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1. Stephen’s arrest 6:8-7:1
The "high priest" probably refers to Caiaphas, the official high priest then, but possibly Luke meant Annas (cf. Acts 4:6). [Note: See my comments on 5:6.] Jesus had stood before both these men separately to face similar charges (John 18:13-14; John 18:24; Matthew 26:57). This was the third time that Christian leaders had defended their preaching before the Sanhedrin that Luke recorded in Acts (cf. Acts 4:15; Acts 5:27).
Stephen called for the Sanhedrin’s attention, addressing his hearers respectfully as "brethren and fathers" (cf. Acts 22:1). These men were his brethren, in that they were fellow Jews, and fathers, in that they were older leaders of the nation.
He took the title "God of glory" from Psalms 29:2 where it occurs in a context of God revealing His glory by speaking powerfully and majestically. God had revealed His glory by speaking this way to their father (ancestor) Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia (cf. Genesis 15:7; Nehemiah 9:7). Genesis 12:1-3 records God’s instruction for Abraham to leave his homeland to go to a foreign country that God would show him. Stephen was quoting from the Septuagint translation of Genesis 12:1. [Note: Barrett, p. 342.] According to Rackham, this is one of 15 historical problems in Stephen’s speech, but these problems include additions to previous revelation as well as apparent contradictions. [Note: Rackham, pp. 99-102. See Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, pp. 378-82, for suggested solutions to problems in Acts 7:4; Acts 7:14; Acts 7:16; Acts 7:43.]
At least three solutions are possible. First, Stephen may have been referring to a Jewish tradition that God first called Abraham in Ur. Second, he may have been telescoping Abraham’s moves from Ur and Haran and viewing them as one event. Third, he may have viewed Genesis 15:7 as implying Abraham’s initial call to leave Ur. [Note: See Bock, Acts, pp. 282-83.]
God directed Abraham to a promised land. The Promised Land had become a Holy Land to the Jews, and in Stephen’s day the Jews venerated it too greatly. We see this in the fact that they looked down on Hellenistic Jews, such as Stephen, who had not lived there all their lives. What was a good gift from God, the land, had become a source of inordinate pride that made the Jews conclude that orthodoxy was bound up with being in the land.
The Abrahamic Covenant 7:2-8
Stephen began his defense by going back to Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, and to the Abrahamic Covenant, God’s foundational promises to the Jews.
Stephen’s view of God 7:2-16
The false witnesses had accused Stephen of blaspheming God (Acts 6:11). He proceeded to show the Sanhedrin that his view of God was absolutely orthodox. However in relating Israel’s history during the patriarchal period, he mentioned things about God and the patriarchs that his hearers needed to reconsider.
2. Stephen’s address 7:2-53
As a Hellenistic Jew, Stephen possessed a clearer vision of the universal implications of the gospel than did most of the Hebraic Jews. It was this breadth of vision that drew attack from the more temple-bound Jews in Jerusalem and led to his arrest. His address was not a personal defense designed to secure his acquittal by the Sanhedrin. It was instead an apologetic for the new way of worship that Jesus taught and His followers embraced.
"On the surface it appears to be a rather tedious recital of Jewish history [cf. Acts 13:16-33] which has little relevance to the charges on which Stephen has been brought to trial; on closer study, however, it reveals itself as a subtile and skilful proclamation of the Gospel which, in its criticism of Jewish institutions, marks the beginning of the break between Judaism and Christianity, and points forward to the more trenchant exposition of the difference between the old faith and the new as expressed by Paul and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews." [Note: Neil, pp. 107-8.]
Luke evidently recorded this speech, the longest one in Acts, to explain and defend this new way of worship quite fully. He showed that the disciples of Jesus were carrying on God’s plan whereas the unbelieving Jews had committed themselves to beliefs and behavior that God had left behind and disapproved. The story of his speech opens with a reference to the God of glory (Acts 7:2), and it closes with mention of the glory of God (Acts 7:55).
The form of Stephen’s defense was common in his culture, but it is uncommon in western culture. He reviewed the history of Israel and highlighted elements of that history that supported his contentions. He built it mainly around outstanding personalities: Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and, to a lesser degree, David and Solomon. The first section (Acts 7:2-16) deals with Israel’s patriarchal period and refutes the charge of blaspheming God (Acts 6:11). The second major section (Acts 7:17-43) deals with Moses and the Law and responds to the charge of blaspheming Moses (Acts 6:11) and speaking against the Law (Acts 6:13). The third section (Acts 7:44-50) deals with the temple and responds to the charge of speaking against the temple (Acts 6:13) and saying that Jesus would destroy the temple and alter Jewish customs (Acts 6:14). Stephen then climaxed his address with an indictment of his hard-hearted hearers (Acts 7:51-53). Longenecker believed Stephen’s main subjects were the land (Acts 7:2-36), the Law (Acts 7:37-43), and the temple (Acts 7:44-50), plus a concluding indictment (Acts 7:51-53). [Note: Longenecker, pp. 337-48. For a rhetorical analysis of Stephen’s forensic oratory, see Witherington, p. 260-66.]
"Stephen . . . was endeavoring to show how the Christian message was fully consistent with and the culmination of OT revelation." [Note: Kent, p. 66.]
Stephen’s purpose was also to show that Jesus experienced the same things Abraham, Joseph, and Moses had experienced as God’s anointed servants. As the Sanhedrin recognized them as men whom God had anointed for the blessing of Israel and the world, so should they recognize Jesus. The people to whom these three patriarchs went as God’s representatives all initially rejected them but later accepted them, which is also Jesus’ history.
Stephen quoted from the Septuagint (Greek) Old Testament. This was the translation most commonly used by Hellenistic Jews such as himself. His selective history of Israel stressed the points that he wanted to make.
"In this discourse three ideas run like cords through its fabric:
"1. There is progress and change in God’s program. . . .
2. The blessings of God are not limited to the land of Israel and the temple area. . . .
"3. Israel in its past always evidenced a pattern of opposition to God’s plans and His men." [Note: Toussaint, "Acts," p. 369. Italics omitted.]
Obeying God’s call, Abraham left Mesopotamia, specifically Ur of the Chaldeans (cf. Genesis 15:7; Joshua 24:3; Nehemiah 9:7), and settled temporarily in Haran, near the top of the Fertile Crescent. After Abraham’s father Terah died, God directed Abraham south into Canaan, the land the Jews occupied in Stephen’s day (Genesis 12:5).
"A comparison of the data in Genesis (Genesis 11:26; Genesis 11:32; Genesis 12:4) seems to indicate that Terah lived another 60 years after Abraham left [Haran]. . . . The best solution seems to be that Abraham was not the oldest son of Terah, but was named first because he was the most prominent (Genesis 11:26)." [Note: Kent, p. 68.]
"It is more likely that Stephen is using an old and alternate Jewish tradition here that has left its trace in the LXX and the Samaritan Pentateuch, although the possibility also exists that Genesis 11:26 should be read differently, so that the MT and the LXX are closer than it might appear." [Note: Bock, Acts, p. 284.]
The father of Judaism was willing to depart from where he was to follow God into unknown territory on the word of God alone. The Jews in Stephen’s day were not willing to depart from where they were in their thinking even though God’s word was leading them to do so, as Stephen would point out. Stephen wanted them to follow Abraham’s good example of faith and courage.
Stephen also contrasted Abraham’s lack of inheritance in the land with God’s promise to give the land to Abraham’s descendants as an inheritance (Genesis 12:7; cf. Hebrews 11:8). God promised this when the patriarch had no children. Thus the emphasis is on God’s promise of future possession of the land through descendants to come. Of course, Abraham did possess the cave of Machpelah in Canaan (Genesis 23:3-20), but perhaps Stephen meant that God gave no continuing or full possession to Abraham.
The Jews of Stephen’s day needed to realize that God had not exhausted His promises to Abraham in giving them what they presently had and valued so highly. There was greater inheritance to come, but it would come to future generations of their descendants, not to them. Specifically it would come to those who continued to follow Abraham’s good example of faith by believing in Jesus. God sought to teach these Jews that there were spiritual descendants of Abraham who were not his physical descendants (Galatians 3:6-9; Galatians 3:29).
God also told Abraham that his offspring would be slaves and suffer mistreatment outside their land for 400 years (Genesis 15:13), namely, from the year their enslavement began, evidently 1845 B.C., to the Exodus, 1446 B.C. Some interpreters take the 400 years as a round number. [Note: See also Harold W. Hoehner, "The Duration of the Egyptian Bondage," Bibliotheca Sacra 126:504 (October-December 1969):306-16.]
The Israelites were currently under Roman oppression but were about to lose their freedom and experience antagonism outside the land for many years. Jesus had predicted this (Matthew 23:1 to Matthew 25:46).
God promised to punish the nations that oppressed Israel (Genesis 12:3) and to bring her back into the land ("this place") eventually (Genesis 15:13). God had told Moses that he would bring the Israelites out of Egypt and that they would worship Him at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 3:12). Stephen’s point was that God had promised to punish those who oppressed His people. The Jews had been oppressing the Christians by prohibiting their preaching and even flogging them (Acts 4:18; Acts 5:40). Gamaliel had warned that if the Christians were correct the Jewish leaders would be fighting against God by opposing them (Acts 5:39). God’s promise to judge His people’s oppressors went back into the Abrahamic Covenant, which the Jews treasured and Stephen reminded them of here.
Stephen probably referred to God giving Abraham the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17) because this was the sign that God would deliver what He had promised. It was the seal of the Abrahamic Covenant. God’s promise was firm. Moreover God enabled Abraham to father Isaac, whom Abraham obediently circumcised, and later Isaac gave birth to Jacob who fathered the 12 patriarchs. Thus this chapter in Israel’s history ends with emphasis on God’s faithfulness to His promises to Abraham. The Sanhedrin needed to reevaluate these promises in the light of how God was working in their day.
Stephen affirmed belief that the God of glory had given the Abrahamic Covenant, which contained promises of land (Acts 7:2-4), seed (Acts 7:5), and blessing (Acts 7:6-7). He had sealed this covenant with a sign, namely, circumcision (Acts 7:8). Circumcision was one of the Jewish customs that would pass away in view of the new revelation that had come through Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 6:14).
Throughout his speech Stephen made many statements that had revolutionary implications for traditional Jewish thinking of his day. He did not expound these implications, but they are clear in view of what the disciples of Jesus were preaching. As such his speech is a masterpiece of understatement, or rather non-statement. That the Sanhedrin saw these implications and rejected them becomes clear at the end of the speech when they reacted as negatively as possible.
The patriarchs, Joseph’s brothers, became jealous of him (Genesis 37:11) and sold him as a slave into Egypt (Genesis 37:28). One of Jesus’ 12 disciples was responsible for selling Him even as one of Joseph’s 11 brothers had been responsible for selling him. Nevertheless God was with Joseph (Genesis 39:2; Genesis 39:21) and rescued him from prison, gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh (lit. great house), and made him ruler over Egypt (Genesis 41:41) and his father’s family. God was with Joseph, even though his brothers rejected him, because he was one of God’s chosen people and because he followed God faithfully. This is what the Christians were claiming to be and do.
"The treatment of Joseph by his Hebrew brothers should have been a pointed reminder of the way Jesus had been dealt with by the Jewish nation." [Note: Kent, pp. 67-68.]
Like Joseph, Jesus’ brethren rejected and literally sold Him for the price of a slave. Nevertheless God was with Joseph and Jesus (Acts 7:9). God exalted Joseph under Pharaoh and placed Him in authority over his domain. God had done the same with Jesus.
God’s faithfulness to His people 7:9-16
Stephen next proceeded to show what God had done with Joseph and his family. He apparently selected this segment of the patriarchal narrative primarily for two reasons. First, it shows how God miraculously preserved His people in faithfulness to His promises. Second, it shows the remarkable similarity between the career of Joseph, a savior God raised up, and that of Jesus. Jesus repeated many of Joseph’s experiences illustrating God’s choice of Him. Also the Israelites in the present were similar to Joseph’s brothers in the past. Stephen’s emphasis continued to be on God’s faithfulness to His promises even though Joseph’s brothers were wicked and the chosen family was out of the Promised Land. Stephen mentioned Jesus explicitly only once in his entire speech, in his very last sentence (Acts 7:52). Nevertheless he referred to Him indirectly many times by drawing parallels between the experiences of Joseph and Moses and those of Jesus.
The Jews’ forefathers suffered from a famine in the Promised Land and sent to Egypt for food (Genesis 41:54-55; Genesis 42:2; Genesis 42:5). When hard times came upon God’s people, He sustained them and brought them into blessing and under the rule of Joseph. So will it be in the future with Jesus. The Jews would suffer hardship (in the destruction of Jerusalem and in the Tribulation) and then God will bring them into blessing under Jesus’ rule (in the Millennium).
On their second visit, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, who could not believe he was their ruler, and he revealed his family’s identity to Pharaoh (Genesis 45:1-4). In the future Israel will finally recognize Jesus as her Messiah (Zechariah 12:10-14). Joseph then invited Jacob and his family, who numbered 75, to move to Egypt (Genesis 45:9-10). I take it that this was the number of people invited to Egypt. Some interpreters believe 75 people entered Egypt.
"Stephen apparently cited the LXX figure which really was not an error, but computed the total differently by including five people which the Masoretic text did not." [Note: Ibid., p. 69.]
"One of the most widely accepted solutions is to recognize that the Hebrew text includes Jacob, Joseph, and Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (a total of 70), but that the Septuagint omits Jacob and Joseph but includes Joseph’s seven grandchildren (mentioned in 1 Chronicles 7:14-15; 1 Chronicles 7:20-25). This is supported by the Hebrew in Genesis 46:8-26 which enumerates 66 names, omitting Jacob, Joseph, and Joseph’s two sons." [Note: Toussaint, "Acts," p. 370. See also J. A. Alexander, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, pp. 226-67.]
The number of people who made the trip and entered Egypt was probably 70 (Genesis 46:26-27; Exodus 1:5; Deuteronomy 10:22). Jacob died safe and blessed under Joseph’s rule. So will Israel end its days under Jesus’ rule in the Millennium. Jacob died in Egypt as did his sons and their immediate descendants. Thus Acts 7:11-15 record a threat to the chosen people and God’s preservation of them, a second testimony to God’s faithfulness in this pericope (cf. Acts 7:9-10).
From Egypt the chosen people eventually returned to the Promised Land. God had been with them out of the land, and He now returned them to the land. Believers in Jesus will end up in the final resting place of Jesus, heaven.
Shechem was of special interest to Stephen. The Israelites buried Joseph’s bones there after their initial conquest of the land (Joshua 24:32). Stephen’s allusion to this event was his way of concluding this period of Israel’s history. Moses wrote that Jacob, not Abraham, had purchased the tomb from Hamor in Shechem (Genesis 33:19; cf. Genesis 23:16; Genesis 50:13). This is probably a case of attributing to an ancestor what one of his descendants did (cf. Hebrews 7:9-10). In the ancient Near Eastern view of things, people regarded an ancestor as in one sense participating in the actions of his descendants (Genesis 9:25; Genesis 25:23; cf. Malachi 1:2-3; Romans 9:11-13). Abraham had purchased Joseph’s burial site in the sense that his grandson Jacob had purchased it (cf. Hebrews 7:9-10). Stephen probably intended that his reference to Abraham rather than to Jacob would remind his hearers of God’s faithfulness in fulfilling the promises God gave to Abraham. He did this in one sense when Israel possessed Canaan under Joshua’s leadership. Israel will experience the ultimate fulfillment of God’s land promises to Abraham when she enters rest under Jesus’ messianic rule in the Millennium.
Two other explanations of this apparent error are these. Stephen telescoped two events into one: Abraham’s purchase from Ephron in Hebron (Genesis 23:1-20), and Jacob’s purchase from Hamor in Shechem. [Note: Bruce, Commentary on . . ., p. 149, n. 39.] Second, Abraham really did purchase the plot in Shechem, though Moses did not record that (cf. Genesis 12:6-7), and Jacob repurchased it later because the Canaanites had retaken it. [Note: J. Rawson Lumby, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 164-65. See also Wiersbe, 1:431.]
In Stephen’s day Shechem was in Samaritan territory. He reminded the Sanhedrin that their ancestral deliverer was buried in the land that orthodox Jews despised and avoided. This was another instance of helping them see that they should not think that the only place God worked was in the Promised Land. Stephen had already referred to Mesopotamia as where God had revealed Himself to Abraham (Acts 7:2).
Stephen had gotten ahead of himself briefly in Acts 7:16. Now he returned to his history of Israel just before the Exodus. "The promise" God had made to Abraham was that He would judge his descendants’ enslaving nation and free the Israelites (Genesis 15:14). This was a particular way that He would fulfill the earlier promises to give Israel the land, to multiply the Israelites, and to curse those nations that cursed Israel (Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 12:7). The Israelites increased in Egypt until another Pharaoh arose who disregarded Joseph (Exodus 1:7-8).
Similarly Christ had come in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4). Before Moses appeared on the scene, Israel increased in numbers and fell under the control of an enemy that was hostile to her. Likewise before Jesus appeared, Israel had increased numerically and had fallen under Roman domination.
The career of Moses 7:17-36
Stephen’s understanding of Moses was as orthodox as his view of God, but his presentation of Moses’ career made comparison with Jesus’ career unmistakable. As in the previous pericope, there is a double emphasis in this one, first, on God’s faithfulness to His promises in the Abrahamic Covenant and, second, on Moses as a precursor of Jesus.
"More specifically than in the life of Joseph, Stephen sees in the story of Moses a type of the new and greater Moses-Christ himself." [Note: Neil, p. 110.]
Stephen’s view of Moses and the Law 7:17-43
Stephen continued his review of Israel’s history by proceeding into the period of the Exodus. He sought to refute the charge that he was blaspheming against Moses (Acts 6:11) and was speaking against the Mosaic Law (Acts 6:13).
This Pharaoh took advantage of the Israelites and mistreated them by decreeing the death of their infants (Exodus 1:10; Exodus 1:16; Exodus 1:22). Like Pharaoh, Herod the Great had tried to destroy all the Jewish babies at the time of Jesus’ birth.
Moses, the great deliverer of his people, was born, preserved, protected (by Pharaoh’s daughter no less), and educated in Egypt.
". . . the pillar of the Law was reared in a foreign land and in a Gentile court." [Note: Ibid., p. 111.]
Moses became a powerful man in word (his writings?) and deed. All this took place outside the Promised Land, which further depreciated the importance of that land.
Like Moses, Jesus was lovely in God’s sight when He was born, because God chose Him, and Mary nurtured Him at home before He came under the control of the Egyptians temporarily (cf. Matthew 1:18-21). Moses had great knowledge, as did Jesus; both became powerful men in words and deeds (Acts 7:22).
". . . after forty years of learning in Egypt, God put him [Moses] out into the desert. There God gave him his B. D. degree, his Backside of the Desert degree, and prepared him to become the deliverer." [Note: McGee, 4:539.]
Moses’ presumptive attempt to deliver his people resulted in his having to flee Egypt for Midian where he became an alien (cf. Acts 7:6). These verses relate another story of an anointed leader of God’s people, like Joseph, being rejected by those people. Yet God did not abandon Moses or his people. God blessed Moses in a foreign land, Midian, by giving him two sons.
Moses offered himself as the deliverer of his brethren, but they did not understand him. The same thing happened to Jesus. Moses’ Jewish brethren who did not recognize that God had appointed him as their ruler and judge rejected him even though Moses sought to help them. Likewise Jesus’ Jewish brethren rejected Him. Moses’ brethren feared that he might use his power to destroy them rather than help them. Similarly the Jewish leaders feared that Jesus with His supernatural abilities might bring them harm rather than deliverance and blessing (cf. John 11:47-48). This rejection led Moses to leave his brethren and to live in a distant land where he fathered sons (Acts 7:29). Jesus too had left His people and had gone to live in a distant land where He was producing descendants (i.e., Christians).
It was in Midian, after 40 years, that God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. The angel that appeared to Moses was the Angel of the Lord, very possibly the preincarnate Christ (Acts 7:31-33; cf. Exodus 3:2; Exodus 3:6; Exodus 4:2; John 12:41; 1 Corinthians 10:1-4; Hebrews 11:26). God commanded Moses to return to Egypt as His instrument of deliverance for the Israelites. God revealed Himself and His Law outside the Holy Land.
Moses received a commission from God in Midian to return to his brethren to lead them out of their oppressed condition. Jesus, on God’s order, will return to the earth to deliver Israel from her oppressed condition during the Tribulation when He returns at His second coming.
The very man whom the Israelite leaders had rejected as their ruler and judge (Acts 7:27) God sent to fulfill that role with His help (cf. Acts 3:13-15). Moses proceeded to perform signs and wonders in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness.
The third reference to 40 years (cf. Acts 7:23; Acts 7:30; Acts 7:36) divides Moses’ career into three distinct parts. These stages were (1) preparation ending with rejection by his brethren, (2) preparation ending with his return to Egypt, and (3) ruling and judging Israel. The parallels with the career of Jesus become increasingly obvious as Stephen’s speech unfolds.
"Jesus too had been brought out of Egypt by Joseph and Mary, had passed through the waters of Jordan at his baptism (the Red Sea), and had been tempted in the wilderness for forty days." [Note: Neil, p. 111.]
As Moses became Israel’s ruler and judge with angelic assistance, so will Jesus. As Moses had done miracles, so had Jesus. The ultimate prophet that Moses had predicted would follow him was Jesus (cf. Acts 3:22).
"Stephen naturally lingers over Moses, ’in whom they trusted’ (Jn. Acts 7:45-47), showing that the lawgiver, rejected by his people (35), foreshadowed the experience of Christ (Jn. i. 11)." [Note: Blaiklock, p. 76.]
Stephen stressed the fact that "this" Moses was the man who had given the prophecy about the coming prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15) and had received other divine oracles for the Israelites. "This" (Gr. houtos estin) with the articular adjectival participle in Acts 7:37-38 is an intensified form of the demonstrative pronouns translated "this" in Acts 7:35 (touton) and 36 (houtos). Stephen clearly respected Moses, but he noted that Moses himself had predicted that a prophet like himself would appear (cf. Acts 3:22). Therefore the Jews should not have concluded that the Mosaic Law was the end of God’s revelation to them. The fact that Stephen spoke of the Mosaic Law as "living oracles" suggests that he viewed it more in its revelatory than in its regulatory aspect. [Note: See Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, p. 61.]
". . . preaching Christ was not disloyalty to an ancient tradition, but its fulfilment. This was powerful argument, and a continuation of Peter’s theme (iii. 22, 23). (This truth was to be more fully developed for similar minds in the Epistle to the Hebrews; see iii. 1-6, ix. 18-20, xii. 24).)" [Note: Blaiklock, p. 76.]
Jesus had spent a time of temptation in the wilderness (40 days), and had heard God speaking audibly from heaven at His baptism. He too had rubbed shoulders with Israel’s leaders and had received revelations from God for His people.
The teaching of Moses 7:37-43
Stephen continued dealing with the Mosaic period of Israel’s history, but he focused more particularly next on Moses’ teaching, the Mosaic Law. This is what the Jews of his day professed to venerate and follow exactly, but Stephen showed that they really had rejected what Moses taught.
The Israelites in the wilderness refused to listen to Moses and repudiated his leadership of them (Numbers 14:3-4; Exodus 32:1; Exodus 32:23). By insisting on the finality of the Mosaic Law so strongly, as they did, Stephen’s hearers were in danger of repudiating what Moses had prophesied about the coming prophet.
The Israelites refused to follow Moses but sought to return to their former place of slavery. So had Israel refused to follow Jesus but turned back instead to her former condition of bondage under the Law (cf. Galatians 5:1).
The Israelites turned from Moses to idolatry, and in this their high priest, Aaron, helped them. Consequently God gave them over to what they wanted (cf. Romans 1:24). He also purposed to send them into captivity as punishment (Amos 5:25-27).
By implication, turning from the revelation that Jesus had given amounted to idolatry. Stephen implied that by rejecting Moses’ coming prophet, Jesus, his hearers could expect a similar fate despite the sacrifices they brought to God.
"Stephen’s quotation of Amos 5:27, ’I will carry you away beyond Babylon,’ differs from the OT. Both the Hebrew text and the LXX say ’Damascus.’ The prophet Amos was foretelling the exile of the northern kingdom under the Assyrians which would take them beyond Damascus. More than a century later, the southern kingdom was captured because of her similar disobedience to God and was deported to Babylon. Stephen has merely substituted this phrase in order to use this Scripture to cover the judgment of God on the entire nation." [Note: Kent, pp. 70-71.]
Israel had turned from Jesus to idolatry, and her high priest had helped her do so. One of Stephen’s concerns in this speech then was false worship. The Israelites rejoiced in their idolatry in the wilderness and more recently since Jesus was out of the way. God had turned from them for their apostasy in the past, and He was doing the same in the present. They did not really offer their sacrifices to God, and He did not accept them since they had rejected His anointed Ruler and Judge. The Israelites were heading for another wilderness experience. They adopted a house of worship and an object of worship that were not God’s choice but their creations. God would remove them far from their land in punishment (i.e., in A.D. 70).
Stephen had answered his accusers’ charge that he had spoken against Moses (Acts 6:11; Acts 6:13) by showing that he believed what Moses had predicted about the coming prophet. It was really his hearers, like Jesus’ hearers earlier, who rejected Moses since they refused to allow the possibility of prophetic revelation that superseded the Mosaic Law.
"Joseph’s brethren, rejecting the beloved of their father, Moses’ people, turning with scorn and cursing on the one who only sought to give them freedom-these were prototypes which the audience would not fail to refer to themselves." [Note: Blaiklock, p. 76.]
Stephen pointed out that it was the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness that God had ordered built, not the temple. God even gave Moses blueprints to follow in constructing it because its design had instructive value. The tabernacle of testimony was important primarily because it contained God’s revealed will and it was the place that God’s presence dwelt in a localized sense. The "testimony" was the tablets of the Mosaic Law that rested in the ark of the covenant.
Stephen’s view of the temple 7:44-50
Stephen effectively refuted the general charges that he blasphemed God and Moses (Acts 6:11; cf Acts 7:2-16) and spoke against the Law (Acts 6:13; cf. Acts 7:17-43). He next addressed the charge that he spoke against the temple (Acts 6:13). The charges that he had said Jesus would destroy the temple and alter Jewish customs (Acts 6:14) were really specific accusations growing out of Stephen’s view of the temple.
The Jewish leaders of Stephen’s day attached inordinate importance to the temple, as they did to the Mosaic Law and the Promised Land. They had distorted God’s view of the temple as they had distorted His meaning in the Law. Instruction concerning both the Law, which specified Israel’s walk before people, and the tabernacle, which specified her worship of God, came to Moses when he was out of the Promised Land, at Mt. Sinai.
The tabernacle was so important that the Israelites brought it into the Promised Land when they conquered it under Joshua’s leadership. The Greek form of "Joshua" is "Jesus." God drove out the Canaanites in faithfulness to His promise to give the land to His people. The tabernacle continued to be God’s ordained center of worship through David’s reign.
God blessed David’s reign, and the tabernacle, not the temple, existed then. The initiative to build the temple was David’s, not God’s. It had been David’s desire to build God a more glorious place in which to dwell. However, God did not "jump" at this suggestion because He did not need another place in which to dwell.
"The temple, Stephen implies, was a royal whim, tolerated of God." [Note: Ibid., p. 77.]
God did not even permit David to build the temple. He was not that eager to have a temple. However, He allowed Solomon, a king who did not find as much favor in God’s sight as David did, to build it.
Stephen hastened to clarify that the Most High God, for whom a suitable house was certainly a reasonable desire, does not restrict Himself to a habitation constructed by humans. Solomon himself had acknowledged this when he dedicated the temple (cf. 1 Kings 8:27; Isaiah 66:1-2).
"Judaism never taught that God actually lived in the temple or was confined to its environs but spoke of his ’Name’ and presence as being there. In practice, however, this concept was often denied. This would especially appear so to Stephen, when further divine activity was refused out-of-hand by the people in their preference for God’s past revelation and redemption as symbolized in the existence of the temple." [Note: Longenecker, p. 346.]
Stephen quoted Isaiah 66:1-2 for support. He referred to Isaiah as "the prophet." As a prophet Isaiah was worthy of as much respect as Moses. Significantly the last part of Isaiah 66:2 says that God esteems those who are humble and contrite in spirit and who tremble at His word. Stephen left this timely and powerful challenge unstated for his hearers.
"It would seem that these verses form the real thrust of Stephen’s speech. In quoting with approval Isaiah’s words, Stephen would appear to imply that, as Christ is the new Moses, he is also the new Temple. In him and through him alone can men approach God." [Note: Neil, p. 114. Cf. John 2:19, 21; Ephesians 2:19-22; Hebrews 9:1-10; 1 Peter 2:5.]
Stephen reminded the Sanhedrin that the temple, which they venerated excessively, was not the primary venue of God’s person and work. He was arguing that Jesus was God’s designated replacement for the temple, as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews also taught.
There have been three major interpretations of Stephen’s view of the temple: God would replace it, God had rejected it, or God is above it. All three views are implications of Stephen’s words. [Note: See Dennis D. Sylva, "The Meaning and Function of Acts 7:46-50," Journal of Biblical Literature 106:2 (1987):261-75.]
"Throughout his speech he has, of course, been undermining the superstition which exalted a place of worship. The first great revelations of God had, in fact, taken place in foreign lands, Ur, Sinai, Midian, long before the temple existed (2-4, 29-34, 44-50)." [Note: Blaiklock, p. 77.]
By rejecting Jesus the Sanhedrin was doing just what their forefathers had done in rejecting God’s other anointed servants, such as Joseph and Moses. They were "stiff-necked," a figure of speech for self-willed. Moses used this expression to describe the Israelites when they rebelled against God and worshipped the golden calf (cf. Exodus 33:5; Deuteronomy 9:13). While Stephen’s hearers had undergone physical circumcision, and were proud of it, they were uncircumcised in their affections and responsiveness to God’s Word. They were resisting the Holy Spirit rather than allowing Him to control (fill) them. They were similar to the apostates in Israel’s past (cf. Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16) whom former prophets had rebuked (cf. Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 9:26). By resisting Stephen, who was full of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:3; Acts 6:5), they were resisting the Holy Spirit.
Stephen’s accusation 7:51-53
Stephen concluded his defense by indicting his accusers. They had brought charges against him, but now he brought more serious charges against them.
In his first speech to the Sanhedrin, Peter had been quite brief and forthright (Acts 4:8-12). He had presented Jesus as the only name by which people must be saved (Acts 4:12). In his second speech to that body, Peter had again spoken briefly but more directly (Acts 5:29-32). He had charged the Sanhedrin with crucifying the Prince and Savior whom God had provided for His people (Acts 5:30-31). In this third speech before the Sanhedrin, Stephen spoke extensively giving even more condemning evidence. The Sanhedrin was guilty of unresponsiveness to God’s word and of betraying and murdering the Righteous One (Acts 7:52).
The Sanhedrin members were behaving just as their forefathers had. Note that Stephen had previously associated himself with "our fathers" (Acts 7:2; Acts 7:11-12; Acts 7:15; Acts 7:19; Acts 7:39; Acts 7:44-45), but now he disassociated himself from the Sanhedrin by referring to "your fathers." "Our fathers" were the trusting and obeying patriarchs, but "your fathers" were the unresponsive apostates. The Jews’ ill treatment of their prophets was well known and self-admitted (cf. 2 Chronicles 36:15-16; Nehemiah 9:26; Jeremiah 2:30). They had consistently resisted God’s messengers to them, even killing the heralds of God’s Righteous One (cf. Acts 3:14; 1 Kings 19:10; 1 Kings 19:14; Nehemiah 9:26; Jeremiah 26:20-24; Luke 6:23; Luke 11:49; Luke 13:34; 1 Thessalonians 2:15; Hebrews 11:36-38). Stephen said the Sanhedrin members were responsible for the betrayal and murder of that one, Jesus.
Their guilt was all the greater because they had received God’s law, which angels had delivered (Deuteronomy 33:2 LXX; cf. Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2), but they had disobeyed it. They were the real blasphemers (defiant sinners). Stephen, as an angel (cf. Acts 6:15), had brought them new insight, but they were about to reject it too.
The primary theme of Stephen’s speech is that Israel’s leaders had failed to recognize that God had told His people ahead of time that they could expect a change. They had falsely concluded that the present state of Judaism was the final stage in God’s plan of revelation and redemption. We too can become so preoccupied with the past and the present that we forget what God has revealed about the future. We need to keep looking ahead.
"He [Stephen] 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 who were not afraid to obey it [cf. Acts 7:3; Acts 7:15; Acts 7:29; Acts 7:36; Acts 7:45]. The great men were the men who were prepared to make the adventure of faith. 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." [Note: Barclay, p. 53.]
A second related theme is that Israel’s leaders had departed from God’s priorities to give prominence to secondary issues for their own glory (the Holy Land, Moses, the temple). We also can think too highly of our own country, our leaders, and our place of worship.
Another related theme, the theme of Israel’s rejection of the Lord’s anointed servants, also runs through Stephen’s speech. Jesus was another of God’s anointed servants. The Jews had dealt with Him as they had dealt with the other anointed servants whom God had sent them. They could expect to experience the consequences of their rejection as their forefathers had. We need to observe the pattern of humiliation followed by glorification that has marked the careers of God’s servants in the past and to anticipate that pattern in our own careers.
". . . it [Stephen’s defense] is not designed to secure Stephen’s acquittal of the charges brought against him, but to proclaim the essence of the new faith. It has been well said that, although the name of Christ is never mentioned, Stephen is all the while ’preaching Jesus’. He is demonstrating that everything in Israel’s past history and experience pointed forward to God’s culminating act in his plan for the redemption of the world in sending the Christ. The witness of Abraham, Joseph, Moses and David in one way or another underlined the transitory nature of existing Jewish institutions and the hollowness of Jewish claims to have the monopoly of the way to salvation. The presence of God could not be restricted to one Holy Land or confined in one holy Temple, nor could his Law be atrophied in the ceremonialism of the Sadducees or the legalism of the Pharisees." [Note: Neil, p. 116.]
Stephen’s speech demonstrated remarkable insight, but this was more than mere human genius because the Holy Spirit was controlling (filling) him (Acts 6:5; Acts 6:10). While it is easy to overstate Stephen’s importance, He seems to have understood the changes that would take place because of the Jews’ rejection of Jesus. He did so earlier and more clearly than some of the other leaders of the Jerusalem church such as Peter (cf. ch. 10). He appears to have been an enlightened thinker whom God enabled to see the church’s future in relationship to Israel as few did this early in the church’s history. Many Hebrew Jewish Christians-who still observed the Jewish hour of prayer, feasts, and temple ritual-probably did not appreciate this relationship. Stephen was in a real sense the forerunner of Paul who became the champion of God’s plan to separate Christianity from Judaism.
"So he [Stephen] perceived, and evidently was the first to perceive clearly, the incidental and temporary character of the Mosaic Law with the temple and all its worship. This was the first germ of doctrine which S. Paul was afterward to carry out to its full logical and far-reaching consequences, viz. the perfect equality of Jew and Gentile in the church of God . . .
"S. Stephen then is the connecting link between S. Peter and S. Paul-a link indispensable to the chain. Stephen, and not Gamaliel, was the real master of S. Paul. . . . For ’the work’ of Stephen lasts on till chapter xii (see xi 19), and then it is taken up by his greater pupil and successor-Paul." [Note: Rackham, p. 87-88.]
There have been scholars who believed that Stephen probably did not understand the issues behind the cause for which he died. [Note: E.g., Adolph Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity, 1:50.] However a careful study of his speech reveals that he did.
3. Stephen’s death 7:54-8:1a
Stephen’s speech caused a revolution in the Jews’ attitude toward the disciples of Jesus, and his martyrdom began the first persecution of the Christians.
Luke recorded the Sanhedrin’s response to Stephen’s message to document Jesus’ continued rejection by Israel’s leaders. He did so to explain why the gospel spread as it did and why the Jews responded to it as they did following this event.
"Cut to the quick" is a figure of speech that describes being painfully wounded. Stephen’s charge of always resisting God’s Spirit convicted and offended the members of the Sanhedrin. They retaliated fiercely. Gnashing (grinding) the teeth pictures brutal antagonism.
"The possibilities are that what took place was a spontaneous act of mob violence or that Stephen was legally executed by the Sanhedrin, either because there was some kind of special permission from the Romans or because there was no Roman governor at the time and advantage was taken of the interregnum. The first of these possibilities is the more likely." [Note: Marshall, The Acts . . ., p. 148.]
Fully controlled by the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 6:3; Acts 6:5; Acts 6:8; Acts 6:15) Stephen received a vision of Jesus standing beside God in all His glory. This vision of God’s throne room in heaven is similar to visions that Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and John saw.
The unusual fact that Stephen saw Him standing rather than seated, as the biblical writers elsewhere describe Him (e.g., Psalms 110:1), may imply several things. It may imply His activity as prophet and mediator standing between God and man, and as a witness since He was witnessing through His witnesses on earth.
"Stephen has been confessing Christ before men, and now he sees Christ confessing His servant before God. The proper posture for a witness is the standing posture. Stephen, condemned by an earthly court, appeals for vindication to a heavenly court, and his vindicator in that supreme court is Jesus, who stands at God’s right hand as Stephen’s advocate, his ’paraclete.’ When we are faced with words so wealthy in association as these words of Stephen, it is unwise to suppose that any single interpretation exhausts their significance. All the meaning that had attached to Psalms 110:1 and Daniel 7:13 f. is present here, including especially the meaning that springs from their combination on the lips of Jesus when He appeared before the Sanhedrin; but the replacement of ’sitting’ by ’standing’ probably makes its own contribution to the total meaning of the words in this context-a contribution distinctively appropriate to Stephen’s present role as martyr-witness." [Note: Bruce, Commentary on . . ., pp. 168-69. Cf. Witherington, p. 275.]
"Standing" may also imply Jesus’ welcome of Stephen into His presence as the first Christian martyr.
"Here Jesus, functioning as Judge, welcomed Stephen into heaven, showing that despite earthly rejection, Stephen was honored in heaven." [Note: Bock, "A Theology . . .," p. 111.]
Psalms 110:1 describes Messiah as at God’s right hand, where Stephen saw Jesus. Jesus’ position in relation to God suggests His acceptance by Him, His authority under God, and His access to God.
Stephen announced his vision and described Jesus as the "Son of Man" (cf. Revelation 1:13; Revelation 14:14). This was a title of the Messiah that implied the universal aspect of his rule that Daniel used (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus alone used this title of Himself in the Gospels. He had used it of Himself when He stood before the Sanhedrin not many weeks earlier (Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69). Stephen was virtually saying that his vision confirmed Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man. Access to God is through Jesus Christ, not through temple ritual, as the Jews taught (1 Timothy 2:5).
Stephen’s declaration amounted to blasphemy to the Sanhedrin. They knew that when he said "Son of Man" he meant "Jesus." Furthermore, the Jews believed that no one had the right to be at God’s right hand in heaven. [Note: Ibid.] The Sanhedrin members therefore cried out in agony of soul, covered their ears so they would hear no more, and seized Stephen to prevent him from saying more or escaping. Stoning was the penalty for blasphemy in Israel (Leviticus 24:16; Deuteronomy 17:7), and the Sanhedrin members went right to it.
In the three trials before the Sanhedrin that Luke recorded thus far, the first ended with a warning (Acts 4:17; Acts 4:21), the second with flogging (Acts 5:40), and the third with stoning (Acts 7:58-60). The Sanhedrin now abandoned Gamaliel’s former moderating advice (Acts 5:35-39). It did not have the authority to execute someone without Roman sanction, and Jewish law forbade executing a person on the same day as his trial. [Note: Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:1.] However since witnesses were present to cast the first stones, as the Mosaic Law prescribed, Stephen’s death seems not to have been simply the result of mob violence but official action. Probably it was mob violence precipitated and controlled by the Sanhedrin along the lines of Jesus’ execution.
"The message of Stephen, it seems, served as a kind of catalyst to unite Sadducees, Pharisees, and the common people against the early Christians." [Note: Longenecker, p. 351.]
Saul of Tarsus was there and cooperated with the authorities by holding their cloaks while they carried out their wicked business (cf. Acts 8:1; Acts 22:20). He was then a "young man" (Gr. neanias, cf. Acts 20:9; Acts 23:17-18; Acts 23:22), but we do not know his exact age. Since he died about A.D. 68 and since Stephen probably died about A.D. 34, perhaps Saul was in his mid-thirties. Jesus and Saul appear to have been roughly contemporaries. This verse does not imply that Saul was a member of the Sanhedrin. [Note: See Simon Légasse, "Paul’s Pre-Christian Career according to Acts," in The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting; Vol. 4: The Book of Acts in Its Palestinian Setting, pp. 365-90.]
Stephen called upon the Lord (Gr. epikaloumenon), as Peter had exhorted his hearers to do for deliverance (Acts 2:21). Stephen died as Jesus did, with prayers for his executioners being his last words (cf. Luke 23:34; Luke 23:46; cf. 2 Chronicles 24:22; Luke 6:27-28). However, Stephen prayed to Jesus whereas Jesus prayed to His Father. Luke probably wanted his readers to connect the two executions, but they were not exactly the same. Some commentators have argued that Luke presented Stephen’s execution as a reenactment of Jesus’ execution. [Note: E.g., Charles H. Talbert, Luke and the Gnostics, p. 76.]
"Between Stephen and Jesus there was communion of nature, there was communion of testimony, there was communion of suffering, and finally there was communion of triumph." [Note: Morgan, p. 142.]
Stephen’s body, not his soul, fell asleep to await resurrection (cf. Acts 13:36; John 11:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:15; et al.).
"For Stephen the whole dreadful turmoil finished in a strange peace. He fell asleep. To Stephen there came the peace which comes to the man who has done the right thing even if the right thing kills him." [Note: Barclay, p. 62.]
"As Paul is to become Luke’s hero, in that he more than any other single man was instrumental in spreading the Gospel throughout the Gentile world, so Stephen here receives honourable recognition as the man who first saw the wider implications of the Church’s faith and laid the foundations on which the mission to the Gentiles was built." [Note: Neil, p. 105.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Acts 7". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany