I was on a run yesterday, and I startled some deer. One emerged from the brush and trotted across the road in front of me. As she was going, I could hear more rustling in the brush from which she came. It was a fawn. Obviously confused, the little one ran in the opposite direction as his mother. I could see his spots as he ran away.
That wasn’t good. A fawn should be with its mother. She is there to protect the little one. If a fawn goes out on its own for very long, its prospects aren’t very good. I imagined the mother would circle back and relocate the fawn. At least that was my hope as I kept running.
Sometimes, God’s people can move in the wrong direction. One of the harshest words of condemnation in the Bible that God levied against his people was that they were “stiff-necked.” They were stubborn. They refused to follow. They would not change course and come back to God in obedience.
Oxen and other work animals can be stiff-necked. No matter how much they are pushed and prodded, they will not turn and follow the guidance of the farmer. When that happens, fields don’t get plowed and planted. The work becomes difficult. And the stiff-necked ox just continues to go in the wrong direction. It’s not necessarily confused, like a startled fawn. It’s just stubborn. It wants to go its own way.
When Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Law from God, the people were down below, crafting a golden calf to worship. God informed Moses of their rebellion: “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people,” God told Moses (Exodus 33:9). God was ready to destroy Israel in that moment. And it wasn’t the only time such harsh language was used in the Bible to describe God’s people and its leadership – Exodus 33:3, 5; 2 Chronicles 36:13; Jeremiah 17:23.
And Stephen called the leaders of Israel “stiff-necked.” The accusation against Stephen was that he was threatening the temple – the place where God’s presence dwelt among the people. Stephen issued a long historical narrative that depicted God’s people in an unfavorable light. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. The people initially rejected Moses in Egypt. And, of course, they worshipped a golden calf.
But God raised up saviors for Israel – Joseph and Moses. Men who were rejected became vehicles for God’s grace. After telling these stories, Stephen said God’s people again were being stiff-necked. They betrayed and murdered Jesus. The Savior of God’s people again suffered rejection.
Several important points are made in this passage. One is about the nature of worship. God can be worshipped anywhere. He doesn’t need a temple in which to live. Another important point is about the physical presence of Jesus today – at the right hand of the Father, as Stephen saw in his vision. And Stephen, of course, mirrored Christ in his death – asking to be delivered into the hands of God, crying out with a loud voice, and asking forgiveness for his killers.
For me, it was the notion of being stiff-necked that stood out in this chapter. Maybe it’s because it’s such a personal thing for me, a tendency I see in myself. Stephen quoted Isaiah 66:1-2. Here’s what those verses say in full:
Thus says the Lord: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”
In the dispute about the temple, Stephen was stressing the reality of God. Later letters in the New Testament affirm the people of God – the church – are now the temple of God. God doesn’t dwell in a building. He dwells in you and me as the church.
Stephen didn’t quote the last sentence of this passage from Isaiah, but it surely was on his mind – and on the mind of the high council. He called them stiff-necked people, people who resisted the Holy Spirit, and people who did not keep God’s law. Their very salvation hung in the balance.
Meanwhile, Isaiah said the Lord would look to people who did the exact opposite of those things. God would look to the humble, the contrite, and those who tremble at God’s Word.
That is, of course, the antidote to being “stiff-necked.” To be humble means we realize we don’t have all the answers and that we are not all-powerful. To be contrite means we are quick to recognize our flaws and are willing to receive correction. To tremble at God’s Word means we read it and obey it.
In other words, if we follow Isaiah’s lead, we aren’t stubborn and hard to lead. We change directions when our master prompts us. We don’t resist the Holy Spirit.
In my own life, I find myself being stiff-necked sometimes. For me, it’s about plans and projects and doing everything I want to do. It’s about getting things accomplished. But the Holy Spirit lately has been telling me to slow down, to stop, to pay attention to the things that I would ignore if I continued with my own plans. The Holy Spirit seems to be telling me, “The kingdom of God takes time. Do you have any time?” My answer lately has been, “No. I’m all out of time.”
To be stiff-necked is to resist what the Holy Spirit has told me. But God calls us to follow him and to allow the Holy Spirit to fill us and to change our hearts. This is what it means to be “circumcised in heart and ears” – a notion we will see described in more detail later in the New Testament.
So I must resolve to be humble, to be contrite, and to tremble at the Word of God. I wonder whether you have any of your own issues with being “stiff-necked.”