Acts 7:1–50 . . .
“Stephen’s Sermon to the Sanhedrin”
Our text for this week takes up where we left off midway through chapter 6. Today and going forward, we'll follow up with three subsequent episodes in Stephen's heroic life: (1) Stephen's sermon (vv. 7:1-53); (2) his stoning (vv. 7:54-8:1a); and (3) the church's scattering (vv. 8:1b–4). Our fifty-verse passage is indeed a large portion of Scripture, but because it's to be understood as a whole, not merely in parts, we ought to view it as one powerful sermon, without going into great detail. Nevertheless, please make this text a matter of careful and hearty study — you won't be disappointed in the results.
Stephen’s Self-Defense (7:1)
Stephen was being tried by the chief priests in their Sanhedrin court. His enemies had hired witnesses to testify falsely against him, accusing him of saying that Jesus would destroy the Temple and change those customs that were based on the Law of Moses. The high priest (probably Caiaphas who was the same one who presided over Jesus' trial) asked Stephen whether the charges were true. Under the Jewish system of justice, he was allowed to speak in his own defense. What he said illustrates how he outmatched his enemies in this debate. His trial testimony, albeit a well-presented sermon, was eloquent, logical, and compelling.
A casual reader will easily miss Stephen's points. His testimony appears on the surface to be no more than a history lesson irrelevant to the charges. But in fact, he was proving his case by drawing evidence from the experience of Israel long ago. He highlighted two examples of that nation’s rebellious tendencies. His purpose was to show that the Jews treated Christ exactly the same way that their forefathers had treated other "deliverers sent by God" in times past.
The Jews of Stephen’s day seem to have concluded that the Temple in Jerusalem was the only dwelling place of God. To speak against “this holy place,” then, was to blaspheme. It was as though God would no longer be present with men if Jerusalem and the Temple were to be destroyed. Stephen debunked that myth by reminding his accusers that God, the God of glory, appeared to his people at numerous other places besides “this holy place.”
Argument #1: The Rejection of Joseph (vv. 2–16)
The first deliverer Stephen discussed was Joseph, son of Jacob, who, being next in the lineage of Abraham and Isaac, had twelve sons. Stephen called the sons "the patriarchs" because they were the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. The ten eldest hated the eleventh, Joseph, because he was their father’s "fave." Out of envy, they sold him to slave traders, who carried him away to Egypt. It was this brother, whom they'd rejected, who was the one who God intended to be his and their deliverer.
Years later, a severe famine struck Egypt and Palestine. Because Joseph had correctly warned Pharaoh of the coming disaster, Pharaoh raised him to "second place in the kingdom" and gave him authority to store up grain during the shortage. As a result, there was grain available in Egypt throughout the famine; but soon, in Palestine, there was none. Faced with possible starvation, Jacob had no choice but to send his sons to Egypt to buy grain at its storehouses. Joseph himself met them because he supervised trade with outsiders. His brothers bowed before him, not recognizing who he was, but he recognized them. When events had enabled him to heap vengeance upon them, he declined to get even. Instead, after satisfying himself that they'd regretted how they rejected him, he not only forgave their past wickedness but invited them, their father, and their families, to relocate in safe Egypt. He delivered them all from death, even though his brothers had deemed his life worthless.
Wherever Abraham was in Mesopotamia, Harran, Canaan, Egypt, or Gerar, God was with him. Even when Abraham lived in the Promised Land, he was a stranger and a pilgrim. Only hundreds of years after Abraham’s death did his descendants possess the land. It didn’t matter that Abraham’s blessings never came in his lifetime because “the city” that he looked for was a heavenly city, not an earthly one. Abraham was saved and blessed by faith, not by works, on the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant, not on the basis of the Mosaic Covenant. Stephen’s opponents jealously sought to preserve a covenant that had been superseded. As Stephen’s argument unfolded, watch now how he expands on this core argument.
Argument #2: The Rejection of Moses (vv. 17–43)
The second deliverer in Stephen’s survey of Israel's history was Moses. When the Egyptians enslaved the nation, God raised Moses to save them. But again, the nation rejected the man that God intended as their deliverer.
In his youth, Moses killed an Egyptian who was oppressing a fellow Israelite. Instead of rallying behind him, his brothers in Israel scorned his leadership and forced him to flee. Years later, when he returned to Egypt to free the nation using God's power, they gave him temporary obedience, but it wasn't heart-felt. At first opportunity, they returned to the idolatry of Egypt. When he left them for a few days to receive the law of God, they made and worshiped a golden calf and continued to resist Moses during their wandering.
After possessing the Promised Land, they didn't build the kind of God-fearing nation that God intended when he gave the Law to Moses. Instead, throughout most of their history, they worshiped gods of other nations, not their own God. They chose to wallow in the wickedness of paganism, rather than follow the righteousness of the Law. At last, because of their habitual contempt for religious and moral principles handed down by Moses, God allowed them to be carried into captivity.
Stephen gave the greatest portion of his defense testimony to the nation’s shameful treatment of Moses because the high priest and other leading members of the Sanhedrin began to accuse Stephen of siding with those seeking to "change the customs Moses handed down to us" (6:14). Thus, they were claiming to be "Moses’ loyal followers," when in reality, they were the official representatives of a nation conspicuously disloyal to and in rejection of Moses.
Note: Stephen was accused of speaking against Moses and against God (6:11), and yet Stephen spoke of Jesus, of whom Moses also spoke. How was Jesus “a prophet like Moses”? In the context of Stephen’s sermon, Jesus was rejected by his people, and yet he was raised to being a ruler and deliverer by God. Regarding Moses, the people were wrong about him; God exalted him, overruling their rejection of him. Regarding Jesus, the Israelites rejected him, but God raised him up as Leader and Savior, once again overruling the people's rejection. The problem wasn't with the leader (i.e., Moses or Jesus of Nazareth), but with the people, which is what Stephen (in vv. 38-43) brought to the attention of his accusers.
The Jews were, in fact, idolaters. When Moses was out of sight (on the mountain, getting the Law written on stone tablets), the people decided they wanted a “god” they could see and touch, so they instructed Aaron to fashion a golden calf for them, which they'd worshiped joyfully. As popular as Moses would appear to have been among the Jews of Stephen’s day, it was a fact that Moses was rejected by the Israelites of his own day. What people really wanted was a “god” that was the creation of their own hands, a “god” they could take with them, a “god” that would do their bidding.
The message of Stephen's second claim is plain. Imagine hearing him state this to the Sanhedrin assembly: You have rejected Jesus, who was like Moses but greater than him. And you deny today that Jesus has any right to be a ruler and a judge over you. Further, God's appearance to Moses at the burning bush is critical: It shows that God's presence isn't limited to the Temple, as every one of you claims. God is bigger than the Temple, and Moses didn't need the Temple to be close to God.
Stephen continued by reminding the chief priests that Moses had promised that there'd come after him another Prophet. He warned Israel to take special care to listen to this Prophet. Alas, just as Israel rejected Moses, so the Israelites had rejected Jesus, the Prophet about whom Moses had spoken. Stephen next addressed another of the accusations against him: that he'd blasphemed the Temple. It wasn't that Stephen spoke against the Temple, but against the way Israel worshiped the Temple of God, instead of the God of the Temple. As Israel had worshiped the handmade calf in the wilderness, they were again worshiping the works of their own hands instead of God himself.
Stephen’s Defense of the Sanhedrin’s First Charge (vv. 44–50)
Stephen concluded his defense by answering the first of specific charges brought against him: That in his public witness for Jesus, Stephen portrayed Jesus as one emerging one day to destroy the Temple. Notice that Stephen didn't bother to deny the charge. He opted instead to make the more important point that the Temple was not as valuable as the Jews had thought. He reminded them that God didn't dwell in a man-made building but in heaven, and that no one could make a house for God that he hadn't already made, for he made all things.
In next week's short ten-verse passage, we'll start by covering Stephen's defense of the Sanhedrin's second charge against him: that Stephen portrayed his leader, Jesus, as a great force in history who'd change the customs handed down by Moses. We'll then learn the trial's results leading up to Stephen's immediate execution by stoning. So, stay tuned. You'll remember Stephen as being changed from "accused" to "accuser" and from "defendant" to "prosecuting attorney." The priests had accused him of speaking against Moses and God, yet he rightfully accused them of resisting the Holy Spirit and acting as their fathers had acted in betraying and murdering Jesus Christ. He asserted that they'd received the law but didn’t obey it. In the end, it was the Jewish leaders, not him, who'd violated the law. Please return next week when you'll hear the closing arguments of Stephen's well-scripted, memorable sermon message.
- Q. 1 Has Stephen's review of OT history encouraged you? Challenged you? Confused you?
- Q. 2 Considering this oppressive situation, what type of person was Stephen?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 7.]
† Watch this "Visual Bible" video clip: Acts 5:26–7:22, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke,
† . . . and "the follow-up clip, covering Acts 7:23–8:22.
Stephen’s Speech to the Sanhedrin
7 Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”
2To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. 3‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’
4“So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. 5He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. 6God spoke to him in this way: ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. 7But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’ 8Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.
9“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him 10and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.
11“Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. 12When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers on their first visit. 13On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. 14After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. 15Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our ancestors died. 16Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.
17“As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. 18Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’ 19He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.
20“At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for by his family. 21When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. 22Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.
23“When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. 24He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. 25Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. 26The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’
27“But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? 28Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.
30“After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. 31When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: 32‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.
33“Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’
35“This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.
37“This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’ 38He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.
39“But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt — we don’t know what has happened to him!’ 41That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. 42But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
43You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek
and the star of your god Rephan,
the idols you made to worship.
Therefore I will send you into exile’ beyond Babylon.
44“Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. 45After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, 46who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47But it was Solomon who built a house for him.
49“‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
50Has not my hand made all these things?’