I have been teaching children again each week at church. I love doing it. Sometimes the simplicity of a lesson for children makes you reevaluate how you interpret a passage. I found myself struggling with how to teach Acts 7 on a level that 1-5 graders would be able to understand. Once God showed me the simplicity of Stephen’s sermon, it sort of revolutionized the way I look at that chapter. I thought I would share this simple outline and some thoughts that I have about the history of Israel and how Stephen was applying it.
First, the similarity to how the Israelite leaders accused Stephen with how they accused Jesus is hard to ignore. They falsely accused both. The accusations had to do speaking against the temple. Also, both possessed wisdom that could not be withstood. Now, on to the lesson. Let’s learn as children.
Lesson #1 ~ The Nation of Israel began with Abraham not Moses.
The accusations concerning how Stephen spoke of Moses and circumcision were addressed head on by Stephen in his opening statements. The nation of Israel did not begin with Moses. It began with “Our Father Abraham”, which Abraham means father of a multitude. The God of glory told Abraham, “Get out from your country.” There was no reward promised. There was no hint at what would happen if Abraham obeyed. Just leave your homeland and all your people. Abraham left everything for this God. When he finally arrived, he wasn’t proclaimed king over the land. He wandered around as a foreigner in the land. But God promised to give this land to Abraham’s children.
Now what does this sound like? A man is asked to leave everything behind and he does it. Remember the ministry of Jesus? Jesus would walk up to people and say, “Follow me.” They left everything to follow this man. Do you remember the question of the rich young ruler? “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer of Jesus was to take every possession that he had, sell it all, then give the money to the poor. After that, follow Jesus and he would have treasure in heaven. How is it that the call of Abraham looks so similar to the call of Jesus Christ?
Lesson #2 ~ Joseph saved Egypt and the children of Israel.
It’s such a familiar story we might tend to brush over this. Joseph saved the children of Israel. But wait, before he did this he was rejected by his own brothers and sold at a cost. Stephen makes a very interesting statement in verse 13. His brothers did not recognize him the first time. Here is the one who is to save Israel, yet the children of Israel do not recognize him until the second time. The parallel with Christ is hard to ignore.
Lesson #3 ~ The People of Israel rejected Moses.
Here we are finally to Moses. Yet Stephen does not begin with the ten commandments, or even with Moses asking for his people to go free. Stephen begins with the birth of Moses pointing out that he was schooled in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. Moses was in the richest household in all of Egypt. Yet Moses decided to identify with his slave brothers rather than enjoy the pleasures of Egypt. He left everything behind to become a slave to be a part of the people of God. Leaving everything behind again? It makes you wonder how to define a true follower of Moses.
Moses thought that his people would understand that he was going to deliver the Israelites. But instead the Israelites rejected him. They did not want his leadership. The great Moses revered by the modern day Pharisees was rejected first. The accusation of the Israelite against Moses was basically, “I’ll turn you in for murder. Leave me alone.” Moses left in a state of rejection.
Lesson #4 ~ What is Holy Ground?
This surprised me. The accusations against Stephen regarding the temple were because they viewed the temple as the holy place of God. But what constitutes a holy place? Here in this section, Stephen is including these statements of God for a very specific purpose. The ground that Moses was standing on was holy ground. But there were no buildings. There was no gold. There were rocks and bushes and one of them happened to be on fire. What made this ground holy? I asked this to the class and one 9 year old boy said, “Because God was standing there.” Exactly! It’s the presence of God that makes a place holy.
Lesson #5 ~ Moses Delivers Israel.
The very same Moses that was rejected by the children of Israel was the one that was their deliverer. Moses had a prophecy that a prophet like him would arise one day. What did it mean to be a prophet like Moses? It meant you would be rejected first, and at your second coming you would deliver the children of Israel. The Israelites had rejected Jesus, but this proved that He is the prophet like Moses. I hope you are not missing this truth that Stephen is proclaiming to them.
Lesson #6 ~ The Children of Israel were more true to idols than to God.
This is the one lesson that I think the kids struggled with just a bit. However, the first portion of it is quite easy. While Moses was on the mount receiving the ten commandments, the children of Israel were worshiping a golden calf and breaking the ten commandments that they had already agreed to follow. The children of Israel placed more value on gold than on God. Here I am going to cross reference the words of Jesus to show where the priority of the Israelites were in His day. They had a saying which Jesus quotes in Matthew 23:16. They would say, “Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor.” Do you see what they did? They placed more value on the gold than on God, see Jesus’ explanation in Matthew 23:17. In short, the Israelites in Jesus’ and Stephen’s day worshiped the temple and the gold of the temple like an idol.
The quotation from Amos 5:25-27 sometimes confuses people. Amos was pointing out in his day that there was a presence of idol worship which could be traced all the way back to the gods in Egypt. How did those Egyptian gods make it all the way out of Egypt, through the 40 years in the wilderness, into the promised land, through the days of the judges, through the reign of David, and all the way to the days of Amos? It was because the devotion that the children of Israel had to false gods was greater than their devotion to the one true God and Ezekiel preaches on this in Ezekiel 20:6-9. Stephen is highlighting the devotion that Israelites have for worshiping the creation more than the Creator. Something gold is more valuable to them than God Himself.
Lesson #7 ~ What is the Temple?
Stephen has been building his case and now he arrives at the true definition of the temple. When Solomon dedicated the temple he confessed that the highest heaven could not contain God, I Kings 8:27. Stephen’s quotation is from Isaiah who addressed the corruption of the temple in his day. Isaiah 66:1-2 asks how man could really build something for God since God’s hands had made all things. I sort of wish Stephen had quoted the end of Isaiah 66:2, but maybe it would have come across as haughty. The question remains, how could these Israelites in Stephen’s day claim to have a place for God? The greatness of God surpasses any temple and any gold they could come up with. Their devotion to the temple blinded them to the greatness of God.
Lesson #8 ~ The Children of Israel have always persecuted and killed the true prophets.
Stephen’s case has been building. Now he summarizes the whole thing by appealing the persecution of the true prophets of old. Again and again, the Israelites had resisted the messages from the true prophets. Elijah hid in the desert, fled for his life, and had to call down fire from heaven for protection. What was his crime? Standing against idolatry. Jeremiah was thrown into a miry pit. He cried out against the sins of Israel. Micaiah was slapped on the face in public. Hanani the seer was thrown in prison. Now here is Stephen pointing out how he is being persecuted. His statement cuts right to the point. “I’m a true prophet and you are looking to kill me because I am a true prophet.” He places himself in the same category as the prophets he has been quoting such as Moses, Isaiah, and Amos.
Stephen becomes the first martyr for Jesus Christ.
Who saw this one coming? Just as the accusations against him were a lot like the accusations against Jesus, his death is a lot like Jesus. Stephen is not resisting them. He commits his spirit into the hands of God. He asks for forgiveness for those who are killing him.
If you need long complicated explanations for things, you may be off track. Sometimes the simplest explanations are the best. Thanks kids.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman