Welcome back to the Sunday Mass notes. This week we will see in the first reading the murderous reaction of the Jews to Stephen’s message in the Book of Acts. Then we continue the study from previous weeks from the Book of Revelation and conclude with the Gospel reading where we see Jesus’ prayer on our behalf.
Introduction to the First Reading:
This reading is from the Book of Acts and it shows the immense opposition the early church was under. In Acts 7:1-53, Stephen gave a courageous speech that pointed out the inconsistency of the Jewish people’s ability to follow God. Stephen was one of the seven men chosen from among the larger group of disciples to serve in the food service ministry because the twelve apostles felt that they “should not give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2). After Stephen’s appointment, a group of Jews from the surrounding nations “rose up and disputed with [him]” (Acts 6:9) because “Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people” (v. 8). Evidently, Stephen had many other skills and spiritual gifts than just his food service ministry. Before we go to today’s reading, let’s read what happened after his convicting speech so that we better understand the context.
Acts 6:10-15 NAS95 10 But they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly induced men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God." 12 And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came up to him and dragged him away and brought him before the Council. 13 They put forward false witnesses who said, "This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us." 15 And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel.
In verse 12, the “Council” to which Doctor Luke (the writer of Acts) is referring is the Sanhedrin, which is the supreme Jewish court of justice, the same one that falsely condemned the Lord Jesus (Matthew 26:59-66). The Council acted the same way they did during the “trial” (using the term loosely) of Jesus in that they rounded up false witnesses to testify against Stephen (v. 13a). During the hearing, the Council provided Stephen with the ability to make a very long and reasoned defense (Acts 7:1-53). “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him” (v. 54) which is where we pick up with today’s reading. Note: The complete text of Stephen’s speech is included in the Going Deeper section at the end of today’s study.
Acts 7:55-60 NAS95 55 But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56 and he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." 57 But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. 58 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. 59 They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" 60 Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" Having said this, he fell asleep.
The main point of the reading was the great similarities between the way Stephen died and the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the same way that Jesus’ death was filled with miracles (earthquake, darkening of the sky) Stephen’s death was also miraculous in that he told how he saw a vision of the Lord Jesus exalted at the right hand of the Father in heaven and graciously prayed for the forgiveness of his murderers. In both of these cases, the Council heard false testimony and then rushed to execute the death sentence upon them. Just as Jesus did (Luke 23:34), Stephen prayed right before his death for God’s forgiveness of their great sin of killing him (v. 54). As the saying goes, the apples don’t fall far from the tree. As Jesus’ devout apostle, Stephen followed closely the way of his master including forgiving his tormenters before his death. Ultimately, instead of having the Jews’ desired effect of stopping the spread of the Christian message, the persecution of Stephen did quite the opposite. Stephen’s example of bold testimony in the midst of persecution emboldened those that went after him as the growing church spread out across the globe.
There are three other points that emerge from the reading. The first is the introduction of Saul, who we know later as the Apostle Paul (v. 58). Here we see Saul assisting in the persecution of Stephen in guarding the cloaks of the people who were stoning Stephen to death. This was just a foretaste because we know that in the next chapter Saul began raging a holy war against the Christians. There Luke records, “But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison” (Acts 8:3). A second point in the reading that can be drawn is regarding the posture of the Lord Jesus in Stephen’s vision. The author of Hebrews records about Jesus, “When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3c). However, as Stephen was being killed he saw a divine vision of Jesus “standing at the right hand of God” (v. 55c, emphasis added). Jesus’ position “at the right hand of God” means He is exalted with God the Father in heaven. Jesus’ standing position is as one commentator stated His “active interposition to help, as Mediator and King, or readiness to receive His persecuted servant” (Annotated Bible Notes). Hebrews says, “Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). In the same way that Stephen saw Jesus interceding for him before the Father, when we die we can expect to see Jesus standing and interceding for us with the Father God. It is only through the righteousness of Jesus that we will be able to enter into the presence of God the Father. Finally, note that as the Jewish mob rushed to murder Stephen they covered their ears (v. 57). This is indicative of their response to hearing the sin of blasphemy, which gives an indication of the crime of which they were accusing Stephen of committing since blasphemy carried with it the penalty of death (Leviticus 24:16). Jesus foretold of the coming of this day when He said, “They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God” (John 16:2).
An application of the reading is that as believers we can expect to face persecution. Saint Paul said, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). As we do, we should remember that the church often grows the most during these times, as well as we may experience the most personal growth in these circumstances. We should endeavor in advance to develop a philosophy of suffering under persecution to the extent that when it comes upon us we are prepared to respond in ways that lead us closer to God. The North African apologist Tertullian (c. 160 – 225) wrote much about suffering and persecution. He said, “But go zealously on, good presidents, you will stand higher with the people if you sacrifice the Christians at their wish, kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent” (Tertullian’s Apology, Chapter 50).
Later in the Gospel lesson, we will see some insights that Jesus provided to us through the Holy Spirit’s recording of Jesus’ prayer to the Father on behalf of all believers. Interestingly, just prior to this prayer Jesus warned His disciples about the coming persecution. But first we will hear from Jesus through His closing warning to the world in the Book of Revelation.
Introduction to the Second Reading:
The second reading is a continuation of the study in Revelation that we have looked at for the past several weeks. The context of today’s reading is Jesus’ closing words to the world as delivered by the angel to John. When John saw the angel, his immediate response was to bow down and worship him (Revelation 22:8). Instead, the angel told John, “Do not do that. I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brethren the prophets and of those who heed the words of this book. Worship God” (Revelation 22:9). Regardless of who brought the message, as you read the words that John recorded from the angel you will see that the message is directly from Jesus Christ Himself. Although the text doesn’t state this outright as happens in the Old Testament prophets when they say, “Thus says the Lord,” verse 16 says that the message is from Jesus.
Revelation 22:12-20 NAS95 12 Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. 14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. 15 Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying. 16 I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star. 17 The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let the one who hears say, "Come." And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost. 18 I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. 20 He who testifies to these things says, "Yes, I am coming quickly." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Jesus provides His seal of authority to the message by clearly identifying Himself as the sender of it in verse 16 (“I Jesus”). This crucial closing message of Jesus to the world opens with the phrase “I am” which also clearly identifies the speaker as God. This phrase is repeated no less than four times in this short section. This is indicative of the importance that readers should give to it because it reveals that the sender is explicitly identified as God, the “I am” of Exodus 3:14. The speaker uses many phrases in the reading to identify Himself as God including “the Alpha and Omega” (v. 13), “the root and descendant of David” (v. 16), and “the bright morning star” (v. 16), and most importantly the outright statement “I Jesus” (v. 16).
Jesus’ closing message is full of important scriptural truths:
- His return will be quickly (v. 12) in the sense that when it begins to happen the events will unfold quickly. Jesus bookmarked today’s reading by closing with this same admonition, “Yes, I am coming quickly” (v. 20). Jesus said about this in the Gospel of Matthew, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24:34). When the end-times events begin to unfold they will be concluded within a single generation.
- Jesus will reward those who served Him by bringing their rewards to them when He returns (v. 12). Justice will be provided by “render[ing] to every man according to what he has done.” This means at least in part that He will bring punishment to those who don’t serve Him when He returns. Verse 15 makes this clear, “Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.” In contrast, believers “take the water of life without cost” (v. 17) since they thirst for the ways of God and are the eternal recipients of His grace (unmerited favor).
- Believers are those who “who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city” (v. 14). They are those who “hears the words of the prophecy of this book” without adding to or taking away from them (v. 18) as the false teachers were doing (and are doing today). Countless theological cults engage in practices that either nullify the Word of God (take away from it) or add legalistic, religious practices that their followers must observe in order to be saved (add to it). Jesus provides a clear warning not to do either of these things because otherwise they shall be forced along with all the other nonbelievers to enter into the Great Tribulation. This is the Day of the Lord’s judgement spoken of in Revelation and previously by the Old Testament Prophets such as Jeremiah.
- Jesus, in His grace, sent this message specifically to the churches (v. 16) in order that they may receive and learn from Him the only way to the tree of life (v. 19). Those who resist His message of salvation through faith in Him alone (John 14:6) will find themselves eternally locked out of the holy city.
We can learn a lot from this closing section of Revelation. Jesus is faithful to us in that He continues to tell the world the truth about the only way to find peace with God in spite of the fact that the majority of the world has and will continue to reject His message. As we move onto the Gospel lesson we will see Jesus’ heart for His believers as we listen in on a prayer that He gave on our behalf to His disciples before He ascended back to heaven.
Introduction to the Gospel Reading:
The context of the Gospel reading from John 17 is Jesus’ high priestly prayer that He offered to God the Father just before His arrest and crucifixion. He opened the prayer in verse one of this chapter by “lifting up His eyes to heaven” and saying, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You. even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life” (John 17:1-2). This sets the tone as He continues the prayer on behalf of both His disciples and those that will come to believe in their testimony.
John 17:20-26 NAS95 20 "I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; 21 that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; 23 I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; 26 and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them."
Jesus taught about the importance of a unified church in the reading. He said, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20-21 emphasis added). Unity does not come by coercion or oppression. It comes by individuals who understand their true identity in Christ. When believers in Jesus fix their attention upon Jesus and His glory, the petty issues that often divide followers will fade away. Jesus helps us to see that unity is the result of belief in Christ, who is one with the Father.
Jesus prayed on behalf of His disciples who had believed by firsthand knowledge and for those who believed through the testimony of His disciples (v.20b, “through their word”). Unity is important in the church because it’s through this unified message that God’s power is revealed. All of the believers after the era of the disciples have come to faith in Jesus through the testimony of “the word” and “their word.” “The word” is the testimony of the disciples through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit written into what we call the New Testament Bible. “Their word” is both the testimony of the disciples, and the testimony of all believers. Jesus’ purpose in this message was a calling for the church of God be unified in their proclamation of the Gospel so that the entire world may believe (John 17:21f). Jesus brought this out in verse 26, “I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them."
As we contemplate the three readings from today what stands out is the great value that we have in following Jesus regardless of what it may cost us. Knowing the Lord Jesus as our Savior empowers us to tell others about Him in spite of the fact that we may be ridiculed or even harmed because of our testimony. In the western world it is easy to take advantage of our religious freedom and forget the great sacrifices which Christians around the world are making for Jesus every day. As we live our lives we are called to pray for them that suffer for Jesus around the world, as well as to prepare for persecution in our own lives.
- In what ways have you faced or are facing persecution for your faith? How does Stephen’s example, which mirrors Christ and knowing the warnings about persecution in Scripture, help you to face it more strongly?
- Choose one of the ways that Jesus is described in the second reading in Revelation 22 and reflect upon what this means and how this character quality can make a difference in your own life.
- Jesus is coming quickly
- Jesus is the rewarder
- Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end
- Jesus is the Root and descendent of David
- Jesus is the bright morning Star
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.