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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- THE BOOK OF RUTH --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- I & II CHRONICLES --- EZRA---NEHEMIAH---ESTHER---PSALMS 1-73--- PROVERBS---ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- LAMENTATIONS --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- PHILEMON --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
The Preaching and Martyrdom of Stephen (6.8-7.60).
It is one of the exciting things about serving God that we never know what He is going to do next. In 6.1-7 the Apostles had rid themselves of the administrative burden of ‘serving tables’ and dealing with the administration of food to needy Hellenistic Christians, by appointing seven men to perform the task, one of whom was named Stephen. Little did they dream that God would then choose to take Stephen and give him a ministry similar to that of the Apostles. And even less did anyone realise that shortly he would be promoted to glory by way of martyrdom.
Stephen was a Hellenistic Jewish Christian (essentially Greek speaking and previously attendant at synagogues where Greek was basically used) and his ideas and interpretations of the Old Testament were therefore probably more liberal than those of the Hebraic Jewish Christians, although we must not make too much of this for what he would shortly say in his defence was perfectly orthodox.
But it may help to explain why he caused a furore where the Apostles had not. The Hellenistic Jews in general may well have laid less emphasis on the centrality of the Temple and its accompanying ritual, interpreting the Scriptures more allegorically (as Philo, a Hellenistic Jew, certainly did in Alexandria). On the other hand the Apostles, centring their message on Christ, and on what He had come to do and finally accomplish, seemingly otherwise kept common cause with their Jewish brethren. Their present view was of a transformed Judaism, responsive to Jesus Christ. They had not yet considered wider issues.
Stephen appears to have stressed that in Christ ‘the land’ and the Temple had ceased to hold a position of prime importance. Now it was Christ, coming as the Saviour of men, Who was to take central stage. And the thoughts of men should therefore be more centred on Him than on Temple ritual. It was not that he abandoned the Temple completely. It was that he deprecated the hold that it had on people, when he felt that their focus should be centred on Christ. These are the ideas that will shortly come to the fore in his final defence. Men, he declares, should not be looking to the land, or to the Temple, they should be looking to God’s great Deliverer.
Thus as a Hellenist he went to synagogues in Jerusalem which the Apostles had probably little touched, for there were many synagogues of all shades of opinion in Jerusalem. But one thing is certainly clear. His declaration of the faith was powerfully effective.
Up to this point the main opponents of the new born church have been the Sadducees, for the witness of the church appears to have been focussed through the Temple, although they had no doubt taken up opportunities to speak elsewhere. However, on the whole the Pharisees appear to have tolerated them. But now Stephen would take his witness into the synagogues in no uncertain fashion, and there he would be in direct confrontation with the Pharisees. Thus the Sadducean opposition would now be bolstered by the Pharisees.
Stephen Disputes With Hellenist Jews And Is Falsely Accused (6.8-15).
6.8 ‘And Stephen, full of grace and power, wrought great wonders and signs among the people.’
Compare here 4.33 where the Apostles were said to speak with great grace and power. Stephen possessed similar divine assistance to the Apostles. And through that divine help he wrought great wonders and signs among the people, the wonders and signs which were so much a part of the new inundation of the Holy Spirit (2.19, 22, 43; 4.30; 5.12; 8.6, 13; 14.3). It was now apparent that not only had the Apostles laid hands on him, God had also laid hands on him with a special ministry in view.
This might suggest that Christians placed in positions of authority in those early days did expect God also to work through them in these ways. They were seen as adjuncts to their ministry.
6.9 ‘But there arose certain of those who were of the synagogue called the synagogue of the Libertines, and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those of Cilicia and Asia, disputing with Stephen.’
So Stephen boldly went into the Hellenistic Jewish synagogues in Jerusalem and proclaimed Christ. And the description suggests that there he disputed with many who disagreed with him. We do not know whether this was one synagogue where all these types met, or a number of synagogues such as a synagogue of the Freedmen (Libertines), a synagogue for Cyrenians, a synagogue for Alexandrians (Egyptians), and one for Cilicians and Asians. But the participants were all firm in their beliefs, and we can almost certainly presume that some Pharisees were involved, for as knowledgeable in the Law and in the Scriptures they would unquestionably involve themselves in such a situation.
The Libertines were possibly composed of freedmen who having been released from slavery tended to group together and make common cause. They may well have formed a separate synagogue, for a synagogue could be set up by ten or more adult males. The Cyrenians and Alexandrians were from North Africa. The Cilicians and Asians were from the north. The Cilicians may well have included Saul (Paul) among their number.
6.10 ‘And they were not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.’
Stephen was clearly a capable debater and on top of that was also enabled in wisdom by the Holy Spirit. Thus as his opponents discussed with him they found that their arguments were being defeated. They became aware that all too often Stephen was winning the argument. They began to find the things that they saw as most precious marginalised. We may surmise that they argued about the things that Stephen would lay down in his speech, that Christ was the coming Prophet and Righteous one, that men should look more to Him than to the Temple, and that presence in the land mattered little one way or the other. What mattered was to follow Christ and obey Him.
The account concentrates on the response of those who took this badly. To be in the ‘holy land’ and in the ‘holy Temple’ meant a huge amount to them. They hoped that it might help to get them obtain eternal life. And now they felt as though their foundations were being taken away. But there may well have been some who found themselves convinced, and became Christians.
6.11 ‘Then they suborned men, who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.” ’
But those who took their defeat hard and were not willing to yield did what many do who lose an argument, they stirred up trouble for Stephen. They were genuinely angry and their policy was, if you cannot beat him have him beaten. Thus they raised up evil men to spread false rumours. These went about declaring that they had heard Stephen speaking blasphemous words against Moses and against God. Men of strong belief are prone to see things that they do not agree with as blasphemous, especially if it shows up what they do believe in. It is a tendency when someone has a strong belief in something.
6.12 ‘And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came on him, and seized him, and brought him into the council,’
They were in fact so effective in what they said that ‘the people’ (a vague term meaning part of the general population) became stirred up. There appears to have been a general furore, for it resulted in the members of the Sanhedrin having him arrested and brought before the council. It would seem from the fact that he alone was affected by this that the council was in general following its own decision to leave the Apostles to prove themselves. But they clearly saw this outspoken Hellenistic Jewish Christian as different, especially in view of the severe charges being set against him.
It was, of course, the Sanhedrin’s duty to examine any serious charge of blasphemy. If they thought that such a thing had happened they were duty bound to examine it. And we note here that, because it was the result of trouble in the synagogues rather than in the temple, the Pharisees (‘the scribes’) were directly involved. Now that it was in the synagogues and not the Temple that this was happening it had begun to affect them personally. That is why later Saul, a disciple of the Pharisaic doctor Gamaliel, will be involved. It is now for the first time since the crucifixion the Pharisees who are influential in opposing the infant church.
6.13-14 ‘And set up false witnesses, who said, “This man does not cease from speaking words against this holy place, and the law, for we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us.”
‘Set up false witnesses’ may simply indicate that they set up as witnesses the ones who had been spreading false rumours and were demanding that something be done. It does not necessarily mean that the council were involved in actually themselves fabricating evidence. And even then we must recognise that there was probably some partial truth in what the false witnesses had to say, as Stephen’s own words make clear. Half truths are usually more effective than total lies which can easily be disproved. The accusations were close enough to what Stephen had said to be uncomfortable.
These false witnesses claimed that he had spoken against ‘this holy place’ (the Temple) and against ‘the Law’. This would be seen as an attack on both the things that were important to the chief priests (the Temple) and to the Pharisees (the Law). They then amplified this by pointing out that what he had actually said was that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the Temple and would change the customs which Moses had delivered to them.
The probability is that they were exaggerating what he had said rather than totally making it all up. We can compare, with regard to their statement about the Temple, how false witnesses at Jesus trial had claimed, “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple which is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands” (Mark 14.58). That too we know was probably a distortion of a genuine saying of Jesus (e.g. John 2.19).
Stephen may well have let slip that Jesus had said that the Temple was shortly to be destroyed (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), which would appear blasphemous enough to those who believed in the inviolability of the Temple. And he may certainly have given the impression that Jesus had amplified some of what the Law taught (as indeed we see in the Sermon on the Mount - ‘But I say to you’ - Matthew 5) and that He had put on the Law a different emphasis from the Pharisees (e.g. Mark 7.5-23). So they might well have seen this as ‘changing the customs of Moses’. The distortions were based on half truths, which are always the most dangerous kind of lie.
He was therefore brought to stand before the council in order to defend himself. And when we consider this we must not assume immediately that the council was at fault, or even antagonistic. We must remember that the council did have the responsibility to look into charges of blasphemy. It was not the fact of the investigation that demonstrated their unreasonableness, but its aftermath.
6.15 ‘And all who sat in the council, fastening their eyes on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.’
But when Stephen came before them they were astonished, for when they gazed at his face it looked like the face of an angel. This probably means that he was so filled with the sense of the presence of God that his face in some way shone (compare Daniel 10.6; Matthew 28.3). This need not be seen as a miracle, but it should certainly have reminded them of how when Moses came to the people with a message from God his face too had shone (Exodus 34.29-35). They should therefore have realised that here was a man who had come to them with a message from God, and have been more open. He bore the truth of his own testimony on his face.
We should note how this phenomenon is brought into account later. Here they saw his face as though it was the face of an angel. In 7.53 the sentence against the Sanhedrin is that ‘they received the Law as it was ordained by angels and kept them not.’ Luke is bringing out how God was here giving the Sanhedrin a huge opportunity, speaking through His ‘angel’ (messenger), as He had previously to Israel when He gave them the Law. The point is that in the end they responded to neither. Here was God’s angel bringing a greater covenant, but they missed their opportunity once again.
Chapter 7 Stephen’s Evangelistic Defence.
The words of Stephen in this chapter are a powerful defence against the charges made against him. That is unquestionable. But they are not a defence made by his proving that he did not say the words that he was accuse of. Indeed such a defence might have been impossible. He may well have had no witnesses to prove that he did not say what he was accused of (it is always more difficult to prove that we did not do something). Thus he had to go about establishing his defence by demonstrating his own credentials and beliefs, and showing them to be Scriptural, and by demonstrating that his opponents could in fact be classed as much more guilty of ‘blasphemy’ than he. But being the man he was he was also determined to seek to bring those who were listening to him to Christ. He saw these men as open to reason. So he also included within his defence powerful arguments which would appeal to any honest listeners and make them consider their own position. Had he not done so he might well not have been martyred.
At first sight his speech appears simply to be a review of the early history of Israel, but we should note that the use of this kind of approach was the normal style of the day. Directness in speech was not always seen as polite or desirable (compare Abraham’s negotiation for the land in which to bury Sarah - Genesis 23). And we must remember that he was speaking to those who were used to such methods of speaking, and were experienced at selecting out from such a retelling of history the intended themes and inferences. For once his speech is analysed more carefully those themes can be clearly observed.
Theme 1. The Repeated Pattern Of The Past With Respect to Deliverers.
It is soon apparent that one primary purpose and theme was to bring out from ‘Moses’ Law’ a description of how God had constantly sought to deliver His people, and how He had equally constantly been thwarted, and how those deliverers whom God had sent for this purpose all pointed forward to the Great Deliverer, the Righteous One (verse 52) Who has now been among them. This comes out in his selection of notables, Abraham, Joseph and Moses, who were all involved in deliverance. By this he establishes his reverence for the Law, while at the same time getting over a powerful message. This will then lead on to him pointing to the greatest Deliverer and Saviour of all, Jesus Christ.
He begins by stressing that their whole history began with the idea of deliverance. He brings out that the first stage in that deliverance took place when God effectively called Abraham out of ‘the land of the Chaldaeans’, out of Babylon, and out from under the influence of idolatry and the occult which Babylon typified. This was deliverance by obedience to the call of God from all that was anti-God.
But having said that he then points out that once Abraham entered the land, he obtained no possession in it. It was not the land that constituted the deliverance, but the fact that in it he was free to worship God away from evil influences, and by the reception of God’s theophanies of Himself. It was not possession of the land that was to be seen as the source of Abraham’s blessing, but the graciousness of God and His continual presence with him. And as a result of that graciousness he was promised that the land would be given to his descendants, and this even before he had any descendants (verse 5). He was thus to walk in trust before God, confident in His promises, and the land would be a future fruit of his walk of faith
Indeed his descendants would not remain in the land. They would rather choose to sojourn in a strange land. They too would not possess the land. And the result would be that they would sojourn in that land for four hundred years, where they would find themselves ill-treated in a foreign land, and where they would be afflicted (verse 6). But then God would judge that land that afflicted them so that they would come forth and serve Him ‘in this place’. ‘In this place’ in the original text means at the mountain of God in Midian (Exodus 3.12 - ‘in this mountain’).
Here then was the suggestion that they could look forward to a deliverer (Moses), whom God would in good time raise up (verse 7), who would bring them to the Mountain of God to receive His covenant.
‘In this place.’ The phrase is enigmatic. Some see it as meaning ‘this place’ where Stephen and the Sanhedrin were. But the words are cited as on the lips of God and all would recognise that they came from Exodus 3.12 (where it is ‘in this mountain’), and in their context there they certainly mean the mountain of God. Thus Stephen probably expected his hearers to understand precisely that. And that interpretation also fits in better with what follows, where he places emphasis on the Tabernacle made at the mountain of God outside the land in contrast with the Temple.
So first came the call to leave ‘Babylon’. Then followed the promises and the covenant. And then the fact that this would finally result in a deliverer. It was a potted history of ‘the Law of Moses’ (the Pentateuch), which, as Stephen will draw attention to later, points forward in the end to a greater than Moses, to the Prophet like Moses Who was to come (verse 37). His emphasis on this history stresses his belief in the God of Israel, and of Moses and His promises, countering the suggestion that he had blasphemed either. Meanwhile the land is seen as almost irrelevant except as a future hope. The important thing was rather that they should look to God in faith and anticipation of His promises, and walk with Him. And their future major act of worship was seen as occurring at the mountain of God in the wilderness and not in Canaan itself. God was not tied to a land or a Temple. He was the God of everywhere, as he had proved in Egypt and the Wilderness where he had performed His wonders (verse 36).
Meanwhile Abraham’s seed became the twelve Patriarchs, and God’s promise concerning him and them was sealed by the covenant of circumcision (verse 8), which was intended to circumcise their hearts as well as their bodies (verse 51). And it was now that they showed themselves up for what they were. Through envy they sold into Egypt the one who had been revealed to them through dreams as a prospective deliverer, Joseph their brother (verse 9), whom God had revealed through dreams was to rule over them. He was a prophet from God. But the one who so prophesied was rejected by his brothers, (the tribal leaders of the covenant community), because of their jealousy, so that they sold him into Egypt (verse 9).
Yet despite their rejection of Joseph ‘God was with him’ (verse 9). The tribal leaders were therefore shown to be in the wrong. And there in that foreign land he grew into favour and was given high status by God’s action (verse 10), so that when God’s people were afflicted through famine it was through Joseph that God delivered them (verses 11-14).
Thus Israel’s first deliverer and prophet had initially been despised and rejected by the tribal leaders, and had been sold off, but had then been highly exalted by God in order that He might deliver His undeserving people, and although initially unrecognised (verse 12), he was finally recognised by His own people (verse 13). It was to be a pattern for the future.
Stephen undoubtedly has in mind here, and wants his listeners to have in mind, that Jesus came and prophesied, but was finally unrecognised, that He was despised and rejected by His brethren, that is, by the religious leaders, and went into a foreign land (Galilee of the Gentiles), that He was then sold off, and that God raised Him to high status that He might deliver His people, that is, those who recognised Him when they had their second opportunity, in the same way as those who had been converted since Pentecost were doing.
But the result of God’s watch over the Patriarchs was that in the end they were all buried in the promised land (verse 16), in God’s future ‘kingdom’, for this had not depended on their dwelling in the land but on God’s graciousness. In the same way it may be implied that the future new deliverance will also result in entering the Kingly Rule of God. This is not so much typology, but an indication that history is prophetic because throughout history people behave the same, and God acts throughout by the same means.
So while the people did remain in Egypt, God revealed His faithfulness to His promises in that both Jacob and the twelve Patriarchs were buried in Canaan, although they looked not to the land, but to God.
Then the time approached for the coming of the next expected deliverer. When he was born, in spite of being a paragon among babes, he was rejected and almost slain (verses 19-21). But God exalted him and established him in Pharaoh’s household, making him powerful and training him in ‘foreign’ wisdom, in all the wisdom of Egypt (verses 21-22). He was powerful in his word and works (verse 22, compare 2.22; Luke 24.19). However, when he offered himself as a deliverer to his people in anticipation of their acceptance, they despised and rejected him, and refused to have him as ‘judge and ruler’ over them (verses 23-28). Thus Moses had to flee to a foreign land where he remained forty years (verse 29). Then the God of Abraham called him, promising that through him as the deliverer He would deliver His people (verses 31-34). So this one whom they had despised and rejected returned again and was established by the hand of God as ‘ruler and deliverer’ over those who would receive him (verse 35), performing great sign and wonders before them all (verse 36) and bringing them through to the promised land (verse 36). God’s further promise had been fulfilled.
Again it seems clear that Stephen is presenting a cameo of Jesus. Almost slain at birth (Matthew 2.16), a goodly child (Luke 1.80), exalted and established away from Judaea in Galilee of the Gentiles with what the Sadducees and Pharisees would see as ‘foreign’ teaching, mighty in word and deed, despised and rejected when He offered Himself as Judge and Ruler, driven away (through death) until God brought Him back from the dead and established Him as Ruler and Deliverer (verse 35; compare Prince and Saviour - 5.31), performing great signs and wonders (both before and after His death and resurrection), and leading His people through to the heavenly Kingdom.
We may probably presume that much of this would already have been maintained by Stephen in his arguments with the Libertines, and that he would certainly expect the Sanhedrin to recognise the significance of what he was saying. Such indirect ‘hints’ from history were a common method of teaching in those days.
Then he brings in the crunch point openly confirming the application of what he had said to Jesus. For what, he asks, had Moses declared? Moses had asserted, “A prophet will God raise up from your brethren like me” (verse 37; compare 3.22-23). Thus the implication of that verse in Deuteronomy 18.15 was that Israel were to expect the coming of Another like Moses. He too would be long awaited, would be in danger at His birth, would be raised among the Gentiles (Galilee was called Galilee of the Gentiles), would then offer Himself as a Deliverer, would be despised and rejected, would perform many signs and wonders, would go away, and was One Whom God would inevitably raise up again to be their Deliverer. At this stage he leaves his final interpreting of this until later when he identifies His coming in terms of the Righteous One Whom they betrayed and slew (verse 52), but they were not foolish men so that they could hardly have failed to gather the implication even at this point. When he does get to that final rejection, he pulls no punches. He is not seeking to pacify but to convict and save. He wants them to respond to God’s Deliverer.
Theme 2 Strangers in a Strange Land.
A second unquestioned theme of Stephen’s discourse countered the idea that was prevalent in Judaea that as God’s people they were in God’s land in which was God’s Temple and that this was one of the prime and most vital of the fundamentals of their religion and the greatest guarantee of their blessing.
He pointed out that Abraham had first lived in Mesopotamia (verse 1), in the land of the Chaldaeans (Babylon) from which he was called out (verse 3). Then he had lived in Haran and was again called out from there (verse 4). And indeed when he arrived in Canaan he did not possess it as an inheritance, ‘not one foot of it’ (verse 5 - Stephen clearly did not consider that a graveyard and a cave even contributed to the inheritance that God had promised Abraham). In other words there was no land that he could call his own. What he did have in abundance was the hope, resulting from the promises from God, of future possession, which applied to both him and his children after him (verse 5).
Following this Stephen then stresses that Abraham’s descendants would be four hundred years in a foreign land, in Egypt, where they would be afflicted (verse 6), after which He would deliver them (verse 7), and bring them to worship Him. But even this would be at a mountain outside the promised land. Thus for half a millennium and more Abraham and his seed were to be strangers to the land of promise, first as wanderers, then as removed from it. They were to look to a future hope, which was only realised on death (when they were buried in the land).
God therefore clearly wanted them to look to Him as the God of the promises, and of hope for the future, not as the God of the land and of the Temple. (Even the Tabernacle had been first established at the mountain of God, not in Jerusalem). The basis of their deliverance was thus not to be found in the promised land, but in having faith when in a foreign land, although that did then result in their being buried God’s promised land. Yet even so it was not in Jerusalem but in a despised part of it, in land connected with the despised Samaritans. The promised land was simply the final result for both the Patriarchs (verse 16) and all the people (verse 7), and would later in the case of the latter be forfeited by their return to Babylon (verse 43).
Furthermore the deliverers whom God had raised up were not trained in the land, but were trained in a foreign country (verses 10 & 22), in order that they might be God’s deliverers. They were thus not trained up under the influence of the religious leaders of Israel, nor did they look to the land. And even in his seeking of refuge Moses would not turn to the promised land but to another foreign country where he begat his sons (verse 29). All God’s preparation for a future Kingly Rule were thus taking place away from the land. The land was not seen as important to that preparation.
Indeed when the people of Israel did begin to approach their land, and then finally possess their inheritance, it was disastrous. They deserted God from the start, firstly in the wilderness after receiving the covenant (verse 41), and then in the land itself, where they worshipped the host of heaven (verse 42), and the result was that they were returned to the Babylon from which God had originally called Abraham (verse 43). Everything had turned full circle, and their time in the land under their organised religion having proved singularly unsuccessful, it resulted in their being returned from whence Abraham had originally come.
Additional to this diminishing of the importance of the land from Israel’s religious point of view came the diminishing of the importance of the Temple, for he makes clear first of all that, when the people were delivered, their worship was ‘in this place’, that is at the mountain of God in the wilderness, following it with his view (and Scripture’s view) that The Temple is not the equivalent of the God-given and God-designed Tabernacle, which had proceeded from the mountain of God in the wilderness and was long lost, but is only a ‘Temple made with hands’ (many minorities in Judaea in fact saw it this way), and that God was far beyond dwelling in such a house (verses 45-50). ‘Made with hands’ is intended to be derogatory (see below on the verse).
It is difficult to avoid here the idea that Stephen is suggesting that the teaching in the land had been unsatisfactory and had not brought the people to God, that God had therefore trained up His own servants away from the teaching of the land, and that for long periods God had also not seen possession of the land as important to their destinies, nor seen it as necessary for worship. There is surely also the pointer to the fact that as with Joseph and Moses, the true Deliverer was to be trained up in a ‘foreign land’. Certainly from the point of view of orthodoxy Galilee was seen as a ‘foreign land’. The dictum was clearly stated that no prophet would arise in Galilee (John 7.52), and Nathaniel himself had said, ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1.46). ‘Galilean’ was regularly used as a word of religious contempt, and even honoured Galilean Rabbis were seen as very unorthodox. Thus Stephen is here attacking the standard idea that truth was to be found among the teachers of Jerusalem. Rather, he says, in order to train up His deliverers God always turned away from the leaders of Israel. As with Joseph and Moses, when God had wanted His Prophet to grow in wisdom and knowledge, it was arranged for it to take place ‘in a foreign country’, (and now with Jesus it had been in ‘Galilee of the nations’ - Isaiah 9.1).
So in both these trends Stephen was firmly pointing the Sanhedrin towards Jesus Christ as God’s Teacher and Deliverer and calling on them to recognise Him as their Saviour, and also to recognise the failures, both in their own teaching, and in their previous rejection of Him, as well as urging them to take the stress in their religion away from the land and the Temple and put it on encouraging faith in the promises of a transcendent God (compare here Jesus’ words in John 4.23-24) especially as fulfilled in His great Deliverer and Saviour.
Underlying these trends are also the ideas that:
3) A third lesson was that God’s purposes have always involved the one being rejected by the many. When Abraham went into the land he was alone neither owning land nor having seed. But by this he was delivered from his environment. Joseph stood alone against his brothers, and was shaped by entering a new environment. Moses stood alone against the people, and he too had to be shaped by a new environment. The prophets stood alone, called out of their environment and shaped in a new environment, and were persecuted or slain by the people. The Righteous One, the Prophet promised by Moses, Who would be like him, had also come and had stood alone, being different from His family and His people, and had been betrayed and killed. They should therefore have considered that as Stephen stood alone before the Sanhedrin it was an indication that he too should be listened to. They should have left their cosy cocoon and considered whether they too needed to launch out. Thus truth is seen as always to be found to be represented by a minority, and comes from being released from the chains of the environment around us. God must become our environment. What is popular is unlikely to be truth.
All these lessons demonstrated the need for men to shake themselves free from what bound them, and go forward looking to God and to Christ. We can see why, if they were not willing to respond to his message, such suggestions would make them unbelievably angry. For anger is always the response of exasperated unbelief. What cannot be defended is fought for by other means.
But saddest of all were the blessings which Israel had received and forfeited. They had received the oracles of God, and had turned from them into their own ways. While they had made much of seeking to observe them, they had not truly done so, but had made them into what they wanted them to be. They had receive the Law from angels ‘and had done it not’. And they had received the God-patterned, Spirit produced, Tabernacle, which had pointed to a transcendent God, and had rather chosen a man-made Temple by which they could limit God.
Having thus considered the main trends and ideas in Stephen’s speech let us now see how they contributed towards his defence.
The charges against Stephen were that:
In his speech he makes a full and positive reply to the first two sets of charges by establishing his Scriptural orthodoxy and his recognition of the hand of God in history, and by demonstrating that in fact it is not he, but the people of Israel as a whole, who have in the end ‘blasphemed God’ by their behaviour, a policy which the present people of Israel are themselves also involved in.
The charge concerning the Temple he largely ignores, treating it with the contempt that it deserved, although he does express his own view concerning the Temple. There were in fact many at that time who had doubts about a Temple built by Herod. He would, of course, have admitted, if pressed, that he did believe that the Temple would be destroyed, for Jesus had Himself said so (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). But it was one thing saying that, and quite another to give the impression that he had suggested that Jesus would come physically to destroy the Temple, which he had certainly not done.
With regard to changing the customs of Moses, that would be a matter of opinion. There could certainly be no doubt that Jesus had changed them for the better in, for example, the Sermon on the Mount, but in doing this Jesus had made clear that He was not destroying the Law but fulfilling it (Matthew 5.17). And all the early Christians believed that they were fulfilling the Scriptures. Indeed they continually justified their position from the Law and the Prophets. They were their Scriptures. So while Jesus’ changes were obviously profound ones, so that Stephen would hardly have denied that Jesus had presented a teaching which was advanced on that of Moses, it was quite another thing to say that He was aiming to change Moses’ Law. As Jesus had pointed out it was the Rabbis who changed Moses’ Law (Mark 7.6-23). He on the other hand ‘filled it full’ (Matthew 5.17-18). So Stephen answers this charge by demonstrating that Moses is as important to him as he is to them, and that he gives Moses due honour. This is made especially clear by the fact that most of his defence is found in citing Moses’ writings.
Let us now therefore consider how he went about answering the charges. This will necessarily require some repetition.
1a) The Charge of Blasphemy Against God.
Stephen initially answers the charge of blasphemy against God by his description of Him as ‘the God of glory’ (7.2). It was as the ‘God of glory’ that Israel especially saw Him, and was how Stephen saw Him. This phrase would be well known to his hearers and is taken from Psalm 29.3. It stands there in conjunction with an ascription of glory to God which is such that it could only serve to repudiate any charge of dishonouring God. By it he portrays the highest possible view of God. The full context reads:
No description of God could exceed that. It expressed His position as the Lord of glory and as Lord over creation.
He then demonstrates his high view of God by describing the history of Abraham and his people, revealing thereby his view that God is sovereign and is the Judge of all men everywhere, and as such has continued to bring about His purposes to deliver His people, even in the face of their failure.
He establishes that God had called Abraham (7.2) when he was in a foreign land, in Ur, and had brought him out of Babylon (the land of the Chaldaeans), making clear by this his view that God was such that He could speak to men anywhere, even in Babylon (which is always synonymous in Scripture with all that is against God). He then demonstrates that He also called him out of Haran (7.4), again demonstrating God’s worldwide control, and that he had even finally remained a foreigner in the land to which he went (Canaan), possessing not so much as a foot of it (7.5). He had therefore had to look to God in faith each step of the way, and had had to walk in obedience to God by faith with no land to hold onto (he might well have added ‘as a stranger and pilgrim in the world’).
Note how God called Abraham in two stages, which ties in with the two stages in which Joseph was made known to his brothers, and the two stages in which Moses was revealed as deliverer to the people. The point would seem to be that those who now had a second opportunity of responding to Christ should take it immediately.
Joseph and the Patriarchs are then also revealed as having been foreigners in another land, in Egypt, and their descendants as having been ill-treated there (7.6). They too therefore were seen as having to look to God in faith. But again the suggestion is there that He was watching out for them in that land.
So the first theme of his speech indicates the comparative unimportance of the land in regard to God’s people, and stresses rather the faith that His people had had to have in Him Himself. And it reveals that far from blaspheming against God he gives the greatest honour to God as Lord of all.
But there would come a time when God would step in and judge the nation that had ill-treated them (7.7) and deliver His people (through Moses) so that they could come forth safely and serve Him in the land (7.7). This promise was sealed by the covenant of circumcision, a covenant which demanded a change of heart. The circumcision was to be in their hearts (compare verse 51). This guaranteed that one day He was going to send a deliverer for whom they had to wait expectantly, ready for his coming. He had, however, stressed that it would not become a reality for hundreds of years until He had judged the nations who reigned there (7.6-7). Note the implication that He is both judge in Egypt and judge in Canaan.
Thus here God is declared to be faithful to Abraham over hundreds of years during which the land was not possessed, to have made a covenant with him requiring his continuing response of faith, to be the Judge of the nations Who had control of the land so that He could do with it what He would, and to be One Who could be relied on to keep His promise, which was that one day He would send a deliverer (verses 25, 27) and judge those who possessed the land (verse 7). Could these, Stephen is asking, really be considered to be the words of a blasphemer?
On the other hand he points out that God is revealed not to have forgotten the Patriarchs in all this because, even though they had gone to Egypt, they had all finally been buried in the land of promise, so that His continued faithfulness could not be in doubt (7.16)
These were mainly ideas of which his listeners could only approve wholeheartedly. They were ideas that repudiated the idea that he was a blasphemer against God, and demonstrated his confidence that God acted on behalf of His people and constantly gave His people reason to look forward for a deliverer.
He now also introduces the next pertinent idea that when He was preparing a deliverer (Joseph), the children of Israel, moved with jealousy, had sold the one whom He had chosen to be His deliverer (7.9), into Egypt, even though thankfully for them he did in process of time still become their deliverer (7.10-15). They would have been in a bad case without him. Thus rejection of God’s deliverers, and their connection with a foreign country, had early on become a habit with them.
A further lesson that arises from all this is that both Abraham and Joseph were revealed as men who were not hidebound in their ideas, but were very flexible, and had been prepared at the call of God to accept changes to their beliefs and plans, recognising that God’s ways were best, even when they did not understand them, Joseph especially doing so as a man of divine grace and wisdom. Let his hearers then be the same.
By all this Stephen demonstrated his high view of God and his confidence in His faithfulness, and demonstrated that he believed Him to be the God Who had worked for those who waited for Him. The point arising from this was that he himself should therefore be seen as the very opposite of a blasphemer against God, for he believed all that Moses had spoken. At the same time he had demonstrated how little importance God had laid on possession of the land, how He had at that stage pointed to a coming promised deliverer (Moses), and how it had been demonstrated what in fact Israel did with deliverers whom God provided.
1b) The Charge of Blasphemy Against Moses.
He then continued his defence with reference to Moses. Here his major challenge was as to how they could possibly have the nerve to accuse him of blasphemy against Moses when it was they who proudly claimed to belong to a people, who, on the Moses’ first coming as God’s deliverer, had themselves rejected him as their ruler and judge (7.27), and had continued with that rejection in the wilderness (7.39).
He pointed out that it was when Moses, living in a foreign country, trained in all the wisdom of Egypt, had arisen (7.20-23), that they had been offered a deliverer (7.24-25), and that because they were not ready to receive him they had immediately proceeded to reject him as their ruler and judge (7.27). Once again, as with Joseph, they had spurned God’s deliverer. It was thus they who had blasphemed God by rejecting the ‘judge’ He had sent, by rejecting Moses.
The result had been that Moses had had to flee among Gentiles in a foreign land (7.29), and had only returned forty years later when God appeared to him at the Bush (7.30-31), at which point God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (7.32), did make him ruler and judge over those who had rejected him (7.35). And at this stage he had revealed his credentials by proceeding to deliver them by signs and wonders (7.36).
So again, having first rejected God’s deliverer, they had had to wait patiently for him, before finally responding to him, and this time he was revealed by signs and wonders. Note here his connection back to the God of Abraham. It was the same God Who had blessed Abraham and would deliver his seed after a period of waiting, Who had sent Moses as a deliverer.
So God’s people having twice had to wait in faith for God to work, had twice rejected God’s deliverers, and had then twice been able to give thanks because the deliverer had in God’s sovereign will come again into prominence. Thus was Stephen to be seen as Moses’ champion, not as a blasphemer against him.
And it was at this point that he introduced his next telling blow to his listeners. He pointed out that Moses had also promised that there would arise another Prophet like himself whom also they should obey (7.37). There was thus Another Who was promised and was to be waited for, Another Who would come as ruler and judge and would perform signs and wonders, as Moses had (7.35-36), and Who should as a result be responded to. His implication was that the Prophet like Moses had indeed come, and that they had again behaved in the same way as they had done previously by also rejecting Him, in spite of the signs and wonders He had done. The final conclusion to be obtained from this was that as with the previous deliverers there would be a second opportunity, and that they should now seize it by responding to Jesus.
He then went on to point out that when the original Moses had received the ‘living oracles’ on their behalf (7.38), the very Law and Covenant of God, (which he was supposed to have spoken against), the response of the people of Israel had, as a ‘congregation’ (church) in the wilderness (7.38), been to constantly behave blasphemously against God, in that they had themselves ‘thrust’ Moses from them (7.39), rejecting him as judge and ruler over them, and had worshipped first the calf in the wilderness (7.40-41) and then the host of heaven (7.42) and then had finally sought to Babylon (7.43). They had continually rejected Moses and the living oracles and had gone from one degree of idolatry to another (7.42-43). Was this not blasphemy against Moses, and against God? Was it not they who had spoken against the Law?
Was it surprising then that they, his listeners and judges, who were of the same people, had rejected another Who had come with the oracles of God, and Who had come working wonders and signs? Him also they had rejected, following the ways of their fathers.
So overall it was the people of Israel and not Stephen who were to be seen as blasphemers against God and against Moses, and as those who had also rejected the Deliverer Whom God had sent, the Prophet like Moses, and in fact had had a pattern of such rejection from Joseph onwards. In his view this cleared him of the second charge.
2a) The Charge of Blasphemy Against The Holy Place.
He then proceeded to point out that during their deliverance their fathers had also received ‘the Tabernacle of witness in the wilderness’ which had been made on the heavenly pattern (7.44). Note the twofold fact that unlike the Temple it was established in the wilderness and was based on a God-given pattern. He had already previously emphasised that when they worshipped it would be ‘in this place’, and that place was, according to Exodus 3.12, the mountain of God in the wilderness. This Tabernacle then had been produced there and they had brought it into the land from the mountain of God, led by another Jesus (Joshua), into the land which had been possessed by the Gentiles, whom God had then thrust out (7.45). Thus they entered the land eventually to be free from all foreign influence, with a God-designed Tabernacle produced at the mountain of God. Surely they would hold on to and treasure this Tabernacle which was made at the mountain of God and whose design was from heaven? This situation had then continued up to the days of David who had himself sought to establish a Tabernacle for God because he had found favour with God (7.45-46). (His intentions had been good, as befitted David). But it was in the end Solomon who had acted (7.47). And what had he done? He had not raised up a Tabernacle according to God’s pattern. He had built a House ‘made with hands’, one in which God could not dwell, as the prophet had made clear (Isaiah 66.1-2). It was not a Tabernacle made at the mountain of God and patterned on the heavenly pattern revealed on the Mount (7.44). It was of man, and built where man chose.
The phrase ‘made with hands’ is a denigrating one. It is used in 17.14 of Temples not fit for God’s habitation. It is used in 19.26 where Paul denigrates ‘gods’ that are ‘made with hands’. See also Hebrews 9.11, 24. For, as Solomon himself had pointed out (1 Kings 8.27), God did not dwell in a House made with hands, because He is Lord over all. Thus the Temple was even seen by the prophet (and by Solomon) as being of secondary importance, and earthly, unlike the first Tabernacle patterned in heaven, which they had themselves disposed of. Who then was it who had acted against God’s holy place?
(Compare with regard to this how the charge had been made against Jesus that He had said, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.” (Mark 14.58). Thus His opponents at least thought in terms of a Temple ‘made with hands’ as being demeaning in His eyes and the eyes of His followers, and as needing to be replaced).
The final conclusion from his argument could only be that the Temple was not the final place to which man should look. He should look to the God who rules the heavens, to the eternal Tabernacle. He should submit to the invisible Heavenly Rule of God.
2b) The Charge of Blasphemy Against the Law.
So what he has said has proved that it was the people of Israel who had blasphemed against God and Moses. They had sold off Joseph, a God sent deliverer; had rejected Moses, the judge and ruler whom God had sent to them, although then benefiting from his deliverance; and had preferred a Temple made with human hands to one patterned on the divine pattern.
And now he came to his final challenge, the people’s response to God’s Law and promises. What had they done with regard to these? They were a people who had received the living oracles of God. They were a people who had received a heavenly Tabernacle and covenant. They were greatly privileged. And yet they had thrown it all away, by turning from what the oracles had demanded and replacing the Tabernacle with a man made edifice. They had resisted the Holy Spirit (7.51), persecuting His prophets who had called for response to that Law (7.52), and killing those who had shown beforehand the coming of the Righteous One (7.52), and they had now betrayed and murdered the Righteous One Himself (7.52). Furthermore the whole truth was that on being given the Law through angels they had not kept it (7.53). So all the charges that they had laid against him in fact pointed back to themselves. The charges that they had made lay squarely at the door of all the children of Israel, which included themselves, along with the charge of having rejected God’s Righteous One. It was therefore they who were blaspheming against the Law, not him.
We can now understand why they were ‘cut to the heart’ at his words, and gnashed their teeth at him, for they must have been totally baffled by his defence, having no reply to make to his arguments, which had taken the ground from under their feet. It was a history that they could not deny. But they did not like it and closed their eyes to his aspect of the truth.
Instead of responding they hated him all the more for making them face up to the truth about themselves and their own people. And when at this point he was filled with the Holy Spirit and saw the vision of the glory of God, and of Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and declared to his hearers that he himself could now see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God, the result was inevitable. He had left them no choice. Either they must respond to Jesus Christ, or they must deal vigorously with the one who proclaimed him. And there is no persecutor as violent as the guilty who have no answer except to resort to violence.
Having established the patterns we will now consider the speech verse by verse, much of which reflects Stephen’s use (as a Greek speaker) of LXX. See the Excursus 2 at the end of the chapter for problems arising from this fact.
Chapter 7 Stephen’s Defence and Counter-Attack Before The Sanhedrin.
Having been brought before the Sanhedrin, Stephen was now called on to answer the charges of blasphemy made against him. Up to this point no blame could attach to the Sanhedrin. It was in fact the Sanhedrin’s solemn duty to examine a charge of blasphemy. They were not to be seen as at fault for doing that. What they were at fault for was not calmly and fairly considering the evidence.
7.1 ‘And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” ’
We are left to recognise that the High Priest, the chairman of the tribunal, has had the charges laid out before the court. He then turns to Stephen and asks severely, ‘Is this true? Are these things so?’. It was a fair question.
From Abraham to the Prophet Like Moses - Reply To The Charge of Blasphemy Against God and Moses (7.2-43).
The only way Stephen had of replying to charges of blasphemy when he had no supporting witnesses was to make clear what his whole theological position was and demonmstrate that in fact it was his oponents who were open to the charges. And that he set out to do. It is noteworthy that the background to the speech, together with the first part of the speech takes up ideas which are then applied much later on. For example:
In respect of 3) we may detect a further pattern which covers the first part of his defence:
7.2-3 ‘And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get you out of your land, and from your kindred, and come into the land which I shall show you.’ ” ’
Stephen begins his reply in a conciliating way, ‘brethren and fathers’. He is affirming his oneness with them as a Jew, and giving respect to those in authority. Then he asks them to ‘listen’, and consider his defence.
He continues his introduction by using a title for God which indicated deep reverence. He calls Him ‘the God of glory’. This idea lay at the heart of Jewish views about God. He was the God of the Shekinah. This phrase would be well known to his hearers and is taken from Psalm 29.3. It stands there in conjunction with an ascription of glory to God which is such that it could only serve to repudiate any charge of dishonouring God. By it he portrays the highest possible view of God. The full context reads (Psalm 29.1-3):
No one could doubt there his deep regard for God and His name. Then he moves on to explain what according to his beliefs the God of glory had done.
‘The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get you out of your land, and from your kindred, and come into the land which I shall show you.’ We are probably intended to see the reference to ‘Mesopotamia’ (the land between the Rivers), spoken of in verse 4 as ‘the land of the Chaldaeans’, as significant. ‘The Chaldaeans’ were by this time remembered for their magic and sorcery and mysterious religious practises, and their land had ever been seen as ominously important because it was there that the first godless empire was founded (Genesis 10.9-12) and it was there that they offended God with the tower which was the result of their God-provoking aspirations (Genesis 11.1-9). It was the land of rebellion and of the occult (see Isaiah 47.12-13). Isaiah constantly revealed Babylon as the great blasphemer and anti-God that had had to be destroyed (Isaiah 13.19-20; 14.14-20; 47.7-15). It was from such a background, says Stephen, that God called out Abraham in His first act of deliverance for His people.
He ‘appeared to Abraham.’ This was the first of a number of such theophanies which Abraham would be privileged to enjoy. It was an act of sovereign graciousness, and Stephen is concerned that his hearers remember that when God had appeared to Abraham it was while he was at Babylon, the very centre of all opposition to God. Haran was neighbouring country to Canaan, but it was Mesopotamia that had always been the grim far off enemy (compare Genesis 14.1).
‘When he was in Mesopotamia.’ Had we had only the Genesis text to go by, it might not be so apparent that it first happened in Mesopotamia. For while Genesis 12.1 does inform us that God said to Abraham, ‘Get you out of your land, and from your kindred, and come into the land which I shall show you’, when examined in the context of Genesis the statement appears to follow the description of the death of Terah in Haran (Genesis 11.32), and to be connected with that (Genesis 12.4) rather than with the departure from Ur.
However, Jewish tradition saw the statement as referring back to Ur, and the connection of the statement with what has gone before is in fact loose, for in Genesis the purpose of the statement in 12.1, which is addressed to Abraham and not to Terah, is more in order to introduce what follows, than to tie in with what has gone before. What went before was simply a general statement of Terah’s historical movement from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran, with a view to entering Canaan, an aim which he did not achieve, and the Lord is not portrayed as having said anything about this to Terah who was an idol worshiper (Joshua 24.14). Nevertheless it is quite clear in Genesis that Terah’s intention to enter Canaan had been formulated at Ur, and the assumption would be made that God was overall behind it. That is why it is mentioned. No one would therefore doubt that it was then also that God’s intention had started for Abraham had started, for they saw God as sovereign over all.
That being so the Jews read 12.1 back to this intention. As Hebrew verbs are not time-specific, reading the opening verb with the equivalent significance of ‘the Lord had said’ meant that it was quite possible for it to be seen by Jewish interpreters as quite reasonable to relate the statement to God’s continual purpose for Abraham right from the beginning in Ur, and to see it as covering the whole. And that that was how Jews in general did see it is confirmed in both Philo and Josephus.
They therefore argued that God had had a purpose for Abraham from the time of Ur onwards, and thus that the words of God in 12.1 could be applied back to there. Nor can it be doubted that it had been God’s purpose in Ur that Abraham should arrive in Canaan. That is something that the writer in Genesis would certainly have agreed was true, as would Stephen’s hearers. To them nothing like this could have happened by accident, for in the end God was behind all such decisions. That is why the same idea connecting Abraham’s departure with Ur is found in Philo and Josephus, and it was a generally held view among the Jews that God had spoken to Abraham right from the beginning.
Stephen certainly wants us to see that this first break with Babylon came in obedience to God’s command and purpose, in readiness for his later reference to Israel’s return ‘beyond Babylon’ in unbelief (verse 43) which was to be seen as the result of disobedience and rejection of His purpose. There is an intentional comparison between Abraham’s obedience in leaving Babylon (expressing the name in other terms in order avoid the stigma attached to the name) and its idolatry, as contrasting right from the start of his speech with Israel’s later disobedience in turning to idolatry, which finally resulted in the return to Babylon, and a further comparison between Abraham’s willing rejection of Babylon as contrasted with Israel’s helpless acceptance of it.
7.4 ‘Then came he out of the land of the Chaldaeans, and dwelt in Haran, and from there, when his father was dead, God removed him into this land, in which you now dwell,’
So Abraham had left behind him the land of the Chaldaeans at God’s command and had dwelt in Haran. And from there he had later, when his father was dead, removed into Canaan. Note the two stages in his journey, only the second of which brought him ‘home’. This compares later with the two visits of the brothers to Egypt only the second of which resulted in their knowing Joseph (verses 12-13), and the two appearances to his people by Moses, only the second of which resulted in his acceptance as deliverer (verses 27 & 35). This was Stephen’s way of making palatable to his hearers the possibility of conversion to Jesus Christ, even though they had not at first recognised Him. They too could take the second chance.
‘When his father was dead.’ Even though Abraham may have take his flocks into Canaan well before this, it would have been unfilial to show him as permanently leaving his father’s household while his father was alive. It would be considered that if, while acting as a shepherd, he had taken his flocks and his household to Canaan this would, while his father was still alive, only have been seen as ‘temporary’. It was only when his father was dead that the ties could be cut. Compare Jacob’s ‘temporary’ move to Paddan-Aram which lasted over twenty years, but always with the thought that he would return, and the movements of Jacob’s sons as they fed their flocks in various places constantly away from ‘home’, so that Joseph had to travel quite a distance in order to visit them. But always the contact remained with ‘home’. The place to which they had gone was never ‘home’. In the same way Abraham would still, as a dutiful son, essentially be seen as subject to Terah’s summons to return. Where Terah was would still be his ‘home’. It would only be his father’s death that would finally make Canaan ‘home’. It was at that stage that Abraham would finally and firmly be settled in the land never to return to his father’s household.
We may also note the possibility that Abraham was mentioned first of the three sons in Genesis 11.26 only because of his prominence in the ensuing narrative, rather than because he was the eldest son. Thus the son born when Terah was ‘seventy’ may have been Nahor or Haran. (It was after all Nahor who was named after his grandfather, and Haran had a grown up daughter for Nahor to marry). Abraham may have been born much later and have been the youngster. Thus if we were to take the numbers literally we might see Abraham as having been born when Terah was one hundred and thirty.
However, this assumes that the numbers were intended to be taken literally, and with ancient numbers that is always doubtful, especially when they are round numbers. Numbers were used to convey information, and not necessarily numerical information. Indeed it will be noted that all the numbers in the narrative are in fact round numbers (to the early Hebrews numbers ending in five appear to have been round numbers). Thus seventy may have indicated simply the divine perfection of Abraham’s birth (taken literally seventy would have been very late in time for the bearing of a firstborn) while two hundred and five may have represented ‘two hundred’ as dying in middle age (thus not three hundred which would represent old age) with the five indicating covenant connection because of his connection with Abraham, the man of the covenant. Seventy five could then again signify the seventy of divine perfection with again covenant connection (note how many ages in the early list of patriarchs ended in five).
7.5 ‘And he gave him no inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on, and he promised that he would give it to him in possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child.’
But even though Abraham had at last made Canaan his ‘home’ he had had no permanent possession in it. God had given him no inheritance there, not so much as one place to set his foot on (and say, ‘this is mine’). He walked alone with God, freed now from the influence of Babylon, the centre of idolatry and the occult, and freed from Haran where the moon god was worshipped, and tied to no land. Instead he was tied to God.
What, however, God did do was give the promise that one day it would belong to Abraham’s seed. It was a future hope, not a present possession. Note here how his seed possessing it is equated with him possessing it. He will possess it in his seed. And this promise was made even before Abraham had children. So the promise included the thought that he would have children. God was thus not calling Abraham to possess the land. He was calling him to live in faith and trust. This is also made clear in Genesis 15.6, ‘and he believed in the Lord, and He counted it to him for righteousness’. Stephen clearly did not see a graveyard and cave as even contributing to possession of the land (Genesis 23).
Thus Abraham is seen as delivered from Babylon and with neither land nor family. What he possessed was freedom from idolatry so that he could worship where he would, along with the presence of God and future hope. He required nothing else.
7.6 ‘And God spoke in this vein, that his seed would sojourn in a strange land, and that they would bring them into bondage, and treat them ill, four hundred years.’
Nor did God promise immediate possession of the land for his seed. They also would be away from the land for four hundred years (Genesis 15.13). Thus it was clearly not their possession of the land that mattered, but that they were His people, with a future hope. They would indeed live in a strange land. And there they would in time be in bondage, and would be ill-treated (as Stephen and his hearers were being in Palestine at that time under Roman rule). The ‘four hundred years’ relates to ‘sojourn’, not to the being in bondage, which would be for only part of that time. But both would be with a future hope.
7.7 ‘And the nation to which they will be in bondage I will judge, said God, and after that shall they come forth, and serve me in this place.’
And eventually God would act. God would judge those who held them in bondage, after which, God said, “they will come out and serve Me ‘in this place’.” In Exodus 3.12 ‘in this place’ signified the mountain of God, and as Stephen has put the words on God’s lips it is probable that he intends the original context to stand. This is thus the first instance where he stresses that ordained worship of God is to be away from the land in a place chosen by God (note how he later stresses ‘the wilderness Tabernacle’).
The assumption here is that God will eventually raise up a ‘judge’ (‘I will judge’) and a deliverer, and it is thus no accident that when Moses appears to present himself to the people he does so as ruler and ‘judge’ (compare ‘and a judge’ in verse 27).
This all makes clear that the land was to be a reward in the future, while future worship was not tied to the land. The land was thus not an essential foundation of their religious life. It was to be seen as the blessing to come.
7.8 ‘And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham begat Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day, and Isaac begat Jacob, and Jacob the twelve patriarchs.’
As a seal on these promises God gave him the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17), which included his descendants (he ‘circumcised’ Isaac). Thus came first Isaac, then Jacob and then the twelve Patriarchs, all included within the covenant and the promises. Circumcision was in order to bind them into the covenant and was thus to be seen as affecting their ‘hearts’ (compare verse 51).
‘Circumcised him the eighth day.’ The Jews were very proud of being ‘circumcised on the eighth day’. We can compare Paul’s similar claim for himself in Philippians 3.5. Abraham was thus immediately obedient to God in accordance with His commands. But as Stephen will later point out, in contrast to this God’s people are later revealed as ‘uncircumcised in heart’ because they were disobedient (7.51).
The first stage in God’s plan is now seen as over, and God’s people are living in trust and hope, without possession of the land, and will continue on in that condition for ‘four hundred years’. They are free from Babylon and truly circumcised and safe in the covenant love of God. All of this demonstrated Stephen’s deep faith in the God of Israel, and in His concern for His people. This would hardly have been so of someone who was blasphemous.
(Later they will be moved beyond Babylon, will be described as uncircumcised at heart, and will be shown to have rejected the covenant, seeking to other gods. It is rather they who are blasphemous)
7.9 ‘And the patriarchs, moved with jealousy against Joseph, sold him into Egypt. And God was with him,’
But now came the first sign of unbelief and disquiet that would become a hallmark of the people of Israel. The patriarchs, (the rulers of their tribes), became jealous of their brother and moved against him. The revelation that he was to be the one to whom they should look as their deliverer, conveyed through his dreams (they would all bow down to him), filled them with jealous rage, and they sold him off to Egypt. They wanted no prophet or ruler over them. It was the beginning of a pattern, that would continue on through the ages. God’s deliverers and prophets would regularly become the victims of the jealousies of the rulers of Israel.
We must see it as very probable that the most discerning of his audience were already beginning to get his drift. They knew that Stephen was one of this new sect, and that this new sect sought to put the blame for the death of Jesus on the leaders of the people (5.28). Thus they would make the connection between the jealousy of the patriarchs and the plot against Joseph, and their own attitude towards Jesus as seen by His followers.
‘And God was with him.’ The one whom the people rejected turned out to be the one who was the favoured of God.
7.10 ‘And delivered him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favour and wisdom before Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house.’
Thus God delivered him from his afflictions, and exalted him, and enthroned him (the parallel could hardly be missed with the One Who had been crucified and was declared by His followers to have been enthroned, although at this stage Stephen is not trying to make it too blatant). He was delivered in such a way that the great Pharaoh himself looked on him with favour and saw him as wise. And he made him Lord over Egypt and all his house. The one rejected by Israel’s leaders was uplifted and exalted, and became the favoured of the unorthodox. (This was getting right to the heart of the charge against Stephen).
‘Favour (grace) and wisdom.’ This may be a specific reference to Joseph’s ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. God showed Pharaoh that Moses was favoured by Him by giving him the ability to reveal signs and wonders before Pharaoh in interpreting dreams. Compare verse 36.
7.11-12 ‘Now there came a famine over all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction: and our fathers found no sustenance, and when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent forth our fathers the first time.’
Meanwhile the whole world was suffering from famine so that ‘our fathers’ (note the more personal application, referring it to the ones from whom ‘we’ come and whom ‘we’ are like) found no sustenance. And the result was that hearing of grain in Egypt Jacob sent forth ‘our fathers’ the first time. The relation of famine to spiritual dearth occurs often in the Old Testament, and to those who were used to dealing in allegories the point would hardly be missed. Those who appeared to be God’s faithful ones, who were suffering spiritual famine because they had refused to hear God’s prophet, would have to look to ‘outside’ sources for their sustenance. Their own were insufficient. God neither heard in their land, nor responded to their pleas at their altar.
But when they went forth the first time they did not recognise their deliverer for who he was. This is implied by the silence. They sought sustenance but did not recognise the source. Yet the source should have been known to them. It was in their blindness that they did not know him. Yet from him alone was there life.
It will be noted that we are here pressing home the applications. Stephen was quietly allowing them to sink in.
7.13 ‘And at the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers, and Joseph’s race became openly made known to Pharaoh.’
But their fathers had not remained in blindness. At the second opportunity, (the opportunity that the Sanhedrin was now experiencing), the tribal leaders had had their eyes opened. Joseph was made known to his brothers. And Joseph’s race (the source from which he came) was made openly known to Pharaoh, while Israel’s eyes were opened to their deliverer and became familiar with, and reconciled with, the ‘foreign’ influences which they had previously not recognised.
The call here was for the Sanhedrin to recognise their prospective Saviour, and open themselves to His seemingly ‘foreign’ teaching.
7.14 ‘And Joseph sent, and called to him Jacob his father, and all his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls.’
The result was that those selected of the people of Jacob responded to the call of their Deliverer, and all was well. And the number of them was threescore (three times twice ten - completeness intensified) and fifteen (three times five, complete covenant connection). These were God’s elect. In the words of 13.48, ‘as many as were ordained to eternal life believed’.
The number is as given in Genesis 46.27 LXX and not as in the Massoretic Hebrew text, which gives ‘seventy’. But both numbers were what they would call explanatory and we would call ‘artificial’. They were deliberately obtained in the narrative because of the significance of the numbers which indicated the ‘divine perfection’ of those involved, by simply selecting sufficient names to make up that number (LXX adds extra sons of Joseph who may have died in infancy). Both are therefore saying the same thing, and neither was intended to be an accurate count. Indeed the seventy five matches better with Abraham’s entrance into Canaan (Genesis 12.4). In fact, of course, the people who went into Egypt, including wives, children and servants would have far exceeded that number. It was never a number intended to be taken literally. It was heavy with symbolism.
7.15-16 ‘And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, himself and our fathers; and they were carried over to Shechem, and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a price in silver of the sons of Hamor in Shechem.’
So Joseph in Egypt was the source of their deliverance. And the final result of their deliverance was that they were buried in the land that God had promised them, in the tomb of their tribe. To those who had become obedient God fulfilled His promise.
Here we have another telescoped statement, presumably based on Jewish tradition with which his hearers would have had no quarrel. ‘Abraham bought’ is on the basis that Jacob who did buy it (Joshua 24.32) could be seen as in the loins of Abraham (compare how in Genesis 25.23 whole nations are seen as in Rebekah’s womb). We in our more pedantic way would say ‘the Abrahamic tribe, to whom the promises were made, bought’. It was important that it was connected with Abraham here, because it was to Abraham that the promises had been made (verse 5).
Note that it is stated that ‘they’ (our fathers) were carried there and laid in the tomb. We may assume from this that there was a Jewish tradition that most of the patriarchs were finally buried there (there were certainly Jewish traditions of the patriarchs being buried in Canaan), although the only information that we have from the Scriptures is of Joseph as being buried there (Joshua 24.32). Jacob was in fact buried with Abraham in Hebron (Genesis 50.13). It is therefore the other sons that are in question. But the important thing that Stephen was wanting to emphasise as concisely as possible was that the patriarchs had been finally buried in the land promised to Abraham. He simply selected a well known example in order to bring out the point.
Alternately Stephen may have seen Joseph’s body as representing all their fathers, so that they were buried there in him symbolically. But if Joseph had made arrangements for his bones to be carried back to Canaan it is quite possible, even probable, that the others had as well, with the bones of Joseph getting special prominence because of his importance.
Some have seen the connection with Shechem, which in Stephen’s time was connected with the Samaritans, as another indication of the ‘foreign’ element so prominent in Stephen’s speech, with the thought that even Jacob’s sons were buried in a place despised by the present generation rather than in what they would see as the land proper.
‘Jacob went down into Egypt.’ From 7.9 onwards Stephen constantly mentions Egypt (thirteen times). He is thus stressing that until the time of Moses and for a large part of his life, Egypt was their focus and their environment.
7.17-18 ‘But as the time of the promise drew near which God had vouchsafed to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt, until there arose another king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.’
As a result of God’s deliverance through Joseph, Israel prospered. ‘The people grew and multiplied’, which was always an indication of God’s blessing. But as the time for the fulfilling of God’s promise of deliverance from Egypt approached, affliction came on the people. A king arose who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1.8). God’s deliverer was now forgotten and therefore it would be necessary to await another deliverer. And before the coming of the deliverer must come the bondage. (Thus the fact that Israel was at present in bondage should have meant that they were looking for the deliverer).
Was there also here a hint to the leaders that the new people of Christ were growing and multiplying outside of and apart from the influence of the Jewish leaders, but facing a threat from those who did not know their Deliverer?
7.19 ‘The same dealt craftily with our race, and ill-treated our fathers, so that they cast out their babes with the purpose that they might not live.’
The result was that affliction arose and attempts were made to slay all male babies at birth. There may be here a reminder of what had happened to the children of Bethlehem when Jesus was born at the hands of the crafty King Herod (Matthew 2.16), and also of the Roman occupation which the Jews certainly saw as an affliction (‘ill-treated our fathers’).
7.20 ‘At which season Moses was born, and was extremely handsome, and he was nourished three months in his father’s house.’
At Israel’s worst time Moses was born, and he was ‘fair to God’. We can compare how after He was born God was with Jesus as he grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2.40). Both were proper children in their own way.
7.21-22 ‘And when he was cast out, Pharaoh’s daughter took him up, and nourished him for her own son. And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and works.’
But the future deliverer was not brought up by his own people under the instruction of his own rulers, he was brought up under ‘foreign’ instruction. He was brought up by Pharaoh’s daughter who cared for him as her own son. And there he learned foreign wisdom, and was mighty in word and works (compare Luke 24.19). We have continually the stress that God’s deliverers were not brought up in the equivalent of mainstream Judaism. In the same way, he wants them to realise, the Prophet Who had come, who was like Moses (verse 37), was the man of Galilee, not the man of Jerusalem.
7.23-25 ‘But when he was almost forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel. And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended him, and avenged him who was oppressed, smiting the Egyptian, and he supposed that his brethren understood that God by his hand was giving them deliverance, but they did not understand.’
Once he had reached full age Moses had gone to visit his people, and seeing them suffer wrong, had revealed himself as the deliverer sent by God. He had expected them to recognise him for what he was. In Genesis ‘forty years old’ signified the age of maturity. For Jesus it was ‘about thirty’ (Luke 3.23). He too on reaching maturity had ‘visited his brethren’ and sought to deliver them from ‘oppression’, from evil spirits and diseases, hoping that they would understand.
7.26-28 ‘And the day following he appeared to them as they strove, and would have set them at one again, saying, “Sirs, you are brethren; why do you do wrong one to another?” But he who did his neighbour wrong thrust him away, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Would you kill me, as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?”
Moses came bringing peace. But instead of recognising him as the God-sent ruler and judge, and as the one who had come to make peace among them, they had rejected him. (Just as his hearers in court had failed to recognise their God-sent Saviour in Jesus, even though He too had come preaching peace).
7.29 ‘And Moses fled at this saying, and became a sojourner in the land of Midian, where he begat two sons.’
The result was that the deliverer had fled and became a sojourner in Midian. Having rejected their deliverer they had lost him. Note that the place to which he fled was the place where the mountain of God was, ‘in this place’ (verse 7). (In the same way his hearers should recognise that they too had lost sight of their prospective Saviour (John 8.21-22) and that He too had gone to where God was).
And there in the wilderness Moses begat two sons. Even though he had been rejected he was not totally without children (as Jesus already had children in those who had believed - John 13.33).
7.30-32 ‘And when forty years were fulfilled, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. And when Moses saw it, he wondered at the sight, and as he drew near to gaze at it, there came a 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.’
And God had appeared in fire, and had spoken to him declaring that He was the God of his fathers, the God Who had made His promises to Abraham (verse 5). His promises of a deliverer were now about to be fulfilled (verse 7). And Moses had wondered at the sight and had trembled, not daring to look on God.
(In the same way God had revealed Himself in fire at Pentecost. The God of Fire was again offering deliverance if only they would respond. Perhaps Stephen also saw a connection between the forty years of Moses and the forty days of Jesus resurrection appearances - 1.3).
7.33-34 ‘And the Lord said to him, “Loose the shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I am come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you into Egypt.’
God had declared that the time for deliverance had come, the time when He would save His people from affliction. Moses was to acknowledge His holiness and recognise that he was in the presence of God, and then God would send him from His presence to deliver His people.
(In the same way God’s present Deliverer was in the presence of God and waited to deliver all who would call on Him - 2.36, 39).
The continued emphasis on Egypt goes on (thirteen times) and in verse 39 their hearts were still in Egypt. Where was their belief in the land then?
7.35 ‘This Moses whom they refused, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge?” him has God sent to be both a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the angel that appeared to him in the bush.’
So the one whom Israel had first rejected, contemptuously refusing his rulership, God had now sent as Ruler and Saviour from the very hand of the One Who had appeared in the fire in the bush.
‘The Angel of the Lord’ was one way of describing a theophany, and throughout the Old Testament mainly describes God Himself as He makes Himself known.
(Stephen’s challenge to his hearers here is that they too must recognise the coming of a Deliverer and acknowledge Jesus as both Lord and Christ. For His Lordship too had been revealed in fire, through the fire at Pentecost).
7.36 ‘This man led them forth, having wrought wonders and signs in Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years.’
And this Moses had revealed himself as ruler and deliverer in performing many signs and wonders both before and after the great deliverance. (The hint was that the One Who had come among them with signs and wonders, both before and after His death, wonders which even they had had to acknowledge, was the greater Moses. It was something that they could hardly fail to recognise).
7.37 ‘This is that Moses, who said to the children of Israel, “A prophet shall God raise up to you from among your brethren, like to me.” ’
Stephen then makes clear the parallel between Moses and Jesus by citing Deuteronomy 18.15 (compare 3.22-23). All that he has been saying has had in mind not only Moses, but the coming Prophet like Moses. Many of them believed in the coming Prophet (see John 1.21), and were even looking for his coming. Let them therefore draw the parallels. The coming of the Prophet like Moses is also mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Samaritans as well looked forward to a restored Moses. It was a common expectation.
Furthermore this could be seen as an indication that when such a Prophet who was ‘like Moses’ came, different aspects of the Law would be expanded as He took up the Law of Moses and applied it.
7.38-39 ‘This is he who was in the congregation (church) in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him in the Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, who received living oracles to give to us. To whom our fathers would not be obedient, but thrust him from them, and turned back in their hearts to Egypt,’
‘This is he --’. That is, Moses. He was with them and with God (the angel) in the wilderness where he received the ‘living oracles’ from God at Mount Sinai, the mount of true revelation. There could be no higher testimonial to Moses than that. And they were intended to be for the blessing of Israel. But the people had thrust Moses away and had not been obedient to the Angel and His message, just as Jesus had come bringing living oracles and they had refused to listen to Him.
‘Living oracles.’ Words which give life. They were indeed to be Israel's very life (Deuteronomy 30.19-20; 32.46-47). By walking in obedience to the law, and fulfilling its ordinances, they would enjoy length of life and be able to live their earthly lives to their fullest extent, enjoying the presence of God with them all the way.
‘The congregation (church - ekklesia) in the wilderness.’ The phrase was well known from the Old Testament signifying Israel as a whole, but Luke’s readers would relate it to the idea of the church.
‘Turned back in their hearts to Egypt.’ But their response to receiving the living oracles of God was to turn from them because their hearts were possessed by Egypt.
7.40 ‘Saying to Aaron, “Make us gods who will go before us, for as for this Moses, who led us forth out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what is become of him.” ’
Rather than responding to the living oracles they chose that Aaron should make them dead replacement gods, for they did not know where Moses had gone. Even at the very mountain of God they had turned to idolatry and the worship of a molten image, and had spurned their deliverer. They had refused the words of Moses and thrust him away.
Let the court consider therefore how these very people of God from whom they were descended had been blasphemers against God, and had spurned the Law of Moses. ‘Not knowing what had become of him’ was similar to what Jesus had said people would say once He had been crucified (John 7.34-36).
7.41 ‘And they made a calf in those days, and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their hands.’
The people had quite blatantly made a calf and sacrificed to their idol, and rejoiced in what their own hands had made. There is a parallel between this last statement and the statement concerning the Temple as ‘made with hands’ (7.48). They were always making things by which to worship God which were insufficient for the purpose, and that was true even of their Temple, because it was ‘made with hands’.
7.42-43 ‘But God turned, and gave them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets,
Thus God had turned from them and given them up to serve the host of heaven. Moses himself had warned them against serving the host of heaven (Deuteronomy 4.19; 17.3) but in Kings it became a regular feature of Israelite worship (2 Kings 17.6; 21.3; etc.). The host of heaven were a poor and blasphemous substitute for the God of Heaven. So once they were in the land God turned away from His people, and handed them over to other gods. (So much for the blessing of the land).
The citation is taken from Amos 5.25-27 LXX. The thought is either that they had professed to worship God for forty years in the wilderness and then had turned, once they were in the land, to the worship of Moloch and Rephan (an Assyrian god). That was how much good the land had done them! Or that the wilderness was not such a time of pure worship as present Judaism tried to make out (it was a constant theme of 1st century AD Judaism that the period in the wilderness had been the time of Israel’s purity). For the molten calf demonstrated that it was not a period of pure worship for forty years. Judaism may seek to idealise the forty years in the wilderness, but Stephen is pointing out that it was simply not a true description of that time.
They had turned from the Tabernacle of God to the tabernacle of Moloch. Moloch was the local god of the Ammonites, but was regularly worshipped in Canaan and warned against by Moses (Leviticus 18.21; 20.2-5). He was a god who required child sacrifice, and was thus the most to be despised. And the star out of Jacob, God’s promised deliverer (Numbers 24.17) had been replaced by the star of Rephan, the god of Assyria. These were the figures that Israel had made in order to worship them. What was more blasphemous than that? Who was it now who had ‘changed the Law of Moses’ and exchanged it for idolatry?
We should note here that Stephen is quoting the Bible version that he used (the Greek Septuagint), as we might choose to use a particular version (e.g. ASV RSV TEB NIV) as ‘the word of God’. It was his Bible. What matters is that the general sense is the same.
‘And I will carry you away beyond Babylon.’ Stephen changes ‘Damascus’ as found in Amos to ‘Babylon’ in order to bring home the lesson that they had returned right back to what Abraham had escaped from (7.2, 4). He saw such an alteration as justified because Babylon epitomised all such idolatrous cities (just as when we are preaching we may turn ‘woe to you Chorazin’ to ‘woe to you New York’). Israel had turned full circle and had been shown no longer to be God’s people.
The Hebrew text of Amos 5.25-27 reads, “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel? Yes, you have borne Sikkuth your king and Chiun your images, the star of your god, which you made to yourselves. Therefore will I cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus.”
The Hebrew text is not quite as far from LXX as it might seem. ‘Skkth your mlch’ is translated by LXX by interpreting the Hebrew as ‘the tabernacle (skkth) of your Moloch (mlch)’ vocalising sikkuth as sukkoth (booths). Both recognise that a false god is being spoken of. The name of the god Chiun (an Assyrian god) is simply updated or translated to Rephan (possibly an Egyptian equivalent) in LXX. Again both refer to false gods. The translation problem partly arises from the lack of vowels in the ancient Hebrew text, and probably partly in order to make the names intelligible to the readers of LXX.
Reply to the Charge of Speaking Against the Law and the Temple (7.44-53).
Having been accused of speaking against the Law Stephen defends himself by speaking in favour of the oracles of God and pointing out how they and their fathers had not been obedient to them.
This may be analysed as follows:
What Israel’s Attitude Towards God’s Dwellingplace Had Been (7.44-50).
What Stephen said here would mainly have been acceptable to many Hellenistic Jews, certainly in Alexandria where they were used to allegorisation. But it was not going to be acceptable in the home of the Temple.
7.44 ‘Our fathers had the tabernacle of the testimony in the wilderness, even as he appointed who spoke to Moses, that he should make it according to the figure that he had seen.’
Their fathers had ‘the Tabernacle of the Testimony in the wilderness’, which was made according to God’s pattern, just as the One Who spoke to Moses had appointed him. So the Tabernacle, which contained the covenant came from the wilderness, from the very mountain of God . It was portable, as befitted a universal God, and was according to God’s pattern and received in the wilderness at the mountain of God under God’s instructions. All was therefore of God, and nothing was of the land.
7.45 ‘Which also our fathers, in their turn, brought in with Joshua (Jesus) when they entered on the possession of the nations, whom God thrust out before the face of our fathers, to the days of David,’
It was then brought into the land by another Jesus (Greek), by Joshua (Hebrew), when they took over ‘the possession of the nations’ at the time when God thrust them out before them. So God’s original ‘dwellingplace’ was God-given and came from outside the land, brought into it when God acted in order to give them the land as their possession, a land which had belonged to the nations. It was thus the God of the Tabernacle Who had given them the land. This situation continued until the days of David. They worshipped at the God-given, God designed, portable, wilderness Tabernacle received at the mountain of God outside the land.
The contrast with the Temple is quite clear and quite startling. It was not of the land, it was God-designed and the God Who was connected with it was powerfully effective. Being a tent, which could be used when necessary but was not a permanent home, it was suitable as an earthly place where the transcendent God could come to meet His people without being tied down. And it entered into the land with Him when God took possession of it. Thus possession of the land was linked with the Tabernacle, not the Temple. There were in fact many ordinary Jews who saw the Tabernacle as the ideal place of worship, including the Covenanters at Qumran. But what they failed to do, unlike Stephen, was to see beyond the Tabernacle to the heavenly Tabernacle (compare Hebrews 8.2; 9.11). They were going backwards instead of forwards.
7.46 ‘Who found favour in the sight of God, and asked to find a habitation for the house of Jacob (or in some MSS ‘the God of Jacob’).’
And David himself found favour in God’s sight, and wanted to find some kind of habitation (skene - tent) for the house (or ‘God’) of Jacob. However, as all knew, God had forbidden him to erect a permanent house, which was surely significant (2 Samuel 7.5-7). Stephen is deliberately bringing out that David’s idea was of a habitation of God which was satisfactory to God, and could therefore be compared with the Tabernacle, in contrast with the Temple.
‘A tent for the house/God of Jacob.’ The best manuscripts have ‘a tent for the house of Jacob’. It may be that here Stephen is using ‘Jacob’ as a shortened form for ‘the God of Jacob’ (compare Psalm 24.6), meaning therefore that David sought a tent which would be suitable for the house of the God of Jacob. Or the meaning may simply be a tent suitable for the house of Jacob to worship in. See here Isaiah 2.2-5 where the ‘house of the God of Jacob’ is the exalted new age Temple, and the house of Jacob are called to walk in His ways.
For ‘a habitation for the God of Jacob’, which is the reading in A E, compare ‘a dwellingplace for the Mighty One of Jacob’ (Psalm 132.5).
Whichever is the correct reading the idea is that David was seeking something suitable for the worship of God. And Stephen was probably indicating that notice should be taken of the fact that God forbade him to build a Temple because he was not a fit person to do so, as indeed we shall soon learn no one was fir to do so. A house made with human hands could never be satisfactory. It glorified humanity.
7.47 ‘But Solomon built him a house.’
But it was Solomon who went about it. And what did he do? He built Him a house. And yet even Solomon had recognised that God did not dwell in a House made with hands, because He is Lord over all (1 Kings 8.27). How foolish then to build such a house which could only give his people the wrong idea about God.
Solomon’s Temple (like Herod’s Temple) was a perfect example of what Stephen was drawing attention to. It was grandiose, it was designed by a foreigner, it was on a distorted pattern, and it was permanently fixed in one place, totally the opposite of the Tabernacle.
7.48 ‘However the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands; as says the prophet,’
Thus the Temple was an error, a concession allowed by God but not really adequate (2 Samuel 7.6-7). The Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands, as the prophets have made clear. They had thrust aside God’s God-given provision and had made their own kind of provision. The title ‘Most High’ was regularly used in relation to the nations. Thus Stephen is emphasising here that God is the God of all men, not to be limited to Jerusalem. And secondly the title also stresses why He cannot be confined to a permanent house built in Jerusalem, He is ‘most High’. (Isaiah’s vision had resolved it by raising it above all mountains. That carried the similar intention of lifting it out of its earthiness).
The phrase ‘made with hands’ is intentionally derogatory. The Tabernacle had been made by sanctified and willing hands empowered by the Spirit according to God’s pattern (Exodus 30.30-35). But the Temple was very much a building of earth, with its foreign designer, enforced labour and earthly ostentation. ‘Made with hands’ is used in 17.14 where it describes Temples not fit for God’s habitation, and in 19.26 where Paul denigrates ‘gods’ that are ‘made with hands’. See also Hebrews 9.11, 24. What is made with hands is the very opposite of what God, ‘the Most High’, is.
And this is also what the prophet Isaiah 66.1-2 LXX had declared. God is the Creator of heaven and earth, who metaphorically sits in the heavens resting His feet on the earth, and can certainly not be restricted to an earthly building. For He has made all things. Nothing on earth can therefore be made which is suitable for Him, or become a place for Him to stay.
He could not more clearly have put the Temple in its proper place. And those who were clear-headed and thoughtful would at another time and in another place, have agreed with him, if not with the implication that he was making. For all knew that God was above all things and could not be restricted to a Temple, even the Temple in Jerusalem. It was His Name that dwelt there. But the Temple had become a fetish and a superstition. It had become the heart of their religion, taking a place in their hearts which was beyond reason. And to have it so degraded tore at their hearts, even if it did justify what Stephen might previously have said about it.
Stephen Accuses His Accusers.
Up to this point Stephen has on the whole aligned himself with the things that he has portrayed, notice for example ‘our fathers’ verses 38, 39, 44, 45. But now suddenly he changes tone in order to apply his message. From this point on he disassociates himself from his listeners, and speaks firmly of ‘You’. What he now has to say he himself cannot be accused of for he has responded to the Saviour. Perhaps the change came because he sensed a changed atmosphere in the Tribunal and saw from their behaviour that they were about to silence him. Perhaps what he had described so moved his godly heart that he was horrified at the thought of what these men were guilty of. Perhaps he was simply firmly applying what he had said in order to achieve conviction of sin. Whichever way it was, his words now became pointed, personal and unavoidable.
7.51 “You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you do always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.”
Their attitude towards the Temple, exalting what God had not exalted, and turning from what God had provided, epitomised their whole attitude towards all that was of God. They altered what God had given. They altered His house, they changed His word, they resisted the Holy Spirit in every way, just as their fathers had before them (compare Isaiah 63.10). They were stiffnecked and their hearts were wrong (Deuteronomy 10.16) and their ears were deaf (Jeremiah 6.10). And even now they were refusing to hear the Holy Spirit as He made His new approach to men.
The rebuke might seem extreme but these were precisely the words in which the Law had addressed the people (he could not be accused of speaking against the Law here). ‘Stiffnecked’ was a favourite description by God when speaking in the Law concerning the people (Exodus 32.9; 33.3, 5; 34.9; Deuteronomy 9.6, 13; 10.16). It was thus an ‘in’ word expressing their unwillingness to listen and bend their necks to it. And the idea of being uncircumcised in heart was also Mosaic (Leviticus 26.41; Deuteronomy 10.16, compare Jeremiah 9.26), indicating hardened and blinded hearts. In fact it was language they themselves would quite willingly have used of the people whom they taught for that reason. But it was not something they were likely to accept from Stephen. It was one thing for them to pray humbly before God of themselves in this way, and address the people in this way, but it was quite another to be told it by this Hellenistic Jewish Christian.
7.52 “Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who showed before of the coming of the Righteous One, of whom you have now become betrayers and murderers,”
Now Stephen gets to the heart of the matter. Their fathers had revealed what was in their uncircumcised hearts by persecuting the prophets. Indeed, they had bared their hearts by even killing some who had proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Righteous One (Isaiah who according to their tradition was sawn in half in the reign of Mansseh, was probably especially in mind). They had revealed that they had not wanted the Righteous One to come if He was as the prophets had said. And now they themselves had gone even further and had betrayed and murdered the Righteous One Himself. They were all of a piece. It must be seen as quite possible at this point that Stephen in his faith and enthusiasm still hoped that they would repent if he pressed them hard enough.
Apart from the last all these accusations had been made against the people of Israel before by their own teachers (2 Chronicles 36.15-16; Nehemiah 9.26; Jeremiah 2.30) and by Jesus Himself (Matthew 23.29-31, 37; Luke 11.47-50; 13.34; Mark 12.1-10). As for the killing of the Righteous One Himself Peter had previously made that very clear (2.23; 3.14-15; 5.28). The charges were not new. They simply rankled.
7.53 “You who received the law as it was ordained by angels, and did not keep it.”
But, he is saying, it is not really surprising that they had rejected the Righteous One, for these are the ones who had been privileged to receive the Law as ordained by angels, and still had not kept it. The two ideas went together. The one was preparing for the other, and their failure to do the one resulted in the other.
‘And did not keep it.’ Thus from this all should know who really sought to change the Law of Moses. In actual fact the Pharisees to a man would have admitted to each other that they did not keep the Law fully. It was not the fact of it that they would resent. It was the implication that they were not Law-keepers. Why they struggled to keep it with might and main. But as Jesus had pointed out, that was not God’s Law, it was the Law as determined by man, the Law ‘made by hands’.
The idea that the Law was ordained by and mediated by angels was orthodox Jewish belief, based on their view that the transcendent God could not deal with man directly. This was a basic contradiction to how they actually, (as opposed to theologically), viewed the Temple. Actually they saw the Temple and its ordinances as binding God by their rituals, even though theoretically they did see Him as transcendent. For the idea of angel mediation compare Galatians 3.19; Hebrews 2.2.
Luke probably here expects us to relate this statement to Stephen’s face being like that of an angel when he began his defence (6.15). They had not listened to angel’s then, they did not listen to God’s messenger now.
The Final Conclusion (7.54-60).
Learned judges do not like those who are on trial trying to convict them of being criminals, and as they were unwilling to admit that they were wrong the result was inevitable. The uneasy feeling that had grown as Stephen’s defence had gone on, had now become outright anger.
7.54 ‘Now when they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.’
The verbs here are very powerful. ‘Cut to the heart’ indicates that his words had gone home, for good or bad. They were moved to the very depths of their beings. Every nerve was stretched. And it was revealed by their outward expression and behaviour, for the gnashing of their teeth is especially descriptive. They were like wild beasts eager to savage their prey. Psalm 2.1 could easily be cited here, for they were certainly ‘raging’. And it would have been very apposite as the next verse reveals.
7.55 ‘But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,’
For to Stephen a wonderful thing happened. Being full of the Holy Spirit (the continuous experience of his life) he looked up towards heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He had begun his words describing the God of glory (verse 2), and now he saw something of the revelation of that glory. And he saw Jesus standing on His right hand as God’s Messiah (compare Psalm 110.1). The description must not be taken too literally. There is no reason to think that he saw two figures. The glory of God would probably be a blinding and all enveloping light. And the figure of the Son of Man was necessary in order to stress that the resurrected Christ, both God and Man, was seen as being there as glorifed Man with the Godhead, as essentially united with the Godhead. ‘At His right hand’ indicates the position of power and authority that He enjoyed. He now had all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28.18). The indefinable was being expressed. What could not be explained was being revealed. And Stephen was simply trying to explain in human terms the wonder of what he saw. It was not a time for definition but for awe. Here was the open revelation of Jesus’ triumph, and that the Kingly Rule of God had come.
7.56 ‘And said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.”
At what he saw he could not help himself, and he cried out and declared his interpretation of what he saw. It revealed that the Son of Man had truly come in the clouds to the throne of God and had received His everlasting dominion and Kingly Rule (Daniel 7.13-14), and it was in those terms that he expressed it. It was a fulfilment of Jesus promise to His judges in Matthew 26.64. This is the only use of the term Son of Man outside the Gospels, where it is restricted to Jesus using it of Himself, apart from in Revelation 1.13; 14.14 where it refers to the glorious Son of Man, illustrating both the early nature of the narrative, and its uniqueness. It confirmed that Jesus was the glorious Messiah, having been given all authority in heaven and earth. And He was standing because He was ready to receive His servant. He knew what was coming next. He had experienced something similar Himself.
Some consider that Jesus is standing because He is acting as a witness, as He bears testimony to Stephen before the Father. A witness always had to stand. And we need not doubt that Jesus bore witness to the Godhead of Stephen’s triumph. But a welcomer would also stand. And Luke probably intends us to contrast this open welcome by the Lord of glory with the rejection of the Sanhedrin. The prime authority in heaven welcomes Stephen even while the authorities on earth despatch him. And the same will be true for all who are persecuted for bearing witness to His Name.
‘I see the heavens opened.’ A way of expressing that he had a glimpse of the Beyond. He was being given a vision of what was usually veiled.
7.57-58a ‘But they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and rushed on him with one accord, and they cast him out of the city, and stoned him.
Everything broke at once. They could no longer restrain themselves. With cries of anguish the members of the Sanhedrin blocked their ears at this blasphemy, a symbolic gesture indicating their horror, and rushing at him, dragged him through the street to outside the city, where they stoned him. It was as though they had been taken with madness. All restraint had gone. This was the staid Sanhedrin, but they were baying like mad hounds which had smelled blood. Such moments of madness can seize even the sanest of people. And it had happened here. They had become a lynch mob. That is what unreasoning belief mingled with a bad conscience can do to people.
Serious blasphemy was in fact almost the only crime for which the Sanhedrin could pass the death sentence. There were notices in the Temple warning of instant death to anyone unauthorised who went beyond the outer court. And in spite of their fury they appear to have ‘observed the rules’ in that the witnesses were present in order to cast the first stones (Deuteronomy 17.7).
‘Cast him out of the city’ (compare Deuteronomy 17.5; Numbers 15.35). Death must not take place within the city, for it would defile the city. It is ironic that he who had pointed them to what their fathers had done in following idolatry was treated as though he had been guilty of idolatry (Deuteronomy 17.5-7). In the same way had Jesus died ‘without the gate’ (Hebrews 13.12). So in their dreadful crimes did they maintain the niceties of the Law.
‘And stoned him.’ He had dared to point out to them that they had rejected and slain the prophets (verse 52). So now they stoned him. The only actual record we have of the death of a prophet was of one they stoned (2 Chronicles 24.21). This was their way of getting rid of prophets, and they proved themselves adept at it. The irony of the whole situation is obvious. They sought to prove that he was wrong by proving that he was right.
7.58b ‘And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.’
The rules for stoning were observed so scrupulously that a mature young man called Saul, who had not been a witness, demonstrated his oneness with the sentence by guarding the coats of the witnesses as they carried out the stoning, because he knew that the Law said that he could not be the first to participate because he was not a witness. But he was an angry and vengeful young man, full of hate for Stephen, and wanted to show as far as he could that he thought that Stephen deserved everything that he received.
However, he stood aside from the stoning, even when the witnesses had commenced it (when he could have joined in - Deuteronomy 17.7). This suggests that he is mentioned, not so much because he guarded the coats but because of what that indicated. It indicated a position of some authority, and direct identification with the deed even though he did not particpate. While he would not himself cast stones, possibly because he felt that it was not the position of a would be Rabbi to do so unless he were a witness, he was very much one with those who did it. Here we have the picture of the implacable enemy.
There is an implacableness about him that is unnerving. He stood there, we may imagine with his arms folded, not only surveying the scene but giving it his approval. All knew him for what he was, for he was a disciple of Rabban Gamaliel. And already his mind was probably determining that he would seek approval for the plan that was formulating in his brain and hunt down more of these blasphemers and punish them. (We know him too, for we are shortly to learn more of his history when he becomes Paul. He never forgot this moment. It burned its way into his soul - see 22.20).
7.59 ‘And they stoned Stephen, calling on the Lord, and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
But as they stoned him, Stephen looked up to heaven and prayed to ‘the Lord’, calling out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”. He had no doubt in his heart, only joy, and concern for those who were doing this to him. We can compare here Jesus’ own words on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23.46). Stephen, exalted in spirit, wanted it known that he was going like his Master. The parallel is significant. It equates the Father and the Lord Jesus, both of Whom are seen as receiving the spirits of the godly when they die.
‘Lord Jesus.’ Thus use of Lord here is very significant. Throughout his speech ‘the Lord’ has been cited from the Old Testament and has meant Yahweh. Here he now refers the same title to Jesus. he has no doubt Whom the One He has seen really is.
7.60 ‘And he knelt down, and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not lay this sin to their charge.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.’
And then as the stones rained down on him he knelt, and crying with a loud voice, pleaded, “Lord, do not lay this sin to their charge.” And with that he ‘fell asleep’. His body ceased to have life but the Lord had received his spirit and he slept with Jesus. He was at peace.
We can again hardly doubt that he had in mind again the words of Jesus on the cross. But this time, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23.34). In Stephen’s case they did know what they were doing. His forgiveness was because he knew that they were spiritually blind.
‘He fell asleep.’ Death was described as a sleep because a dead man looked as though he slept. It was a euphemism because men feared to think of death in all its nakedness. But in Christian belief, and in accordance with the example and teaching of Christ (John 11.11), it came to signify that Christians did not finally die, because they would live on and would one day rise again. The thought of sleep was not of unconsciousness, but of bliss. Paul looked forward to being ‘with the Lord’. It was a picture of repose, of joy and peace.
8.1a ‘And Saul was consenting to his death.’ What a chill this brings on our hearts. He stood there silent and seemingly impassive, but his heart was filled with hate and anger. And as he watched he nodded his approval. This was not passive acknowledgement. It was wholehearted acquiescence. We can even read his thoughts. ‘May such be the end of all these heretics, and I will make it my responsibility to ensure that it is.’
Some may question how this could happen under Roman rule. We do not actually know the circumstances under which the laws of blasphemy could be cited in order to defend the death penalty. Certainly instant death could be demanded on any who encroached on the Temple beyond the allowable limit. It seems very possible therefore that blasphemy was the one crime for which the Sanhedrin could pass the death penalty. But whether it was so or not, Pilate was at this stage in a precarious position and he was in no case to dispute the activities of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. He was too busy watching his own back. And they were experienced politicians. They knew how far they could go.
Perhaps at this stage we may seek to establish what Stephen was not saying. He was not rejecting the Law. Indeed he had continually cited the Law (Genesis/Exodus). All the way through he was upholding the Law against those who had broken it (verses 8, 38, 53). Nor was he rejecting Israel’s worship as such, for he had upheld the Tabernacle in which that worship was originally conducted. Nor was he rejecting the Temple. What he was doing was rejecting the overemphasis on the Temple itself as the centre of God’s saving plan, as the focal point of men’s thinking, and as something that was indestructible, as though it had somehow come down from God.
His thought was that like all else the Temple was of human origin, and that therefore Temple worship, which was carried on in a building of man’s devising, should not focus in on itself but should turn men’s eyes upwards beyond the Temple towards that which was not made with hands, to the living God Himself, and towards His Messiah, enthroned in Heaven. Thus men around the world should not be looking towards the Temple, as they tended to do, as though God were trapped in Jerusalem, but should be looking upwards towards God and His Messiah wherever they were. Perhaps he had in mind Jesus’ words in the context of John 4.21-24. “The hour comes and now is when the true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth.”
So his thought was that now that men no longer had a God-designed Tabernacle which in a sense, at least in concept, had come down from heaven, they should look, not to the Temple, but beyond it to One Who had come down from Heaven Who was even greater than the Tabernacle. One Who had now replaced the Temple as the focal point (John 2.19-21) Thus they should look to a heavenly Tabernacle, to where God was on His throne. And this would involve recognition of the Righteous One Whom He had sent, for He was now on the throne as man’s Saviour. Man should now therefore look to God’s Tabernacle in Heaven. It was God Who would take this further by destroying the very Temple itself, because even Christians were still wedded to it.
End of note.
Are We To See Stephen’s Words As Verbally Inspired Scriptural Truth?
These words of Stephen raise an important question that we need to deal with, and that is as to whether Stephen’s words were seen by Luke as conveying ‘verbally inspired Scriptural Truth’. To many the question will seem unimportant. They simply class the Scriptures along with other writings. But it is a question that in its general application needs to be carefully thought about for any who believe in the verbal inspiration of Scripture.
We must first of all define what we mean by ‘Scriptural truth’. Paul tells us that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, etc.’ and there is a sense in which all Scripture is ‘true’. But in saying this it is clear that we must distinguish between Scriptures where the very words are themselves teaching divine truth, and Scriptures where the words are correctly recorded and are a true record of what was said, but are not themselves to be seen as expressing divine truth.
One book which faces us up with this very question, and is fairly simple to deal with, is the Book of Job. There we have words spoken by Job and his four friends, and it is necessary for us to consider which of their words are Scriptural truth, and which are simply an accurate record of false ideas being put forward by his ‘friends’. The words accurately present what was said, but without necessarily themselves expressing Scriptural truth.
That this is so, comes out clearly at the end of the book, for there God firmly declares that Job’s friends have not spoken of Him what is right (Job 42.7). That tells us as specifically as anything can that we are not to see their words as conveying Scriptural truth, even though they are in the Scriptures and are to be seen as presenting a true record of what they had said. Thus if we base our doctrine on what they taught we will go sadly astray. This makes it clear that we have to be discerning when we use Scripture. We have to distinguish when the Scriptures are putting forward ‘revealed truth’, and when they are telling us what people said without necessarily indicating that it was Scriptural truth.
So next time someone quotes something to you from the Book of Job, first check on who said what. This does not mean that the book of Job itself cannot be classed as ‘inspired Scripture’. What it does mean is that as Scripture what it is claiming to do is to accurately inform us concerning the distorted teaching of these men, while also informing us that their words are not to be seen as presenting us with the truth. It is explaining the false arguments that they used against Job. We cannot therefore accept the words of these men as teaching ‘Scriptural truth’. We may even say that they are actually teaching ‘Scriptural untruths’.
To take an even more definite example, when Satan told Eve that the fruit would be good for her and Adam, his words were certainly Scripture (that is, they are recorded in Scripture as indicating what he said, and can be relied as an accurate representation of what was truly said), but they were equally certainly not conveying Scriptural truth, for they were basically a lie, and shown to be so. So always when considering Scripture we must ask, ‘Who said it?’ and ‘Under what circumstances?’
Now when we come to the Acts of the Apostles the same question arises. Take for example the words of Sapphira in 5.8. When she replied, “Yes, for so much.”, was that Scripture? Well, yes, for the words are included in Acts, they are included in the Scriptures. But are they presenting Scriptural truth? The answer is clearly no. She is recorded as telling a lie, and is punished for it.
At the other extreme we have the Apostles. When they stood and spoke authoritatively, speaking by the Holy Spirit, Jesus said of them that they would be led into all truth (John 16.13). Thus we have good grounds for saying that under such circumstances the writers who recorded their words would look on them as ‘Scriptural truth’.
Other speakers may well be seen as coming somewhere in the middle. Their words may be seen as accurately recorded, and even true, without necessarily being seen as ‘verbally inspired Scriptural truth’. In other words they are words which must be judged by normal standards. This is particularly relevant in what we are looking at here, for the question must arise, ‘Are we to see Stephen’s words as an inspired record of what Stephen said, without his words necessarily being seen by the writer as carrying the same inspiration as the Apostles? Or are we to see them as on the same level of inspiration as the Apostles, and therefore without error?’ The question is not whether he was ‘inspired’ in a sense in which great preachers of today might be inspired, or even whether the Holy Spirit was giving him words to speak as a Christian on trial was entitled to receive them, in accordance with Luke 12.12. Both of those would undoubtedly be so. The question is, was his inspiration seen as of the same level as that of the Apostles, and the great Old Testament writing prophets, making what he said completely dependable?
We should consider here, for example, 1 Corinthians 14. There the New Testament prophets were seen as on the whole being ‘inspired’ by the Spirit in the church meetings. But Paul quite clearly indicates that their words are not necessarily to be seen as ‘verbally inspired’, for their words are rather to be judged by other prophets (1 Corinthians 14.29). So he for one does not see all people who are ‘inspired’ by the Holy Spirit as being what we call ‘verbally inspired’ and therefore speaking without error. (This is important for any groups which practise spiritual gifts to appreciate). In other words he states that the words of such people cannot necessarily be accepted as absolute truth, but must be tested to discover whether they are true or not. This does not especially denigrate them. It simply makes clear the standard that must be applied to their teaching.
The same thing applies to Stephen. It is not necessarily to denigrate him, or to throw doubt on the truth of his words, to declare that his words were not necessarily ‘verbally inspired Scriptural truth’, even though we may judge them as in general Scripturally true because they accord with other Scriptures. For it is vitally important that we do distinguish between what is set up as ‘verbally inspired Scriptural truth’ (to be accepted as God’s infallible word to man) and what is able to be seen as in accordance with Scriptural truth, while not itself necessarily being technically so.
The truth is that unless we are to lose all ability to make such distinctions we must when studying the Scriptures set up various markers defining when something is ‘verbally inspired Scriptural truth’ (the verbally inspired word of truth) as opposed to seeing something as Scripturally true because it accords with Scriptural truth found elsewhere, but not as verbally inspired Scriptural truth. Jesus, for example, does seem to have intended to lay down that kind criteria in His choosing of His Apostles. He does appear to have later declared that they, and they alone, will be the final arbiters of truth (Matthew 16.19; 18.18; John 14.16-17, 26; 15.26-27; 16.13). Thus it seems to me that we have to say that, while in the case of Stephen, and others like him such as Ananias, what he said may be equally as true as what our best teachers say when interpreting Scripture, it must be judged on that basis, and cannot be classed as itself on the level of ‘infallible Scriptural truth’.
We may rightly be impressed by Stephen’s words. We may indeed hold them as having been spoken under a large level of inspiration and guidance by the Holy Spirit, even greater possibly than we expect from our own preachers, but we must stop short of calling it ‘infallible Scriptural truth’. If we do not take this position it seems to me that we lose all criterion by which we can judge what is ‘infallible Scriptural truth’. We accept that the words of the Apostles were, when speaking or writing under inspiration, ‘infallible Scriptural truth’, because we have as grounds for taking up such a position the authority of Jesus. We accept the Old Testament rightly interpreted as such because we have Jesus’ authority for doing so. But we have no such authority for Stephen and others in a parallel situation. If we take up any other position than the one just outlined it then becomes in the end simply a matter of one person’s opinion against another. It is we who become the arbiters of inspiration.
When the early church thought in terms of ‘inspired Scripture’ their criterion was clear. The Old Testament in its original text was so because it had been vouched for by Jesus Christ Himself (although even then we have to be discerning). The Apostolic writings in their original texts were so because they were written either by Apostles, or by men under the close supervision of Apostles (Mark and Luke). Otherwise the church on the whole rejected other writings as ‘authoritative Scriptural truth’, even when they allowed them to be read in church as ‘helpful’.
On this criteria therefore we may truly say that Stephen was inspired by the Spirit, but not that he had such inspiration that the early church (and in this case Luke) saw his words as verbally inspired Scriptural truth. That is not to cast them off. And like any Spirit inspired sermon they may warm our hearts and speak to us through the Spirit. They may still bless us, as any Scriptural sermon or writing may. But that will be because we see them as agreeing with Scriptural truth, not because they are guaranteed as such by the nature of their inspiration.
With this regard it is possibly significant that Luke does not in fact introduce his words with any suggestion that the Holy Spirit was speaking through Stephen in some special revelatory way. Verse 55 may be seen as reflecting back, but the emphasis there is rather on the amazing revelation that he saw. And 6.5, 8, 10 all certainly reveal him as a man through whom the Spirit was at work. But at the crucial place where Luke could have spoken he was silent. This might suggest to many that while the Holy Spirit certainly stood there with him, it was not in order to give him that special inspiration that we call ‘verbal inspiration’.
On the other hand the speech can only have been given to us in full because its central message was sonsidered important. It is intended to come home to our hearts and make us aware that God’s great Deliverer was seen as having come, that the land was no longer important, and that the Temple was being replaced. And by being included in such detail by Luke, and by being based on the word of God, it becomes part of the essential truth that Acts is seeking to convey.
End of Excursus.
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