(Act 7:1 ESV) And the high priest said, “Are these things so?”
Nearly all of Acts 7 is taken up with Stephen’s recitation of the history of the Jews. It’s a strange way to defend yourself from blasphemy! Why did Stephen give such a speech and why did Luke record it?
(Act 7:2-53 ESV) 2 And Stephen said: “Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ 4 Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. 5 Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. 6 And God spoke to this effect–that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. 7 ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ 8 And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.
Although there are several Messianic lessons in the story of Abraham, Stephens focuses on the promises relating to the Promised Land and circumcision — very traditional aspects to his hearers. He’s not taking the same tack as Peter at all.
9 “And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him 10 and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11 Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. 13 And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. 15 And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, 16 and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.
Again, Stephen continues to tell a story very familiar to his listeners, focusing on God’s promise of the Promised Land.
17 “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt 18 until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. 19 He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. 20 At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, 21 and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.
23 “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ 27 But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.
30 “Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. 33 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’
35 “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’–this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ 38 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. 39 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 43 You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’
In v. 37, Stephen refers to the promise in Deuteronomy of “another prophet” like Moses. But he also recites the number of times the Jews rejected the word of God. He blames the “patriarchs” for the enslavement of Joseph. He points out how Israel rejected the leadership of Moses when he first appeared in Egypt and then later worshiped an idol at the base of Mt. Sinai: “Our fathers refused to obey him.”
We begin to see the theme of Stephen’s defense: the Israelites have historically refused to honor the prophets of God! (That’s the sort of defense that gets you killed.)
44 “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. 45 Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 46 who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,
49 “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?’
Even the great king David was not allowed to build a temple for God, and even at the dedication of that temple, Solomon declared that God could not be contained by building made by men. The worship of God is about bigger things than a building. (Stephen had been accused of speaking of the destruction of the Temple.)
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Stephen then accuses his judges of being stubborn, resisting the Holy Spirit as did their ancestors. He declares them “uncircumcised in heart and ears” — that is, disobedient to Deuteronomy 10:16 and therefore not righteous Jews, certainly unworthy to be judges over God’s people.
Stephen’s “defense” was a counter-attack, accusing his judges of persecuting him just as they persecuted all of God’s other prophets.
He finally declares Jesus to be the Messiah and accuses them of murder and disobeying the Torah — as the Messiah was foretold by the Torah, by its reference to “another prophet,” and by the entire flow of Jewish history. Jesus, Stephen declares, is the culmination and fulfillment of the history of Israel — and his judges missed it!
As a result, contrary to Roman law, the leaders were so overcome with rage that they stoned him.
Stephen was arguing in very Jewish terms, seeing Joseph, Moses, and the prophets as “types” of Jesus. They were all men in whom God had placed confidence, who did great deeds by the power of the Spirit, and who were rejected by the Jews. Joseph’s brothers included Judah and Levi, ancestors of his accusers. All Israel, except Joshua and Caleb, rejected Moses. Jewish tradition taught that all the prophets other than Elijah had been killed by Israelite authorities or crowds.
Therefore, Stephen was arguing, in essence, that their rejection of Jesus simply showed him to be like all of God’s other great leaders. Jesus was another prophet like Moses, that is, he was also rejected. Thus, the crucifixion of Jesus by the Jewish authorities should not be taken as proof of his blasphemy but evidence of his approval by God!
Now, this entire method of debate is utterly foreign to Western ears. Stephen talks in terms of story. So does Peter. They don’t argue abstractions. They don’t say much about “faith” or “justification.” Rather, they think in terms of God’s story and explain to their listeners where they are in the story. Either their listeners are on God’s side or not, and their reaction to Jesus defines the answer. God is at work, and they either choose to get on board with God’s redemptive mission or suffer the consequences.
Paul, of course, writes to a more Grecian audience and so speaks in more abstract (that is, Western) terms, but even Paul was a Jewish rabbi. To understand the New Testament, therefore, we have to learn to think and read in terms of story and pictures and God’s redemptive plan as it plays out through history.
A gospel sermon that says nothing of what “Christ” means misses the story of the Messiah. We can’t abstract Jesus into a “plan” or a “pattern.” He was and is a person who had and has a particular place in God’s story. And he is not the beginning of the story. He is the center of the story, the culmination, the fulfillment. But he is not yet the completion of the story. That comes later.
The story is ongoing, and we too must choose what role we will play in it. Will we join with God in his redemptive mission or reject his Messiah?
It’s hard for us Westerners to escape centuries of abstract theology and return to story and history and the movement of God through history, but none of this will make any sense unless we do.
And if I’m wrong, then how many readers have ever preached a sermon based on Stephen’s sermon? Or one of Peter’s? You see, they don’t speak to us because we see the world so very differently. And that means we’re missing huge pieces of the scripture, indeed, of the gospel.
(Act 7:54-1 ESV) 54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed 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, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
This was no execution. It was vigilantism. The Romans did not allow the Jewish courts to execute anyone without Roman permission, but this wasn’t a court — it was a synagogue. This was the First Century equivalent of a lynching.
Why were these men — freedmen and Hellenistic Greek-speaking Jewish immigrants — so enraged? Why care what Stephen thinks? Evidently, because he accuses them of rejecting and murdering the Messiah — making them the equivalent of their ancestors who rejected and killed the Prophets. It was a serious charge, especially in light of the success the church was enjoying and the many miracles being done.
Indeed, the church was growing so rapidly and the Spirit was acting so powerfully that those who refused to join this new movement found themselves in the very uncomfortable position of denying the Spirit and sharing a portion of the guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus.
Thus, the martyrdom of Stephen was the natural retaliation of those who were once in the center of the religious life of Judea being pushed to the side and made irrelevant — or worse.