Acts 7: Stephen’s Speech, The Stoning of Stephen
In the last chapter we were introduced to Stephen, a man many consider to be one of the Church’s first Deacons, and told about his arrest under false charges of blasphemy. The majority of this chapter is dedicated to a speech he gives to the Jewish religious council in his defense—which ultimately fails, leading to his martyrdom, but we’ll get to that.
The majority of Stephen’s speech goes through the history of God’s relationship with His people. He doesn’t go through every single detail, he’s speaking to people who know this story as well as he does, just hits some highlights:
|Abraham: God appeared to Abraham when he was still living in Mesopotamia, and told him to come to the Promised Land (where the Jews were now living). God didn’t give Abraham any of that land at the time—“not even a foot’s length”—but promised it to him and his offspring. Abraham didn’t have any offspring at that point, but God promised him some, and also promised that those offspring would end up enslaved for 400 years, after which God would deliver them. Then God introduced circumcision, and Abraham had Isaac, and Isaac had Jacob, and Jacob had the twelve patriarchs.
|Joseph: The patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into slavery, which led to him ending up as ruler of Egypt. Because of a famine, Jacob and the patriarchs came to Egypt, where Joseph provided for them.
|Moses exiled from Egypt: Abraham’s descendents grew in number in Egypt. Stephen doesn’t mention the slavery, interestingly enough, but he does mention the Egyptian king killing the Israelite babies, one of whom was supposed to be Moses—but he ended up raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter instead of dying. But then when Moses was 40 he encountered an Egyptian mistreating some Israelites and killed the Egyptian, and ended up fleeing Egypt in exile.
|Moses leading the Israelites: After 40 years of exile God appeared to Moses in a burning bush, and sent him back to Egypt. Stephen emphasizes that the Israelites had previously rejected Moses, but he was now the one who redeemed them, performing signs and wonders. Stephen also mentions that Moses himself had said, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.” God spoke to Moses, and Moses received from Him “living oracles” to deliver to God’s people.
|A slight side point in which Stephen calls out that the Israelites refused to obey him—I think “him” means Moses, in this case, not God, though it amounts to the same thing—longing for the time they were in Egypt, and then making a golden calf to worship. God gave them up to this idol worship for a time, though Stephen’s speech goes positive again after this.
|God’s dwelling place: Stephen mentions that the Israelites—“our fathers”—had the “tent of witness,” created under God’s direction. They brought it into the Promised Land when Joshua led them there, and had it right up until the time of David. David sought to build a permanent dwelling place, but instead it was Solomon who built it. Though, it should be recognized, God doesn’t actually dwell in houses made by man, Heaven is His throne, the earth is merely His footstool!
At this point, Stephen’s speech takes a hard turn. He had already hinted at it once or twice up to this point, but he now directly accuses his accusers:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (verses 51–53)
As could be expected, the council doesn’t like this. There may have been times when they were coming around to Stephen’s side during his speech, it was a good case in his favour that he hadn’t been blaspheming, but this, along with a vision of Jesus Himself, seals his fate:
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (verses 54–60)
There’s a lot to say about this speech from Stephen, and I’ll fall into the weeds in a second, but before I do it’s worth summing things up to the highest level: Stephen has been accused of blasphemy, but this speech essentially turns that on its head: he accuses the accusers of blasphemy! Not only that but Stephen makes the case that Israelite leadership has always acted that way, rejecting God and His messengers, so doing the same for Jesus is just one more example of it.
It’s no surprise that they don’t like this message…
Deacons and Teaching/Preaching
What first strikes me is the length of Stephen’s speech. In fact, I looked it up and confirmed that this is the longest speech in the book of Acts—longer than any speeches recorded by Peter or Paul, even though Peter and Paul were Apostles and Stephen wasn’t.
As stated in the previous post, I still firmly believe that local church leaders should become either Elders or Deacons based on skills / mentalities / aptitude, and not that the two roles should be seen as hierarchical, whereby one becomes a Deacon and then potentially “graduates” to become an Elder. However, that doesn’t at all mean that Deacons can’t or shouldn’t preach! If someone has skills/aptitude that lead them to be a Deacon and also has ability to preach, both sets of skills can and should be exercised.
God’s Plan All Along: Christianity as an Extension of Judaism
When I first read this passage, it felt like Stephen was almost lulling his listeners into a false sense of security in the beginning of his speech; like he was telling them what they wanted to hear, before hitting them with the stuff they would hate. But as I think about it a little more, I think what’s happening here is simpler than that: what Stephen has been accused of, and is on trial for, is “blasphemous words against Moses and God” (6:11), and claiming that, “Jesus of Nazareth will destroy [the temple] and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us” (6:14). So I don’t think the first part of his speech is about “tricking” anyone, or lulling them into a false sense of security before he gets to what it is he wanted to say, he’s just answering the charges against him. “You want to accuse me of blasphemy against God and against Moses?” he says; “I’ll show you how well I understand all of these things!”
But it also brings me to a point that has come up numerous times as I’ve been going through Acts: the early disciples and Apostles didn’t see Christianity as a brand new thing, whereby we throw out Judaism and start over with Christianity, or whereby God rejects His people and starts over with new people. It’s a continuation of the work God had already begun with His people. Stephen’s speech is a good example of it: when we read about Abraham, and Joseph, and Moses, and David, and Solomon, we’re not reading about a “failed religion,” that was “replaced” by Christianity. We’re seeing the roots of Christianity! We’re seeing God setting His plan in motion.
I’m sure I’m repeating myself from previous passages, but if someone were to have asked Stephen about his religion, I think he would have said he was a Jew. This whole speech shows Stephen’s understanding that Jesus’ work was a continuation of the work God had already begun.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to think, in the 21st Century, that Christianity and Judaism are two different things. A lot of time has passed, and a lot of history has happened between Stephen’s time and now. But it is wrong (I think) to ignore where Christianity came from, and (to state the obvious), not just wrong but terribly sinful to hate Jews. Not just because of the shared history, but because it’s wrong for a Christian to hate anyone.
Comparing Moses and Jesus
It’s worth looking at verses 35–40 more closely:
“This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’
Stephen clearly has Jesus in mind when he goes through this part; everything he’s saying about Moses has echoes in the life of Jesus:
|This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge?”
|Jesus was also rejected, and was asked essentially this same question: who gave you this authority you’re claiming to have?
|this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer
|Moses was only pointing to Jesus, the true ruler and redeemer of God’s people.
|performing wonders and signs
|Jesus definitely performed many wonders and signs; in fact, the event which led to his strongest persecution was raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus’ wonders and signs were simply not to be ignored, which frightened the religious leaders of the day.
|This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.”
|Jesus is clearly that prophet.
|This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers.
|God/the angel spoke to Moses in the wilderness and gave him the Law, but Moses eventually ended up sinning. Satan spoke to Jesus in the wilderness, tempting Him to sin, but Jesus never sinned (which is why He is our redeemer).
|He received living oracles to give to us.
|Jesus definitely shared a lot of teachings with us, building on all that Moses had taught, as well as the prophets after him.
|Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’
|There are definite echoes between how Jesus was treated and now Moses was treated, in that Jesus was thrust aside, and the religious leaders refused to listen to Him. I don’t want to push this too far, but there’s a sense in which the Jewish religion, including both the parts mandated by God as well as the traditions that had built up over time, had become the “golden calf” of the religious leaders; it can be easy to fall into over-emphasizing the religion, and under-emphasizing the God that the religion is supposed to point us to. And I do mean “us,” it’s not just something that happened to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, modern-day Christians can also fall into worshipping the religion instead of worshipping the God the religion is supposed to point us to.
After this he spends another few verses talking about how God gave their fathers over to worship of the calf (and other idols), and promised to eventually hand them over into exile beyond Babylon. And perhaps the council was already getting antsy at Stephen’s words by this point—maybe it was clear he was making allusions to Jesus—but then he went into a discussion of the Tabernacle, and they probably started drifting back to his side for a moment. This was something they could agree on! The Tabernacle, and the Temple!
So it seems like a sudden left turn when he goes from talking about God’s dwelling place to accusing his accusers, but I don’t think it is. It’s part of the same train of thought. God had always said, right from the beginning, that He doesn’t dwell in man-made structures, He’s God, and we shouldn’t try to limit Him or put Him in a box. (In this case, literally!) I think part of Stephen’s accusation against the council is that they were worshipping the Temple, rather than the God for whom the Temple was built. Just as the fathers had rejected God’s prophets, the religious leaders had rejected the Son.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.” (Jesus speaking, talking to the scribes and Pharisees)
The religious leaders in Acts 7 are accusing Stephen of blasphemy but they’re the true blasphemers. Superficially they have a very good understanding of the Scriptures—they know them far better than I do—but they can fall into missing the point of those Scriptures.
And my response, as a Christian, should not be to say, "Oh those dumb religious leaders! What were they thinking?" Instead it should be to pray to the Holy Spirit that I wouldn’t fall into the same problem when I read the Bible: reading the words, and missing the point.