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Chapter 7 Stephen’s Defence and Counter-Attack Before The Sanhedrin.
Having been brought before the Sanhedrin, Stephen was now called on to answer the charges of blasphemy made against him. Up to this point no blame could attach to the Sanhedrin. It was in fact the Sanhedrin’s solemn duty to examine a charge of blasphemy. They were not to be seen as at fault for doing that. What they were at fault for was not calmly and fairly considering the evidence.
Chapter 7 Stephen’s Defence and Counter-Attack Before The Sanhedrin.
Having been brought before the Sanhedrin, Stephen was now called on to answer the charges of blasphemy made against him. Up to this point no blame could attach to the Sanhedrin. It was in fact the Sanhedrin’s solemn duty to examine a charge of blasphemy. They were not to be seen as at fault for doing that. What they were at fault for was not calmly and fairly considering the evidence.
‘And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” ’
We are left to recognise that the High Priest, the chairman of the tribunal, has had the charges laid out before the court. He then turns to Stephen and asks severely, ‘Is this true? Are these things so?’. It was a fair question.
The Preaching and Martyrdom of Stephen (6:8-7:60).
It is one of the exciting things about serving God that we never know what He is going to do next. In Acts 6:1-7 the Apostles had rid themselves of the administrative burden of ‘serving tables’ and dealing with the administration of food to needy Hellenistic Christians, by appointing seven men to perform the task, one of whom was named Stephen. Little did they dream that God would then choose to take Stephen and give him a ministry similar to that of the Apostles. And even less did anyone realise that shortly he would be promoted to glory by way of martyrdom.
Stephen was a Hellenistic Jewish Christian (essentially Greek speaking and previously attendant at synagogues where Greek was basically used) and his ideas and interpretations of the Old Testament were therefore probably more liberal than those of the Hebraic Jewish Christians, although we must not make too much of this for what he would shortly say in his defence was perfectly orthodox.
But it may help to explain why he caused a furore where the Apostles had not. The Hellenistic Jews in general may well have laid less emphasis on the centrality of the Temple and its accompanying ritual, interpreting the Scriptures more allegorically (as Philo, a Hellenistic Jew, certainly did in Alexandria). On the other hand the Apostles, centring their message on Christ, and on what He had come to do and finally accomplish, seemingly otherwise kept common cause with their Jewish brethren. Their present view was of a transformed Judaism, responsive to Jesus Christ. They had not yet considered wider issues.
Stephen appears to have stressed that in Christ ‘the land’ and the Temple had ceased to hold a position of prime importance. Now it was Christ, coming as the Saviour of men, Who was to take central stage. And the thoughts of men should therefore be more centred on Him than on Temple ritual. It was not that he abandoned the Temple completely. It was that he deprecated the hold that it had on people, when he felt that their focus should be centred on Christ. These are the ideas that will shortly come to the fore in his final defence. Men, he declares, should not be looking to the land, or to the Temple, they should be looking to God’s great Deliverer.
Thus as a Hellenist he went to synagogues in Jerusalem which the Apostles had probably little touched, for there were many synagogues of all shades of opinion in Jerusalem. But one thing is certainly clear. His declaration of the faith was powerfully effective.
Up to this point the main opponents of the new born church have been the Sadducees, for the witness of the church appears to have been focussed through the Temple, although they had no doubt taken up opportunities to speak elsewhere. However, on the whole the Pharisees appear to have tolerated them. But now Stephen would take his witness into the synagogues in no uncertain fashion, and there he would be in direct confrontation with the Pharisees. Thus the Sadducean opposition would now be bolstered by the Pharisees.
‘And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get you out of your land, and from your kindred, and come into the land which I shall show you.’ ” ’
Stephen begins his reply in a conciliating way, ‘brethren and fathers’. He is affirming his oneness with them as a Jew, and giving respect to those in authority. Then he asks them to ‘listen’, and consider his defence.
He continues his introduction by using a title for God which indicated deep reverence. He calls Him ‘the God of glory’. This idea lay at the heart of Jewish views about God. He was the God of the Shekinah. This phrase would be well known to his hearers and is taken from Psalms 29:3. It stands there in conjunction with an ascription of glory to God which is such that it could only serve to repudiate any charge of dishonouring God. By it he portrays the highest possible view of God. The full context reads (Psalms 29:1-3):
“Ascribe to Yahweh, O you sons of the mighty,
Ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength.
Ascribe to Yahweh the glory due to his name;
Worship Yahweh in holy array.
The voice of Yahweh is on the waters.
The God of glory thunders,
Even Yahweh on many waters.”
No one could doubt there his deep regard for God and His name. Then he moves on to explain what according to his beliefs the God of glory had done.
‘The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get you out of your land, and from your kindred, and come into the land which I shall show you.’ We are probably intended to see the reference to ‘Mesopotamia’ (the land between the Rivers), spoken of in Acts 7:4 as ‘the land of the Chaldaeans’, as significant. ‘The Chaldaeans’ were by this time remembered for their magic and sorcery and mysterious religious practises, and their land had ever been seen as ominously important because it was there that the first godless empire was founded (Genesis 10:9-12) and it was there that they offended God with the tower which was the result of their God-provoking aspirations (Genesis 11:1-9). It was the land of rebellion and of the occult (see Isaiah 47:12-13). Isaiah constantly revealed Babylon as the great blasphemer and anti-God that had had to be destroyed (Isaiah 13:19-20; Isaiah 14:14-20; Isaiah 47:7-15). It was from such a background, says Stephen, that God called out Abraham in His first act of deliverance for His people.
He ‘appeared to Abraham.’ This was the first of a number of such theophanies which Abraham would be privileged to enjoy. It was an act of sovereign graciousness, and Stephen is concerned that his hearers remember that when God had appeared to Abraham it was while he was at Babylon, the very centre of all opposition to God. Haran was neighbouring country to Canaan, but it was Mesopotamia that had always been the grim far off enemy (compare Genesis 14:1).
‘When he was in Mesopotamia.’ Had we had only the Genesis text to go by, it might not be so apparent that it first happened in Mesopotamia. For while Genesis 12:1 does inform us that God said to Abraham, ‘Get you out of your land, and from your kindred, and come into the land which I shall show you’, when examined in the context of Genesis the statement appears to follow the description of the death of Terah in Haran (Genesis 11:32), and to be connected with that (Genesis 12:4) rather than with the departure from Ur.
However, Jewish tradition saw the statement as referring back to Ur, and the connection of the statement with what has gone before is in fact loose, for in Genesis the purpose of the statement in Acts 12:1, which is addressed to Abraham and not to Terah, is more in order to introduce what follows, than to tie in with what has gone before. What went before was simply a general statement of Terah’s historical movement from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran, with a view to entering Canaan, an aim which he did not achieve, and the Lord is not portrayed as having said anything about this to Terah who was an idol worshiper (Joshua 24:14). Nevertheless it is quite clear in Genesis that Terah’s intention to enter Canaan had been formulated at Ur, and the assumption would be made that God was overall behind it. That is why it is mentioned. No one would therefore doubt that it was then also that God’s intention had started for Abraham had started, for they saw God as sovereign over all.
That being so the Jews read Acts 12:1 back to this intention. As Hebrew verbs are not time-specific, reading the opening verb with the equivalent significance of ‘the Lord had said’ meant that it was quite possible for it to be seen by Jewish interpreters as quite reasonable to relate the statement to God’s continual purpose for Abraham right from the beginning in Ur, and to see it as covering the whole. And that that was how Jews in general did see it is confirmed in both Philo and Josephus.
They therefore argued that God had had a purpose for Abraham from the time of Ur onwards, and thus that the words of God in Acts 12:1 could be applied back to there. Nor can it be doubted that it had been God’s purpose in Ur that Abraham should arrive in Canaan. That is something that the writer in Genesis would certainly have agreed was true, as would Stephen’s hearers. To them nothing like this could have happened by accident, for in the end God was behind all such decisions. That is why the same idea connecting Abraham’s departure with Ur is found in Philo and Josephus, and it was a generally held view among the Jews that God had spoken to Abraham right from the beginning.
Stephen certainly wants us to see that this first break with Babylon came in obedience to God’s command and purpose, in readiness for his later reference to Israel’s return ‘beyond Babylon’ in unbelief (Acts 7:43) which was to be seen as the result of disobedience and rejection of His purpose. There is an intentional comparison between Abraham’s obedience in leaving Babylon (expressing the name in other terms in order avoid the stigma attached to the name) and its idolatry, as contrasting right from the start of his speech with Israel’s later disobedience in turning to idolatry, which finally resulted in the return to Babylon, and a further comparison between Abraham’s willing rejection of Babylon as contrasted with Israel’s helpless acceptance of it.
From Abraham to the Prophet Like Moses - Reply To The Charge of Blasphemy Against God and Moses (7:2-43).
The only way Stephen had of replying to charges of blasphemy when he had no supporting witnesses was to make clear what his whole theological position was and demonmstrate that in fact it was his oponents who were open to the charges. And that he set out to do. It is noteworthy that the background to the speech, together with the first part of the speech takes up ideas which are then applied much later on. For example:
1) They had seen Stephen’s face as though it had been the face of an angel (Acts 6:15) and later the charge against them is that they ‘received the Law as ordained by angels and kept it not’ (Acts 7:53). God had again given them their opportunity to listen to His messenger (angel) and they rejected it.
2) He commences his speech speaking of the God of glory (Acts 7:2) and the speech ends with a vision of the glory of God (Acts 7:55).
3) Abraham was delivered by being called from the land of the Chaldaeans (Babylon) (Acts 7:4), and in the end his descendants were carried back beyond Babylon (Acts 7:43).
4) Abraham and his seed were given the covenant of circumcision (Acts 7:8), but in the end their successor’s hearts were seen to be uncircumcised (Acts 7:51).
In respect of 3) we may detect a further pattern which covers the first part of his defence:
a Abraham with his household goes out to freedom from idolatry, fleeing from Babylon (Acts 7:1-4 a).
b Abraham’s descendants live outside the land free from idolatry, looking for their future hope (Acts 7:4-8).
c Joseph the Deliverer from affliction is raised up, rejected, and finally delivers. The patriarchs are buried in the land (Acts 7:9-16).
c Moses the Deliverer from affliction is raised up, rejected, and finally delivers. The people possess the land (Acts 7:17-38).
b Abraham’s descendant’s live in the land and look to idols,(Acts 7:39-43 a).
a Abraham’s descendants are returned to Babylon (Acts 7:43 b).
‘Then came he out of the land of the Chaldaeans, and dwelt in Haran, and from there, when his father was dead, God removed him into this land, in which you now dwell,’
So Abraham had left behind him the land of the Chaldaeans at God’s command and had dwelt in Haran. And from there he had later, when his father was dead, removed into Canaan. Note the two stages in his journey, only the second of which brought him ‘home’. This compares later with the two visits of the brothers to Egypt only the second of which resulted in their knowing Joseph (Acts 7:12-13), and the two appearances to his people by Moses, only the second of which resulted in his acceptance as deliverer (Acts 7:27; Acts 7:35). This was Stephen’s way of making palatable to his hearers the possibility of conversion to Jesus Christ, even though they had not at first recognised Him. They too could take the second chance.
‘When his father was dead.’ Even though Abraham may have take his flocks into Canaan well before this, it would have been unfilial to show him as permanently leaving his father’s household while his father was alive. It would be considered that if, while acting as a shepherd, he had taken his flocks and his household to Canaan this would, while his father was still alive, only have been seen as ‘temporary’. It was only when his father was dead that the ties could be cut. Compare Jacob’s ‘temporary’ move to Paddan-Aram which lasted over twenty years, but always with the thought that he would return, and the movements of Jacob’s sons as they fed their flocks in various places constantly away from ‘home’, so that Joseph had to travel quite a distance in order to visit them. But always the contact remained with ‘home’. The place to which they had gone was never ‘home’. In the same way Abraham would still, as a dutiful son, essentially be seen as subject to Terah’s summons to return. Where Terah was would still be his ‘home’. It would only be his father’s death that would finally make Canaan ‘home’. It was at that stage that Abraham would finally and firmly be settled in the land never to return to his father’s household.
We may also note the possibility that Abraham was mentioned first of the three sons in Genesis 11:26 only because of his prominence in the ensuing narrative, rather than because he was the eldest son. Thus the son born when Terah was ‘seventy’ may have been Nahor or Haran. (It was after all Nahor who was named after his grandfather, and Haran had a grown up daughter for Nahor to marry). Abraham may have been born much later and have been the youngster. Thus if we were to take the numbers literally we might see Abraham as having been born when Terah was one hundred and thirty.
However, this assumes that the numbers were intended to be taken literally, and with ancient numbers that is always doubtful, especially when they are round numbers. Numbers were used to convey information, and not necessarily numerical information. Indeed it will be noted that all the numbers in the narrative are in fact round numbers (to the early Hebrews numbers ending in five appear to have been round numbers). Thus seventy may have indicated simply the divine perfection of Abraham’s birth (taken literally seventy would have been very late in time for the bearing of a firstborn) while two hundred and five may have represented ‘two hundred’ as dying in middle age (thus not three hundred which would represent old age) with the five indicating covenant connection because of his connection with Abraham, the man of the covenant. Seventy five could then again signify the seventy of divine perfection with again covenant connection (note how many ages in the early list of patriarchs ended in five).
‘And he gave him no 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.’
But even though Abraham had at last made Canaan his ‘home’ he had had no permanent possession in it. God had given him no inheritance there, not so much as one place to set his foot on (and say, ‘this is mine’). He walked alone with God, freed now from the influence of Babylon, the centre of idolatry and the occult, and freed from Haran where the moon god was worshipped, and tied to no land. Instead he was tied to God.
What, however, God did do was give the promise that one day it would belong to Abraham’s seed. It was a future hope, not a present possession. Note here how his seed possessing it is equated with him possessing it. He will possess it in his seed. And this promise was made even before Abraham had children. So the promise included the thought that he would have children. God was thus not calling Abraham to possess the land. He was calling him to live in faith and trust. This is also made clear in Genesis 15:6, ‘and he believed in the Lord, and He counted it to him for righteousness’. Stephen clearly did not see a graveyard and cave as even contributing to possession of the land (Genesis 23:0).
Thus Abraham is seen as delivered from Babylon and with neither land nor family. What he possessed was freedom from idolatry so that he could worship where he would, along with the presence of God and future hope. He required nothing else.
‘And God spoke in this vein, that his seed would sojourn in a strange land, and that they would bring them into bondage, and treat them ill, four hundred years.’
Nor did God promise immediate possession of the land for his seed. They also would be away from the land for four hundred years (Genesis 15:13). Thus it was clearly not their possession of the land that mattered, but that they were His people, with a future hope. They would indeed live in a strange land. And there they would in time be in bondage, and would be ill-treated (as Stephen and his hearers were being in Palestine at that time under Roman rule). The ‘four hundred years’ relates to ‘sojourn’, not to the being in bondage, which would be for only part of that time. But both would be with a future hope.
‘And the nation to which they will be in bondage I will judge, said God, and after that shall they come forth, and serve me in this place.’
And eventually God would act. God would judge those who held them in bondage, after which, God said, “they will come out and serve Me ‘in this place’.” In Exodus 3:12 ‘in this place’ signified the mountain of God, and as Stephen has put the words on God’s lips it is probable that he intends the original context to stand. This is thus the first instance where he stresses that ordained worship of God is to be away from the land in a place chosen by God (note how he later stresses ‘the wilderness Tabernacle’).
The assumption here is that God will eventually raise up a ‘judge’ (‘I will judge’) and a deliverer, and it is thus no accident that when Moses appears to present himself to the people he does so as ruler and ‘judge’ (compare ‘and a judge’ in Acts 7:27).
This all makes clear that the land was to be a reward in the future, while future worship was not tied to the land. The land was thus not an essential foundation of their religious life. It was to be seen as the blessing to come.
‘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.’
As a seal on these promises God gave him the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17:0), which included his descendants (he ‘circumcised’ Isaac). Thus came first Isaac, then Jacob and then the twelve Patriarchs, all included within the covenant and the promises. Circumcision was in order to bind them into the covenant and was thus to be seen as affecting their ‘hearts’ (compareActs 7:51; Acts 7:51).
‘Circumcised him the eighth day.’ The Jews were very proud of being ‘circumcised on the eighth day’. We can compare Paul’s similar claim for himself in Philippians 3:5. Abraham was thus immediately obedient to God in accordance with His commands. But as Stephen will later point out, in contrast to this God’s people are later revealed as ‘uncircumcised in heart’ because they were disobedient (Acts 7:51).
The first stage in God’s plan is now seen as over, and God’s people are living in trust and hope, without possession of the land, and will continue on in that condition for ‘four hundred years’. They are free from Babylon and truly circumcised and safe in the covenant love of God. All of this demonstrated Stephen’s deep faith in the God of Israel, and in His concern for His people. This would hardly have been so of someone who was blasphemous.
(Later they will be moved beyond Babylon, will be described as uncircumcised at heart, and will be shown to have rejected the covenant, seeking to other gods. It is rather they who are blasphemous)
‘And the patriarchs, moved with jealousy against Joseph, sold him into Egypt. And God was with him,’
But now came the first sign of unbelief and disquiet that would become a hallmark of the people of Israel. The patriarchs, (the rulers of their tribes), became jealous of their brother and moved against him. The revelation that he was to be the one to whom they should look as their deliverer, conveyed through his dreams (they would all bow down to him), filled them with jealous rage, and they sold him off to Egypt. They wanted no prophet or ruler over them. It was the beginning of a pattern, that would continue on through the ages. God’s deliverers and prophets would regularly become the victims of the jealousies of the rulers of Israel.
We must see it as very probable that the most discerning of his audience were already beginning to get his drift. They knew that Stephen was one of this new sect, and that this new sect sought to put the blame for the death of Jesus on the leaders of the people (Acts 5:28). Thus they would make the connection between the jealousy of the patriarchs and the plot against Joseph, and their own attitude towards Jesus as seen by His followers.
‘And God was with him.’ The one whom the people rejected turned out to be the one who was the favoured of God.
‘And delivered him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favour and wisdom before Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house.’
Thus God delivered him from his afflictions, and exalted him, and enthroned him (the parallel could hardly be missed with the One Who had been crucified and was declared by His followers to have been enthroned, although at this stage Stephen is not trying to make it too blatant). He was delivered in such a way that the great Pharaoh himself looked on him with favour and saw him as wise. And he made him Lord over Egypt and all his house. The one rejected by Israel’s leaders was uplifted and exalted, and became the favoured of the unorthodox. (This was getting right to the heart of the charge against Stephen).
‘Favour (grace) and wisdom.’ This may be a specific reference to Joseph’s ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. God showed Pharaoh that Moses was favoured by Him by giving him the ability to reveal signs and wonders before Pharaoh in interpreting dreams. Compare Acts 7:36.
‘Now there came a famine over all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction: and our fathers found no sustenance, and when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent forth our fathers the first time.’
Meanwhile the whole world was suffering from famine so that ‘our fathers’ (note the more personal application, referring it to the ones from whom ‘we’ come and whom ‘we’ are like) found no sustenance. And the result was that hearing of grain in Egypt Jacob sent forth ‘our fathers’ the first time. The relation of famine to spiritual dearth occurs often in the Old Testament, and to those who were used to dealing in allegories the point would hardly be missed. Those who appeared to be God’s faithful ones, who were suffering spiritual famine because they had refused to hear God’s prophet, would have to look to ‘outside’ sources for their sustenance. Their own were insufficient. God neither heard in their land, nor responded to their pleas at their altar.
But when they went forth the first time they did not recognise their deliverer for who he was. This is implied by the silence. They sought sustenance but did not recognise the source. Yet the source should have been known to them. It was in their blindness that they did not know him. Yet from him alone was there life.
It will be noted that we are here pressing home the applications. Stephen was quietly allowing them to sink in.
‘And at the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers, and Joseph’s race became openly made known to Pharaoh.’
But their fathers had not remained in blindness. At the second opportunity, (the opportunity that the Sanhedrin was now experiencing), the tribal leaders had had their eyes opened. Joseph was made known to his brothers. And Joseph’s race (the source from which he came) was made openly known to Pharaoh, while Israel’s eyes were opened to their deliverer and became familiar with, and reconciled with, the ‘foreign’ influences which they had previously not recognised.
The call here was for the Sanhedrin to recognise their prospective Saviour, and open themselves to His seemingly ‘foreign’ teaching.
‘And Joseph sent, and called to him Jacob his father, and all his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls.’
The result was that those selected of the people of Jacob responded to the call of their Deliverer, and all was well. And the number of them was threescore (three times twice ten - completeness intensified) and fifteen (three times five, complete covenant connection). These were God’s elect. In the words of Acts 13:48, ‘as many as were ordained to eternal life believed’.
The number is as given in Genesis 46:27 LXX and not as in the Massoretic Hebrew text, which gives ‘seventy’. But both numbers were what they would call explanatory and we would call ‘artificial’. They were deliberately obtained in the narrative because of the significance of the numbers which indicated the ‘divine perfection’ of those involved, by simply selecting sufficient names to make up that number (LXX adds extra sons of Joseph who may have died in infancy). Both are therefore saying the same thing, and neither was intended to be an accurate count. Indeed the seventy five matches better with Abraham’s entrance into Canaan (Genesis 12:4). In fact, of course, the people who went into Egypt, including wives, children and servants would have far exceeded that number. It was never a number intended to be taken literally. It was heavy with symbolism.
‘And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, himself and our fathers; and they were carried over to Shechem, and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a price in silver of the sons of Hamor in Shechem.’
So Joseph in Egypt was the source of their deliverance. And the final result of their deliverance was that they were buried in the land that God had promised them, in the tomb of their tribe. To those who had become obedient God fulfilled His promise.
Here we have another telescoped statement, presumably based on Jewish tradition with which his hearers would have had no quarrel. ‘Abraham bought’ is on the basis that Jacob who did buy it (Joshua 24:32) could be seen as in the loins of Abraham (compare how in Genesis 25:23 whole nations are seen as in Rebekah’s womb). We in our more pedantic way would say ‘the Abrahamic tribe, to whom the promises were made, bought’. It was important that it was connected with Abraham here, because it was to Abraham that the promises had been made (Acts 7:5).
Note that it is stated that ‘they’ (our fathers) were carried there and laid in the tomb. We may assume from this that there was a Jewish tradition that most of the patriarchs were finally buried there (there were certainly Jewish traditions of the patriarchs being buried in Canaan), although the only information that we have from the Scriptures is of Joseph as being buried there (Joshua 24:32). Jacob was in fact buried with Abraham in Hebron (Genesis 50:13). It is therefore the other sons that are in question. But the important thing that Stephen was wanting to emphasise as concisely as possible was that the patriarchs had been finally buried in the land promised to Abraham. He simply selected a well known example in order to bring out the point.
Alternately Stephen may have seen Joseph’s body as representing all their fathers, so that they were buried there in him symbolically. But if Joseph had made arrangements for his bones to be carried back to Canaan it is quite possible, even probable, that the others had as well, with the bones of Joseph getting special prominence because of his importance.
Some have seen the connection with Shechem, which in Stephen’s time was connected with the Samaritans, as another indication of the ‘foreign’ element so prominent in Stephen’s speech, with the thought that even Jacob’s sons were buried in a place despised by the present generation rather than in what they would see as the land proper.
‘Jacob went down into Egypt.’ From Acts 7:9 onwards Stephen constantly mentions Egypt (thirteen times). He is thus stressing that until the time of Moses and for a large part of his life, Egypt was their focus and their environment.
‘But as the time of the promise drew near which God had vouchsafed to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt, until there arose another king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.’
As a result of God’s deliverance through Joseph, Israel prospered. ‘The people grew and multiplied’, which was always an indication of God’s blessing. But as the time for the fulfilling of God’s promise of deliverance from Egypt approached, affliction came on the people. A king arose who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1:8). God’s deliverer was now forgotten and therefore it would be necessary to await another deliverer. And before the coming of the deliverer must come the bondage. (Thus the fact that Israel was at present in bondage should have meant that they were looking for the deliverer).
Was there also here a hint to the leaders that the new people of Christ were growing and multiplying outside of and apart from the influence of the Jewish leaders, but facing a threat from those who did not know their Deliverer?
‘The same dealt craftily with our race, and ill-treated our fathers, so that they cast out their babes with the purpose that they might not live.’
The result was that affliction arose and attempts were made to slay all male babies at birth. There may be here a reminder of what had happened to the children of Bethlehem when Jesus was born at the hands of the crafty King Herod (Matthew 2:16), and also of the Roman occupation which the Jews certainly saw as an affliction (‘ill-treated our fathers’).
‘At which season Moses was born, and was extremely handsome, and he was nourished three months in his father’s house.’
At Israel’s worst time Moses was born, and he was ‘fair to God’. We can compare how after He was born God was with Jesus as he grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:40). Both were proper children in their own way.
‘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.’
But the future deliverer was not brought up by his own people under the instruction of his own rulers, he was brought up under ‘foreign’ instruction. He was brought up by Pharaoh’s daughter who cared for him as her own son. And there he learned foreign wisdom, and was mighty in word and works (compare Luke 24:19). We have continually the stress that God’s deliverers were not brought up in the equivalent of mainstream Judaism. In the same way, he wants them to realise, the Prophet Who had come, who was like Moses (Acts 7:37), was the man of Galilee, not the man of Jerusalem.
‘But when he was almost 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 who was oppressed, smiting the Egyptian, and he supposed that his brethren understood that God by his hand was giving them deliverance, but they did not understand.’
Once he had reached full age Moses had gone to visit his people, and seeing them suffer wrong, had revealed himself as the deliverer sent by God. He had expected them to recognise him for what he was. In Genesis ‘forty years old’ signified the age of maturity. For Jesus it was ‘about thirty’ (Luke 3:23). He too on reaching maturity had ‘visited his brethren’ and sought to deliver them from ‘oppression’, from evil spirits and diseases, hoping that they would understand.
‘And the day following he appeared to them as they strove, and would have set them at one again, saying, “Sirs, you are brethren; why do you do wrong one to another?” But he who did his neighbour wrong thrust him away, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Would you kill me, as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?”
Moses came bringing peace. But instead of recognising him as the God-sent ruler and judge, and as the one who had come to make peace among them, they had rejected him. (Just as his hearers in court had failed to recognise their God-sent Saviour in Jesus, even though He too had come preaching peace).
‘And Moses fled at this saying, and became a sojourner in the land of Midian, where he begat two sons.’
The result was that the deliverer had fled and became a sojourner in Midian. Having rejected their deliverer they had lost him. Note that the place to which he fled was the place where the mountain of God was, ‘in this place’ (Acts 7:7). (In the same way his hearers should recognise that they too had lost sight of their prospective Saviour (John 8:21-22) and that He too had gone to where God was).
And there in the wilderness Moses begat two sons. Even though he had been rejected he was not totally without children (as Jesus already had children in those who had believed - John 13:33).
‘And when forty years were fulfilled, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. And when Moses saw it, he wondered at the sight, and as he drew near to gaze at it, there came a voice of the Lord, “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob.” And Moses trembled, and did not dare to look.’
And God had appeared in fire, and had spoken to him declaring that He was the God of his fathers, the God Who had made His promises to Abraham (Acts 7:5). His promises of a deliverer were now about to be fulfilled (Acts 7:7). And Moses had wondered at the sight and had trembled, not daring to look on God.
(In the same way God had revealed Himself in fire at Pentecost. The God of Fire was again offering deliverance if only they would respond. Perhaps Stephen also saw a connection between the forty years of Moses and the forty days of Jesus resurrection appearances - Acts 1:3).
‘And the Lord said to him, “Loose the shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I am come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you into Egypt.’
God had declared that the time for deliverance had come, the time when He would save His people from affliction. Moses was to acknowledge His holiness and recognise that he was in the presence of God, and then God would send him from His presence to deliver His people.
(In the same way God’s present Deliverer was in the presence of God and waited to deliver all who would call on Him - Acts 2:36; Acts 2:39).
The continued emphasis on Egypt goes on (thirteen times) and in Acts 7:39 their hearts were still in Egypt. Where was their belief in the land then?
‘This Moses whom they refused, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge?” him has God sent to be both a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the angel that appeared to him in the bush.’
So the one whom Israel had first rejected, contemptuously refusing his rulership, God had now sent as Ruler and Saviour from the very hand of the One Who had appeared in the fire in the bush.
‘The Angel of the Lord’ was one way of describing a theophany, and throughout the Old Testament mainly describes God Himself as He makes Himself known.
(Stephen’s challenge to his hearers here is that they too must recognise the coming of a Deliverer and acknowledge Jesus as both Lord and Christ. For His Lordship too had been revealed in fire, through the fire at Pentecost).
‘This man led them forth, having wrought wonders and signs in Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years.’
And this Moses had revealed himself as ruler and deliverer in performing many signs and wonders both before and after the great deliverance. (The hint was that the One Who had come among them with signs and wonders, both before and after His death, wonders which even they had had to acknowledge, was the greater Moses. It was something that they could hardly fail to recognise).
‘This is that Moses, who said to the children of Israel, “A prophet shall God raise up to you from among your brethren, like to me.” ’
Stephen then makes clear the parallel between Moses and Jesus by citing Deuteronomy 18:15 (compare Acts 3:22-23). All that he has been saying has had in mind not only Moses, but the coming Prophet like Moses. Many of them believed in the coming Prophet (see John 1:21), and were even looking for his coming. Let them therefore draw the parallels. The coming of the Prophet like Moses is also mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Samaritans as well looked forward to a restored Moses. It was a common expectation.
Furthermore this could be seen as an indication that when such a Prophet who was ‘like Moses’ came, different aspects of the Law would be expanded as He took up the Law of Moses and applied it.
‘This is he who was in the congregation (church) in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him in the Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, who received living oracles to give to us. To whom our fathers would not be obedient, but thrust him from them, and turned back in their hearts to Egypt,’
‘This is he --’. That is, Moses. He was with them and with God (the angel) in the wilderness where he received the ‘living oracles’ from God at Mount Sinai, the mount of true revelation. There could be no higher testimonial to Moses than that. And they were intended to be for the blessing of Israel. But the people had thrust Moses away and had not been obedient to the Angel and His message, just as Jesus had come bringing living oracles and they had refused to listen to Him.
‘Living oracles.’ Words which give life. They were indeed to be Israel's very life (Deuteronomy 30:19-20; Deuteronomy 32:46-47). By walking in obedience to the law, and fulfilling its ordinances, they would enjoy length of life and be able to live their earthly lives to their fullest extent, enjoying the presence of God with them all the way.
‘The congregation (church - ekklesia) in the wilderness.’ The phrase was well known from the Old Testament signifying Israel as a whole, but Luke’s readers would relate it to the idea of the church.
‘Turned back in their hearts to Egypt.’ But their response to receiving the living oracles of God was to turn from them because their hearts were possessed by Egypt.
‘Saying to Aaron, “Make us gods who will go before us, for as for this Moses, who led us forth out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what is become of him.” ’
Rather than responding to the living oracles they chose that Aaron should make them dead replacement gods, for they did not know where Moses had gone. Even at the very mountain of God they had turned to idolatry and the worship of a molten image, and had spurned their deliverer. They had refused the words of Moses and thrust him away.
Let the court consider therefore how these very people of God from whom they were descended had been blasphemers against God, and had spurned the Law of Moses. ‘Not knowing what had become of him’ was similar to what Jesus had said people would say once He had been crucified (John 7:34-36).
‘And they made a calf in those days, and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their hands.’
The people had quite blatantly made a calf and sacrificed to their idol, and rejoiced in what their own hands had made. There is a parallel between this last statement and the statement concerning the Temple as ‘made with hands’ (Acts 7:48). They were always making things by which to worship God which were insufficient for the purpose, and that was true even of their Temple, because it was ‘made with 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 you offer to me slain beasts and sacrifices,
Forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
And did you take up the tabernacle of Moloch?
And the star of the god Rephan?
The figures which you made to worship them?
And I will carry you away beyond Babylon.”
Thus God had turned from them and given them up to serve the host of heaven. Moses himself had warned them against serving the host of heaven (Deuteronomy 4:19; Deuteronomy 17:3) but in Kings it became a regular feature of Israelite worship (2 Kings 17:6; 2 Kings 21:3; etc.). The host of heaven were a poor and blasphemous substitute for the God of Heaven. So once they were in the land God turned away from His people, and handed them over to other gods. (So much for the blessing of the land).
The citation is taken from Amos 5:25-27 LXX. The thought is either that they had professed to worship God for forty years in the wilderness and then had turned, once they were in the land, to the worship of Moloch and Rephan (an Assyrian god). That was how much good the land had done them! Or that the wilderness was not such a time of pure worship as present Judaism tried to make out (it was a constant theme of 1st century AD Judaism that the period in the wilderness had been the time of Israel’s purity). For the molten calf demonstrated that it was not a period of pure worship for forty years. Judaism may seek to idealise the forty years in the wilderness, but Stephen is pointing out that it was simply not a true description of that time.
They had turned from the Tabernacle of God to the tabernacle of Moloch. Moloch was the local god of the Ammonites, but was regularly worshipped in Canaan and warned against by Moses (Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 20:2-5). He was a god who required child sacrifice, and was thus the most to be despised. And the star out of Jacob, God’s promised deliverer (Numbers 24:17) had been replaced by the star of Rephan, the god of Assyria. These were the figures that Israel had made in order to worship them. What was more blasphemous than that? Who was it now who had ‘changed the Law of Moses’ and exchanged it for idolatry?
We should note here that Stephen is quoting the Bible version that he used (the Greek Septuagint), as we might choose to use a particular version (e.g. ASV RSV TEB NIV) as ‘the word of God’. It was his Bible. What matters is that the general sense is the same.
‘And I will carry you away beyond Babylon.’ Stephen changes ‘Damascus’ as found in Amos to ‘Babylon’ in order to bring home the lesson that they had returned right back to what Abraham had escaped from (Acts 7:2; Acts 7:4). He saw such an alteration as justified because Babylon epitomised all such idolatrous cities (just as when we are preaching we may turn ‘woe to you Chorazin’ to ‘woe to you New York’). Israel had turned full circle and had been shown no longer to be God’s people.
The Hebrew text of Amos 5:25-27 reads, “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel? Yes, you have borne Sikkuth your king and Chiun your images, the star of your god, which you made to yourselves. Therefore will I cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus.”
The Hebrew text is not quite as far from LXX as it might seem. ‘Skkth your mlch’ is translated by LXX by interpreting the Hebrew as ‘the tabernacle (skkth) of your Moloch (mlch)’ vocalising sikkuth as sukkoth (booths). Both recognise that a false god is being spoken of. The name of the god Chiun (an Assyrian god) is simply updated or translated to Rephan (possibly an Egyptian equivalent) in LXX. Again both refer to false gods. The translation problem partly arises from the lack of vowels in the ancient Hebrew text, and probably partly in order to make the names intelligible to the readers of LXX.
‘Our fathers had the tabernacle of the testimony in the wilderness, even as he appointed who spoke to Moses, that he should make it according to the figure that he had seen.’
Their fathers had ‘the Tabernacle of the Testimony in the wilderness’, which was made according to God’s pattern, just as the One Who spoke to Moses had appointed him. So the Tabernacle, which contained the covenant came from the wilderness, from the very mountain of God . It was portable, as befitted a universal God, and was according to God’s pattern and received in the wilderness at the mountain of God under God’s instructions. All was therefore of God, and nothing was of the land.
What Israel’s Attitude Towards God’s Dwellingplace Had Been (7:44-50).
What Stephen said here would mainly have been acceptable to many Hellenistic Jews, certainly in Alexandria where they were used to allegorisation. But it was not going to be acceptable in the home of the Temple.
Reply to the Charge of Speaking Against the Law and the Temple (7:44-53).
Having been accused of speaking against the Law Stephen defends himself by speaking in favour of the oracles of God and pointing out how they and their fathers had not been obedient to them.
This may be analysed as follows:
· Israel received the God-designed Tabernacle which came from God but did not keep it (Acts 7:44-46).
· Israel rejected the God-appointed Tabernacle and chose the man devised Temple (Acts 7:48-50).
· Israel chose to resist the Holy Spirit and rejected God’s appointed messengers, even finally rejecting the Righteous One Himself (Acts 7:51-52).
· Israel received the God-designed Law, but did not keep it (Acts 7:53).
‘Which also our fathers, in their turn, brought in with Joshua (Jesus) when they entered on the possession of the nations, whom God thrust out before the face of our fathers, to the days of David,’
It was then brought into the land by another Jesus (Greek), by Joshua (Hebrew), when they took over ‘the possession of the nations’ at the time when God thrust them out before them. So God’s original ‘dwellingplace’ was God-given and came from outside the land, brought into it when God acted in order to give them the land as their possession, a land which had belonged to the nations. It was thus the God of the Tabernacle Who had given them the land. This situation continued until the days of David. They worshipped at the God-given, God designed, portable, wilderness Tabernacle received at the mountain of God outside the land.
The contrast with the Temple is quite clear and quite startling. It was not of the land, it was God-designed and the God Who was connected with it was powerfully effective. Being a tent, which could be used when necessary but was not a permanent home, it was suitable as an earthly place where the transcendent God could come to meet His people without being tied down. And it entered into the land with Him when God took possession of it. Thus possession of the land was linked with the Tabernacle, not the Temple. There were in fact many ordinary Jews who saw the Tabernacle as the ideal place of worship, including the Covenanters at Qumran. But what they failed to do, unlike Stephen, was to see beyond the Tabernacle to the heavenly Tabernacle (compare Hebrews 8:2; Hebrews 9:11). They were going backwards instead of forwards.
‘Who found favour in the sight of God, and asked to find a habitation for the house of Jacob (or in some MSS ‘the God of Jacob’).’
And David himself found favour in God’s sight, and wanted to find some kind of habitation (skene - tent) for the house (or ‘God’) of Jacob. However, as all knew, God had forbidden him to erect a permanent house, which was surely significant (2 Samuel 7:5-7). Stephen is deliberately bringing out that David’s idea was of a habitation of God which was satisfactory to God, and could therefore be compared with the Tabernacle, in contrast with the Temple.
‘A tent for the house/God of Jacob.’ The best manuscripts have ‘a tent for the house of Jacob’. It may be that here Stephen is using ‘Jacob’ as a shortened form for ‘the God of Jacob’ (compare Psalms 24:6), meaning therefore that David sought a tent which would be suitable for the house of the God of Jacob. Or the meaning may simply be a tent suitable for the house of Jacob to worship in. See here Isaiah 2:2-5 where the ‘house of the God of Jacob’ is the exalted new age Temple, and the house of Jacob are called to walk in His ways.
For ‘a habitation for the God of Jacob’, which is the reading in A E, compare ‘a dwellingplace for the Mighty One of Jacob’ (Psalms 132:5).
Whichever is the correct reading the idea is that David was seeking something suitable for the worship of God. And Stephen was probably indicating that notice should be taken of the fact that God forbade him to build a Temple because he was not a fit person to do so, as indeed we shall soon learn no one was fir to do so. A house made with human hands could never be satisfactory. It glorified humanity.
‘But Solomon built him a house.’
But it was Solomon who went about it. And what did he do? He built Him a house. And yet even Solomon had recognised that God did not dwell in a House made with hands, because He is Lord over all (1 Kings 8:27). How foolish then to build such a house which could only give his people the wrong idea about God.
Solomon’s Temple (like Herod’s Temple) was a perfect example of what Stephen was drawing attention to. It was grandiose, it was designed by a foreigner, it was on a distorted pattern, and it was permanently fixed in one place, totally the opposite of the Tabernacle.
‘However the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands; as says the prophet,’
Thus the Temple was an error, a concession allowed by God but not really adequate (2 Samuel 7:6-7). The Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands, as the prophets have made clear. They had thrust aside God’s God-given provision and had made their own kind of provision. The title ‘Most High’ was regularly used in relation to the nations. Thus Stephen is emphasising here that God is the God of all men, not to be limited to Jerusalem. And secondly the title also stresses why He cannot be confined to a permanent house built in Jerusalem, He is ‘most High’. (Isaiah’s vision had resolved it by raising it above all mountains. That carried the similar intention of lifting it out of its earthiness).
The phrase ‘made with hands’ is intentionally derogatory. The Tabernacle had been made by sanctified and willing hands empowered by the Spirit according to God’s pattern (Exodus 30:30-35). But the Temple was very much a building of earth, with its foreign designer, enforced labour and earthly ostentation. ‘Made with hands’ is used in Acts 17:14 where it describes Temples not fit for God’s habitation, and in Acts 19:26 where Paul denigrates ‘gods’ that are ‘made with hands’. See also Hebrews 9:11; Hebrews 9:24. What is made with hands is the very opposite of what God, ‘the Most High’, is.
“The heaven is my throne,
And the earth the footstool of my feet.
What manner of house will you build Me? says the Lord,
Or what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?”
And this is also what the prophet Isaiah 66:1-2 LXX had declared. God is the Creator of heaven and earth, who metaphorically sits in the heavens resting His feet on the earth, and can certainly not be restricted to an earthly building. For He has made all things. Nothing on earth can therefore be made which is suitable for Him, or become a place for Him to stay.
He could not more clearly have put the Temple in its proper place. And those who were clear-headed and thoughtful would at another time and in another place, have agreed with him, if not with the implication that he was making. For all knew that God was above all things and could not be restricted to a Temple, even the Temple in Jerusalem. It was His Name that dwelt there. But the Temple had become a fetish and a superstition. It had become the heart of their religion, taking a place in their hearts which was beyond reason. And to have it so degraded tore at their hearts, even if it did justify what Stephen might previously have said about it.
Stephen Accuses His Accusers.
Up to this point Stephen has on the whole aligned himself with the things that he has portrayed, notice for example ‘ our fathers’ Acts 7:38-39; Acts 7:44-45. But now suddenly he changes tone in order to apply his message. From this point on he disassociates himself from his listeners, and speaks firmly of ‘You’. What he now has to say he himself cannot be accused of for he has responded to the Saviour. Perhaps the change came because he sensed a changed atmosphere in the Tribunal and saw from their behaviour that they were about to silence him. Perhaps what he had described so moved his godly heart that he was horrified at the thought of what these men were guilty of. Perhaps he was simply firmly applying what he had said in order to achieve conviction of sin. Whichever way it was, his words now became pointed, personal and unavoidable.
“You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you do always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.”
Their attitude towards the Temple, exalting what God had not exalted, and turning from what God had provided, epitomised their whole attitude towards all that was of God. They altered what God had given. They altered His house, they changed His word, they resisted the Holy Spirit in every way, just as their fathers had before them (compare Isaiah 63:10). They were stiffnecked and their hearts were wrong (Deuteronomy 10:16) and their ears were deaf (Jeremiah 6:10). And even now they were refusing to hear the Holy Spirit as He made His new approach to men.
The rebuke might seem extreme but these were precisely the words in which the Law had addressed the people (he could not be accused of speaking against the Law here). ‘Stiffnecked’ was a favourite description by God when speaking in the Law concerning the people (Exodus 32:9; Exodus 33:3; Exodus 33:5; Exodus 34:9; Deuteronomy 9:6; Deuteronomy 9:13; Deuteronomy 10:16). It was thus an ‘in’ word expressing their unwillingness to listen and bend their necks to it. And the idea of being uncircumcised in heart was also Mosaic (Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16, compare Jeremiah 9:26), indicating hardened and blinded hearts. In fact it was language they themselves would quite willingly have used of the people whom they taught for that reason. But it was not something they were likely to accept from Stephen. It was one thing for them to pray humbly before God of themselves in this way, and address the people in this way, but it was quite another to be told it by this Hellenistic Jewish Christian.
“Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who showed before of the coming of the Righteous One, of whom you have now become betrayers and murderers,”
Now Stephen gets to the heart of the matter. Their fathers had revealed what was in their uncircumcised hearts by persecuting the prophets. Indeed, they had bared their hearts by even killing some who had proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Righteous One (Isaiah who according to their tradition was sawn in half in the reign of Mansseh, was probably especially in mind). They had revealed that they had not wanted the Righteous One to come if He was as the prophets had said. And now they themselves had gone even further and had betrayed and murdered the Righteous One Himself. They were all of a piece. It must be seen as quite possible at this point that Stephen in his faith and enthusiasm still hoped that they would repent if he pressed them hard enough.
Apart from the last all these accusations had been made against the people of Israel before by their own teachers (2 Chronicles 36:15-16; Nehemiah 9:26; Jeremiah 2:30) and by Jesus Himself (Matthew 23:29-31; Matthew 23:37; Luke 11:47-50; Luke 13:34; Mark 12:1-10). As for the killing of the Righteous One Himself Peter had previously made that very clear (Acts 2:23; Acts 3:14-15; Acts 5:28). The charges were not new. They simply rankled.
“You who received the law as it was ordained by angels, and did not keep it.”
But, he is saying, it is not really surprising that they had rejected the Righteous One, for these are the ones who had been privileged to receive the Law as ordained by angels, and still had not kept it. The two ideas went together. The one was preparing for the other, and their failure to do the one resulted in the other.
‘And did not keep it.’ Thus from this all should know who really sought to change the Law of Moses. In actual fact the Pharisees to a man would have admitted to each other that they did not keep the Law fully. It was not the fact of it that they would resent. It was the implication that they were not Law-keepers. Why they struggled to keep it with might and main. But as Jesus had pointed out, that was not God’s Law, it was the Law as determined by man, the Law ‘made by hands’.
The idea that the Law was ordained by and mediated by angels was orthodox Jewish belief, based on their view that the transcendent God could not deal with man directly. This was a basic contradiction to how they actually, (as opposed to theologically), viewed the Temple. Actually they saw the Temple and its ordinances as binding God by their rituals, even though theoretically they did see Him as transcendent. For the idea of angel mediation compare Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2.
Luke probably here expects us to relate this statement to Stephen’s face being like that of an angel when he began his defence (Acts 6:15). They had not listened to angel’s then, they did not listen to God’s messenger now.
‘Now when they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.’
The verbs here are very powerful. ‘Cut to the heart’ indicates that his words had gone home, for good or bad. They were moved to the very depths of their beings. Every nerve was stretched. And it was revealed by their outward expression and behaviour, for the gnashing of their teeth is especially descriptive. They were like wild beasts eager to savage their prey. Psalms 2:1 could easily be cited here, for they were certainly ‘raging’. And it would have been very apposite as the next verse reveals.
The Final Conclusion (7:54-60).
Learned judges do not like those who are on trial trying to convict them of being criminals, and as they were unwilling to admit that they were wrong the result was inevitable. The uneasy feeling that had grown as Stephen’s defence had gone on, had now become outright anger.
‘But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,’
For to Stephen a wonderful thing happened. Being full of the Holy Spirit (the continuous experience of his life) he looked up towards heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He had begun his words describing the God of glory (Acts 7:2), and now he saw something of the revelation of that glory. And he saw Jesus standing on His right hand as God’s Messiah (compare Psalms 110:1). The description must not be taken too literally. There is no reason to think that he saw two figures. The glory of God would probably be a blinding and all enveloping light. And the figure of the Son of Man was necessary in order to stress that the resurrected Christ, both God and Man, was seen as being there as glorifed Man with the Godhead, as essentially united with the Godhead. ‘At His right hand’ indicates the position of power and authority that He enjoyed. He now had all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18). The indefinable was being expressed. What could not be explained was being revealed. And Stephen was simply trying to explain in human terms the wonder of what he saw. It was not a time for definition but for awe. Here was the open revelation of Jesus’ triumph, and that the Kingly Rule of God had come.
‘And said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.”
At what he saw he could not help himself, and he cried out and declared his interpretation of what he saw. It revealed that the Son of Man had truly come in the clouds to the throne of God and had received His everlasting dominion and Kingly Rule (Daniel 7:13-14), and it was in those terms that he expressed it. It was a fulfilment of Jesus promise to His judges in Matthew 26:64. This is the only use of the term Son of Man outside the Gospels, where it is restricted to Jesus using it of Himself, apart from in Revelation 1:13; Revelation 14:14 where it refers to the glorious Son of Man, illustrating both the early nature of the narrative, and its uniqueness. It confirmed that Jesus was the glorious Messiah, having been given all authority in heaven and earth. And He was standing because He was ready to receive His servant. He knew what was coming next. He had experienced something similar Himself.
Some consider that Jesus is standing because He is acting as a witness, as He bears testimony to Stephen before the Father. A witness always had to stand. And we need not doubt that Jesus bore witness to the Godhead of Stephen’s triumph. But a welcomer would also stand. And Luke probably intends us to contrast this open welcome by the Lord of glory with the rejection of the Sanhedrin. The prime authority in heaven welcomes Stephen even while the authorities on earth despatch him. And the same will be true for all who are persecuted for bearing witness to His Name.
‘I see the heavens opened.’ A way of expressing that he had a glimpse of the Beyond. He was being given a vision of what was usually veiled.
‘But they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and rushed on him with one accord, and they cast him out of the city, and stoned him.
Everything broke at once. They could no longer restrain themselves. With cries of anguish the members of the Sanhedrin blocked their ears at this blasphemy, a symbolic gesture indicating their horror, and rushing at him, dragged him through the street to outside the city, where they stoned him. It was as though they had been taken with madness. All restraint had gone. This was the staid Sanhedrin, but they were baying like mad hounds which had smelled blood. Such moments of madness can seize even the sanest of people. And it had happened here. They had become a lynch mob. That is what unreasoning belief mingled with a bad conscience can do to people.
Serious blasphemy was in fact almost the only crime for which the Sanhedrin could pass the death sentence. There were notices in the Temple warning of instant death to anyone unauthorised who went beyond the outer court. And in spite of their fury they appear to have ‘observed the rules’ in that the witnesses were present in order to cast the first stones (Deuteronomy 17:7).
‘Cast him out of the city’ (compare Deuteronomy 17:5; Numbers 15:35). Death must not take place within the city, for it would defile the city. It is ironic that he who had pointed them to what their fathers had done in following idolatry was treated as though he had been guilty of idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:5-7). In the same way had Jesus died ‘without the gate’ (Hebrews 13:12). So in their dreadful crimes did they maintain the niceties of the Law.
‘And stoned him.’ He had dared to point out to them that they had rejected and slain the prophets (Acts 7:52). So now they stoned him. The only actual record we have of the death of a prophet was of one they stoned (2 Chronicles 24:21). This was their way of getting rid of prophets, and they proved themselves adept at it. The irony of the whole situation is obvious. They sought to prove that he was wrong by proving that he was right.
‘And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.’
The rules for stoning were observed so scrupulously that a mature young man called Saul, who had not been a witness, demonstrated his oneness with the sentence by guarding the coats of the witnesses as they carried out the stoning, because he knew that the Law said that he could not be the first to participate because he was not a witness. But he was an angry and vengeful young man, full of hate for Stephen, and wanted to show as far as he could that he thought that Stephen deserved everything that he received.
However, he stood aside from the stoning, even when the witnesses had commenced it (when he could have joined in - Deuteronomy 17:7). This suggests that he is mentioned, not so much because he guarded the coats but because of what that indicated. It indicated a position of some authority, and direct identification with the deed even though he did not particpate. While he would not himself cast stones, possibly because he felt that it was not the position of a would be Rabbi to do so unless he were a witness, he was very much one with those who did it. Here we have the picture of the implacable enemy.
There is an implacableness about him that is unnerving. He stood there, we may imagine with his arms folded, not only surveying the scene but giving it his approval. All knew him for what he was, for he was a disciple of Rabban Gamaliel. And already his mind was probably determining that he would seek approval for the plan that was formulating in his brain and hunt down more of these blasphemers and punish them. (We know him too, for we are shortly to learn more of his history when he becomes Paul. He never forgot this moment. It burned its way into his soul - see Acts 22:20).
‘And they stoned Stephen, calling on the Lord, and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
But as they stoned him, Stephen looked up to heaven and prayed to ‘the Lord’, calling out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”. He had no doubt in his heart, only joy, and concern for those who were doing this to him. We can compare here Jesus’ own words on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Stephen, exalted in spirit, wanted it known that he was going like his Master. The parallel is significant. It equates the Father and the Lord Jesus, both of Whom are seen as receiving the spirits of the godly when they die.
‘Lord Jesus.’ Thus use of Lord here is very significant. Throughout his speech ‘the Lord’ has been cited from the Old Testament and has meant Yahweh. Here he now refers the same title to Jesus. he has no doubt Whom the One He has seen really is.
‘And he knelt down, and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not lay this sin to their charge.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.’
And then as the stones rained down on him he knelt, and crying with a loud voice, pleaded, “Lord, do not lay this sin to their charge.” And with that he ‘fell asleep’. His body ceased to have life but the Lord had received his spirit and he slept with Jesus. He was at peace.
We can again hardly doubt that he had in mind again the words of Jesus on the cross. But this time, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In Stephen’s case they did know what they were doing. His forgiveness was because he knew that they were spiritually blind.
‘He fell asleep.’ Death was described as a sleep because a dead man looked as though he slept. It was a euphemism because men feared to think of death in all its nakedness. But in Christian belief, and in accordance with the example and teaching of Christ (John 11:11), it came to signify that Christians did not finally die, because they would live on and would one day rise again. The thought of sleep was not of unconsciousness, but of bliss. Paul looked forward to being ‘with the Lord’. It was a picture of repose, of joy and peace.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Acts 7". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29