by Al Maxey
Issue #728 -------
August 14, 2017
The settled lecturers are as tame as the settled
ministers. Audiences do not want to hear any
prophets. They ask for orators who will entertain
them and leave them where they found them.
Henry David Thoreau [1817-1862]
One of the most interesting, as well as spiritually enlightening and inspiring, accounts in the book of Acts is that of Stephen. He was the first named of the seven men chosen to address a complaint that had arisen over what was perceived as discrimination against the Hellenist widows in the daily serving of food (Acts 6:1-6). He was "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (vs. 5), as well as being recognized by the brethren as possessing wisdom and a good reputation (vs. 3). Further, being "full of grace and power," he was "performing great wonders and signs among the people" (vs. 8). Stephen was a bold proclaimer of Truth, and this did not please the legalistic Jews, who "rose up and argued" with him (vs. 9). However, "they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking, so they secretly induced men to say, 'We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.' And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and dragged him away, and brought him before the Sanhedrin" (vs. 10-12).
When Stephen stood before the Jewish Council, false witnesses were brought forward who accused him of all kinds of "high crimes," even declaring that he was a proclaimer of a man (Jesus) who was threatening to "destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us" (vs. 13-14). When they had finished their slanderous accusations, Stephen presented his case to these Jewish religious officials, which is recorded for us in Acts 7:1-53. As we all know, this impassioned discourse in no way convinced those who were listening to him. Just the opposite. "When they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. ... and they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears, and they rushed upon him with one impulse. And when they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him, and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul" (Acts 7:54, 57-58). For a more detailed study of the death of this Spirit-filled man, and the several varied causes that led to his martyrdom, I would recommend a reading of Reflections #61 ("Why Was Stephen Stoned? A Study of Seven Factors Leading to a Good Man's Death"). As Stephen died, he cried out to the Lord Jesus (vs. 59-60, whom he had seen "standing at the right hand of God" - vs. 55), which I have also dealt with in some depth, as many find this controversial, in Reflections #22 ("Praying to the Son of God").
In his dramatic defense before the Sanhedrin, Stephen recounted some of the key aspects of the history of the people of Israel. He began by speaking of "our father Abraham" and God's covenant with him. He mentioned Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, and the centuries of enslavement in Egypt. The latter part of his speech focuses on God's dealings with His people as they develop as a nation, ending with mention of Kings David and Solomon. The bulk of his presentation, however, has to do with Moses, and how God used this devout man to change the course of history in that area of the world, and how Moses would set things in motion for a covenant that would ultimately lead to the new covenant of grace exemplified and established by the Messiah. I spend some time examining Stephen's thoughts on Moses in Reflections #692 ("Supposition and Opposition: Stephen's Assessment of Moses and Conflict Among Hebrew Brethren"). In his discussion of Moses, there is a passage that has been the source of some rather interesting debate over the centuries, and not a little theological confusion. It is found in Acts 7:38. Stephen says this about Moses: "This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us" (King James Version). The English Standard Version renders the passage this way: "This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us."
As you compare the reading of the KJV with more recent versions (such as the ESV), you will quickly see some major differences. The spelling of Sinai is one that jumps right out at the reader: the KJV has spelled it "Sina," which is a bit confusing to today's readers who rarely, if ever, see this mount spelled this way. This variety of spelling, however, is common in the KJV, and was intentional, as they felt it made the Bible "more interesting" for the reader. For example, you will also find: Sheth & Seth ... Agar & Hagar ... Jeremiah, Jeremias & Jeremie ... Jonah, Jona & Jonas ... Hosea & Osee ... Isaiah, Esaias & Esay ... Judas, Judah, Juda & Jude ... Areopagus & Mars' Hill ... and on and on we could go. You probably also noticed that the word "church" is used in the KJV, while more recent versions have opted for words such as "assembly" or "congregation," which is really a far more accurate translation of the Greek word (which was used in the Septuagint) "ekklesia." In modern translations one will rarely find this word rendered "church" in the OT writings, although it is fairly common in the NT passages where it appears. "The word here rendered 'church,' ekklesia, is the one usually so rendered in the NT, but never in the OT. As the body of the Israelites represented by it is always in the OT styled the 'congregation,' or the 'assembly,' so it should have been here in the text. This is required by uniformity, and it would have prevented some persons from confounding the assembly in the wilderness with the NT church" [J. W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts of Apostles, vol. 1, p. 125]. King James, however, insisted that certain English words (such as "church" and "baptism"), which were common in the religious institutions of that day, be used in the version he had commissioned. Thus, "the translators of 1611 were acting on the instructions which were drawn up for their direction" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 7, p. 42], directions from which they dared not deviate, even though previous versions by such notable scholars as Tyndale, Cranmer, and even the 1599 Geneva Bible had sought to correctly render this word "congregation." Virtually NONE of the more recent versions, however, opt for the word "church" in this passage (with the exception of the ASV of 1901), choosing rather to use words like "congregation, assembly, gathering," which are far more accurate and appropriate.
Throughout the Scriptures, whether they be the writings of the OT or the NT, we find the called out and called forth people of God gathering and assembling together for various purposes. To try and institutionalize such gatherings, with a growing list of organizational structures and regulatory restrictions, was to undermine the very nature and purpose of these "comings together of family." The entire monstrous church system we are cursed with today has evolved over time from out of this basic misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of these gatherings of God's people. Such words as "church" only serve to perpetuate that misconception (one which King James, quite frankly, perpetuated by design). This led to a number of attempts by various persons in various places at textual and translational reform. The name of one of these reformers many of you will find familiar: Alexander Campbell. On April 26, 1826, Campbell took the previous translations of James MacKnight, George Campbell and Philip Doddridge, edited these works (in light of Griesbach's Critical Greek NT) and added extensive notes, and published them as "The Living Oracles." Alexander Campbell was not a fan of the KJV, believing it was obsolete and a huge hindrance to a continuing reformation needed among the people of God. He took terms such as "church" and "baptize" and replaced them with correct translations. Indeed, his work "was a forerunner of modern language translations" [The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 88]. In Acts 7:38, for example, he rendered the phrase in question as follows: "the assembly in the wilderness." Some have characterized Campbell's "The Living Oracles" as the first true "modern version" of the Scriptures. For an interesting study of some of the reactions of Campbell's contemporaries to his work, I would highly recommend the article by my friend Bobby Valentine titled "The Living Oracles" [from his blog: "Stoned-Campbell Disciple," December 22, 2008]. Yes, Alexander Campbell, and almost every translator since, removed the word "church" from Acts 7:38. How ironic, and interesting, therefore, that he named his work after a phrase from that same passage, where Stephen said Moses "received living oracles to give to us" (although, oddly, Campbell rendered the phrase "lively oracles," as had the KJV).
Which brings us to the phrase itself, as it appears in the original text of Acts 7:38. The Greek is: "logia zonta." The first word means "an oracle; a divine communication or revelation" [The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the NT, p. 249]. "A little word; a brief utterance; a divine oracle: doubtless because oracles were generally brief" [Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, p. 379]. "A word, narrative, statement; denotes a divine response or utterance, an oracle" [The New Strong's Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words, p. 1213]. The second term, which serves as a descriptive of the first, means "to be alive, living; to be possessed of vitality and vigour and constancy" [The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the NT, p. 181]. Dr. Henry Thayer, in his lexicon, suggests it is "living, operative, energetic; having vital power in itself and exerting the same" upon something other than itself [p. 270]. One of our Movement's conservative leaders, H. Leo Boles (1874-1946; see: Reflections #247: "The Boles Manifesto: A Reflective Review of a Sectarian Speech Delivered by H. Leo Boles on May 3, 1939"), stated this phrase "means life-giving oracles, divine utterances ... literally, 'living words'" [A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p. 112]. "The term 'oracles' was used by the Greeks for communications supposed to have been received from their gods. In contrast with these, which came from no living being, and which were nothing but empty words, the communications received by Moses are called by Stephen living oracles, because they came from the living God, and because they had within themselves power to direct aright the lives of men" [J. W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts of Apostles, vol. 1, p. 125].
Although some debate whether "living" or "lively" better depicts the meaning of the Greek term, the truth is that both concepts are inherent within the term. The "oracles" from above, divinely given, are not only "living," but they are also very "alive and active;" they are filled with a spiritual vitality that is impactful. The "Word" of our Lord is indeed "lively," as Scripture declares time and again. "For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). "'Is not My word like fire?' declares the Lord, 'and like a hammer which shatters rock?'" (Jeremiah 23:29). I'd say that's pretty "lively." It not only lives within us, it acts upon us! The apostle Peter characterizes God's divine message as "living and abiding" (1 Peter 1:23), and that "this is the word which was preached to you" (vs. 25) and by which "you have been born again" (vs. 23). Again, that's pretty "lively." Therefore, this being true, "whoever speaks, let him speak as one who speaks oracles of God" (1 Peter 4:11). Our opinions are not "lively" unto redemption or reformation; His oracles are! The Jews were "entrusted with the oracles of God" (Romans 3:2); so also are we! Let us therefore prove trustworthy as proclaimers of His message, not ours!
As a pitiful side-note to this discussion, it is amazing that there is a small group of people who are so spiritually delusional that they genuinely believe, and proclaim to all who will listen, that the King James Version and the "living oracles of God" are one and the same. This is the "King James ONLY" faction, and they are extremely militant. I actually had a visitor to the Hawaiian islands call my office one day (I was the minister for the Honolulu Church of Christ from 1992-1998) and ask if we were "the King James Version Church of Christ." I actually laughed when he said this, but soon realized he was dead serious! In their view, the KJV IS, exclusively, the Word of God, and every other version or translation of the Bible is Satan-breathed, not God-breathed. If you don't believe me, do an Internet search of "King James Version Only." It will shock you! Specifically, to this discussion, read the following article: "The Living Oracles of God." Let me share just a few quotes from this article, which was written by Pastor Mike Storti in Tucson, Arizona:
NOTE: For a more studied and rational analysis of the King James Version, may I suggest my in-depth examination, which may be read in Reflections #88 ("The Bible Used by Paul: Analysis of the King James Version"). I have also done an analysis of many of the other major versions and translations as well, and they may be found on my Topical Index page under the heading "Translations." May I also suggest my fuller examination (a class that I taught on the topic): "A View of the Versions: Examining the Positive & Negative Qualities of Various Versions & Translations of God's Holy Scriptures."-- Al Maxey
In Acts 7:38, Stephen does not actually use the phrase "living oracles of God," but merely speaks of Moses "receiving living words/oracles." It is presumed this occurred on Mount Sinai, as seems to be implied by the passage. If so, the reference would most likely be to the divine message (part of which was on tablets of stone) that would form the foundation of the old covenant's "Law of Moses." The fact that the phrase "living oracles" is left rather general suggests it has reference to "any utterance of God whether precept or promise" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 2, p. 194]. Although Philo speaks of it as being the Decalogue, Josephus extends the concept even to the prophetic writings. Thus, any proclamation from God, regardless of its nature or how He may choose to convey it, is a powerful, abiding, living and active, impactful message to man of eternal Truth. The danger for men has always been, of course, that we in time fail to value the message and instead begin to place undue value on either the messenger or the methods of implementation of divine truths and expectations. This is conveyed convincingly by Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, who observed, "The irony of Stephen is intentional, since one of his charges is that the Jews of his day also placed their trust in externals and expected to be saved by an outward observance of customs and ceremonies, many of which they had invented themselves. There is always danger, especially in a church that has been established for some time, of a dead orthodoxy, of a clinging to external forms although life has departed" [Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 567]. Good advice for God's people today!
Although there is much more in this passage we could profitably ponder, let me conclude by noting that Stephen makes a comment that has troubled some for centuries. He stated in Acts 7:38 that when Moses was in the wilderness, it was "the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai." H. Leo Boles points out the problem: "Exodus does not speak of an angel; there Moses received the law from Jehovah" [A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p. 112]. This is cleared up rather quickly, however, when one becomes aware of what is known generally as a Theophany, and what is more specifically known as a Christophany. The former term is simply a combination of two Greek words (God + to appear; to show oneself) meaning: "A visible manifestation of deity to humanity." The second term simply narrows that visible manifestation of deity to the second person of the godhead. I have dealt extensively with this view, which was well known and accepted even in the early church, in Reflections #171 ("Questions from Readers" -- I deal with it in my response to the third question, which comes from a minister/elder in Texas). That this "angel" mentioned by Stephen was understood by him to be the Lord Himself is evident from what Stephen said just a few verses earlier in his defense before the Sanhedrin. "After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to look more closely, he heard the Lord's voice: 'I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.' Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look" (Acts 7:30-31). This is the "angel" of which Stephen speaks, although the language of Acts 7:38 is just non-specific enough that one could make a case either way as to whether "the living oracles" were given to Moses on Mount Sinai by God directly, as seems to be the case from the account in Exodus, or if God gave these oracles through the medium of His pre-incarnate Son (The Angel of the Lord). Stephen again seems to reference this event at the end of his speech, saying, "They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered Him -- you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels" (Acts 7:52-53).
Although biblical scholars are divided over this, a great many of them tend to favor the view that God indeed was the source of the message, but it was delivered through the Son ("the angel"). Clearly, God has employed this methodology a number of times. "The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending His angel to His servant John" (Revelation 1:1). With regard to Moses on the mount, Dr. B. W. Johnson wrote that Stephen had reference to "the Angel of the Covenant, who communicated the law to Moses in Sinai" [The People's NT with Explanatory Notes, p. 444]. Some see validation for this in Hebrews 2:2 - "For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?" This is a reference to the Law of Moses. In a footnote to this passage, The Ryrie Study Bible states, "In later Judaism it was held that angels had delivered the law." According to the pseudepigraphal work The Book of Jubilees (1:27 - 2:1) it was an angel who talked with Moses on Sinai and delivered the law to him. Paul wrote, "The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator" (Galatians 3:19). This "mediator," say scholars, was Moses (who was a type of the great Mediator to come, to which Stephen seems to allude in Acts 7:37 when Moses states that a prophet like unto himself would be raised up from among the people). Josephus speaks of much the same understanding, stating that Herod said, "And for ourselves, we have learned from God the most excellent of our doctrines, and the most holy part of our law, by angels or ambassadors" [Antiquities of the Jews, book 15, chapter 5, section 3].
As one can see, therefore, this brief portion of Stephen's well-known speech before the Sanhedrin that day years ago has raised some interesting questions over the centuries and challenged our thinking and theology significantly. May we always be willing to prayerfully ponder such passages for a deeper appreciation of our God's living and active oracles to mankind.
From a Reader in Arizona:
Your latest Reflections ("Honey, Curds and Choice: Reflective Analysis of Isaiah 7:14-16" - Issue #727) is another example of the fruit of detailed Bible study, and I have already shared it with about a dozen people! Perhaps toward the end of the year, or the first of the new year, I might be able to come see you for a day, if that would fit into your schedule. I would really love to meet you.
From an Elder in North Carolina:
Just read "Honey, Curds and Choice." Since God created all languages, He certainly has a working knowledge of the biblical languages! Thus, those who say that "alma" in Isaiah 7:14 must mean "virgin" insult the wisdom and intelligence of God. God certainly was aware of the word "bethulah," which is the specific word for "virgin," but He chose instead the word "alma," which may mean either "young woman" or "virgin" (or a number of other things). Thus, there is "young woman" for the more immediate fulfillment of the prophecy, and "virgin" for the more distant fulfillment: the birth of Jesus. If God wanted to portray only a virgin in both fulfillments, He certainly could have used "bethulah."
Excellent observations, brother. I dealt with the meaning and usage of those two words, and their significance to this prophecy in Isaiah, in Reflections #266 ("The Virgin Shall Conceive: Reflective Analysis of Isaiah 7:14"). -- Al Maxey
From an Elder in New Mexico:
The apostle Paul's "thorn" (2 Corinthians 12:7) has been variously identified, perhaps most often as a problem with his eyes. It's been a year or two since a different thought occurred to me. The so-called Judaizing teachers followed Paul around being critical of his departure from legalism. They were a real pain in his backside (aka: thorns in his side). I don't know of anyone who has suggested that, but to me it makes a lot of sense. Have you ever run across this idea? Just wondering.
As suggested by this dear friend of mine, there have been countless theories as to the identity of Paul's
"thorn" in his flesh, some of which are rather outrageous. I have dealt with a great many of them in
Reflections #254 ("A Thorn in the Flesh: Ascertaining Apostolic Affliction").
In the list of theories discussed, notice what I wrote under #8 in that list:
Another popular interpretation is that Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was a figurative reference to his
many caustic critics and devoted detractors. This view has the advantage of being consistent with OT imagery. The
enemies of God and Israel were frequently characterized by this figure of speech. "If you do not drive out the inhabitants
of the land before you, then it shall come about that those whom you let remain of them will become as pricks
in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land in
which you live" (Numbers 33:55; see also: Joshua 23:13; Ezekiel 28:24). Some scholars feel Paul's focus on his
many enemies in 2 Corinthians 11 is the basis for his "thorn in the flesh" remark in the very next chapter. This certainly
seems the most likely interpretation if one takes the view that Paul's statement should be regarded as figurative
rather than literal (in which case some chronic eye affliction seems more likely). Adam Clarke refers to such
godless opposition from one's enemies as being just as "painful and grievous to him as a thorn in the flesh" [Clarke's
Commentary, vol. 6, p. 368]. If you have ever been the victim of one who sought to destroy you and your ministry, as
I have on a number of occasions, you know very well the pain involved in such an affliction. As I note above, I believe this view has some distinct advantages, and should certainly not be discounted lightly. If indeed
Paul was speaking figuratively, as I believe he was, these legalistic critics most definitely would be a major "pain in the ___" of the apostle, as
such people are even to this day in the lives of those seeking to promote God's grace and our freedom in Christ Jesus.
Another popular interpretation is that Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was a figurative reference to his many caustic critics and devoted detractors. This view has the advantage of being consistent with OT imagery. The enemies of God and Israel were frequently characterized by this figure of speech. "If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land before you, then it shall come about that those whom you let remain of them will become as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land in which you live" (Numbers 33:55; see also: Joshua 23:13; Ezekiel 28:24). Some scholars feel Paul's focus on his many enemies in 2 Corinthians 11 is the basis for his "thorn in the flesh" remark in the very next chapter. This certainly seems the most likely interpretation if one takes the view that Paul's statement should be regarded as figurative rather than literal (in which case some chronic eye affliction seems more likely). Adam Clarke refers to such godless opposition from one's enemies as being just as "painful and grievous to him as a thorn in the flesh" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 368]. If you have ever been the victim of one who sought to destroy you and your ministry, as I have on a number of occasions, you know very well the pain involved in such an affliction.
As I note above, I believe this view has some distinct advantages, and should certainly not be discounted lightly. If indeed Paul was speaking figuratively, as I believe he was, these legalistic critics most definitely would be a major "pain in the ___" of the apostle, as such people are even to this day in the lives of those seeking to promote God's grace and our freedom in Christ Jesus.
From a Reader in Colorado:
Al, I saw the following quote by Andy Stanley on Facebook and you came immediately to mind. This is you, brother; fits you perfectly! Thank you for all you do!! -- "A leader is someone who has the courage to say publicly what others are whispering privately. It is not just his insight that sets the leader apart from the crowd, it is his courage to act on what he sees and to speak up when everyone else is silent. Leaders are those who would rather challenge what needs to change and pay the price, than remain silent and die on the inside."
From a Reader in Texas:
Brother Al, you are one in a million! You keep us informed about God's Word and challenge us to love each other, just as the inspired writers of Scripture do. Thank you so very much for your Reflections each week! What a blessing they are for so many people around the world. You have no idea how much I personally have been blessed by you. In my 92 years on this earth you are one of the very few who have truly changed my life, and the lives of so many others, through your teachings from God's Word. You have taken so many of us out of the web of legalism into God's loving freedom in Christ, and helped us journey toward eternity with Him. How can it get any better than that?! I love ya, Al.
From a Reader in California:
Dear Bro. Maxey, I hope all is well, brother! It has been quite some time since I wrote to you, but I haven't missed a single issue of your Reflections. I am writing because I have a question/recommendation for you. As you know, the Tulsa Workshop (where I had met you and heard you speak) has been permanently cancelled, so this year I went to the Pepperdine Lectures. I attended a couple of lectures by Peter Enns, who discussed his book, "The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our 'Correct' Beliefs." I also picked up his other book, "The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It." These books are life changers!! I wondered if you had heard of Enns, and, if so, if you had read his books. If not, you really MUST. I would never, however, recommend these books to someone I didn't think had a rock-solid, unshakeable faith. This is real meat, and it puts so many things in perspective (things about which I had previously had many questions). These books have made my faith stronger (which, by the way, your Reflections have been doing for years!). The Lord's richest blessings on you, brother, and congratulations on 15 Years of writing and publishing your Reflections!!
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