Standing before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council in the Temple of Jerusalem, false witnesses alleged that the Christian deacon Stephen had claimed that ‘Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and change the customs which Moses delivered us’ (Acts 6:14). Stephen's accusers argued that he had spoken against Moses and God (Acts 6:11), and against this holy place and the law (Acts 6:13).
To catch the drift of Stephen's defence in Acts 7, it is necessary to keep in mind the question posed by the high priest: “Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1).
Stephen's response was an historical exegesis of the Old Testament in which:
1. he would demonstrate the peripatetic nature of God's relationship with Israel;
2. he would show that far from changing the law of Moses, Jesus had fulfilled it;
3. and, in a masterly stroke, he would turn the tables on his accusers.
(a) God spoke to Abraham in Mesopotamia.
“The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia before he dwelt in Haran” (Acts 7:2).
This reflects the correct rendering of Genesis 12:1 - ‘Now the LORD had said unto Abram’ to get out of his country, and from his kindred, and from his father's house to a land which God would show him.
The journey began when his father Terah took his family out of Ur of the Chaldees, and they settled together in Haran (Genesis 11:31), but the past tense in Genesis 12:1 demonstrates that Abraham had heard God calling him forth before that. It was not until his father died in Haran that Abraham moved into the promised land (Acts 7:4).
Let us be careful, however, not to take this as a precedent. If we delay to obey the voice of God we may miss our opportunity to respond to the gospel ourselves, or to proclaim it to others.
(b) God was with Joseph in Egypt.
As Abraham ventured forth into the promised land, a land in which he had no possession, there was a shadowing forth of his people's oppression in Egypt (Acts 7:5-6). It was into Egypt that the patriarchs sold Joseph, “but God was with him and delivered him out of all his troubles” (Acts 7:9-10).
This echoes Psalm 105:19: ‘Until the time that his word came to pass, the word of the LORD tested him.’
God was with Joseph, even when he was a slave in Egypt, and would hear the cry of His people, even when they were later slaves in Egypt (Exodus 3:7). It is reassuring to know that, wherever God's people are, He hears their cry.
Stephen emphasises that Jacob went down into Egypt. There he died, “he and our fathers” (Acts 7:15). Their only possession in the holy land was the tombs in which they would be laid.
(c) God appeared to Moses in the wilderness of Midian.
Stephen spoke of a new Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph,” and of his oppression of the children of Israel (Acts 7:18-19). Then he introduced Moses with a complimentary euphemism (Acts 7:20), and spoke of his upbringing, learning, wisdom, and mighty words and deeds in the house of Pharaoh's daughter.
At the age of forty, Moses was already aware that he was called to deliver his people, but when he tried to force God's hand, the Israelites did not understand (Acts 7:25). How easy it is for us to go running ahead of God, but the result can be disastrous. For Moses, it led to forty years exile in the land of Midian.
In the wilderness of mount Sinai, God met Moses in the burning bush, proclaiming the place where he stood to be holy ground (Acts 7:33). Stephen's point is that wherever God meets his people is a sacred place, not just in the Temple. I repeat, wherever God meets with His people is the holy place, not just in the church, shrine or sanctuary of man's making. And he meets us in some most surprising places.
(d) Moses points to Christ.
Stephen spoke of the signs and wonders at the hand of Moses in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years (Acts 7:36). “This is that Moses,” he said, who spoke of a Prophet like himself, “Him shall ye hear!” (Acts 7:37). Moses pointed away from himself to another. Likewise Stephen showed the greatest respect towards Moses, but he wished to point towards one greater than Moses. All our discourses about the Bible should point away from ourselves, and away from even the best of saints, to Christ Himself.
The irony was, that Israel rejected Moses, and in their hearts returned to Egypt (Acts 7:39). And throughout their long history, they continued to reject God, and were eventually carried into exile in Babylon (Acts 7:42-43 quotes Amos 5:25-27).
(e) The tabernacle and the Temple.
Far from speaking against the Temple, Stephen acknowledged that its predecessor, the tabernacle, was made according to the pattern which Moses had seen (Acts 7:44). The tabernacle was brought into the promised land in Joshua's generation.
Later King David wished to build a more durable dwelling place for God, but it was his son Solomon who built the Temple. But the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, argued Stephen (Acts 7:49-50 quotes Isaiah 66:1-2).
(f) Stephen turns the tables on his accusers.
Stephen's indictment against his accusers is quite in keeping with God's own prophecies against Israel of old. Moses and the prophets used terms like “stiff-necked,” and “uncircumcised in heart” (Acts 7:51). Their fathers had persecuted the prophets, and killed those who foretold the coming of Jesus, and now they themselves had murdered Jesus. They who had received the law had not kept the law!
(g) The martyrdom of Stephen.
It was at this point that the Sanhedrin lost control of themselves, and “gnashed at Stephen with their teeth” (Acts 7:54). Meantime Stephen serenely observed Jesus standing at the right hand of God. They in their madness stopped their ears and ran at Stephen, cast him out of the city, and stoned him. He in his serenity prayed for them.
Luke records two prayers here, both of which echo the prayers of Jesus on the Cross.
1. With his dying breath, Jesus cried, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). Stephen, however, addressed his petition to Jesus: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).
2. As He was nailed to the Cross, Jesus had prayed, ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). Similarly, Stephen prayed at his death, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60).
Despite the ferocity of his murder, Stephen is simply said to have fallen asleep. Such is the peace of the Christian at his death, no matter what the circumstances of his dying!