salvation. So for instance, some of them wouldn't take communion for the whole of their lives because perhaps they had kicked the dog on the way out the door, etc. and they had found any number of reasons to think that their faith wasn't good enough. 

However, what we've been looking at in this text is not the focus on the quality of our faith but on the steadfastness of the faithfulness of God. When you think about the armor of God, which is reflected in various ways throughout the Bible, especially in the Psalms. There is this covenantal language that describes what enshrouds the person of God. But when we read the armor of God in the New Testament, we tend to stress the importance of remembering to put the armor on each day: Did I put on the helmet of salvation? Did I shod my feet with the gospel of peace? Did I put on the belt of truth? etc. But that's not the focus. The focus is on the character of God that faithfully secures our salvation. We are to put on the breastplate not of our righteousness but of Christ's righteousness. The belt of his truth. The shield of his faithfulness. 

So in Stephen's long sermon where he's recounting the promise of God, he's focused not on the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and how we should imitate it, he's focused on the faithfulness of God despite their inconsistency and despite their circumstances. Previously, we looked at God's faithfulness to us despite others' sin against us. Now we look at God's faithfulness to us despite our own sin. 

Your confidence is not in your faith; it is in what Jesus did. And he did everything God promised in the seven “I will’s” God says in Exodus 6, the same history that Stephen is recounting in his sermon. Seven times in John, Jesus said “I am.” Each one lines up with one of God’s “I will’s.”

 

"I will" (Exodus 6)

"I am" (John)

I will bring you out (6)

I am the door (10:9)

I will free you (6)

I am the light of the world (8:12; 9:5)

I will redeem you (6)

I am the resurrection and the life (11:25)

I will take you as my own people (7)

I am the good shepherd (10:11)

I will be your God (7)

I am the way, the truth, and the life (14:6)

I will bring you to the land (8)

I am the true vine (15:1)

I will give it to you as a possession (8)

I am the bread of life (6:35, 48)

 

God remains faithful in spite of our own sin. There are two sin conditions outlined in this passage. One is the persistent idolatry of Israel, eventuating in their exile. Will God remain faithful to us despite our persistent idolatry? And will God lead us beyond the exile that idolatry often leads us into.  

Idolatry

Look how it folds out in this passage, starting in verse 37 and following. Stephen describes what happened to the children of Israel as they went into the wilderness. Moses goes up on the Mountain (Exodus 32-34) to get the law of God and God reveals to him the commandments on the tablets, and he tells Moses that he needs to go down to the people and see what they're doing. In fact, God tells Moses he ought to just step out of the way and let me wipe out these wicked people. God had multiplied his people from one old man and woman and he could very well do it again. 

Moses pleads with God not to do it, recalling God's promises and the fact that the world has observed God bring the people out of Egypt. God asks God to remain faithful to his promise. The he makes a bold demand. He says, in effect, "I'm not sure I can trust you. You've called me to lead this stiff-necked people across the wilderness and you may be a little bit too temperamental." "Show me your glory," says Moses. God puts Moses in the cleft of the rock and reveals his glory to Moses. Moses again pleads to God asking him to not wipe out of the people of Israel. "Blot me out of your book before you blot them out," he says. 

What is God doing through Moses? He's preparing his people for the great intercessor, Jesus Christ who would stand between the wrath of God and our sin and plead on our behalf and ultimately be blotted out. Here are the children of Israel in the desert, having been led out of Egypt by a strong hand and a mighty arm and God has provided everything that they've needed. And yet, Moses disappears for a short time, they think that he's dead, so they create a new god for themselves in the image of a calf. And then they begin to act like the very God they've created, acting like animals. 

Moses says, "show me your glory. Show me if you are able to lead a people like this." What kind of god might we reveal ourselves to be if we were in God's place and had gone to all of that work to get the people out of Israel and lead them into the Promised Land and they had turned on us like that? Wouldn't we be inclined to just wipe them out? But God allows Moses to see his glory in Exodus 34: "The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation” (6-7).

There's an interesting seed of the gospel even in that revelation. We see it externally displayed in that although the Israelites continue to return to their sin, he sends them a mediator, someone who will plead for them. We see it here in the person of Moses and we know it is now in the person of Jesus Christ. He is constantly at the right hand of God pleading for us on our behalf. But on what basis is pleading for us? How will a just God forgive sin? He "forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin." The Hebrew word here is nasah, or "lift up. "I will [lift up] their iniquity, transgression, and sin." 

Israel would eventually understand the richness of that imagery on the Day of Atonement when the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies and take the blood of a goat that he had slain and pour it on the altar for the sins of the people. On another goat, he would put his hands on it and then shoo it into the wilderness. It was symbolically "lifting up" and taking away the sins of Israel. 

We hear it in this story that Stephen is alluding to. How does God deal with idolaters? How does God deal with us who consistently fall and turn our backs on his grace and spit in his face and return to the vomit of our sin. He pleads for us and lifts up and carries away our sin. 

Exile

So how will God persist with us? Is it possible that those of us who have been united to Christ and received him as Lord and Savior, to finally run to the end of God's patience where he will finally wash his hands of us. 

In verses 42-43, the Holy Spirit makes a very clever point through Stephen. It's a quotation from Amos 5.  

 ‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices,

during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?

You took up the tent of Moloch

and the star of your god Rephan,

the images that you made to worship;

and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’

Now, if you look up Amos 5, you will notice that Stephen (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) changes one word, the very last word. In Amos, the last word is Damascus, the capital of Assyria. Here, he replaces that word with a nation, Babylon.

Here's where we need to understand a little bit of Old Testament history:

931 B.C. - God split the kingdom of Israel into 2 kingdoms. It had previously been one nation of Israel and in 931BC it was split into the Northern Kingdom (Israelites) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). This is helpful when we're reading Old Testament prophets and they reference Israel and Judah. Now we know they're referring to the Northern and Southern Kingdoms respectively.

721 B.C.  - God kept warning the people that if they kept worshipping foreign gods, he would send the 10 northern tribes into exile. These are the 10 lost tribes of Israel that we never hear of again.

586 B.C.  -  God endured with Judah. We have the Southern Kingdom remaining with 2 tribes - Benjamin and Judah. These tribes still didn't repent and God warned them that if they kept sinning he would send them into exile into Babylon. This is where the story of Daniel occurs. 

After 70 years, God brought them back, and he eventually brought to us the Lion of the Tribe of Judah - Jesus Christ. God only needed 1 tribe out of 12 to fulfill his covenant promise that he would be our God and we would be his people. What does that have to do with this verse? 

In Amos 5, Amos is writing to the Northern Kingdom, the Israelites. He says, "I will send you into exile beyond Damascus." God warned that he would send them into exile into Assyria if they didn't repent. And he did. 

In Acts 7, Stephen is saying that there's a deeper, longer reaching promise. God will send the Israelites into Assyria where 10 tribes will be lost. But he will not quit. God will send them into exile and he will be with them "beyond Babylon." God will take his people into Babylon for 70 years and then he will restore them and give them singleness of heart and bring them back. And through one tribe, he will bring his Messiah. 

So what does this have to do with us? This is the stubborn God we worship. It is because of his faithfulness we are not consumed. It is because of his faithfulness that despite Israel and Judah's sins God remained faithful to his covenant and brought the Messiah through. And that seed of the woman ultimately crushed the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3). The Devil must have been so happy when those 10 northern tribes disappeared, thinking he had God backed into a corner with only 2 tribes. But that's all God needed to bring us the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.