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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Acts 7

 

 

Verses 1-60

Chapter 7

STEPHEN'S DEFENCE (Acts 7:1-7)

When Oliver Cromwell was outlining the education he thought necessary for his son Richard, he said, "I would have him know a little history." It was to the lesson of history that Stephen appealed. Clearly believing that the best form of defence was attack, he took a bird's eye view of the history of the Jewish people and cited certain truths as condemnation of his own nation.

(i) He saw that the men who played a really great part in the history of Israel were the men who heard God's command, "Get thee out," and were not afraid to obey it. With that adventurous spirit Stephen implicitly contrasted the spirit of the Jews of his own day, whose one desire was to keep things as they were and who regarded Jesus and his followers as dangerous innovators.

(ii) He insisted that men had worshipped God long before there ever was a Temple. To the Jews the Temple was the most sacred of all places. Stephen's insistence on the fact that God does not dwell exclusively in any temple made with hands was not to their liking.

(iii) Stephen insisted that when the Jews crucified Jesus they were only setting the coping stone on a policy they had always followed; for all through the ages they had persecuted the prophets and abandoned the leaders whom God had raised up.

These were hard truths for men who believed themselves to be the chosen people, and it is little wonder that they were infuriated when they heard them. We must watch for these ever-recurring notes as we study Stephen's defence.

THE MAN WHO CAME OUT (Acts 7:1-7 continued)

7:1-7 The high priest said, "Is this so?" And Stephen said, "Men, brothers and fathers, listen to what I have to say. The God of glory appeared to Abraham our father when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Charran. He said to him, 'Get out from your country and from your kindred and come here to a land which I will show you.' Then he came out from the land of the Chaldaeans and took up his residence in Charran. After the death of his father he removed from there and took up his residence in this land where you now live. God did not give him an inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot upon. But he did promise him that he would some day give it to him for a possession and to his descendants after him, although at that time he had no child. God spoke thus--that his descendants would be sojourners in an alien land, that they would make slaves of them and treat them badly for four hundred years. As for the nations to which they will be slaves--God said--'l will judge them, and after these years have passed, they will come out and they will serve me in this place.'"

As we have already seen, it was Stephen's method of defence to take a panoramic view of Jewish history. It was not the mere sequence of events which was in Stephen's mind. To him every person and event symbolized something. He began with Abraham, for in the most literal way it was with him that, for the Jew, history began. In him Stephen sees three things.

(i) Abraham was a man who answered God's summons. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, Abraham left home without knowing where he was to go (Hebrews 11:8). He was a man of adventurous spirit. Lesslie Newbigin of the Church of South India tells us that negotiations towards that union were often held up by people demanding to know just where such and such a step might lead. In the end someone had to say to these careful souls, "A Christian has no right to demand to know where he is going." For Stephen the man of God was he who obeyed God's command even when he had no idea what the consequences might be.

(ii) Abraham was a man of faith. He did not know where he was going but he believed that, under God's guidance, the best was yet to be. Even when he had no children and when, humanly speaking, it seemed impossible that he ever should have any, he believed that some day his descendants would inherit the land God had promised to them.

(iii) Abraham was a man of hope. To the end of the day he never saw the promise fully fulfilled but he never doubted that it would be.

So Stephen presents the Jews with the picture of an adventurous life, ever ready to answer God's summons in contrast to their desire to cling to the past.

DOWN INTO EGYPT (Acts 7:8-16)

7:8-16 "So he gave him the covenant of which circumcision was the sign. So he begat Isaac and he circumcised him on the eighth day. And Isaac begat Jacob and Jacob begat the twelve patriarchs. The patriarchs were jealous of Joseph and sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles and gave him grace and wisdom before Pharaoh king of Egypt. So he made Joseph the ruler of Egypt and of his whole house. There came a famine upon the whole of Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction; and our fathers could not find food. But Jacob heard that there was corn in Egypt, and he despatched our fathers there on their first visit. On the second visit Joseph's brothers discovered who he was, and Joseph's family became known to Pharaoh. So Joseph sent and invited Jacob his father to come together with all his relations, in all seventy-five persons. So Jacob came down to Egypt; and he himself died there and so did our fathers. They were brought over to Sychem and they were laid in the tombs which Abraham had bought at the price of silver from the sons of Emmor in Sychem."

The picture of Abraham is succeeded by the picture of Joseph. The key to Joseph's life is summed up in his own saying in Genesis 50:20. At that time his brothers were afraid that, after the death of Jacob, Joseph would take vengeance on them for what they had done to him. Joseph's answer was, "As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good." Joseph was the man for whom seeming disaster turned to triumph. Sold into Egypt as a slave, wrongfully imprisoned, forgotten by the men he had helped, the day yet came when he became prime minister of Egypt. Stephen sums up the characteristics of Joseph in two words--grace and wisdom.

(i) Grace is a lovely word. At its simplest it means beauty in the physical sense; then it comes to mean that beauty of character which all men love. Its nearest English equivalent is charm. There was about Joseph that charm which is always on the really good man. It would have been extremely easy for him to become embittered. But he dealt faithfully with each duty as it emerged, serving with equal devotion as slave or as prime minister.

(ii) There is no word more difficult to define than wisdom. It means so much more than mere cleverness. But the life of Joseph gives us the clue to its meaning. In essence, wisdom is the ability to see things as God sees them.

Once again the contrast is there. The Jews were lost in the contemplation of their own past and imprisoned in the mazes of their own Law. But Joseph welcomed each new task, even if it was a rebuff, and adopted God's view of life.

THE MAN WHO NEVER FORGOT HIS FELLOW-COUNTRYMEN (Acts 7:17-36)

7:17-36 "When the time for the fulfillment of the promise which God had told to Abraham drew near, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt, until there arose another king in Egypt who had no knowledge of Joseph. He schemed against our race and treated our fathers badly by making them cast out their children so that they would not survive. At this point Moses was born and he was very comely in God's sight. For three months he was nurtured in his father's house. When he was put out Pharaoh's daughter took him up and she brought him up as her own son; and Moses was educated in all the lore of the Egyptians. He was mighty in his words and in his deeds. When he was forty years of age the desire came into his heart to visit his brothers, the sons of Israel. He saw one of them being maltreated and went to his help; and he struck the Egyptian and exacted vengeance for the man who was being ill-treated. He thought that his brothers would understand that God was going to rescue them through him but they did not understand. The next day he came upon the scene as two of them were fighting. He tried to reconcile them and to make peace between them. 'Men,' he said, 'you are brothers. Why do you injure each other?' But the one who was injuring his neighbour pushed him away and said, 'Who made you a ruler or a judge over us? Do you intend to murder me in the way you murdered the Egyptian yesterday?' When Moses heard this he fled and he became a sojourner in the land of Midian. There he begat two sons. When forty years had passed, when he was in the desert in the neighbourhood of Mount Sinai, an angel appeared to him in a flame of fire in a bush. When Moses saw it he was astonished at the sight. When he approached to see what it was the voice of the Lord came to him, 'I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.' Moses was afraid and dared not look. But God said to him.. 'Take your shoes off your feet for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. In truth I have seen the evil that is being done to my people in Egypt and I have heard their groaning. I have come down to rescue them. Come now--I will send you to Egypt.' This Moses whom they rejected saying, 'Who made you a ruler and judge over us?' this very man God despatched as ruler and rescuer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out after he had performed wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years."

Next upon the scene comes the figure of Moses. For the Jew, Moses was above all the man who answered God's command to go out. He was quite literally the man who gave up a kingdom to answer God's summons to be the leader of his people. Our Bible story has little to tell us of the early days of Moses; but the Jewish historians had much more to say. According to Josephus, Moses was so beautiful a child that, when he was being carried down the street in his nurse's arms, people stopped to look at him. He was so brilliant a lad that he surpassed all others in the speed and the eagerness with which he learned. One day Pharaoh's daughter took him to her father and asked him to make him his successor on the throne of Egypt. Pharaoh agreed. Then, the tale goes on, Pharaoh took his crown and jestingly placed it on the infant Moses' head; but the child snatched it off and threw it on the ground. One of the Egyptian wise men standing by said that this was a sign that if he was not killed at once this child was destined to bring disaster on the crown of Egypt. But Pharaoh's daughter snatched Moses into her arms and persuaded her father not to heed the warning. When Moses grew up he became the greatest of Egyptian generals and led a victorious campaign in far-off Ethiopia where he married the princess of the land.

In face of that we can see what Moses gave up. He actually gave up a kingdom in order to lead his people out into the desert on a great adventure for God. So once again Stephen is making the same point. The great man is not the man who, like the Jews, is thirled to the past and jealous of his privileges; he is the man who is ready to answer God's summons and leave the comfort and the ease he might have had.

A DISOBEDIENT PEOPLE (Acts 7:37-53)

7:37-53 "It was this man who said to the sons of Israel, 'God will raise up a prophet from among your brothers, like me.' It was this Moses who was in the gathering of the people in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him in Mount Sinai, and with your fathers. It was he who received the living oracles to give to you. But your fathers refused to be obedient to him. They rejected him. In their hearts they turned back to Egypt. They said to Aaron, 'Make us gods who will go before us, as for this man Moses we do not know what has happened to him.' So in those days they made a calf and they sacrificed to the idol they had made and they found their joy in the works of their hands. And God turned and gave them over to the worship of the host of heaven; as it stands written in the Book of the Prophets, 'Did you not bring me slain victims and sacrifices for forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? But now you have accepted the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Remphan, the images you have made in order to worship them. I will take you away to live in the lands beyond Babylon.' Our fathers possessed the tent of witness in the wilderness, as he who spoke instructed Moses to make it according to the pattern which he had seen. Your fathers received it from one generation to another, and brought it in with Joshua at the time when they were gaining possession of the lands of the nations whom God drove back from before your fathers, right up to the time of David. He found favour with God and he asked to be allowed to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. But the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands. As the prophet says, 'Heaven is my throne, earth is a footstool for my feet.' 'What kind of house will you build for me?' says the Lord, 'or where is the place where I will rest? Has not my hand made all these things?' Stiff-necked, uncircumcised in hearts and ears, you have always opposed the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who told beforehand the tidings of the coming of the Just One, whom you betrayed and whose murderers you became--you who received the Law by the disposition of angels and who did not keep it."

The speech of Stephen begins to accelerate. All the time by implication it has been condemning the attitude of the Jews; now that implicit condemnation becomes explicit. In this closing section of his defence Stephen has woven together several strands of thought.

(i) He insists on the continued disobedience of the people. In the days of Moses they rebelled by making the golden calf. In the time of Amos their hearts went after Moloch and the star gods. What is referred to as the Book of the Prophets is what we call the Minor Prophets. The quotation is actually from Amos 5:27 but Stephen quotes not from the Hebrew version but the Greek.

(ii) He insists that they have had the most amazing privileges. They have had the succession of the prophets; the tent of witness, so called because the tables of the Law were laid up and kept in it; the Law which was given by angels.

These two things are to be put side by side--continuous disobedience and continuous privilege. The more privileges a man has the greater his condemnation if he takes the wrong way. Stephen is insisting that the condemnation of the Jewish nation is complete because in spite of the fact that they had every chance to know better they continuously rebelled against God.

(iii) He insists that they have wrongly limited God. The Temple which should have become their greatest blessing was in fact their greatest curse; they had come to worship it instead of worshipping God. They had finished up with a Jewish God who lived in Jerusalem rather than a God of all men whose dwelling was the whole universe.

(iv) He insists that they have consistently persecuted the prophets; and--the crowning charge--that they have murdered the Son of God. And Stephen does not excuse them on the plea of ignorance as Peter did. It is not ignorance but rebellious disobedience which made them commit that crime. There is anger in Stephen's closing words, but there is sorrow too. There is the anger that sees a people commit the most terrible of crimes; and there is the sorrow that sees a people who have refused the destiny that God offered them.

THE FIRST OF THE MARTYRS (Acts 7:54-60; Acts 8:1)

7:54-60 As they listened to this their very hearts were torn with vexation and they gnashed their teeth at him. But he was full of the Holy Spirit and he gazed steadfastly into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at God's right hand. So he said, "Look now, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at God's right hand." They shouted with a great shout and held their ears and launched themselves at him in a body. They flung him outside the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses placed their garments at the feet of a young man called Saul. So they stoned Stephen as he called upon God and said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Kneeling down he cried with a loud voice, "Lord, set not this sin to their charge." And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul fully agreed with his death.

A speech like this could only have one end; Stephen had courted death and death came. But Stephen did not see the faces distorted with rage. His gaze had gone beyond time and he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. When he said this it seemed to them only the greatest of blasphemies; and the penalty for blasphemy was stoning to death (Deuteronomy 13:6 ff.). It is to be noted that this was no judicial trial. It was a lynching, because the Sanhedrin had no right to put anyone to death.

The method of stoning was as follows. The criminal was taken to a height and thrown down. The witnesses had to do the actual throwing down. If the fall killed the man good and well; if not, great boulders were hurled down upon him until he died.

There are in this scene certain notable things about Stephen. (i) We see the secret of his courage. Beyond all that men could do to him he saw awaiting him the welcome of his Lord. (ii) We see Stephen following his Lord's example. As Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of his executioners (Luke 23:34) so did Stephen. When George Wishart was to be executed, the executioner hesitated. Wishart came to him and kissed him. "Lo," he said, "here is a token that I forgive thee." The man who follows Christ the whole way will find strength to do things which it seems humanly impossible to do. (iii) The dreadful turmoil finished in a strange peace. To Stephen came the peace which comes to the man who has done the right thing even if the right thing kills him.

The first half of the first verse of chapter 8 goes with this section. Saul has entered on the scene. The man who was to become the apostle to the Gentiles thoroughly agreed with the execution of Stephen. But as Augustine said, "The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen." However hard he tried Saul could never forget the way in which Stephen had died. The blood of the martyrs even thus early had begun to be the seed of the Church.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Acts 7:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/acts-7.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, August 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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