And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” And Stephen said:
“Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.
“And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.
“But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.
“When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.
“Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the 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. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’
“This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices,
during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
You took up the tent of Moloch
and the star of your god Rephan,
the images that you made to worship;
and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’
“Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,
“‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?’
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Understanding And Applying the Text
Stephen was on trial. His accusers claimed he blasphemed against Moses and the temple. So the high priest starts the inquiry with, “how do you plead?” He asked if the accusations were true.
Stephen does not talk about his personal experience. Stephen does not talk about how Jesus made him feel. He does not talk about how Jesus was his personal savior. He does not say what Jesus did for him.
Many believe that is the way to evangelize. They say you are to give your personal testimony. No one can argue with your experience. No one can say you do not feel that way. Or you don’t feel inner peace. No one can say you don’t believe it. They cannot argue with because you are the authority on your emotions.
But it’s not the gospel. It is not evangelism. No one can argue against it. While it is safe, it is not the gospel. The gospel is about Christ. It is not about you. You are not the gospel. Christ is.
Stephen goes to history. He says this is what happened in history. Stephen talks about objective truth, not subjective experience. The gospel is not about how you feel. It is not about your relationship with Christ. It is about what Christ has done in history.
God’s word transforms men’s lives. Your experience does not. Your experience does not save.
Stephen started his defense from his accuser’s point of view. They believed they were defending historic Judaism. So, Stephen started with historic Judaism.
Stephen addresses the Sanhedrin as “Brothers and fathers.” He knows these men were sworn enemies of Christ. Why? These men held offices in church government. God had not yet cast off the Temple. So it was right for Stephen to address them with respect. He was not trying to flatter them. He was not afraid to offend them. He honored the government God appointed. But that did not keep him from presenting the truth. In fact, he concluded his speech calling them out for their sin. “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears.”
Stephen recounted Jewish history. The God of glory appeared to Abraham. In recounting history Stephen acknowledged the fathers and the only true God. This served to remind the Sanhedrin God does not dwell in temples made by hands. This was important since men had accused him of blaspheming against the temple.
A summary of his discourse is this:
He acknowledges the glory of God revealed to the fathers. He acknowledges Moses’ calling. He acknowledges the dignity of the law. He acknowledged the holiness of the temple. The law was older than the temple. God’s promise to Abraham was older than the law. God showed Himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their children. And they showed faith and obedience to God by their regard for the law and the promised land.
Then Stephen pointed out Israel’s fathers opposed Moses. They despised the land and forsook God. As a result, the rulers had only superstitious regard for the temple. They too resisted God and His Spirit. Their fathers killed the prophets. And these rulers killed the Messiah Himself. They did not keep the law they claimed to hold dear. So, God was not bound to them or to Israel.
God commanded Abraham to leave his home. Abraham ended up in Palestine. Abraham forgot his country, friends, and himself. He gave himself to God.
God brought Abraham to the land of Canaan But God did not give him a footprint’s worth of land. All Abraham had was a promise. A promise his heirs would inherit the land. Yet Abraham did not have any children. And he was an old man, 80 years old.
Stephen built the case that God keeps His promise. He promised an inheritance. He gave an inheritance. He promised a Christ. God gave a Christ. God fulfilled His promise.
But Abraham’s offspring would first suffer under the rule of a foreign power. Stephen reminded the Sanhedrin their forefathers were slaves. He also made the point this did not happen by chance. God foretold it long before it happened. Suffering was not and is not unknown or unexpected for God’s people.
This should have taught them modesty. God had always cared for Israel. Israel’s deliverance came before the temple. So it follows, that God’s grace was not tied to its ceremonies. Using historical evidence, Stephen showed God’s grace did not dependent on the temple. Nor did it depend on keeping the law. Both the Law and the Temple came after God showed His grace to Israel.
Next, Stephen conceited circumcision was a covenant with God. At this point, he cleared himself of all the charges against him. But then he showed the Jews are mistaken to place their hope of salvation on these things. God’s call, promised land, and redemption came before Abraham’ circumcision. Abraham obtained righteousness. He pleased God before his circumcision. Abraham obtained righteousness without the Mosaic law. It follows then, the promise was not in circumcision or the law. Paul used this same argument in Romans (Romans 4:11)
Stephen showed righteousness comes from God. It did not come by fulfilling the law. Now, Stephen turned to the patriarchs. He pointed out they were all scoundrels and murders. They were not people to be proud of. They tried to murder Joseph, their own brother. They ended up selling him into slavery. Even so, God was merciful to them.
God brought salvation to them through Joseph. The very one they tried to kill. God brought them to Egypt where God had prepared food for them.
Stephen said 75 people came with Jacob to Egypt. This disagrees with Moses. Moses said in Genesis 46:27, 70 people came with Jacob. This is a small error but becomes large when we claim the scripture is inerrant.
This problem goes away when we understand what Luke is recording. Luke is recording what Stephen said. He is recording the history of Stephen’s account to the Sanhedrin. He is not recording the migration of Jacob and his family to Egypt. Luke recorded what Stephen said. Luke recorded Stephen even when he misspoke.
But where did the number 75 come from? The Greek Translation of the Old Testament mistranslated the Hebrew. The Greek translation of the Old Testament found in the Dead Sea Scrolls give the number 75. This miss-translation is probably where Stephen gets his number.
When an Egyptian king arose who did not know the history of Joseph and his family. He opposed the Israelites. He caused their children to die from exposure. But God spared Moses. He spared Moses so Moses could redeem Israel. But Israel rejected Moses when God offered him as their redeemer. (Are you starting to see a pattern?)
God prepared Moses for his assignment. Moses went to Egyptian schools. The world over recognized Egypt’s wisdom. This was true even well after Moses’ time. Moses’ education included military training. He learned how to fight and command armies. When he fled to Midian, He learned the terrain and routines Israel would use. God trained and prepared him.
We see the providence of God when we look back at Joseph and Moses. God’s salvation is sure.
Israel rejected Moses leadership. God’s selection and preparation made no difference to them.
After forty years in Midian God called Moses to return to Egypt. Moses was to fulfill his purpose. He was to save Israel from their oppression.
Moses’ call from God also put the Temple’s sanctity in perspective. A bush in the middle of the desert was as holy as the temple. Why? Not because of the bush. Not because of the location. It was because God was revealing Himself. God is holy. Everything God touches is holy. Stephen makes the point that while men were to revere the temple, it is not holy in itself. God makes it holy. Stephen shows God is not limited to a particular locale. The place where God reveals himself is a holy place. When God removed His presence from the temple it stopped being holy. That is why Roman soldiers were able to enter the holy of holies.
Stephen passed over a lot with Moses to get to his main points. Their fathers did not deserve delivery. God delivered them by His grace. There was nothing righteous in them. They were unworthy.
We would do well to take note as well. Israel possessed no redeemable characteristics. Nothing inherent in them caused God to redeem. God chose them of His purpose, not their goodness, They did nothing. Nothing! They cried out for redemption. And they rejected the Redeemer God gave them. Yet God saved them.
We have done nothing, NOTHING to worthy ourselves for our election. When we try to claim for ourselves even a partial role in our election, we steal God’s glory. To say things like: “God did 99% and he left the last 1% to you.” Steals God’s glory. “God did all He could now it is up for you to decide.” Steals God’s glory. “God votes for you. The devil votes against you You have to cast the deciding vote.” Steals God’s glory. God’s saves His grace alone, for His purpose alone.
We would do well to understand what Stephen tried to teach those Jewish leaders. Stop robbing Gods of His glory!
Israel rejected God’s redemption both before and after the Exodus. They wanted to return to Egypt. They made their own God, a golden calf statue, to lead them. They rejected God. They rejected the one who redeemed them.
Stephen pointed out Israel never stopped sinning. As a result, God sent them into exile in Babylon. The expression “and gave them over” is like the judgment on the nations Paul described in Romans 1:18-32.
Stephen turned his attention back to the temple. He already said the temple was worthy of honor. But it was worthy of honor only because it was a place where God meets His people. But the temple had no inherent honor. He reminded them before the temple there was a tabernacle. It was holy. It was holy because that is where God met with His people.
When David wanted to build God a house God asked, “What kind of house would you build for me?” Heaven is God’s throne. The earth is God’s footstool. There is no house big enough to house God. And besides that, it is God who has made all things.” Man cannot build a house for God. God chooses to use the temple to meet with His people. When God chose to remove His presence from the temple, it became only another building.
Stephen has cleared himself of the charges. It was now time to call the Sanhedrin to repentance. Stephen says this is more than a history lesson. Y’all are like your father. They resisted God. You resist God. They persecuted and killed the prophets. Y’all killed the Christ. Y’all rever the law. Y’all don’t keep it.
Let us not consider ourselves better than the Sanhedrin. It is our sins that killed Christ. We have received the Law. And we do not keep it. But praise God. Christ death atones for our sins. Let us trust in Him for our salvation.