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Bible Commentaries

L. M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible
Acts 7

 

 

Verses 1-60

The high priest only asks the question, "Are these things so?" Then God provides room for Stephen to speak without interruption for some time. This stands in striking contrast to the way in which the Lord Jesus was mainly silent before His accusers. Stephen is able in a most masterful way to summarize the whole history of Israel from the viewpoint of God's many visitations to the nation, yet of Israel's consistently stubborn refusal of God's testimony, culminating in their rejection of His Son.

He begins with the personal call of Abraham by the God of glory, a basis all would fully acknowledge, God calling him out from his own kindred as well as his own country to a land not known to him then, but which God would show him. This very fact should have impressed the Jews that God does not always leave men in the circumstances to which they have been accustomed. But Abraham too was slow to respond fully to the call of God at first, only coming to the land after his father had died (v.4).

Also, he was given no actual possession in the land, though it was promised to him, but he was a pilgrim, another salutary lesson for those who claim to be sons of Abraham. God's sovereign wisdom is impressed on us too in His promising the land to Abraham's seed at a time that he had no child. Abraham therefore ought not to regard matters from the narrow viewpoint of his then present circumstances. In this too Israel was failing when Stephen spoke.

More than this, God promised, not immediate great blessing, but that Abraham's seed should be brought under bondage and suffer oppression for four hundred years. There would be long suffering therefore before exaltation. Then the oppressing nation (Egypt) would be judged by God, and Israel eventually brought to serve God in the promised land. The significance of this Israel ought never to have forgotten, just as we today should takes its lessons to heart. We must expect suffering before exaltation.

The covenant of circumcision then given to Abraham (v.8), to be applied to his seed, was a sign that no promise of God could apply to man as he is in the flesh: the flesh must be cut off, to have no part in God's counsels. Yet the Jews were at Stephen's time boasting in the mererite of circumcision, in virtual opposition to its significance.

Now Stephen places special emphasis on the twelve sons of Jacob, the immediate father of the twelve tribes. Was theirs an illustrious, beautiful history? Far from it! If Israel desired to boast, let them consider what their fathers did to their own brother Joseph. Moved with envy, they rejected and sold him (v.9). Yet God preserved him and in fact exalted him to a place of great authority in Egypt. Could God not do similarly (or more greatly) in regard to Jesus whom Israel rejected?

God's sovereignty again shone out in the great famine that caused Joseph's brothers to journey to Egypt for food. In fact, God would yet bring Israel to such a state of desolation that they too would be virtually forced to look for help to the source which they would find to be none other than the Jesus whom they had crucified. Only the second time, after some real distress and exercise of soul did the brothers have Joseph reveal himself to them (v.13).

The move of Jacob and his family to Egypt introduces a new epoch in Israel's history, the growth of the nation under circumstances of intense pressure and bondage. Jacob himself died outside the land, his body being carried back for burial, indicating that God still considered it Israel's land. The burying place had been purchased by Abraham. All of this history was intended to make the Jews consider seriously how God Himself was dealing with them.

God had sworn to Abraham that his seed would be afflicted four hundred years by an oppressive nation, but that He would bring them out with great substance (Genesis 15:13-14). As the end of this time drew near a new Pharaoh arose who greatly increased the oppression, commanding the drowning of every boy born to the Israelites. Yet God intervened in this very thing, Moses being born at this time (v.20), a child "lovely in the sight of God" (N.A.S.B.), hidden and nourished by his parents for three months, then adopted by Pharaoh's daughter. Certainly neither she nor Satan had any idea that this child was ordained of God to be Israel's deliverer, though the Egyptians unwittingly helped this matter along by training Moses in all their wisdom, he becoming mighty in deeds and words.

It was not by Egyptian wisdom that Moses delivered Israel, but he knew well what he was dealing with when the time came for God to bless him with spiritual power to accomplish such a deliverance. In fact, God was showing Egypt that He could use them to overrule their own decrees in a way that should greatly humble their pride.

At forty years of age (v.23) Moses became concerned about his own brethren, the Jews. This was God's working in his heart, though in killing an Egyptian who oppressed an Israelite, he was not acting in God's way. Verse 25 is interesting as to this: he expected the Jews to understand that he was concerned about their deliverance, and that God was actually moving him. But they did not understand, just as Israel did not understand that Jesus would be the great Deliverer of the nation.

Just as Moses was not understood when taking a stand with Israel against their oppressors, so also he was not understood when he sought to restore or promote unity among Israelites. All they could see was selfish motives, and the man who did wrong to his neighbor rudely repulsed Moses with the cutting words, "Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?" His following words, questioning if Moses would kill him as he did the Egyptian, alerted Moses to the fact that his killing the Egyptian was known, and would not be hidden from Egypt's authorities. He fled the country and became a stranger in a strange land for no short time (v.29). Israel was not ready to be delivered for another forty years, and Moses was required to learn in solitary experience what would eventually fit him for public service.

God's intervention is again seen in His speaking to Moses from the burning bush. His words caused Moses to tremble. Would Israel not tremble now that God had spoken to them in the person of His Son? Moses' shoes must be removed as a confession of his own dependent weakness before God. God had seen the affliction of His people, taking full cognizance of all that they endured, and the time had come for His delivering them. Now He was sending Moses to this end, the same Moses whom Israel had refused forty years earlier, saying, "Who made the a ruler and a judge?" How consistently this could be applied too to Israel's refusal of the Lord Jesus, who will yet be their welcomed Deliverer.

Moses did deliver Israel (v.25 etc.), borne witness to by God's showing through him many signs and wonders in Egypt first, in the exodus through the Red Sea, and through their amazing sustenance for forty years in the wilderness.

Stephen lays great emphasis on the history of Moses, certainly showing that he had more respect for Moses than the Jews actually did, though they had so boasted in Moses and charged Stephen with blaspheming him. This was the same Moses, he says, who was with the assembly in the wilderness, and through whom, at Mount Sinai, they had received the living oracles, the ten commandments. How had Israel responded to him then? At the very time Moses was receiving the two tables of stone on the mount, Israel was again refusing him and demanding of Aaron some type of gods they could see, putting folly into execution by their making a golden calf, offering sacrifices to it, and taking pleasure in their idolatrous works.

Verses 42 and 43 cover a long space of time, indicating Israel's persisting in wilful, selfish ways, neglecting in their forty year wilderness history the honest offering to God of their slain beasts and sacrifices. Likely they killed beasts and offered them in sacrifice, but not to God. Later, in the land, they adopted the gods of the dispossessed idolaters, Moloch and Remphan making images of these to worship. Stephen says little more than this about Israel's history in the land, but adds the solemn warning of God that He would carry them away beyond Babylon, which the Jews knew had been fulfilled in the days of Nebuchadnezzar. This history of rebellion and of God's often intervening in discipline ought to have taught the Jews to learn by their fathers' experience.

Stephen has well answered their accusations against him concerning Moses. Now in verse 44 he addresses their charge concerning the holy place. This began with the tabernacle that God ordered Moses to make precisely according to His plain directions. The tabernacle remained as God's dwelling place among His people when Joshua led them into the land, and until the days of Solomon.

Stephen speaks of the tabernacle continuing till the days of David, who desired to build a temple, but God did not allow him to do this (2 Samuel 7:5-7), having reserved this honor for Solomon. This was a reminder to the Jews that they did not always have a temple. Was it of greater importance than the God who had brought Israel out of Egypt? Indeed, Israel seemed to think that God was confined to their temple!

Therefore, Stephen's words now cut right to the heart of the matter. "The Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands" (N.A.S.B.). Also He quotes their own scriptures to clearly indicate this: "Heaven is My throne, and earth is the footstool of My feet: what kind of house will you build for Me? says the Lord: or what place is there for My repose? Was it not My hand which made all these things?" (N.A.S.B.). Is God to be contained in a trifling part of that which His own hands have created? The One who had indisputable rights in regard to the temple had already been rejected and crucified by Israel. How can they speak so piously of the house while rejecting its true owner?

There is no doubt of Stephen's being directly led of the Spirit of God to speak as he does, including his now solemnly fastening upon Israel the serious guilt of their having always resisted the Holy Spirit: in this regard the nation was now imitating their fathers. His first words in verse 51 are precisely those of many prophets of the Old Testament, "Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears." Stubborn rebellion had been too consistently the character of Israel. They could glory in their literal circumcision, but its significance had no effect on their heart and ears.

He questions as to which of the prophets their fathers had not persecuted. They knew the answer well, but considered themselves free from such guilt, thinking they would not have done this if they had been living then (Matthew 23:29-30). But he reminds them that they had just before betrayed and murdered the One of whom all the prophets foretold, "the Just One," who was in fact Israel's true Messiah. He adds to this that they had received the law by the disposition of angels (not merely from Moses), and had not kept it.

The truth of Stephen's charge, which should have subdued the Jews in broken self-judgment, had the effect rather of stirring them to prove his words true in their treatment of yet another prophet of God -- himself! As their tempers flare in bitter hostility, however, Stephen looks up steadfastly into heaven. There God reveals to him the majestic sight of the glory of God and Jesus standing on God's right hand. Wonderful encouragement for this faithful man of God!

He bears witness to this marvellous revelation, the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God. His enemies, defeated as they know they are, can only resort to the folly of stopping their ears and violently silencing the witness of God. The Romans denied the Jews the right to execute capital punishment, but on this occasion the Jews took advantage of the absence of the Roman governor from Jerusalem at the time; and Stephen was murdered without any trial, taken outside the city and stoned to death. A young man named Saul is mentioned as the custodian of the clothes of the witnesses of Stephen's death.

His words at the end are beautifully similar to those of the Lord Jesus at His death, but it is the Lord Jesus to whom he prays "receive my spirit." What calm, blessed victory of faith is this! Then, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." Wonderful grace indeed, so like the words of his Master on the cross. But Stephen cannot say, "they know not what they do;" for the Jews now had an unmistakable witness to the resurrection of Christ in the powerful ministry of the Spirit of God, and they deliberately rejected it. They had refused Christ as the Man of sorrows on earth: now they refuse Him as glorified by God in heaven. "Much more shall not we escape if we turn away from Him that speaketh from heaven" (Hebrews 12:25). We are told simply of Stephen that "he fell asleep," for the sting of death had been taken away by the death of His Lord: now death for the believer is merely "sleep."

This is a great turning point in the book of Acts. Israel has publicly, positively refused the appeal of Spirit of God to reconsider their rejection of Christ. The gospel therefore is to go to the regions beyond, and that nation as such meanwhile has been given up to a state of sad desolation.

 


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Bibliography Information
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Acts 7:4". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/lmg/acts-7.html. 1897-1910.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, August 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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