This chapter is a continuation of the previous chapter.
Despite Stephen’s appearance, Acts 6:15, the high priest asked him if the accusations of blasphemy, which had been brought against him, were true. Caiaphas was probably the high priest at the time, he is the same person who trailed Jesus.
Here he tries to discredit Stephen by legal terms. Jesus was quiet at his trial and Stephen was the opposite. And so, in response, Stephen is about to give a history lesson about God’s dealings with His people. Stephen is putting them in the position of being accused.
When they rejected the Messiah, they were doing what their ancestors had always done. If want to understand the New Testament we need to understand what God was doing in the Old Testament.
These people are accusing Stephen of blasphemy, an offence which is punishable by being stoned to death and so, he gives those standing in the Sanhedrin a Jewish history lesson.
Stephen begins his history lesson with God’s dealings with Abraham and his children, Genesis 12:1-9. He reminds the council of Abraham’s call to leave the country of his people, which was first received in Ur of the Chaldees and renewed in Haran after his father’s death.
Mesopotamia means the land between the river Tigris and the Euphrates and at the bottom there was Ur. Genesis tells us that Abraham was called out of Haran. God called Abraham, who was a nobody and he was a Gentile.
According to Genesis 11:26 and Genesis 11:32, Terah was 70 years old when Abraham was born, and he died at the age of 205 years old in Haran. In Genesis 12:4, Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran.
This would mean that Abraham left when Terah was 175 years old, this would be 60 years ‘before’ he died and not ‘after’ as Stephen tells us. Since Philo agrees with Stephen that Abraham left Haran ‘after’ Terah’s death and since the Samaritan version of Genesis gives the age of Terah as 145 years old when he died, it is clear that Stephen is following a variant tradition of the text of Genesis. Luke usually follows the LXX. This may tell us that Luke was following a source and not the one composing the speech.
Some people believe because of Genesis 11:31-12:1, that God’s command to Abraham was given to him at Haran, not Ur. But Genesis 12:1 can also suggest that what he told him in Haran was actually a confirmation of what he had already said to him in Ur. So Abraham left Ur and settled in Haran.
The point that Stephen is trying to make here is that Abraham moved, under God’s direction, to the land of Canaan. In other words, this wasn’t Abraham’s own idea to get up and go, this was God’s plan for the future of the Jews and God was going to direct them.
Stephen continues to speak about what God said to Abraham. Note the actual length of their stay in Egypt was 430 years, but Stephen rounded it off to 400, just as God had in Genesis 15:13-14.
But again Stephen wanted to let them know that the time the Jews were slaves in Egypt was set to the exact date by God, Exodus 12:40-42.
Problems come from the 400 years statement as Exodus 12:40 and Galatians 3:17, tells us it was actually 430 years, but Stephen is following what it says in Genesis 15:13. The statement of 400 years is just a round figure.
Even though God did not give Abraham an inheritance in the Promised Land, he did promise to give him a son and to give the land of Canaan to his descendants, Genesis 17:9-14.
And so what Stephen is doing here is showing how God told Abraham he would judge the nation of Egypt and bring His people out to serve Him in the land of promise at the end of the appointed time.
And so it was after making those significant promises to Abraham, God instituted circumcision as a part sign of the covenant between Abraham and his descendants. Abraham was circumcised after he received the promises.
Two main themes run through this speech.
1. As a nation, the Jews were always unfaithful to God.
Joseph saved the Jews, he provided the Jews with their needs. The heads of the 12 tribes of Israel were moved by jealousy to act against the one who God sent and going to use to save them.
Stephen tells them that they are rebelling against God, he then takes them through the events of Genesis 37-Exodus 1. He tells them about Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph, who was sold into Egypt because of the jealousy of his own brothers. But God, in His providence, noted Joseph’s mistreatment and delivered him.
He went on to make him governor over the land of Egypt. A great famine left Jacob and his household without food to sustain them. So, having heard of the plentiful food in Egypt, he sent his sons to purchase grain on two separate occasions. On the second occasion, Joseph revealed his identity to his brethren and let Pharaoh know who they were.
Joseph, with the approval of Pharaoh, sent wagons to bring his aged father to Egypt. Seventy-five souls left Canaan for the land of Egypt. The figure of 75 persons is based on the LXX of Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5, while the Hebrew text has 70.
The figure 75 comes from leaving out Jacob and Joseph and including the remaining 7 of Joseph’s sons. In both cases, the number is the total of Jacob’s descendants who went to Egypt or were born there.
Jacob’s body was carried back to Shechem to be laid in the cave of Machpelah alongside those of Abraham and Sarah. According to Genesis 49:29-32 and Genesis 50:13, Jacob was buried in the cave of Machpelah near Hebron which Abraham had bought from Ephron the Hittite, Genesis 23. Joseph was buried at Shechem, Joshua 24:32, in the land, which Jacob had bought from the sons of Hamor, Genesis 33:18-20.
Josephus states that Jacob’s other sons were buried at Hebron. There was a local tradition at Shechem that the 12 sons of Jacob were buried there. So because of these texts, it looks like Stephen is telling them something different from the Old Testament scriptures.
Again, it seems that Stephen has followed a tradition, according to which not only Joseph but also his brothers were buried at Shechem, and that he has attributed the purchase of the grave there to Abraham by including an allusion to the story in Genesis 23.
God had not forgotten his promise to Abraham and as days passed, the children of Israel multiplied from the original seventy-five until they appeared to be a menace to the Egyptians.
Additionally, a king ascended to the throne who did not recall the salvation of Egypt by the hand of Joseph. The king mistreated them by placing them in bondage and slaying their babies.
Stephen now talks about how Moses was rejected by God’s own people as we find in Exodus 2. It was during those hard and difficult years in Egypt when all these babies were being murdered that Moses was born.
We know from Exodus, Moses was hidden by his parents for three months and afterwards, God caused him to be found by Pharaoh’s daughter and reared as if he were her own son. He was taught everything the Egyptians of his day knew.
He was a strong man in word and deed. At the age of forty, he visited God’s people. He killed an Egyptian who was mistreating one of his brethren.
Moses thought they would understand that God intended to deliver them by His hand but had to flee when a Jew questioned his authority and revealed he knew of the Egyptian’s death. And so Moses fled to Midian, where he married and had two sons.
The people Stephen is talking to still didn’t understand. Every time God sends someone they killed them. He tells them they didn’t understand Moses as they didn’t understand Stephen.
Stephen, still under the accusation of blasphemy carries on with Israel’s history by reminding them of the events from Exodus 3 right up unto Numbers 13.
He says, when Moses was eighty years old, God spoke to him from a burning bush in the wilderness of Mount Sinai. God told him He had seen His people suffering in Egypt and heard their groaning. He told Moses that he would deliver the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage.
What Stephen is doing here is reminding his listeners that God did deliver His people from Egyptian bondage, God did deliver them at the Red Sea and looked after them for forty years in the wilderness.
But his point is that God delivered them by the hands of the very one who the children of Israel had previously rejected. The God of Abraham.
Jewish history is our history and we need to understand where we come from. God’s people didn’t have photo albums to look back on, they only had the Old Testament scriptures, and they were important to them. So important that Stephen goes ahead and reminds them of Israel’s rebellion against God.
He quotes Deuteronomy 18:15, as Peter did in Acts 3, to remind them about the prophet which God was going to raise up, that is the Christ. Stephen reminds them of their adventures from Numbers 14, right up until the Israelite’s captivity in Babylon as we read about in 1 Chronicles 9.
Stephen says that that very deliverer was the one who foresaw the day God would raise up another prophet like him. Moses faithfully worked with those Jews who had been called out of bondage. Through him, they had heard God’s living message.
Yet, while Moses was receiving God’s will on Mount Sinai, the people were rejecting that very will and turning back, at least in their hearts, toward Egypt.
When they got Aaron to make the golden calf for them to worship, the people were effectively rejecting the Almighty. He, in turn, gave them up to serve worthless idols.
Molech was an Ammonite idol and the Jews adopted him for themselves. It was made of brass, in the image of a bull sitting on its back legs with the front legs stretched out in front to make a shelf.
The worship of Molech was tied up with the worship of the sun. The arms would be red hot and they would sacrifice their children that were put inside the arms. The worship of Molech was forbidden, Leviticus 18:21. Israel was filled with idols at one time and the Jewish people sacrificed their children.
The people in the Sanhedrin didn’t want to be reminded of their past and so Stephen wanted to show them from the Scriptures that their rejection of God was the very reason they were led away into Babylonian captivity.
By quoting Amos 5:25-27, Stephen is trying to explain that this is also part of God’s plan. Abraham’s leaving to go to the Promised Land could only be done if Abraham followed God’s instructions to the letter.
Joseph being taken to Egypt and Moses delivering them from Egypt could only be done if Joseph and Moses followed God’s instructions to the letter.
When God’s people didn’t follow His instructions to the letter they were punished, that’s why they ended up in Egypt and Babylon in the first place.
Stephen reminds them that God has a pattern for His people’s lives which needs to be followed to the letter. In other words, if we want to live in God’s true house, we need to live by His rules.
Stephen says the pattern for making the tabernacle was one of the things that God revealed through Moses which had to be followed exactly, Hebrews 8:5.
Stephen says do remember David? 1 Kings 8:17-18. Stephen says David wanted to build a temple for God to dwell in but God wouldn’t let him according to 1 Chronicles 28:3 because he was a man of war. Instead, Solomon, David’s son, was allowed to build a temple.
And then Stephen gets to the point. He says that the Creator of the universe does not dwell in temples made with men’s hands. Stephen quotes from Isaiah 66:1-2 and Psalm 102:25 which clearly show that God cannot be confined like the gods of the pagans. Instead, God, their God and our God today who created the universe has made the very universe He created to be His throne.
The Sanhedrin needed to ask themselves the very same question which Solomon asked many years before them, can they contain God, 1 Kings 8:27. Stephen makes his point and goes through all of that history to get to this important truth.
Notice the change of tone in Stephen’s words. Steven tells them that they continued to do the same things their fathers did, that is, disobeyed God.
These people ignored Jesus just as their fathers did. Stephen says, your just like your fathers before you, your necks are as hard as a rock, so hard that you won’t bow down to God just like your relatives wouldn’t.
The people who Stephen is addressing had the outward signs of religion but their hearts from far from the truth. They had been circumcised in the flesh but their hearts were still encased in sinful flesh. God told them time and time again through His prophets that the time was coming when He was going to send the Just One, who we know as Jesus.
And again just like their fathers before they had persecuted and killed those prophets who foretold the coming of God’s Just One, Stephen said they had betrayed and murdered the Just One, Matthew 21:33-39. He says you guys are just as bad as your ancestors were.
2. Despite the rebellion of God’s people, God had always acted for their benefit.
They had God’s protection, Acts 7:5-7. God was with Joseph, Acts 7:9. They had the promise for Abraham, Acts 7:17. They had Moses as a ruler and God gave them their deliverance, Acts 7:34, and God drove out people through Joshua, Acts 7:45.
Stephen is speaking of the goodness of God and he says God has never been limited to one place and God appeared to Abraham, Acts 7:2. God was in Egypt, Acts 7:9, and God was in the wilderness, Acts 7:30. God is not limited to the temple, Acts 7:48.
The Jews were not as righteous and holy and as good as they thought they were because their reaction is very similar to that of those who were listening to Stephen.
Just like Peter’s sermon, Acts 2:37, the truth hurts because the truth cuts to the heart and they were raging. And when we’re faced with a reaction like this one, there is only one place to look, and that’s heavenward. It was the Lord’s Spirit who had inspired Stephen to speak and it’s the Lord’s Spirit who now caused him to look intently into heaven.
Stephen looked up and he saw God’s glory and Jesus standing at the Father’s right hand. In the New Testament Jesus is almost always described as sitting at the right hand of the Father, but not when one of His children is in trouble.
Stephen saw Him standing which tells us that Jesus not only cares about us but He stands up for us and we need to believe that He does that for us every time we’re in trouble. In other words, don’t look to the world for protection and all the answers look to heaven for them.
Stephen told the council what he saw, they cried out, stopped their ears, rushed to him, threw him outside of the city and stoned him. And it’s here Luke tells us that those who stoned him laid their coats at the feet of a young Jewish Rabbi named Saul. This is the first mention of Saul and he’s here standing and watching.
I don’t know many people who would say those words with their dying breath after going through what Stephen went through, except Jesus Himself of course.
We should thank God for people like Stephen who was willing even unto death to hold onto the truth and even with his dying words ask God to forgive them. Stephen’s dying words echo the words of the Master He followed who was dying on the cross of cavalry in Luke 23:34.