Rescuing the Rescuer

And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household.

Acts 7:9-10

One of my early jobs was working as an emergency road service dispatcher for the American Automobile Association (AAA). Every day, people in need of rescue would call me and it was my responsibility to provide club members with the assistance they required. However, sometimes due to inclement weather, road conditions were so hazardous that authorities would not allow even the mighty AAA to travel the highways. On those occasions, it was my regrettable duty to inform stranded callers that we were not able to send assistance or else the rescuers would also need to be rescued.

Providence sometimes sends rescuers out onto dangerous highways requiring the rescue of God himself.

As a matter of his defense against the charge of blasphemy, Stephen gave the Sanhedrin a history lesson. Using Old Testament patriarchs as examples, Steven argued that God’s rescuing grace extends outside Israel, even “to the end of the earth”. When he was an idol-worshipping pagan in Mesopotamia, Abraham was rescued by God’s call. But what about Joseph, son of Jacob?

Joseph was resented. Stephen reported that the patriarchs were “jealous” of Joseph. However, some versions (New King James) use the word “envious” instead of “jealous”. What is the difference in jealousy and envy? Jealousy is when we covet what someone else has. Envy is when we desire that a person loses something they have which we covet. Envy says, “If I can’t have it, neither will she.” Envy can be violent and, at times, borders closely on hate and even murder. Jacob loved Joseph and treasured him as his first-born by Rachel, but his brothers so despised him for it, they considered killing him (Genesis 37:3-4, 18-20). They didn’t simply want what Joseph had, they didn’t want Joseph to have it either. Their envy gave way to betrayal and violence. But Providence overrules our resentments.

Joseph was resisted. Having barely ruled out murder, Israel’s patriarchs banished Joseph by selling him into Egyptian slavery (Acts 7:9). Once again, Stephen asked a historically-driven theological question, “Despite the envy of our nation’s fathers, did God’s blessings reach beyond our land to Joseph in Egypt?” His reading of their history exposes a shameful truth: Israel was founded on men who resisted God, and sometimes violently so. Stephen’s stinging implication is that the political leaders of Israel in his time are guilty of the same sin and unbelief as the patriarchs—hatefully resisting God. But Providence is stronger than our resistance.

Joseph was rescued. Reversals in scripture are often introduced with the simple expression “but God.” In Joseph’s case, the patriarchs were envious and sold him as a slave “but God rescued him…and gave him favor…before Pharaoh.” After more than twenty years in Egypt, Joseph explained to his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:7-8). Joseph was God’s rescued rescuer. Providence rescues and raises the one we reject.

Jesus was resented. He was envied by everyone from Satan to the Sanhedrin (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 14:53-65, John 18:28-40). Every political and religious leader of his day hated Christ for his divine authority. Throughout history, the power hungry have often attempted in vain to denude the Lord Jesus of his divinity. Lest we should think times have changed, Jesus is still resented.

Jesus was resisted. He was betrayed and sold by a friend into the hands of sinful men (Matthew 26:14-16). How many of Jesus’ “friends” have traded on his name for wealth and power by preaching false gospels which violently resist God’s kingdom? Lest we should think times are changing, Jesus is still resisted.

Jesus was rescued. “But God” reversals seem to define the Gospel. Jesus was betrayed into the hands of wicked men, crucified, died, and buried, “but God raised him from the dead” (Acts 2:22-24) and “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come (Ephesians 1:19-21).” Jesus Christ was God’s Rescued Rescuer, and He still is!

Stephen, the outsider, the Greek-speaking Jew, read the history of Joseph into the story of Jesus for the Sanhedrin. His application can be boiled down to a simple Gospel principle: God’s grace is more abundant and powerful in the world than man’s sin. The cross represents the greatest tragedy in man’s dealings with God but at the same time the greatest triumph of God’s dealings with men. Jesus was rejected by man but accepted by God. What man meant for evil, God meant for good (Genesis 50:20)! By grace, God rescues those on the outside, even when road conditions are hazardous.

Grace is found in strange places. The film Christmas Vacation has become a holiday classic and one of my favorite popular commentaries on grace. In the middle of the film, the entire extended family of Clark Griswold descends on his home to celebrate Christmas. As dinner is served, Clark asks his comically hard-of-hearing, eighty-year-old Aunt Bethany to “say grace”. When she fails to understand, another relative loudly shouts “Grace” to which the aged aunt replies, “Grace, she died thirty years ago.”

When Jesus commands—and when sinners ask—us to “say grace”, do we respond “Grace, she died thirty years ago?” The Sanhedrin did.

Grace rescues what sin destroys and it’s a good thing too because, with so much destruction in the world, we need a lot of rescuing. By the grace of the cross, He is rescuing His rescuers.

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Remembering the Rescuer

[Abraham] went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child.

Acts 7:4-5

Have you ever needed rescuing? A few years ago, Utah Search and Rescue was dispatched to aid the passengers of a capsized boat. The would-be rescuers arrived to find a husband and wife calmly floating with little more than their bright orange life vests showing above the water line. With night quickly approaching and the danger of hypothermia increasing, assistance was first offered to the woman, but her husband sharply objected, “Don’t touch her!” “Sir, it’s ok—we’re Utah Search and Rescue,” they replied. “Don’t touch her!” the man insisted indignantly. Thinking he was in shock, the rescuers asked, “Why not?” “I can’t afford to pay you,” he pitifully revealed. Soberly and directly, the search and rescue captain spoke up, “But sir, night is coming—you won’t survive the night.”

What is it in us that hates our need of rescue? Forget rescue, we don’t even like to be helped. Ask a struggling stranger, “May I help you with that?” and they’ll inevitably respond, “No, I’ve got it!” even when they don’t. We are empowered, do-it-yourself, self-servers. Truthfully, we really don’t want to believe we need anyone’s help and rebuff anyone offering. Perhaps you’ve heard the quote, “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” The history of God’s people is that we reject our rescuers.

Have you rejected God’s search and rescue?

Stephen was a reminder. He was falsely accused of blasphemy against Moses and the Temple. The Sanhedrin had forgotten how God had rescued them in the past, so Stephen gave them a history lesson, because forgetting is rejection.

God gave faith. Stephen began with the faith: “The glory of God appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia,” (Acts 7:2). God had revealed Himself gloriously to the pagan Abram living in Ur of the Chaldeans and He “removed him from there” and brought him to Canaan. How did God move Abram? By giving him a gift—the gift of faith. God gave Abraham faith to believe His word and follow Him where He was leading.

Why do you follow your leaders? Do you follow because of duty or faith? If you ever find yourself obeying only because you’re outranked, it isn’t faith.

Soldiers have faith. Before D-Day, all of the non-commissioned officers in Easy Company of the 101st Airborne (Band of Brothers), had a meeting with their colonel. At the meeting, they refused to follow their captain into battle. Because it was a time of war, they knew the penalty for mutiny could be a firing squad. However, believing their captain was so unfit for duty that he would get many of their soldiers killed, they preferred their own deaths at the hands of friends to the deaths of friends at the hands of enemies. Courageously, they acted in obedience to their faith and history has accounted them righteous.

God gave a future. Stephen used the story of the patriarch to remind the Sanhedrin—and us—that our faith is not based on sites, shrines, or statues, but is spiritually rooted. Abram was a sojourner and when he had no land, no children, and no house, God gave him a promise (Genesis 15) that the kingdom would come through him. To seal His promise, God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17). God’s kingdom promise was cut into Abraham’s flesh so he would never forget that when he had nothing, he had God’s promise. God’s promise was cut into Abraham’s children so that when they received everything promised, they would remember the God who “cut the promise” in the first place. Stephen was cutting into the hard hearts of God’s people because, having received the future promise of God’s Messiah, they rejected Him. They missed His future because they forgot their past.

Has God ever cut you so you would not forget?

God cuts His will into our flesh. My brother Troy was concerned he may miss God’s leading in his life. One morning before work, he prayed a simple prayer asking God to direct his paths and if he was going the wrong way, he asked Him to decisively and obviously close the door. A few hours later, Troy was badly injured in a construction accident. After he recovered, he recounted the day’s events to me. He said, “When I was on the table waiting for the surgeon, I remembered the prayer I prayed earlier that morning. And then God cut my leg.” Almost twenty years later, Troy still has the scar, but neither he nor his entire family has forgotten the “accident”.

When God rescues us, it leaves a mark. However, as New Covenant believers, ultimately, we do not look to ourselves, but to Christ Jesus whose scars tell our story. By faith, in communion, whenever we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we do it in remembrance of our Rescuer.

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Countenance for the Crucible

Fiery Furnace

And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

Acts 6:15

A crucible is a device used to melt and purify metals, but it is also a metaphor for an intense “trial by fire”. Noah, Joseph, David, Daniel, and Stephen had Divinely crafted intense, character-altering experiences of extreme stress which sanctified them for God’s purposes. As we have been looking at Stephen’s trial in Acts chapter 6, we have been contemplating the question, “What is produced when God puts the Church in the crucible?”

Stephen was treated as a hostile witness. As he stood before the supreme court of Israel—the Sanhedrin—Stephen’s testimony concerning Jesus was contrary to the opinion of the court members. He was a Greek-speaking Jew and was, therefore, considered an outsider and given lower regard than a Hebraic Jew. However, while viewed through the lens of cultural, spiritual, and even judicial prejudice, the council could not help but notice Stephen’s countenance, “his face was like the face of an angel.” Despite their opposition, God’s message shone through the face of His messenger.

Angels are not children. “She sang with the voice of an angel,” or “He is our little angel,” are common expressions which do not necessarily reflect biblical reality. God’s angels are created, spiritual beings which are His messengers but are also heaven’s warriors. There are one hundred ninety-six references to angels in the Bible, so one does not have to imagine how an angel might appear. Daniel describes an angel’s face “like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches” (Daniel 10:6). Only two other people in holy scripture are referred to in such ways, Moses (Exodus 34:27-35) and Jesus (Matthew 17:1-3). Most often, angels’ faces, as well as those who have stood in the immediate presence of God, appear as unbearably bright light. Standing before the Sanhedrin, Stephan’s face reflected and radiated the glory of God.

God’s loudest answers are given in silence. In response to the charge against Stephen of blaspheming God, the Almighty did not answer with a voice from heaven, but His glorious presence reflected on Stephen’s face! God’s glory is the  weight of His presence which is felt by all who are drawn to Him. We often refer to this “weight” in a human way when we speak of politicians who have gravitas, or a kind of gravity which turns heads or inescapably pulls others towards them. To an infinitely larger degree, God has gravitas! When He is present, everyone turns to look—He is inescapable! The Sanhedrin previously took note that Peter and John had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13), but when they looked at Stephen, they could tell that Jesus was with Stephen.

Christians don’t live on a dead-end street. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says “Man’s chief end is to glorify God (Romans 11:36) and enjoy Him forever (Psalm 16:5-11).” We do not increase God’s glory by adding to Him, but by increasing others’ perception of Him. In the same way that a telescope makes the splendid light of a distant star more perceivable to our senses, so also do believers make God’s heavenly glory more perceived. Neither do we glorify God first so that we may enjoy Him later. No, when we glorify God, we enjoy Him, or to put it another way, we glorify God by enjoying Him forever. Despite his crucible, Stephen glorified and enjoyed God, and it showed.

Chariots of Fire is a glorious film. It tells the story of Eric Liddell who was born in 1902 to his Christian missionary parents in China. As a young boy, he was sent to a boarding school in England where he excelled in academics and athletics. When he was eighteen years old, Eric enrolled as a student at the University of Edinburgh and became known as the “Flying Scot” as he was the fastest runner in Scotland. Within a few years, he became the Scottish national and British champion and qualified for the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Eric was a sprinter, but he was also called him to be a missionary. At a pivotal moment in the film, Eric’s sister, Jennie, confronted him out of concern that his running would take priority over God’s calling to missions. Eric responded by saying, “Jennie, I believe God made me for a purpose—for China—but He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Everyone who ever saw him run glimpsed a bit God’s glory on the face of Eric Liddell.

Try a Liddell homework. Do you experience the pleasure of God in what you do? Fill in the blanks from Eric Liddell’s statement in Chariots of Fire: “I believe God made me for a purpose—for ____________, and when I __________, I feel His pleasure.”

God’s Son was begotten (not made) for a purpose. How would Jesus fill in Liddell’s blanks? Perhaps He’d say, “I became flesh for a purpose—for payment of sin and when I redeem, I feel His pleasure.” 

The glory of redemption was produced when God put Jesus into the crucible of the cross. When you are put in the crucible, do you countenance the glory of the cross?

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