Exploring the Book of Acts Chapter 7

Acts Chapter 7: Persecution Strikes the Church, part 3

Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin (7:2-53)

Stephen’s response is the longest speech in Acts. His speech can be divided into segments that cover different aspects of Israel’s history:

  • Abraham’s calling (7:2-8);
  • the Patriarchs in Egypt (7:9-16);
  • life of Moses (7:17-36);
  • Moses and Israel in the wilderness (7:37-43);
  • and the Tabernacle of Testimony (7:44-50).

Stephen concludes with a stinging rebuke of the Sanhedrin (7:51-53). As good debaters often do, Stephen avoids answering the high priest’s question. He does not even directly address the accusation that he had slandered Moses and God.

The defense of Stephen before the Sanhedrin is hardly a defense in the sense of an explanation or apology calculated to win an acquittal. Rather, it is a proclamation of the Christian message in terms of the popular Judaism of the day and an indictment of the Jewish leaders for their failure to recognize Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah or to appreciate the salvation provided in him. [Longenecker, 337.]

Stephen does respond to the underlying charge that he is a renegade Jew, and by extension, that the Messianic church is composed of apostate Jews. He does this by asserting that Israelite history (from the call of Abraham to the building of Solomon’s temple) proves that his listeners are the real defectors from God. Stephen is on the offense, not trying to win any favors!

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Stephen points out that throughout Jewish history, God raised up leaders to deliver the people, but the Israelites rejected those leaders, including Moses (7:35). They erroneously believed that they were in God’s presence as long as they worshiped in the temple. But God’s presence in the original moveable sanctuary, the tabernacle, did not keep the Israelites from idolatry (7:39-42). The Jews are mistaken if they think that God dwells in the nation simply because the temple is in Jerusalem (7:44-50).

Stephen turns the accusation on its head. It is not he, but the Jewish leaders, who are violating Moses and his law. Stephen makes his point by mentioning Abraham as the progenitor of God’s nation. He is asking: Who really represents Abraham’s people? Certainly it is not his listeners, the descendants of Israel, a nation that continually rejects Moses and God. Rather, God’s (Abraham’s) people are those who accept “the Righteous One” and follow the Holy Spirit (7:51-52).

Luke wants to show that far from “blaspheming God and Moses” (6:11), the Messianists are actually far more faithful than are their opponents to the genuine story of God and his prophets, above all the prophet Moses. He does this, in short, by reading the biblical story in terms not of commandments and shrines, but in terms of promise and fulfillment, of prophetic sendings, and the challenge to obedience. [Johnson, 135.]

The facts of Israel’s history that Stephen recites were familiar to his listeners. Jewish rabbis, pundits and teachers often recite elements of the story of Israel to support some particular understanding of it. Thus, Stephen’s listeners are quite aware of his point in retelling the biblical story. What is radically different about the content of Stephen’s speech is its insistence that the Jews are not truly obedient to God! He is swimming in dangerous waters, for this accusation goes against the popular Jewish understanding of themselves as God’s people. Stephen speech drills home one main point: those who claim to be the people of God have never obeyed in faith. His listeners always reject the saving message of God.

Stephen’s speech differs sharply from previous speeches in Acts. He is the first Christian speaker to challenge Jewish institutions, the law and the temple. In this speech he also challenges the Jews, not only as those who rejected their Messiah, but as a people who have failed to respond to God throughout their history. In short, those who think they are a people of God, are not his people.

Commentators also see Stephen as “the first to challenge Christianity’s dependence on Jewish institutions.” [Neil, 116.] Before Stephen, the church assumed itself to be merely an extension of the Jewish nation, a kind of righteous remnant within it, to bring Israel back to a worship of God. Stephen shocks his listeners by saying Israel, as a whole, had never truly worshiped God to begin with.

Staggering implications (7:7)

Before Stephen, the church thought of Jesus simply as the Jewish Messiah. After Stephen, it became clearer that he is the Savior of all peoples, not just of the Jews. The implications are staggering. Stephen’s speech suggests a world mission not just to scattered Jews, but to all ethnic groups. In the words of David J. Williams, Stephen was

a pioneer and in some ways an exemplar of the new direction that the church was to take. He was, so to speak, the connecting link between Peter and Paul — a link indispensable to the chain of salvation history that God was forging. [Williams, 130-131.]

Stephen’s speech indicates that the church should think about turning away from Jerusalem and the temple. It is time to evangelize other places besides Jerusalem — and this is exactly what will soon be done (8:1). Stephen’s speech implies that Jewish institutions are of no value in themselves. They need to be left behind or seen in a new spiritual light. Most of all, the church is not just an extension of a righteous remnant within Judaism. It actually forms a new people of the Spirit.

There is an interesting aspect to Stephen’s speech that implies that evangelization and theology must move beyond Jerusalem. He shows that God’s activity in saving Israel occurred outside of Jerusalem and Judea. God appeared to Abraham while he was in Mesopotamia and Haran (7:2, 4). God rescued Joseph while he was in Egypt (7:10). Moses was called in Midian, near Mount Sinai (7:30). Israel was saved while in Egypt and protected in the wilderness (7:36). In Stephen’s examples, God’s work and calling took place outside of the promised land. He met his people, not just in a temple in Jerusalem, but anywhere he pleased. From this it can be surmised that God is an international God interested in all people. The point is that God’s presence and calling are not restricted to the land of Israel, or to one ethnic group, or a temple.

Stephen is arguing against a superstitious veneration of the temple and of Jerusalem. God’s saving activity can take place anywhere. Thus, the church should be looking for a people (wherever they may be) who are willing to be submissive to the lead of the Holy Spirit.

Stephen’s speech must be seen against the backdrop of then currently esteemed institutions in Judaism. Richard Longenecker points out that “before the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the three great pillars of popular Jewish piety were (1) the land, (2) the law, and (3) the temple.” [Longenecker, 337.] Stephen’s speech alerts his hearers to a deception about these venerated institutions. The Jews believe that God is present with them — with their group — because he is present in their land, their law and their temple. Yet, they were neglecting to look at themselves — that God needs to be present in their thoughts and actions, wherever they are.

Stephen is not denouncing the law or the land, not even the temple. (He argues that the ancient Israelites were wrong to reject Moses.) Rather, Stephen is chastising his hearers for missing the obvious: they are sinners (as their fathers were) and need a Savior. By discussing Israel’s sinful history, Stephen demonstrates that the Jews need a Savior. There’s a great message in Stephen’s sermon for all generations. As Christians we must not put faith in our group, our beliefs or institutions. Otherwise, we may forget that, as sinners, we also need a living Savior. Nor should we assume that God is only with us, and is not working anywhere else. Stephen is pointing out that we all need to put our faith in the Righteous One.

However, it is curious that Stephen does not mention the name of Christ in his speech, nor his resurrection (but we should also note that Stephen did not get a chance to finish his speech). This is in contrast to previous speeches in Acts, which focus on a glorified Jesus. Just before his speech was cut short by the angry mob, he condemned his listeners for betraying and murdering “the Righteous One,” foretold in their own Scriptures (7:52) — a clear reference to the death of the Messiah.

Perhaps if Stephen could continue talking, he would focus on the resurrected and ascended Christ. But even without this emphasis, it is still clear where Stephen is going. Jewish faith in itself — and its institutions — as defining the people of God needs to be radically altered to make Jesus the center of worship.

Abraham (7:2-8)

Stephen begins his history of Israel at its most fundamental place, with God’s call of Abraham. One of Stephen’s objectives is to show that God does not live in the Jerusalem temple (7:48). So here he says that the “God of glory” appeared to Abraham — not in Jerusalem, but in pagan Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and northeastern Syria).

The Jews associate the glory of God — the Shekinah — with the moveable tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 25:8; 40:34-38), and later the temple (Ezekiel 43:2, 4). So right at the beginning of his speech Stephen establishes that God needs neither tent nor temple to work with human beings. God’s self-revelation is not limited to the land of the Jews, certainly not to Jerusalem and the temple. Stephen draws his listeners to the important actor in the story — God.

God is the first subject mentioned (7:2) and his are all the main actions: God appears (7:3), speaks (7:3, 6), moves (7:4), gives an inheritance (7:5), promises (7:5), judges (7:7), gives a covenant (7:8). Luke does not emphasize Abraham’s faith, indeed does not even mention it. Abraham merely goes and dwells (7:4), begets and circumcises (7:8). The focus is on God’s promise and the way it will reach fulfillment in a time beyond Abraham. God appears where and when he wishes, directs and moves people, and issues promises that are open-ended, to be fulfilled in often surprising ways. [Johnson, 121.]

Stephen respectfully calls the Sanhedrin members “brothers and fathers” (7:2). He also refers to Abraham as “our father.” For the moment, Stephen is framing the debate in the context of a family quarrel. Stephen places himself at one with the Sanhedrin throughout the speech by using this terminology (7:11, 12, 19, 38, 44, 45). Not until the end of his speech, when he delivers a final stinging rebuke, does he say “your fathers,” this time referring to Israelites throughout the ages, not the patriarchs.

Some questions (7:2-8)

Commentators pose some questions about the biblical quotations, numbers and chronology in Stephen’s speech. The difficulties are technical and do not affect the main thrust of the speech, or its important points. We will consider briefly some of the questions. These can point to a possible solution of the others.

One of these questions concerns the place of Abraham’s calling. Stephen states that God’s glory appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran (7:2). (Abraham’s family originally came from the Mesopotamian city of Ur.) The story of Abraham’s call in Genesis 11:27-5 seems to contradict Acts and implies that God’s call was given in Haran, not in Mesopotamia. However, Abraham’s call occurred in Ur as much as it did in Haran, and other Old Testament passages verify this. [Genesis 15:7; Joshua 24:3; Nehemiah 9:7.] Jewish tradition also agreed on this. [Philo, On Abraham 70-72; Josephus, Antiquities 1:154-157.] Abraham’s original call came in the city of Ur. After he moved to Haran, Abraham received a similar divine message.

Another difficulty in Stephen’s speech concerns numbers. He says that the Israelites were mistreated and enslaved in Egypt for 400 years (7:6). His phraseology seems to be taken from Genesis 15:14, which concurs on the number as being 400 years. However, according to Exodus 12:40, Israel’s sojourning in Egypt lasted 430 years. Both Genesis and Stephen are using 400 as a round number, not a precise span. For the purpose of Stephen’s speech, a round number is all that is needed. The period Israel spent in Egypt was actually shorter. Galatians 3:16-17 says that 430 years ran from the original covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:3, 7; 13:15) to the giving of the law after the Exodus. Abraham and his descendants were strangers in the land for 430 years, and most of that time period was characterized by mistreatment.

Joseph (7:9-16)

Though the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons — are all mentioned by Stephen, Joseph is the real focus of the story. Joseph’s ten older brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. But later Joseph became the prime minister of the nation. Meanwhile, a famine occurred in Egypt and Canaan. Joseph had stored enough food during the seven years of bounteous crops to see Egypt through the famine. Canaan was not so fortunate. Jacob and his brothers went to Egypt to buy food.

Joseph is the key to this part of Stephen’s story. Earlier, Stephen painted Abraham as a man willing to answer the call of God and go where he was instructed. In the same way, Stephen shows Joseph to be a man of faith. And it is through faith that “God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles” (7:9-10). In the account of Abraham, Stephen shows God acting outside of the Holy Land, in Haran. Now he makes the point that God was with Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, again outside the Promised Land. Indeed, the name “Egypt” is repeated six times for emphasis in verses 9-16. Stephen is trying to make a point.

God did not save Jacob and his sons from famine in their new homeland. Rather, they had go to Egypt — where Joseph was rescued by God — in order to get food. Then, the entire family settled outside of Canaan, in a particularly fruitful part of Egypt. There they all died. Stephen is continuing to exploit the account of Israel’s history to show that God saves people outside of Judea and Jerusalem. The point is that God can work with individuals anywhere he chooses, and in whatever way he chooses.

Commentators also see parallels in the story of Joseph and the story of Jesus. Joseph is rejected by his brothers, just as Jesus is rejected by his own people (John 1:11). Joseph is thrown into a pit (the grave?) but God rescues him out of it. Though he is rejected by his own, strangers receive him (the Gentiles). Finally, Joseph is raised up to be the ruler, even as Christ has been glorified by God with all power over the nations.

The two visits (7:11-13)

Stephen even exploits the double visit of Jacob and his sons to Egypt to buy food. The brothers did not recognize Joseph on the first visit, an aspect of the story Stephen’s listeners would be aware of. “Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8). However, “On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was” (7:13). It is only because Joseph made himself known to them — and which made it possible for them to recognize him — could they be saved. Likewise, Jesus was rejected on his “first visit” in the incarnation. But there is an opportunity to recognize and accept him now on his “second visit” through the preaching of the church.

In Stephen’s story the inability of Israel to recognize God’s servant on the first visit was true for Joseph, Moses and the Righteous One (Jesus). This drives home the point that the Jews did not recognize their saviors.

In the Joseph story…Luke shows the pattern that will be developed even more fully in his description of Moses, and which will structure his portrayal of Jesus as the prophet like Moses: the rejected and rescued savior, the double visitation with the possibility of further acceptance or rejection. [Johnson, 121-122.]

Some questions (7:14-15)

As in the Abraham panel, there are some technical difficulties in the Joseph story as well. For one, Stephen says that the number of people who went to Egypt was 75 (7:14). However, the figure in Genesis 46:27 is given as 70 — 66 individuals plus Jacob, Joseph and Joseph’s two sons born in Egypt. Of course, when we say Genesis 46:27 gives the number as 70 (see also Exodus 1:5), we are referring to English translations, which are based on the Hebrew Masoretic [The Masoretes were Jewish scholars who copied the Hebrew Scriptures in the Middle Ages.] textual tradition.

However, the Septuagint Greek version of Genesis 46:27 (sometimes called “the Bible of the early Christian church”) gives the number of people going down to Egypt as 75. It arrives at this figure by omitting Jacob and Joseph but including nine sons of Joseph in the total. Exodus 2:1 in this version also has the number 75. Stephen, a Greek-speaking Hellenist, was almost certainly following the text of the Septuagint version.

Buried in Abraham’s tomb (7:16)

A second problem in this section concerns the place of burial of Abraham and his descendants. Stephen says that Jacob “and our fathers” are buried in a tomb in Shechem, which Abraham purchased from the sons of Hamor (7:16). However, the story is more complicated in the Old Testament. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried in the cave of Machpelah near Hebron, a plot Abraham had purchased from Ephron the Hittite (Genesis 23:1-20; 49:29-32; 50:13), and which is in Judea. Joseph, on the other hand, was buried at Shechem (Joshua 24:32) in a plot Jacob had purchased from the sons of Hamor (Genesis 33:18-20 with Joshua 24:32).

It has been suggested that Stephen is simply condensing the two accounts of burial property purchases, one near Hebron and the other in Shechem. He did a similar thing in describing the two calls of Abraham at Ur and Haran as one. A variant explanation is that Stephen may be following a tradition that makes Shechem the burial place for the entire family.

However, Stephen may have an important purpose in singling out Shechem as the burial place. He is giving a speech to the leading Jews of Jerusalem, who hold their land in great esteem. But Stephen points out that the patriarchs are buried in Shechem, in the territory of the Samaritans. If the patriarchs allowed themselves to be buried in Shechem — and proper burial was important to Jews — it implies again that God can work anywhere. The point is, one need not be buried on “holy ground” to be resurrected to life. Perhaps we can also see in the mention of Samaritan territory a clue to the coming evangelization of Samaria (8:5-25).

Moses (7:20-43)

Stephen now turns to the story of Moses. This is the longest and most complex of the sections on Israel’s history. Moses’ life is discussed in three parts, each totaling 40 years (7:20-29; 30-35; 36-43). What is striking is the disproportionate emphasis on Moses. By comparison there are only two references to the Messiah, and those only in an indirect way. The Messiah is called the Prophet-like-Moses (from Deuteronomy 18:15) and the Righteous One, but not directly as either Christ or Jesus (7:37; 52).

There is a good reason for Stephen’s emphasis on Moses. He was accused of blasphemy against Moses” and saying that Jesus would “change the customs Moses handed down to us” (6:11, 14). In the speech, Stephen turns the accusation against those who had accused him. It is not he but the nation of Israel that is in rebellion against Moses, and they have been throughout their history (7:9, 35, 39, 51, 52).

Luke alerted us to the theme that a prophet like Moses would one day appear, when he earlier captured a point Peter made in the temple courts (3:22). Peter said that the Jews’ appointed Messiah ascended until the time when God would restore all things. At that juncture Peter referred to Moses’ statement that God will raise up a prophet like him from among the people — and that he must be listened to. Now Stephen reminds his hearers that Moses prophesied of the coming of a prophet like himself. Thus, they ought not reject outright the claims that Jesus fulfills the requirements.

As in the case of Joseph, Moses becomes a prototype of Christ in Luke’s account. As Moses narrowly escaped death at the hands of Pharaoh (7:21), the infant Jesus was saved from Herod. Moses was “no ordinary child” (7:20). So was Jesus (Luke 2:52). Moses grew in wisdom and stature (7:22). So did Jesus (Luke 2:52). Moses was mighty in word and deed. Luke says the same thing of Jesus (Luke 24:19). Moses urged two fighting Israelites to make peace (7:26). The theme of peace was characteristic of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 1:79; 2:14, 29; Acts 10:36). And, most directly, Moses is said to be a type of the Prophet-Messiah (Acts 7:37).

Stephen says that Moses “thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not” (7:25). This Moses-rejection theme is strong in Stephen’s speech (7:23-29; 35). Like Moses, Jesus was sent to save his own people, but they rejected him. Stephen chastises the Sanhedrin for rejecting the Righteous One (Jesus) in the same way that their ancestors failed to recognize who Moses was (7:52).

Luke would undoubtedly expect his Christian readers to see here a parallel between Moses and Jesus as the saviors of God’s people, whether or not Stephen’s hearers would catch the point: the behavior of the Jews in refusing to recognize Jesus as Savior was of a piece with their earlier rejection of Moses (7:52). [Marshall, 140.]

In his speech, Stephen emphasizes Israel’s rejection of God, of the law, and especially their Messiah. Thus, he draws a strong parallel between Israel’s treatment of Moses and the Jews’ treatment of Jesus. Stephen will drive this point home in a final, scathing indictment of the Sanhedrin (7:51-53). Stephen emphasizes that God’s redemptive power was given to his people outside of Judea. In the Moses section this point is driven home by a repetition of non-Holy Land locations in which God interacted with Moses. God raised up Moses in Egypt (7:17-22); he provided for the rejected Moses in Midian (7:29); he commissioned Moses in the desert near Mount Sinai (7:30-34). God pronounced Mount Sinai to be “holy ground.” Even though it is the most important place of Old Testament revelation, Sinai is outside the Holy Land. It has no sanctity of its own (7:30-34).

Stephen notes that Moses was sent back to Egypt — not Israel — to do God’s will. God delivered his people within this pagan nation as well as at the Red Sea and the wilderness (7:35-36).

Contrary to popular piety of the day in its veneration of “the Holy Land”…no place on earth — even though given as an inheritance by God himself — can be claimed to possess such sanctity or be esteemed in such a way as to preempt God’s further working on behalf of his people. By this method Stephen was attempting to clear the way for the proclamation of the centrality of Jesus in the nation’s worship, life and thought. [Longenecker, 341-342.]

As Abraham was called out of the world — out of Ur and Haran — Moses had to flee Egypt to Midian. In a second step, he left Midian, and finally was called out of Egypt with the children of Israel. Stephen is making the point that these men were ready to answer the call to come out of their society and follow God. Is Stephen giving the assembled Sanhedrin a hint that they must think about coming out of their society, which was centered on the temple and the law?

Stephen and the law (7:38-43)

Stephen describes Moses as one to whom an angel spoke on Mount Sinai, and who “received living words to pass on to us” (7:38). Here he counters the charge that he blasphemed Moses and spoke against the law. In effect, he turned the community’s Scriptures upon itself. Stephen speaks in warm tones of Moses as the mediator between God and his people, “the assembly [Greek, ekklesia, which usually means “church”] in the wilderness” (7:38). Christian readers would probably see a parallel between the wandering of Israel in the desert and their own pilgrimage with Jesus through life (Hebrews 12:18-24).

Stephen then points out that Moses “received living words to pass on to us” (7:38). By calling the words “living,” he implies that they have relevance for him and his audience. However, since Moses himself pointed to Someone beyond himself who must be listened to, God’s revelation and work cannot be limited to the law Moses had given the nation (John 1:17). There is additional revelation from God that the people must not reject.

Then comes the turning point in Stephen’s speech. He says of Israel’s reaction to Moses’ teaching and law: “Our ancestors refused to obey him” (7:39). Stephen’s hearers claimed he had blasphemed the law (and, hence, Moses), claiming it was done away by Jesus. Ironically, Stephen retorted, his hearers belong to a nation that had rejected the law from the beginning, and the Prophet when he came. Stephen then catalogues a litany of disobedient acts by the nation in the wilderness. They rejected Moses (hence God) and made an idol — the golden calf — and worshipped it. In their hearts they turned back to Egypt. Thus, “God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars” (7:42). Stephen quotes Amos 5:25-27 to support his assertion that this particularly detestable form of idolatry caused God to, in effect, to hide himself from Israel.

Stephen deals with the question: with whom is God working? The Jews may offer sacrifices and offerings at the temple, and even consider it as the place of God’s presence. They may venerate the law and be quite zealous for it. But it may be that the Jews are not really acting like God’s people after all. And if they are not, they like ancient Israel may be sent into “exile beyond Babylon” (7:43).

The lesson, of course, is that those who reject the prophet are themselves rejected. When Moses was rejected the first time, he went into exile. Now, when they reject Moses a second time, they go into exile. [Johnson, 132.]

What is it about Moses they reject? Most importantly, they are not listening to the Prophet (Messiah) Moses said must be listened to. Both the Hebrew text and the Septuagint have “Damascus” and not “Babylon” in Amos 5:27, a scripture Stephen quoted in 7:43. Probably the reason Stephen took this liberty with the text is that the Babylonian exile meant more to his hearers, since that is the one the Jews went into and returned from. This use of Scripture reminds us the Bible is a living book, and must be made relevant to the needs of all generations. Babylon was the place “beyond Damascus” that Amos had prophesied.

Stephen is saying that if they do not listen to the Prophet, they will suffer a fate worse than the Babylonian captivity. And as Luke’s readers may know, the Jews by and large do reject Jesus, and a worse fate does befall them. After a ravaging four-year war with the Romans, Jerusalem was captured, and the temple destroyed in A.D. 70, never to be rebuilt.

Tabernacle/temple (7:44-45)

In verse 44 Stephen begins to discuss the “tabernacle of the covenant law,” the movable center of worship the Israelites used in the wilderness. He only briefly mentions Solomon’s temple. The tabernacle was the center and focus of worship in Israel from the time it was made at the beginning of the wilderness wandering until King Solomon’s reign. David wanted to provide a permanent dwelling place for the tabernacle’s furniture, the ark in particular, in Jerusalem (Psalm 132:5). David expressed his desire to build a temple, and the prophet Nathan thought it a good idea (2 Samuel 7:1-3).

However, the word of the Lord came to Nathan with a different message for David regarding a permanent temple. Nathan was told by God to pass the message on to David that he didn’t need a permanent house from which to manifest his glory: “I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling” (verse 6). It would seem that God did not particularly want a house built in his honor. Instead, God told David that God would build David a “house” — a dynasty (verse 13).

The point of Stephen’s discourse on the tabernacle seems to be that God was better served when his presence was revealed by means of a moveable structure. This would have reduced the tendency to institutionalize worship. It underscores Stephen’s contention that the Jews need to reorient their faith from a temple to the Messiah.

Stephen seems to have viewed the epitome of Jewish worship in terms of the tabernacle, not the temple. Very likely this was because he felt the mobility of the tabernacle was a restraint on the status quo mentality that had grown up around the temple. [Longenecker, 346.]

After tacitly praising the tabernacle era, Stephen proceeds to criticize the Jewish idea of the temple as the high point of their religion. He says of the temple, “The Most High does not live in houses made by human hands” (7:48). To paraphrase his thought, Stephen was saying, “Don’t think that God lives in monuments erected by human beings.” (Paul said the same thing about pagan temples. In Acts 17:24, he said to his audience in Athens: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.” Jews frequently criticized pagans for their hand-made idols, and Stephen is using the very same word to point out that their temple is also made by human hands.)

But the Jews made the temple their own private preserve. This had the effect in their minds of making God something of a caged bird, whose working was limited to Jerusalem, its institutions, land and people. That would mean that the only way a person could be saved is to become a Jew. But that effectively halts the advance of God’s universal purpose to work with all nations. There is a lesson here for all churches — with their own temples, churches, basilicas, holy places, systems of worship, theology and credos. God can work outside of established religions. He works wherever and however he pleases, and we must not limit him in our minds.

Concession or command? (7:44-50)

The prophets long ago warned the people against a false confidence in the temple and the rituals surrounding it. It was a mistake to think that because God “lived” in the temple, a sinning nation would automatically be preserved (Isaiah 1:10-17; Jeremiah 7:1-34). Stephen seems to imply that the temple was more of a concession on God’s part to human desire, than his real purpose. This criticizing attitude toward the temple is new in this early stage of the church. Earlier, Luke had gone out of his way to show the apostles and the church worshipping at the temple.

Stephen adopted a position unlike that of any other writer in the New Testament. Where others saw the temple as having once had a place in the divine economy, though no longer, Stephen saw it as a mistake from the first. In his view, the temple was never intended by God. [Williams, 130.]

A parallel situation to the building of the temple might be Israel’s desire to have a king. God allowed it, and he even chose Israel’s kings, but he was displeased by the situation (1 Samuel 8:1-21). Once the institution was in place, God worked with it, and even spoke of preserving it. But a king brought all the evils of a state apparatus and bureaucracy. It created a government insensitive to the needs of the people and trusting in itself rather than God. Humanity’s experience with all sorts of governments through the ages underscores the validity of the point.

In the same way, the stationary temple created an ossified religious government in Jerusalem, and gave rise to an inflexible state of mind. The temple became the domain of a political-religious machine that took advantage of its people. An unpretentious and mobile tabernacle around which worship was based would have made it more difficult to centralize religious power. A tabernacle that moved from place to place would also remind people that God is not limited to one location. Ironically, this was what Solomon himself said when he dedicated the original temple (1 Kings 8:27), and so did the prophet Isaiah later on (66:1). God is too big to be squeezed into a building. But the point was soon forgotten.

Stephen is re-echoing the thought, plainly saying to the Sanhedrin that temple worship can create a narrow view of God’s salvation, thus limiting his purpose.

The Temple which should have become their greatest blessing was in fact their greatest curse; they had come to worship it instead of worshipping God. They had finished up with a Jewish God who lived in Jerusalem rather than a God of all men whose dwelling was the whole universe. [Barclay, 60.]

Yet, the glory of the Lord had been in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:10). Had Stephen gone too far in his criticism of the temple? David J. Williams points out that the operative word in Stephen’s denunciation of temple worship was the word “live” (7:48). The Jews should not have supposed that God’s presence could be found only in the temple and nowhere else.

Stephen may well have agreed that God could be found in the temple, but this word [live] would suggest that he was confined there, and as Stephen had maintained throughout, that was simply not so. Had not God been found in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in the desert? [Williams, 142.]

God can be found and worshipped anywhere on the earth, not just in the Jerusalem temple. The logical conclusion is that people of God can be found and have a relationship with him at the “place” where they were, not in a restricted “place,” such as a temple. Jesus stated this principle when he said a time was coming when people would no longer worship the Father in Jerusalem. They would worship him anywhere they happened to be, and do it “in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). One does not need to be in a special place at a special time in special circumstances to worship God. Since the Holy Spirit is given to whomsoever is called and responds to God in faith, there is “a new understanding of ‘the holy place’ in terms of a community (rather than a physical shrine)” (Williams, page 136).

Thus, it is the people of God themselves who constitute “the temple” where God lives through the Holy Spirit. They are “members of his household,” and in Christ they “become a holy temple” (Ephesians 2:19-21). Paul alludes to this principle on several occasions, and it seems to have been the common understanding of the church that it was “God’s temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16). Perhaps Stephen was about to go on to describe what was implied by his criticism of the temple. That is, God’s presence is not in the temple, but he is “dwelling” among people who put their faith in the Righteous One — Jesus.

Stephen’s indictment (7:51-53)

Stephen seems to break off suddenly from his cataloguing of Israel’s history. He suddenly begins a blistering attack on his hearers. Commentators speculate that Steven’s blunt criticism of the temple may have created a violent clamor in the audience. The commotion in the Sanhedrin may have caused Stephen to break off from his speech, and strongly censure his listeners.

If Stephen had continued his speech, he may have made his point about the temple more clear, and further clarified just who God’s people are. This would have propelled him forward to the usual appeal: accept the resurrected and glorified Christ as Messiah. But Stephen’s speech took a turn into direct denunciation. There is no more talk about the faithful patriarchs being “our fathers.” Now, Stephen talks about his hearers’ ancestors, the sinning Israelites (7:51).

Stephen insists that the Sanhedrin’s refusal to acknowledge Jesus — and his murder — reflected the council’s negative attitude towards God’s messengers throughout Israel’s history. Though Joseph was to be his brothers’ deliverer, they hated him. Moses, who led the emancipation of Israel, was repudiated by the people. The prophets who announced the coming of the Righteous One — and who urged the nation toward faith in God — had been killed by their ancestors (Matthew 23:29-37). Luke had established this point in his Gospel. Luke Timothy Johnson summarizes:

The Pharisees and Lawyers build tombs to the prophets their ancestors killed, and thereby collude in the killing (Luke 11:47-48); they are liable for the blood of all the prophets shed since the creation of the world (11:50); they will kill “the prophets and apostles” the wisdom of God sends to them (11:49); Jerusalem is the “killer of the prophets and stoner of those sent to her” (13:34). [Johnson, 134.]

Stephen says that his listeners are like their fathers in every way. Sin, rebellion against God, and rejection of his purpose characterizes Israel’s history — and the Sanhedrin’s. The council members are stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! (7:51). The Sanhedrin know exactly what Stephen means by this. Such words were often used by God in characterizing Israel’s attitude toward him. [Exodus 33:3, 5; 34:9; Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 9:6, 13; 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:6.] The speech is a bitter and abrupt denunciation of the leaders’ rebellion. His listeners resist the Holy Spirit. They betrayed and murdered the Righteous One, of whom Moses spoke. They are not keeping the law that came from God through angels.

Paul later notes a similar rejection of God’s calling by the Jews. He described the churches in Judea as suffering from the Jews “who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last” (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16).

Stephen is stoned (7:54-58)

Stephen places the death of Jesus squarely on the shoulders of the Sanhedrin, the spiritual leaders of the nation (Luke 24:20; Acts 4:10; 5:30). (Peter had been more charitable, saying in Acts 3:17 that the people killed their Savior in ignorance.) The Sanhedrin’s response to Stephen’s speech is rage. When they hear Stephen’s condemnation, they are “furious and gnashed their teeth at him” (7:54). Then comes the coup de grace. At the height of the Sanhedrin’s wrath, Stephen, “full of the Holy Spirit” (7:55), has a vision of the glory of God, and Jesus standing at his right hand.

Just a few years earlier, Jesus stood in front of this same group. The high priest asked Jesus if he were the Messiah. Jesus answered: “I am…and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). This image of Jesus at God’s right hand is based on Psalm 110:1, a verse frequently used to support Jesus’ Messiahship, particularly his resurrection and glorification (Luke 20:42; Acts 2:34; 5:31). In Acts 7:55 Jesus is said to be standing rather than sitting. Both were metaphors for being in the presence of God (Zechariah 3:1-8; Isaiah 6:1). But why is he standing? Elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus is sitting (Acts 2:34; Mark 16:19; Hebrews 1:3, 13).

The thought may be that he had risen to receive Stephen into heaven or to plead his case in the heavenly court, as though two trials were in progress: this one, conducted by the Sanhedrin, and another, which alone would determine Stephen’s fate [Luke 12:8]. [Williams, 146.]

This is also the only time that the phrase “the son of Man” appears in the New Testament outside the Gospels, the only time it is spoken by a disciple. It has its roots in Daniel 7:13. The title is probably meant to convey the fact that Stephen saw Jesus in his role as the spurned Messiah. He was to suffer and be rejected by the Sanhedrin — the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law (Luke 9:22).

This probably explains why the Son of man was seen standing, rather than sitting at God’s right hand (2:34). He is standing as an advocate to plead Stephen’s cause before God and to welcome him into God’s presence. [Marshall, 149.]

Stephen’s vision confirms Jesus’ claim, which the Sanhedrin must have remembered. The Jewish council is being condemned for having rejected their Savior, and having him executed. When Jesus originally told the council that they would see him at God’s right hand, it reacted by saying that Jesus had blasphemed and should be put to death (verse 64). Stephen is now making the same claim for Jesus as Jesus had made for himself. This brings the council to a frenzied hatred. Stephen is judged to be blaspheming, and the penalty for blasphemy was stoning to death (Deuteronomy 13:6).

F.F. Bruce wrote, “Unless the judges were prepared to admit that their former decision was tragically mistaken, they had no option but to find Stephen guilty of blasphemy as well.” [Bruce, 155.] Luke’s account indicates that the Sanhedrin is turning into a vicious mob. “Yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (7:57-58). Stephen becomes the first martyr to die for the name of Jesus.

There is no formal trial. A Roman form of execution was not used — Stephen is stoned. Even with a trial and guilty verdict, Rome has not given the Sanhedrin any right to put people to death for this offense, and they are supposed to confer with the Roman authority regarding capital punishment cases (John 18:31). This shows the intense anger of the Sanhedrin — they were so angry that they did not follow proper procedures.

Would the Sanhedrin get into difficulty with the Roman authority for overstepping its legal jurisdiction? Perhaps conditions were such in Judea that Roman power was weak or ineffectual at the time. Josephus describes a similar situation in which the high priest Ananus killed James in A.D. 62, the leader of the Jerusalem church congregation. [Josephus, Antiquities 20:200-203; and see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23.16.] This may have occurred after the procurator of Judea, Festus, died and before Albinus arrived to assume his jurisdiction.

In the same way, some commentators conjecture that Stephen’s martyrdom may have occurred in the mid-30s, during the final years of Pilate’s governorship over Judea, when his power was growing weaker. Whatever the situation or reason, it appears that the Sanhedrin stoned Stephen to death, usurping Roman law, and got away with it.

Many Christians once held a belief that all Jews were responsible for killing Christ, and thus were guilty of his death. This is a gross misunderstanding. It could equally be said that the Jews and Romans were representing all humanity, and that all humans are guilty of his death. The martyrdom of Jews in numerous pogroms since Christ — often with the church’s complicity — is a blight on Christianity. While Stephen’s speech is “anti-Jewish” in the sense that it condemns the Jewish leaders who were present, it should not be misconstrued as a polemic against all Jews. That is not what Stephen had in mind, as the next verses show. Almost all the early Christians, including Stephen, were Jews. When they use the term “Jews,” it is obvious that they do not mean all Jews. But when non-Jewish people use the term “Jews,” it is not obvious, and needs to be clarified.

“Lord, please forgive them” (7:59-60)

As he lay dying, Stephen asks that the risen Jesus receive his spirit, and that his killers be forgiven. Stephen is following his Savior, who also asks forgiveness for his executioners (Luke 23:34). Stephen shows the same spirit of faith and forgiveness as characterized Jesus. Stephen accepts Jesus’ bid to come and follow him to the ultimate degree. The way Luke crafts the story of Stephen, he emerges as a type of Christ. Detail after detail in Stephen’s sermon and death remind us of the life and particularly the last days and death of Jesus. Luke Timothy Johnson presents a comparative portrait:

As did Jesus, so does Stephen have grace and power, and works wonders and signs among the people (6:8); he enters into dispute with those who challenge him (6:9; see Luke 20:1-7), including those who are sent as spies (6:11; see Luke 20:20). He is arrested (6:12; see Luke 22:54), and brought to trial before the Sanhedrin (6:12-15; see Luke 22:66-71). Stephen has false witnesses accuse him (6:13), an element left out of Luke’s passion narrative, though found in the Synoptic parallels of Mark 14:56 and Matthew 26:59. Stephen is taken out of the city to be executed (7:58) as was Jesus (23:32). At his death…Stephen prays that his spirit be accepted (7:59) as did Jesus (Luke 23:46). Stephen asks forgiveness of his murderers (7:60) as did Jesus (23:34). Stephen is buried by pious people (8:2) as was Jesus (Luke 23:50-55). [Johnson, 143.]

The same power and prophetic spirit that characterize Jesus is at work in his disciples. As he was dying on the cross, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). But Stephen commits his spirit to Jesus directly. That is a striking difference. Words applied to the Father are now addressed to the Son. For the early church, Jesus was in the role of God, in the sense of being the one who saves us. Even at this early date in its history, the church already had a “high” Christology.

Final thoughts

When Luke writes the book of Acts, somewhere between A.D. 62 and 85, it is becoming increasingly evident that the Jews will not be converted en masse. In fact, Jews continue to be the greatest persecutors of the church. If Luke writes after A.D. 70, then the temple no longer exists. Decades had elapsed, but Jesus neither returned to save the Jews (and the world), nor to glorify his church. No doubt there is great disappointment and wonderment in the church over these matters. The example of Stephen provides a ready case to illustrate the point that the Christian’s duty is to serve God and have faith in Christ. Stephen also provides an example of Luke’s main thesis in Acts. The growth of the church and the spread of the gospel is not the work of human beings. Rather, both increase because the Holy Spirit is at work among his people.

The apostles and the Jerusalem church thought that Stephen was a good choice to be a widows’ helper and to take care of daily assistance (i.e., wait on tables). But he ends up doing nothing of the sort, so far as we can tell. Almost by accident and through the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit, Stephen jumps to the fore in understanding the deepest implications of the gospel message. (Meanwhile, another widow’s helper — Philip — does some of the most amazing miracles in Jesus’ name. He, rather than the Twelve, pushes the gospel out beyond Jerusalem to Samaria and the coast of Judea.)

The example of Stephen and Philip is Luke’s way of saying that the story is not about the work of super-star favorites, nor of planned programs. The Holy Spirit is leading the way, opening new vistas of spiritual understanding, thrusting the gospel into new geographical areas. At best, God’s human servants are struggling to keep up the pace. We see this almost amusing pattern throughout the book of Acts.

Stephen’s speech breaks new ground in the church’s understanding of the role of Old Testament tradition for the church. Even though Stephen upholds the validity of Jewish law and worship, he marginalizes it by implying that neither land, law nor the temple are the center of worship. Christ is the center. In fact, Stephen says the Jews have never kept the law (in its real intent) and always resist the Holy Spirit. They did not have the right “mind” to be the people of God, since they lack the Holy Spirit. (Only the new congregation of Israel — the church — had been given the Spirit. At this point is it thoroughly Jewish as well, but that will soon change.)

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com

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This article was written by in 1995 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.

Stephen carries the message of good news to new levels of understanding as far as what makes any people a people of God. His message also contains the seeds for understanding that Israel’s forms of worship were just that — passing forms of worship. In Christ, a radical reinterpretation of worship, of God’s presence, of his purpose with the human family and so on is needed. The Twelve have so far not said anything about the worship of the Jews as needing a radical transformation. They go to the temple and make it their center of worship, implying its institutions are to continue. They assume the Jews as an ethnic group are the people of God. The only problem is that they were guilty of rejecting and killing their Messiah.

Stephen’s speech presages some dramatic changes in the worship of God. The book of Hebrews, a fundamental assessment of these changes, is a fuller statement of what Stephen pointed to. Ironically, Stephen leaped ahead of the apostles in understanding. Perhaps he did not really foresee all that he pointed to, but we have no way of knowing. Just as the resurrection of Jesus vindicated his message and ministry, the martyrdom of Stephen, and his vision of the risen Jesus, vindicates the accuracy of Stephen’s understanding of the law.

The death of Stephen provides Luke with an important literary transition. With Stephen’s death and his re-evaluation of Jewish faith, the story of the Jerusalem church is complete. Luke has shown how the apostles and others were witnesses in Jerusalem. Now it is time for Luke to show the gospel radiating out to “Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8).

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