Stephen: Completion of the Testimony to the Nation
Acts 7. In this fascinating chapter we have the record of the Spirit of God as to the final witness to the nation of Israel before before the door of pardon was closed. Up to this time the preaching of Peter had this message for the nation of Israel: that if they would repent and turn to God, He would send Christ who would bring in the the “times of refreshing”; i.e. the Millennium. The leaders of Israel had successively rejected this testimony. God raised up Stephen as a special instrument to give to give a final testimony to the nation of Israel. He does not speak of blessing in store for Israel, but rather he pronounces the nation’s guilt. In his powerful message, Stephen gives a sweeping review of the history of the nation, and shows that at every turn of God’s dealings, whenever God was trying to show them something new, they resisted the Holy Spirit. Their national history, which Israel boasted in, condemned them. Two servants come into view: Joseph and Moses. Both were rejected by the nation. In rejecting Christ, it was really a continuation of the same obstinate rebellion against God. They rejected God’s messengers and disobeyed God’s laws. In fact, the two things Stephen was accused of by the Hellenists were: (1) teaching that Jesus the Nazaraean would destroy “this place” (the temple), and (2) that He would change the customs that Moses taught them. Stephen centers his message around those two things: how their focusing on the physical place was a mistake, and how the nation had repeatedly rejected the servants and law of God. What Israel needed was repentance. The council vehemently opposed Stephen’s words, stopping their ears and gnashing their teeth. Filled with anger, they stoned Stephen. There are many parallels between the death of Stephen and the death of Christ. Having cast out the Son of God, and having rejected the “second chance”, now Israel seals their choice by killing Stephen. “But his citizens hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us.” (Luke 19:14). After the stoning of Stephen, the direction of the Holy Spirit’s work changes, and the provisional pardon to Israel is preached no longer. Instead the gospel begins to go to the Gentiles, and a special vessel is raised up for that purpose, the very one who had a leading hand in the martyrdom of Stephen; of Saul of Tarsus.
Stephen. The first Christian martyr was Stephen. He was a Greek-speaking Jew who is noted as “full of faith and the Holy Spirit”. He is previously unknown, and we have no indication that he knew the Lord Jesus on the earth. He comes into full view in Acts 6-7 which are devoted to his ministry and martyrdom. Stephen was raised up to give a public pronouncement of the nation’s guilt. It is an example of the Spirit of God using “whom He will”.
- Opening (7:1)
- Abraham: His Call and God’s Promise (7:2-8)
- Joseph: Israel Comes to Egypt (7:9-15)
- Moses Part I: Upbringing and First Attempt to Deliver (7:17-35)
- Moses Part II: His Call and Rejection
- Moses Part III: Israel in the Wilderness (7:36-43)
- The Tabernacle, the Temple, and the Prophets (7:44-50)
- Conclusion (7:51-53)
- The Martyrdom of Stephen (7:54-60)
1 And the high priest said, Are these things then so? v.1 The Opening. Having been brought before the council of the Jews, Stephen was now in the presence of the leaders of the nation. The High Priest gave Stephen an opportunity to speak. The Lord had warned His disciples of how these circumstances might occur, and how the Holy Spirit would speak through them; “But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost” (Mark 13:11).
Abraham: His Call and God’s Promise (7:2-8)
2 And he said, Brethren and fathers, hearken. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran, 3 and said to him, Go out of thy land and out of thy kindred, and come into the land which I will shew thee. vv.2-3 The Call of Abraham. Stephen begins by going back to the ancestor of Israel; the father of faith. God called Abraham when he was still in Mesopotamia, where he and his family were steeped in idolatry (Joshua 24:2). Notice that it says “the God of glory”. It is a God that is entirely above this world that called Abraham into relationship with Himself. Peter says to the converted Jews; “through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (2 Pet. 1:3). It is a call that lifts the believer above this world. Abraham was called to go by faith, depending on God to show him the destination after he had left his home.
4 Then going out of the land of the Chaldeans he dwelt in Charran, and thence, after his father died, he removed him into this land in which “ye” now dwell. v.4 Hindered by Family. Abraham began that journey, but was hindered by his family. In Genesis we find that his father Terah took the lead in moving from Ur to Harran, and the family lived in Harran until Terah died. This was not what God had told him; “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee”. It wasn’t until his father died that Abraham truly answered the call, and continued on to Canaan. Sometimes family connections can make us slow to respond to the call of God. When it says “he removed him” the “he” could be Abraham, but more likely it is God, as in v.5. Without God intervening, Abraham might never have moved!
5 And he did not give him an inheritance in it, not even what his foot could stand on; and promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when he had no child. 6 And God spoke thus: “His seed shall be a sojourner in a strange land, and they shall enslave them and evil entreat them four hundred years; 7 and the nation to which they shall be in bondage will “I” judge, said God; and after these things they shall come forth and serve me in this place.” [Gen. 15:13-14] 8 And he gave to him the covenant of circumcision; and thus he begat Isaac and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac Jacob, and Jacob the twelve patriarchs. vv.5-8 No Immediate Possession. Stephen next shows that God did not give Abraham the land immediately, but it was promised to him as an inheritance for his family after him. Even more than this, his seed would not inherit the land until a period of 400 years of bondage had passed wherein they were sojourners in a strange land. God made His covenant with Abraham and his family, and gave them circumcision as the sign. If the land was the most important thing, why hadn’t God given it to Abraham immediately? The promise was made before the nation even existed. How foolish to be proud of themselves, when their blessings were purely a result of God’s grace.
Joseph: Israel Comes to Egypt (7:9-15)
9 And the patriarchs, envying Joseph, sold him away into Egypt. And God was with him, 10 and delivered him out of all his tribulations, and gave him favour and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he appointed him chief over Egypt and all his house. 11 But a famine came upon all the land of Egypt and Canaan, and great distress, and our fathers found no food. 12 But Jacob, having heard of there being corn in Egypt, sent out our fathers first; 13 and the second time Joseph was made known to his brethren, and the family of Joseph became known to Pharaoh. 14 And Joseph sent and called down to him his father Jacob and all his kindred, seventy-five souls. 15 And Jacob went down into Egypt and died, he and our fathers, 16 and were carried over to Sychem and placed in the sepulchre which Abraham bought for a sum of money of the sons of Emmor the father of Sychem. vv.9-16 Joseph Raised Up and Rejected. God then raised up Joseph to lead his brethren, and gave him dreams as a witness of it, but his brothers were moved with envy and sold him as a slave. But God was with Joseph, and his being there was the means of preserving Jacob and his family from starvation. Stephen, quoting from the Septuagint, says Joseph called Jacob and all his kindred to Egypt, seventy-five souls in total. In the Hebrew book of Genesis it says seventy souls (Gen. 46:27; Ex. 1:5). The reason for the difference could be that the Greek Septuagint gives the total number including the five sons of Manasseh and Ephraim born in Egypt (1 Chron. 7:14-27). The point here is that Israel’s forebearers resisted the instrument that God raised up for their blessing. It wasn’t until the “second time” that Joseph was made known to his brethren. Stephen doesn’t apply the type to Christ, only states the facts, but the application is obvious! Israel didn’t recognize Joseph until he was exalted over all Egypt. In a similar way, Israel did not recognize their Messiah at His first coming, but they will at His second coming when He is King over all the Earth (Zech. 14:9).
Moses Part I: Upbringing and First Attempt to Deliver (7:17-35)
17 But as the time of promise drew near which God had promised to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt, 18 until another king over Egypt arose who did not know Joseph. 19 “He” dealt subtilly with our race, and evil entreated the fathers, casting out their infants that they might not live. 20 In which time Moses was born, and was exceedingly lovely, who was nourished three months in the house of his father. 21 And when he was cast out, the daughter of Pharaoh took him up, and brought him up for herself to be for a son. 22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds. v.22 “Mighty in words” is a remarkable commendation for a man who said “O my Lord, I am not eloquent… I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue” (Ex. 4:10).
23 And when a period of forty years was fulfilled to him, it came into his heart to look upon his brethren, the sons of Israel; 24 and seeing a certain one wronged, he defended him, and avenged him that was being oppressed, smiting the Egyptian. 25 For he thought that his brethren would understand that God by his hand was giving them deliverance. But they understood not. 26 And on the morrow he shewed himself to them as they were contending, and compelled them to peace, saying, “Ye” are brethren, why do ye wrong one another? 27 But he that was wronging his neighbour thrust him away, saying, Who established thee ruler and judge over us? 28 Dost “thou” wish to kill me as thou killedst the Egyptian yesterday? 29 And Moses fled at this saying, and became a sojourner in the land of Madiam, where he begat two sons.
Moses Part II: His Call and Rejection
30 And when forty years were fulfilled, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of mount Sinai, in a flame of fire of a bush. 31 And Moses seeing it wondered at the vision; and as he went up to consider it, there was a voice of the Lord, 32 “I” am the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. And Moses trembled, and durst not consider it. 33 And the Lord said to him, Loose the sandal of thy feet, for the place on which thou standest is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the ill treatment of my people which is in Egypt, and I have heard their groan, and have come down to take them out of it; and now, come, I will send thee to Egypt. 35 This Moses, whom they refused, saying, Who made thee ruler and judge? him did God send to be a ruler and deliverer with the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush.
Moses Part III: Israel in the Wilderness (7:36-43)
36 “He” led them out, having wrought wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red sea, and in the wilderness forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, A prophet shall God raise up to you out of your brethren like me him shall ye hear. 38 This is he who was in the assembly 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; 39 to whom our fathers would not be subject, but thrust him from them, and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, Make us gods who shall go before us; for this Moses, who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has happened to him. 41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. 42 But God turned and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, Have ye offered me victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 43 Yea, ye took up the tent of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, the forms which ye made to do homage to them; and I will transport you beyond Babylon.
The Tabernacle, the Temple, and the Prophets (7:44-50)
44 Our fathers had the tent of the testimony in the wilderness, as he that spoke to Moses commanded to make it according to the model which he had seen; 45 which also our fathers, receiving from their predecessors, brought in with Joshua when they entered into possession of the lands of the nations, whom God drove out from the face of our fathers, until the days of David; 46 who found favour before God, and asked to find a tabernacle for the God of Jacob; 47 but Solomon built him a house. 48 But the Most High dwells not in places made with hands; as says the prophet, 49 The heaven is my throne and the earth the footstool of my feet: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord, or where is the place of my rest? 50 has not my hand made all these things?
51 O stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, “ye” do always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers, “ye” also. 52 Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain those who announced beforehand concerning the coming of the Just One, of whom “ye” have now become deliverers up and murderers! 53 who have received the law as ordained by the ministry of angels, and have not kept it.
The Martyrdom of Stephen (7:54-60)
54 And hearing these things they were cut to the heart, and gnashed their teeth against him. 55 But being full of the Holy Spirit, having fixed his eyes on heaven, he saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56 and said, Lo, I behold the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God. 57 And they cried out with a loud voice, and held their ears, and rushed upon him with one accord; 58 and having cast him out of the city, they stoned him. And the witnesses laid aside their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul. 59 And they stoned Stephen, praying, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. 60 And kneeling down, he cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And having said this, he fell asleep.