“But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. God spoke to him in this way: ‘Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’” (verses 5-7)
Stephen has been dragged into the Sanhedrin and falsely accused of speaking against both the Temple and the Law. So, he launches into a chapter-long survey of Old Testament history as a defence, highlighting the Israelites’ own refusal to obey Moses, giver of the Law, and also the fact that God himself cannot be contained in a house built by men.
He basically takes the accusations and pokes the Sanhedrin in the eye.
But on his way there, he lays the groundwork with the history of Abraham, and speaks of the promise God gave him.
It’s interesting. When I think of God’s promise to Abraham I think of a seashore containing innumerable grains of sand, together with a night sky filled with unfathomable numbers of stars, all of it giving expression to the undreamed legacy of descendants that will flow from one child of promise, a child evoking laughter in mother Sarah and father Abraham, a child whose very name is “laughter”, Isaac.
But that’s not the promise Stephen focuses on. The promise he highlights assumes this myriad of descendants, and then promises they will possess the land, but only after being enslaved and mistreated for four hundred years in Egypt. Punishment will ultimately come on their slave masters, and the people, once released, will come back to the land to worship the Lord.
I’m intrigued that this recounting of the promise actually contains so much that Abraham, in his own right, might consider less than ideal. Four hundred years of enslavement and mistreatment wouldn’t likely be his preferred foreshadowing. But there it is, stated by the Lord God himself as part of the promise. The long-range vision is on possession of the land and the calling to worship the Lord. But before that fulfilment materializes, there is going to be a road of hardship.
Why, then, do I so often assume that true blessing from God will mean bounty and ease and smooth-sailing? Why do I assume trial and hardship are interruptions on the journey to promise rather than understanding them to be integral to the process itself?
Abraham knew right from the start. The Lord told him. His descendants walked through it. Only after those four hundred years would they see the full bloom of the promise’s fulfilment.
But in the meantime, if they’d listened, they could trust.
Lord, I, too, hold your promises of life and fulfilment and blessing and purpose. Some are clouded at the moment by trial and suffering. So, strengthen me with power by your Holy Spirit in my inner being that I may keep my eyes focused on you, each step of the journey. Amen.
Reflect: What trials or hardships or sheer inconveniences of the moment threaten to cloud your trust in God’s purposes? Place each one in the Lord’s hands. Trust him for his finished work, beyond what you can see here and now.