INTRODUCTION TO THE STORY
There are two charges against Stephen:
- Speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God
- Speaking in Jesus’ name against the temple and the law
His rivals stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes against Stephen and brought him to stand trial before the Sanhedrin.
Stephen’s answer, in essence, responds by saying that Judaism as a relationship between God and his people predated the temple and the law, and was founded in God’s promise to bless all nations through Abraham’s Seed.
The first movement of Stephen’s speech addresses Jewish history before Moses as seen in Abraham and Joseph, showing that the Jewish religion was built upon the foundation of God’s covenant, which was made to Abraham in his old age and began to be worked out in the life of Joseph (Abraham’s great, great, great grandson), even though his brothers were blinded by their jealousy and hatred of him.
The first main section of the speech concerns Jewish history prior to Moses, chiefly Abraham and Joseph. The important point with the former is that the Jewish religion is built upon the foundation of God’s calling and promises. These began to be worked out in the life of Joseph, although his family did not recognize it, were jealous of him and worked against him by handing him over to foreigners (as Stephen’s contemporaries treated Jesus).
The second movement of Stephen’s speech addresses the charge that Jesus was changing the customs of Moses that had been handed down to them by showing them that Israel also rejected Moses because they did not recognize the work of God and the Laws that they were now so eager to preserve were also at one point new.
The third movement of Stephen’s speech addresses their charges concerning the temple by saying the temple itself was a change in the customs of Moses because Moses had prescribed the construction of a holy tabernacle – not a temple – to be built at God’s direction. Stephen’s argument is, in essence, arguing that both David and Solomon were seeking the living presence of God, but Isaiah revealed that the fullness of God’s presence does not dwell in houses built with human hands. Instead, Stephen is expressing to them that the fullness of God’s presence that king David sought was found expressly in the person of Jesus Christ, whom they had rejected and delivered over to Rome to be murdered for crimes that he did not commit.
Stephen delivers his final rebuke to the obstinate Jewish leaders being full of the Holy Spirit by informing them that it is them – not him – that should be on trial for violating the spirit of Judaism. Stephen is then rushed by an angry mob and martyred for his testimony concerning Jesus Christ.
ABRAHAM’S WITNESS: ACTS 7:1-8
The first major movement of Stephen’s speech is meant to show that the Jewish religion was built upon the foundation of God’s covenant and not Jerusalem’s temple or the Law of Moses by reminding them that Abraham first knew God by covenant. Stephen effectively tells the Jewish crowd that God has always had more in mind than the temple and the law.
When God called Abraham to move forward into the promised land, Abraham did not live in the promised land as if living in the promised land was the consummation of God’s purposes for him. Instead, he cherished the covenantal and personal relationship that God had established with him more than the promised land itself, even keeping the faith when the things promised had not yet come true.
Abraham and his offspring were given the enduring sign of circumcision in their flesh meant to remind them of God’s covenant:
Genesis 17:1–7 (NIV) — 1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” 3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.
Circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham to make him the father of many nations and kings, and to establish in Abraham’s descendants the permanent covenant of God. Abraham was expected to keep this covenant by circumcising his flesh and blamelessly walking before God in faith. However, Israel neglected the heart of circumcision – which is to be faithful and blameless before God – and looked to the ordinance itself as being its own “substance” and lost sight of God in God’s covenant.
Therefore, God sent the prophet Jeremiah to correct their error:
Jeremiah 9:25–26 (NIV) — 25 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh—26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the wilderness in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.”
Circumcision was meant to be a sign that reflected an inward disposition of faithfulness towards God:
Deuteronomy 10:16 (CSB) — 16 Therefore, circumcise your hearts and don’t be stiff-necked any longer.
This is the circumcision that is ultimately realized in Christ:
Deuteronomy 30:6 (NIV) — 6 The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
Galatians 5:6 & 6:15(NIV) — 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. 6:15 — For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation.
Colossians 2:11–12 (NIV) — 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self, ruled by the flesh, was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Philippians 3:2–3 (NIV) — 2 Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh…
JOSEPH’S WITNESS: ACTS 7:9-16
The first movement of Stephen’s speech concludes with showing how the covenant that God made with Abraham began to be worked out in the life of Joseph even though his brothers were blinded by their jealousy and hatred of him.
Stephen summarizes the Joseph tradition told in Genesis 37-46 without ever directly quoting from the text. The Genesis narrative has much to say about Joseph’s suffering, his relationship with his father, and his temptations (among other things), but Stephen chose not to focus on those issues and instead stressed God’s presence with Joseph:
Acts 7:9 (CSB) — 9 “The patriarchs became jealous of Joseph and sold him into Egypt, but God was with him…
The presence of God is the distinguishing characteristic of God’s approval.
- God was with Abraham when he revealed his glory to him (7:1).
- God was with Joseph when he went into Egypt and caused him to prosper (7:9-10).
- God has been with Stephen when he performed great signs and wonders (6:8, 15).
Stephen message is very clear: the continuing presence of God is the real mark of God’s approval:
Matthew 28:20b (CSB) — 20b And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
John 14:23 (CSB) — 23 Jesus answered, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
The Christians are doing the works of God because they have the presence of God with them:
- United in prayer (1:14; cf. Jn 15:8)
- Fulfilling the miraculous signs (2:11; cf. 1 Co. 11:22)
- Preaching truth and living in holiness (2:38 and 3:19; cf. Lev. 11:45)
- Walking in love (2:43-47 and 4:32; cf. Deut. 6:5; 1 Jn. 4:20)
Stephen’s point reflects Gamaliel’s advice from earlier in the Acts narrative:
Acts 5:38–39 (CSB) — 38 So in the present case, I tell you, stay away from these men and leave them alone. For if this plan or this work is of human origin, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even be found fighting against God.” They were persuaded by him.
Unfortunately, the Jewish crowd is not thinking about God or who God is with because they are only concerned about how to preserve their current religious traditions and way of life.
There is a very clear parallel between the jealousy and hatred that Joseph’s brothers had against him, and the jealousy and hatred that the Jewish leaders had against Jesus; Joseph’s brothers handed him over to Egypt and the Jewish leaders handed Jesus over to Rome.
MOSES’ WITNESS: ACTS 7:17-34
The second movement of Stephen’s speech begins by addressing their charge that it was blasphemy to say that Jesus would change the customs of Moses by reminding them that Israel also rejected Moses even though he had been approved of by God because he brought new traditions to them. The Laws that they were now so eager to preserve were also at one point new in Israel.
Therefore, Stephen reminds them that Moses told them that a prophet like him would come:
Acts 7:37–39 (CSB) — 37 “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites: God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers and sisters. 38 He is the one who was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors. He received living oracles to give to us. 39 Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him. Instead, they pushed him aside, and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.
ISRAEL’S UNFAITHFULNESS AS WITNESS: ACTS 7:35-50
The style of Stephen’s speech changes some in verse 35 as he does away with subtlety and begins to treat the lessons of Israel’s history more direct manner.
Stephen’s point is that they are repeating the mistakes that led Israel into apostasy:
Acts 7:35–38 (CSB) — 35 “This Moses, whom they rejected when they said, Who appointed you a ruler and a judge?—this one God sent as a ruler and a deliverer through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out and performed wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites: God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers and sisters. 38 He is the one who was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors. He received living oracles to give to us.
Stephen reminded his hearers of the Israelites’ rejection of Moses’ role as “ruler and judge”. They denied Moses, but God “sent” him (v. 35). It is a familiar pattern that already has appeared frequently in Peter’s speeches with reference to Christ (cf. 3:13–15; 4:10–12; 5:30–31)—Israel rejected him, but God affirmed him.
Moses is being set up as a type or picture of Christ:
- Moses performed many signs and wonders
- Jesus performed many signs and wonders
- Moses set Israel free from their house of bondage
- Jesus set us free from our bondage to sin and death
- Moses gave authority to Joshua perform signs and wonders so that Israel would recognize his authority
- Jesus gave authority to the apostles to perform signs and wonders so that we would recognize his authority
- Moses stood in the assembly of Israel to mediate between them and God
- Jesus stands in the assembly of the Church to mediate between us and God
More than a foreshadowing of Christ took place with Moses: he predicted the coming of Christ. If they claim to follow Moses, they must listen to Moses’ testimony about Jesus Christ.
The third movement of Stephen’s speech addresses their charges concerning the temple by saying the temple itself was a change in the customs of Moses because Moses had prescribed the construction of a holy tabernacle – not a temple – to be built at God’s direction.
Stephen’s argument is, in essence, arguing that both David and Solomon were seeking the living presence of God, but Isaiah revealed that the fullness of God’s presence does not dwell in houses built with human hands. Instead, Stephen is expressing to them that the fullness of God’s presence that king David sought was found expressly in the person of Jesus Christ, whom they had rejected and delivered over to Rome to be murdered for crimes that he did not commit.
FINAL WITNESSES & MARTYRDOM: ACTS 7:51-60
Stephen delivers his final rebuke to the obstinate Jewish leaders being full of the Holy Spirit by informing them that it is them – not him – that should be on trial for violating the spirit of Judaism:
Acts 7:51 (CSB) — 51 “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit. As your ancestors did, you do also.
They are rejecting the only one – Jesus Christ – who can solve their real problem by curing their heart of stone:
Ezekiel 36:26–27 (CSB) — 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances.
APPLICATIONS FROM STEPHEN’S STORY
In concluding this message there are two points that I want to apply to us today:
- Like Israel, we are constantly tempted to put our trust in our religious traditions rather than depend on God
- Likewise, we are tempted to find our identity in our nationality or religious denomination rather than in God
Israel rejected Jesus because their hearts were hardened against the things of God, and they insisted in following their own plans.
Therefore, I believe the fitting conclusion to this sermon comes from the prophet Jeremiah:
Jeremiah 18:11–12 (CSB) — 11 So now, say to the men of Judah and to the residents of Jerusalem, ‘This is what the Lord says: Look, I am about to bring harm to you and make plans against you. Turn now, each from your evil way, and correct your ways and your deeds.’ 12 But they will say, ‘It’s hopeless. We will continue to follow our plans, and each of us will continue to act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’ ”