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Saturday, July 13th, 2024
the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14
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Bible Commentaries
Acts 7

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

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This great chapter is taken up entirely by the account of Stephen’s so-called defense before the Sanhedrin and his martyrdom which climaxed it. Actually, Stephen’s address was not so much a defense of himself as it was an epic survey of Jewish history as related to their rejection of the promised Messiah; and, while it is true a complete refutation of the charges against himself is apparent in this master oration, it is the glorious figure of the risen Lord which dominates every word of it.

It is only natural that in an address which touches so many historical events the destructive critics should have worked overtime searching for pseudocons. None of the so-called "contradictions," however, are of any importance; but a few of them will be noted for the purpose of showing the amazing weakness of such criticisms. Those great experts on Jewish history who sat in the Sanhedrin found no fault whatever with the history cited by Stephen; the only thing they objected to was his application of it!


The name "Stephen" means "wreath" or "crown,"(F1) and it is appropriate that the first to win the martyr’s crown should have worn such a name. It is said of Stephen in the New Testament that he was a man:

Full of faith (Acts 6:5).

Full of grace (Acts 6:8, English Revised Version).

Full of power (Acts 6:8).

Full of light (Acts 6:15).

Full of scripture (Acts 7).

Full of wisdom (Acts 6:3; Acts 6:10).

Full of courage (Acts 7:51-56).

Full of love (Acts 7:60).(F2)

The providence of God overruled the tragic event of Stephen’s death (1) by making it the occasion for the scattering of the church which was so necessary in the divine purpose, and (2) by accomplishing through it (in all probability) the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, the mightiest figure, apart from Christ, in the entire New Testament.

Verse 1

And the high priest said, Are these things so?

Hervey thought that the high priest at that time was Theophilus or Jonathan,(F3) both being sons of Annas and both having held the office; but it appears that Bruce was more probably correct in saying that "The high priest was probably still Caiaphas, as at the trial of Jesus; he remained in office until A.D. 36."(F4)

Are these things so …? What a hypocritical question from the man who had bribed the witnesses to lie!

The best analysis of Stephen’s speech seems to be that of Bruce, thus:

Stephen’s historical survey reviews the history of the nation from the call of Abraham to the building of Solomon’s temple. It concentrates on three main topics: (i) the patriarchal period (Acts 7:2-16); (ii), Moses and the law (Acts 7:17-43); (iii) the tabernacle and the temple (Acts 7:44-50). The first of the three sections of this speech is an introduction to the central themes; the second deals with the charge of blasphemy against Moses, the third with the charge of blasphemy against God.(F5)

Verses 2-4

And he said, Brethren and fathers, hearken: The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said unto him, Get thee out of thy land, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall show thee. Then came he out of the land of the Chaldeans, and dwelt in Haran: and from thence, when his father was dead, God removed him into this land, wherein ye now dwell.

Get thee out of thy land … The young church was about to be scattered; and it was timely for the speaker to focus upon the fact that the father of all the faithful had also been called to get out of his native land and follow the call of the God of glory. On that very day when Stephen spoke, countless numbers of the Christians would say goodbye to Jerusalem forever. Significantly, God’s call of Abraham took place in a pagan land, not in Palestine.

Verses 5-8

And he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: and he promised that he would give it to him in possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child. And God spake on this wise, that his seed should sojourn in a strange land, and that they should bring them into bondage, and treat them ill four hundred years. And the nation to which they shall be in bondage will I judge, said God: and after that shalt they come forth, and serve me in this place. And he gave him the covenant of circumcision: and so Abraham begat Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac begat Jacob, and Jacob the twelve patriarchs.

None inheritance in it … "The gift was not to Abraham personally, but to him as the founder and representative of the nation."(F6) The only part of Palestine that Abraham ever owned was the cave of Machpelah which he purchased for a grave.

Four hundred years … This is one of the pseudocons! Exodus 12:40-41 gives the time as 430 years; but "The four hundred years is a round number as in Genesis 15:13."(F7) Also, there were two ways of counting the "sojourning," these being (1) from the call of Abraham to the Exodus which was 430 years, and (2) from the birth of Isaac to the Exodus which was 400 years.(F8) The bicentennial of the United States may be counted either from the Declaration of Independence, or from the ratification of the constitution. It is ridiculous to make anything out of such so-called discrepancies as these.

Perhaps Stephen intended that his hearers should notice that even the covenant of circumcision was given long before Moses or the law.


Verses 9-13

And the patriarchs, moved with jealousy against Joseph, sold him into Egypt: and God was with him, and delivered him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house. Now there came a famine over all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction: and our fathers found no sustenance. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent forth our fathers the first time. And at the second time Joseph was made known to his brethren; and Joseph’s race became manifest unto Pharaoh.

Jealousy against Joseph … Stephen doubtless cited this as an example of the Jews’ rejection of their heaven-sent deliverer, prefiguring the rejection of the Christ himself; also, by his mention of Joseph’s being made known to the brethren at "the second time," there is a hint that the Jews will really learn who Christ is at the Second Advent.

Verses 14-16

And Joseph sent, and called to him Jacob his father, and all his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls. And Jacob went down into Egypt; and he died, himself and our fathers; and they were carried over unto Shechem, and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a price in silver of the sons of Hamor in Shechem.

Threescore and fifteen souls … This number has been seized upon as a contradiction of Genesis 46:27 which gives the number as "threescore and ten." But as George DeHoff observed:

Jacob’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren amounted to sixty-six (Genesis 46:8-26). Adding Jacob himself and Joseph with his two sons, we have seventy. If to the sixty-six we add the nine wives of Jacob’s sons (Judah’s and Simeon’s wives were dead; and Joseph could hardly be said to call himself, his own wife or his two sons into Egypt, and Jacob is specifically separated by Stephen) we have seventy-five persons as in Acts.(F9)

Jewish genealogies did not regard women, or even count them; and such an attitude was noted during Jesus’ public ministry, and for some time within the church itself, when, for example, the number partaking of the loaves and fishes was given as "five thousand men, besides the women and children," and when the number of disciples was stated as "five thousand men" (Acts 4:4). It was appropriate that in this inspired speech of Stephen the women should have been reckoned among the number going down into Egypt with Jacob. Thus there is logic in Stephen’s following a different system of numbering; and another pseudocon bites the dust.

Tomb that Abraham bought … This is said to contradict Joshua 24:32, where it is stated that "Jacob bought (a field) of the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem." However, as DeHoff pointed out, there were three separate transactions.

(1) Abraham bought a cave and field in which it stood (Genesis 23:17). (2) Abraham bought another sepulchre, but it is not stated that he bought the field in which it stood (Acts 7:15-16). (3) Years later, Jacob bought a parcel of ground (Joshua 24:32) or a parcel of a field (Genesis 33:19). This was, in all probability, the very field in which Abraham’s second sepulchre stood, as this field once belonged to the same owners though they may have been miles apart.

In all the Bible nothing can be found to contradict any of these statements; and it is amazing to me that even some Christians make labored efforts to "harmonize these difficulties." I always ask, "What difficulties?"(F10)


Verses 17-22

But as the time of the promise drew nigh which God vouchsafed unto Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt, until there arose another king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. The same dealt craftily with our race, and ill-treated our fathers, that they should cast out their babes to the end that they might not live. At which season Moses was born, and was exceeding fair; and he was nourished three months in his father’s house: and when he was cast out, Pharaoh’s daughter took him up, and nourished him for her own son. And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians; and he was mighty in his words and works.

Just as the Patriarchs had rejected Joseph the great deliverer who had saved the nation from starvation, Stephen would now show that the chosen people had also rejected Moses, notwithstanding the fact that Moses was exceedingly well qualified to be God’s instrument of deliverance from bondage.

On the whole, Stephen’s eulogy of Moses fell far short of the extravagant claims usually made by the Jews with regard to the great lawgiver, some even claiming that he was the author of Egyptian civilization. The points here stressed are: (1) that Moses had been providentially incorporated into the royal family of Egypt, (2) that he was "exceeding fair," and (3) that he had been provided with the very best education possible.

Exceeding fair … "This phrase is intensive, rather than a mere equivalent for the superlative, and means "fair unto God."(F11) Coupled with the statement later that he was mighty "in words and works," these expressions reveal Moses to have been a man of the most extraordinary power and ability. Even in his early childhood, Moses possessed remarkable ability and beauty. Josephus wrote:

It happened frequently, that those who met him as he was carried along the road, were obliged to turn again upon seeing the child; they left what they were about and stood a great while to look at him; for the beauty of the child was so remarkable and natural that it detained the spectators, and made them stay longer to look upon him.(F12)

Although not specifically stated by Stephen in his address, it is manifest that he was here presenting Moses as a type of Jesus our Lord, a principal factor of which was his rejection by the chosen people, next related.

Mighty in words and works … There is no reference here to any of those miraculous deeds which later marked the life of Moses; but the meaning is that his achievements in every way were superlative.

Verses 23-27

But when he was well nigh forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel. And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended him, and avenged him that was oppressed, smiting the Egyptian: and he supposed that his brethren understood that God by his hand was giving them deliverance; but they understood not. And the day following he appeared unto them as they strove, and would have set them at one again, saying, Sirs, ye are brethren; why do ye wrong one to another? But he that did his neighbor wrong thrust him away, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?

Who made thee a ruler and a judge …? There was a shocking parallel to this in the venomous question of the Sanhedrinists who had rejected Christ in almost the same words, demanding, "By what authority doest thou these things; or who gave thee this authority?" (Mark 11:28). The point of Stephen’s message could hardly have escaped the bitter enemies to whom it was addressed.

In all of this, Stephen was tracing a pattern in Jewish behavior which would lead inevitably to the rejection of the Saviour.

Verses 28-33

Wouldest thou kill me, as thou killed the Egyptian yesterday? And Moses fled at this saying, and became a sojourner in the land of Midian, where he begat two sons. And when forty years were fulfilled, an angel appeared unto him in the wilderness of Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. And when Moses saw it, he wondered at the sight: and as he came near to behold, there came a voice of the Lord, I am the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. And Moses trembled, and durst not behold. And the Lord said unto him, Loose the shoes from thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

The significance here lies in the fact that God appeared to Moses in the pagan land of Midian, the "holy ground" being neither in a temple nor in Jerusalem.

A voice of the Lord … The translation here is wrong; it should read "The voice of the Lord" as in the KJV. Hervey was correct in saying: "The KJV is surely right. The Lord has only one voice."(F13) Hervey insists that the KJV rendition is supported by the original text.

Verses 34-37

I have surely seen the affliction of my people that is in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I am come down to deliver them: and now come, I will send thee into Egypt. This Moses whom they refused, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge? him hath God sent to be both a ruler and a deliverer with the hand of the angel that appeared to him in the bush. This man led them forth, having wrought wonders and signs in Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years. This is that Moses, who said unto the children of Israel, A prophet shall God raise up unto you from among your brethren, like unto me.

To comment upon all of the references in this speech to incidents recorded in the Old Testament would be to write a commentary upon the history of Israel. It is amazing that Stephen should have been so completely filled with the knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures. Outstanding in this passage is the reference to the "prophet like unto me" (Deuteronomy 18:15 f). This was proof of the typical nature of Moses and of his pointing forward to the Christ, with the admonition that Israel should "hear him" or suffer the penalty of being cut off from being God’s people. By this identification of his loyalty to Christ as being also loyalty to Moses and what Moses commanded, Stephen devastated any charge that he had blasphemed Moses. On the contrary, it was the Sanhedrin who were "blaspheming Moses" by their refusal to honor the words of Moses commanding men to receive and obey Christ.

Verses 38-40

This is he that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel that spake to him in the mount Sinai, and with our fathers: who received living oracles to give unto us: to whom our fathers would not be obedient, but thrust him from them, and turned back in their hearts unto Egypt, saying unto Aaron, Make us gods that will go before us; for, as for this Moses, who led us forth out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.

The church in the wilderness … This is not a reference to the church of Christ, but to the congregation of Israel in the wilderness which is typical of Christ’s church. They had been baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea (1 Corinthians 10:2); and their testing during the wilderness wanderings was typical of the testing of Christians during their present probation.

Bruce discerned this implication of Stephen’s words here:

There in the wilderness Moses was guide to the people; there they were constituted the [@ekklesia] of God; there they had the angel of the Presence in their midst; there they received the living oracles of God. What more could the people want? … and it was all theirs in the wilderness, far from the promised land and the holy city.(F14)

The living oracles … This designation of the word of God also appears in Romans 3:2, Hebrews 3:12, and 1 Peter 4:11. It means "the living word."

Verses 41-43

And they made a calf in those days, and brought a sacrifice unto the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their hands. But God turned, and gave them up: to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, Did ye offer unto me slain beasts and sacrifices Forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? And ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, And the star of the god Rephan, The figures which ye made to worship them: And I will carry you away beyond Babylon.

This quotation is from Amos 5:25 ff and was introduced here as a further comment by Stephen upon the apostasy of Israel; and although the outright rejection of God and the widespread idolatry during the period of the monarchy came much later, Stephen’s application of Amos’ prophecy shows that even during the period of the wilderness wanderings they had already rejected God in their hearts. As Hervey expressed it:

What Amos means to say is that because of the treacherous, unfaithful heart of Israel, as shown by the worship of the golden calf, and all their rebellions in the wilderness, all their sacrifices were worthless.(F15)

Moloch … This old god of the Ammonites "was worshipped at Mari about 1800 B.C.. and was associated with the sacrifice of children in the fire."(F16) Solomon built a high place for this god on a hill east of Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:7); Ahaz burned his children (2 Chronicles 28:3), and Manasseh did the same (2 Kings 21:6); and Samaria was judged for this sin (2 Kings 17:17).

Rephan … "This is the name of a god identified or connected with the planet Saturn."(F17) Adam Clarke says that "Moloch was generally understood to mean the sun";(F18) thus the declaration of Stephen that God "gave them up to serve the host of heaven" was accurate.

God gave them up … What Stephen here declared concerning Israel, Paul also declared concerning the Gentiles (Romans 1:24-28). For a somewhat extensive review of this see my Commentary on Romans, under Romans 1:25. God’s giving men up is not a passive judgment, but active. It means more than merely withdrawing from men that they may walk in their own lusts and includes a punitive judgment to the effect that those given up will reap the debauchery and degeneration which are the consequences of their rebellion.

In establishing the pattern of Israel’s repeated rejection of God, Stephen here brought into view the fact that not only had the ten northern tribes been lost entirely, but that even the southern remnant had been sent away into Babylon as punishment for their idolatry. See under Acts 26:7.


Verses 44-47

Our fathers had the tabernacle of the testimony in the wilderness, even as he appointed who spake unto Moses, that he should make it according to the figure that he had seen. Which also our fathers, in their turn, brought in with Joshua when they entered on the possession of the nations, that God thrust out before the face of our fathers, unto the days of David; who found favor in the sight of God, and asked to find a habitation for the God of Jacob. But Solomon built him a house.

According to the figure that he had seen … This is additional inspired testimony regarding the "pattern," here called "a figure," that Moses had received from God and according to which he was commanded to "make all things" (Hebrews 8:5). The immense importance of understanding that God has given a pattern which men must follow if they would please their Creator is fully disclosed under the heading, "All Things According to the Pattern," in my Commentary on Hebrews, under Hebrews 8:5.

But Solomon built him a house … When David’s conscience was aroused because of the luxury of his cedar-paneled palace contrasted with the tent-shrine that housed the ark of the covenant, the prophet Nathan made it clear to David that God did not want any temple built by him, but promised that a "son of David would arise and build a house for God" (2 Samuel 7). Stephen’s short reference to the temple of Solomon shows dramatically that the very temple itself was only a substitute for the greater temple of Christ himself, typical of the latter to be sure, and like the monarchy itself, allowed indeed of God; but still only a substitute for the real temple, which is Christ. This was the great message of the Christ that "One greater than the temple is here" (Matthew 12:6). (See John 2:20-22.) Stephen’s argument, then, is simply that Christ is the true temple, that "in Christ," not in some building," men are called to worship God. This was a categorical refutation of the notion that he had blasphemed God (i.e., the temple) by repeating the prophecy of Jesus that the Solomonic-Herodian temple would be destroyed. They, the Sanhedrinists, were blaspheming God by rejecting God’s true temple, Jesus of Nazareth!

Verses 48-50

Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not in houses made with hands; as saith the prophet, The heaven is my throne, And the earth the footstool of my feet: What manner of house will ye build me? saith the Lord: Or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?

Stephen summed up his argument by this appeal to the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 66:1 f), which set forth the impossibility of Almighty God’s actually dwelling in any house made by human hands. The great temple of the Jews had become in time a house of thieves and robbers; and, although God indeed had allowed it through the ages as typical of the greater temple yet to be revealed in Christ, it was never anything except a makeshift. Needless to say, such sentiments as these were enough to release the savage fury of the whole Sanhedrin against anyone who might dare to utter such thoughts. The fact that Isaiah had said the same thing in their sacred scriptures made no difference; they were experts at rationalizing the scriptures they did not like.

The teaching in view here is fundamental to Christianity. It is not in any house, but "in Christ," that one may receive all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3). There is no indication in Stephen’s oration that he anticipated anything other than the condemnation of his hearers, his purpose not being to "defend" himself in any practical sense, but to preach the truth "in Christ."

It was too much for the secular Sanhedrinists that the meek and lowly Jesus should represent himself as the long expected Messiah; but that his followers should begin preaching the "spiritual body" of the risen Lord as the true temple of God, that was enough to send them into a frenzy of vicious hatred, releasing the full savagery of their carnal passions against the Christians. There was simply no way that they could accommodate to such teachings. It was in the contemplation of this that their rejection of Christ and Christianity became final and irrevocable. Stephen read the situation of the Sanhedrinists at a glance and pronounced the judgment of the Holy Spirit against them.

Verses 51-53

Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? and they killed them that showed before of the coming of the Righteous One: of whom ye now have become betrayers and murderers; ye who received the law as it was ordained by angels, and kept it not.

This pronouncement was not an outburst of temper on the part of Stephen, but the announcement of God’s judgment upon evil men whose day of grace had at last expired; and it served as a fitting epitaph of the Jewish temple and its evil incumbents. The stroke of divine punishment was already poised and ready and the city which were so inseparably linked to the rejection and murder of the Son of God. There was utterly no way that God would permit their institution to thwart, in any permanent sense, the world-wide proclamation of the truth. In about thirty-five years after Stephen’s speech, the armies of Vespasian and Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, putting to death more than a million people, and severing from Jewish control the last effective device by which they might have hoped to destroy Christianity.

Verses 54-56

Now when they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

Gnashed on him with their teeth … does not mean that they bit or chewed upon Stephen’s flesh but that they were so infuriated that they ground their teeth together in a rage.

Saw the glory of God … It was fitting indeed that God should have given to the first Christian martyr such a glorious vision of eternal realities.

Jesus standing on the right hand of God … As Hervey said:

Sitting at the right hand of God is the usual attitude ascribed to our Lord in token of his victorious rest, and waiting for the day of judgment; but here he is seen standing, as rising to welcome his faithful martyr, and to place on his head the crown of life.(F19)

Son of man … Only here, in the word of God, is there the use of this title for Jesus except in his own words concerning himself.

Verses 57-58

But they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and rushed upon him with one accord; and 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.

Stopped their ears … rushed upon him … etc. This was a mob scene, not the execution of a deliberate sentence. It was illegal, no Roman sanction having been given for execution of the death penalty; and those critics who question John’s gospel with its reference repeatedly to Jewish efforts to stone Jesus, declaring such to have been illegal and therefore impossible, are frustrated by this episode. As Richardson said, "Here is a case of mob stoning such as is said to have been impossible.(F20)

The witnesses laid down their garments … This was probably the only formality observed during the mob stoning of Stephen. The ancient law required that the hands of the witnesses were to be first against the one stoned, and Adam Clarke tells us that "when they came to within four cubits of the place of execution, the victim was stripped naked."(F21) One cannot help wondering about those "witnesses" who had accepted money to swear lies against Stephen and thus found themselves to be his murderers also. Thus, once more, there is scriptural testimony of the relationship between lying and murder, these two sins having been named by Jesus as "works" of Satan (John 8:44), an Old Testament example of the same thing being that of Doeg (1 Samuel 22:9-18).

Young man named Saul … Here, in this bloody episode, there was evidence of the timeless principle that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." That young man was never to forget what his eyes that day beheld, what his heart felt, and what his conscience said; and there was born in his soul that instant an impression that would in time recruit him to the faith of Christ and energize the greatest evangelist of all ages.

Verse 59

And they stoned Stephen, calling upon the Lord, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.

The peculiar construction here has the effect of making "calling upon the Lord" equivalent to praying to Jesus personally. This is one of the few prayers in the New Testament directed to the Lord Jesus Christ, rather than to the Father through him.

Receive my spirit … This is a testimony to the fact that one’s spirit lives apart from the body; for Stephen asked the Lord to receive his spirit in the very act of his body’s death.

Verse 60

And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.

The similarity of the Greek New Testament in this verse and Acts 7:58 where it is related that the garments were placed in Saul’s charge has led to the conclusion that Stephen had Saul in mind in this prayer.

He kneeled down … This Stephen did that he might die in an attitude of prayer and as a servant of the beloved Master.

Lay not this sin … As Clarke commented:

Christ gave what some have supposed to be an impossible command: "Love your enemies; pray for them that despitefully use, and persecute you." But Stephen shows here in his own person how practicable the grace of his Master had made this sublime precept.(F22)

He fell asleep … Taking their cue from what Jesus had said regarding the sleep of Lazarus and that of the daughter of Jairus, the Christians quickly adopted this euphemism for death. It is not so much the superficial resemblances between ordinary sleep and the sleep of death, but the pledge of the resurrection which illuminates this beloved metaphor. Upon the gravestones of two millennia, the believing community of the saints in Christ have engraved upon the tombs of their beloved dead the sacred words, "Asleep in Jesus!"

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Acts 7". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/acts-7.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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