There was a woman who lived on the streets near our church. She would ask for money and react aggressively to those who refused. When she died, I took the funeral. I discovered afterwards that this woman had inherited a large fortune. She had acquired a luxurious flat and many valuable paintings, but she chose to live on the streets with her plastic bags full of rubbish. She could not bring herself to leave behind the life she knew and she never enjoyed her inheritance. Some people are afraid of change, while others believe change is not possible. Yet the wonderful news is that with God’s help *you can change*. This change is key to spiritual life, growth and transformation. It is not just about changing our actions or appearance; we need to change on the inside – we need a change of *heart*. How can this happen?
Psalm 73:1–5, 11-17
Get God’s perspective
Have you ever wondered whether your faith was really worthwhile? Have you ever looked around at very successful people who have no faith and wondered whether they are better off than you and even been tempted to be envious of them?
The psalmist has kept his heart pure (v.1), but he has found life extremely tough. He has had his struggles and been ‘plagued’ (v.5) by temptation, doubts, fears and anxiety of mind.
He looks around at an affluent society that seems to be doing very well without God. He ‘almost slipped’ (v.2): ‘For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked’ (v.3).
You may see people around who are rich and successful. In spite of their ‘callous hearts’ (v.7), they seem not to have struggles (v.4). They seem perfectly healthy and free from burdens (vv.4–5). They are proud and arrogant and appear to have no need of God (vv.6–11).
If you find yourself on the slippery path of doubt and despair (v.2), wondering whether you have kept your heart pure in vain (v.13), then this psalm tells you what to do.
As we shall see, everything changes when we enter ‘the sanctuary of God’ (v.17) and see things from God’s perspective. The psalmist had a complete change of heart. He ‘understood their final destiny’. He realised the difference between their destiny and his (v.17).
The psalm starts, ‘Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart’ (v.1). And it ends, ‘But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds’ (v.28).
Lord, may I enter your sanctuary and see things from your perspective. Thank you that ‘you are good to those who are pure in heart... it is good to be near you. I have made you my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.’
Acts 7:51, 57-60, 8:1
‘Circumcise’ your heart
Do you ever look at someone who is very opposed to the Christian faith and wonder if they could ever change? In today’s passage, we see that even the most hardened opponent can have a change of heart.
To be a Jew meant physical circumcision. Every male was circumcised on the eighth day of his life. But physical circumcision was intended to symbolise circumcision of the heart.
As Stephen’s speech comes to an end, with great courage and boldness, he says to his accusers, ‘You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!’ (7:51). He then accuses them of having murdered Jesus (‘the Righteous One’, v.52).
One main theme runs through Stephen’s speech: God is not restricted to any one place: ‘The Most High does not live in houses made by human hands’ (v.48).
Neither the tabernacle (vv.44–45), nor the temple (vv.46–47) could ever have been viewed as God’s home in a literal sense (v.48). For as God says through Isaiah, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool’ (v.49). Jesus came to replace the tabernacle and temple. Before Jesus, people would come to the temple to meet God. With Jesus’ coming, the meeting place with God would be Jesus himself.
Now, through the Holy Spirit, God is present with his people (Matthew 18:20). It is especially in the gathered community, the church, that God lives by his Spirit (Ephesians 2:22). By his Spirit, he dwells within each of us. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). God’s dwelling is now in Stephen, who is ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 7:55).
Stephen is speaking to the priests of the very temple that has now been superseded by Jesus through the Holy Spirit. So it is not surprising that ‘they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him’ (v.54). They drag him out of the city and stone him (v.58).
One of the people with an ‘uncircumcised heart’ is a young man named Saul. ‘The ringleaders took off their coats and asked a young man named Saul to watch them’ (v.58, MSG). He ‘was right there, congratulating the killers’ (8:1, MSG). This young man, Saul, ‘began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison’ (v.3).
It would be hard to find anyone in human history who had a bigger change of heart than this young man. From being a murderer of Christians, he became a great apostle who preached all over the world that Jesus is the Son of God (9:20). Imagine if a former member of Isis ended up as the Pope and you’ll be close to understanding what happened to the apostle Paul!
When did this change of heart begin? Perhaps a seed was planted when he saw Stephen’s death: ‘Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”’ (7:55–56).
Then, ‘While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep’ (vv.59–60).
Later, this same Saul, also known as Paul, would write, ‘… a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit’ (Romans 2:29).
To circumcise is to cut off. Every true Christian is circumcised by the Holy Spirit. When your heart is circumcised, you seek to cut off every wrong attitude that comes into your heart and mind. Say ‘no’ to anything that will stop your heart being right before God. Like Stephen, be filled with the Holy Spirit overflowing with love, courage and forgiveness.
Thank you, Lord, that your love has changed my heart. Thank you that through your Holy Spirit we can all change.
2 Samuel 18:33, 19:1,2,5a,7a,8a
Mature through suffering
Are you in a period of suffering or grief? God often uses these times to change your heart and increase your compassion for others.
David’s heart was purified through suffering and grief. As if he had not suffered enough up until now, he receives the news that Absalom, his son, is dead. He was ‘heartbroken’ (18:33, MSG). He cries out, ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you – O Absalom, my son, my son!’ (v.33).
He is then told in no uncertain terms by Joab that he has to pull himself together and to go out and encourage his troops who have just won a great battle for him against his enemies (19:1–7). Joab tells David, ‘put some heart into your servants!’ (v.7, MSG).
David changes his attitude. He gets up and does exactly what he has been asked to do (v.8). ‘He won over thehearts of all the men of Judah as though they were one man’ (v.14).
Not only did David have a change of heart, Shimei did as well. He prostrates himself before the king: ‘May my lord not hold me guilty. Do not remember how your servant did wrong… For I your servant know that I have sinned, but today I have come here as the first of the whole house of Joseph to come down and meet my lord the king’ (vv.19–20).
David, purified by his suffering, shines out like a brilliant light to all around him. He has mercy on Shimei. He deals wisely with Mephibosheth, Ziba and Barzillai (vv.24–39).
But David is going to face more battles ahead as a war of words breaks out between Israel and Judah (vv.41–43).
Lord, thank you for the ways in which you use the times of suffering and grief to bring change in my life. Purify my heart and increase my compassion for others.
‘“Look,” [Stephen] said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”’
Being stoned to death sounds a terrible way to die and yet there is something amazing about this scene. I don’t know of many who have seen the Father and the Son together. It was not so much that the crowd were killing Stephen, but God the Father and God the Son – Jesus – welcoming him home.
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790. Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group. “The One Year® is a registered trademark of Tyndale House Publishers used by permission”