Stephen’s Defense Before the Council, 1-53
7:1 Then the high priest said, “Are these things true?” 7:2 So he replied, “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our forefather Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran, 7:3 and said to him, ‘Go out from your country and from your relatives, and come to the land I will show you.’
The charges against Stephen had been twofold: that he had spoken against the Temple, and that he had spoken against the law (Acts 6:13). Stephen’s reply will deal with both of these. He will argue that ‘the God of Israel is a pilgrim God, who is not restricted to any one place. Key assertions in his speech are that the God of glory appeared to Abraham while he was still in heathen Mesopotamia (2); that God was with Joseph even when he was a slave in Egypt (9); that God came to Moses in the desert of Midian, and thereby constituted the place ‘holy ground’ (30, 33); that, although in the wilderness God had been ‘moving from place to place with a tent as [his] dwelling’, yet ‘the Most High God does not live in houses made by men’ (48). It is evident then from Scripture itself that God’s presence cannot be localized, and that no building can confine him or inhibit his activity. If he has any home on earth, it is with his people that he lives. He has pledged himself by a solemn covenant to be their God. Therefore, according to his covenant promise, wherever they are, there he is also.’ (Stott)
With regard to the accusation that Stephen had spoken against the law, his defence is similar. In fact, he turns the tables on his accusers by saying that it is they, not he, who stood in the long and sorry line of those who had rebelled against God’s law. ‘It was they who failed to recognize him as their heaven-sent deliverer (25), who ‘pushed Moses aside’ (27), who rejected his leadership (35), and who in the desert ‘refused to obey him’; instead, in their hearts they turned back to Egypt and became idolaters (39ff.). It was similar with the prophets. Stephen quoted two of them with approval (Amos in verses 42–43, and Isaiah in verses 48–50), but in both citations the prophets were rebuking Israel.’ (Stott)
‘This is the longest address in the Book of Acts and one of the most important. In it, Stephen reviewed the history of Israel and the contributions made by their revered leaders: Abraham (Acts 7:2-8), Joseph (Acts 7:9-17), Moses (Acts 7:18-44), Joshua (Acts 7:45), and David and Solomon (Acts 7:46-50). But this address was more than a recitation of familiar facts; it was also a refutation of their indictments against Stephen and a revelation of their own national sins. Stephen proved from their own Scriptures that the Jewish nation was guilty of worse sins than those they had accused him of committing.’ (Wiersbe)
“The God of glory” – ‘Glory’ in the OT suggests weight, worth, splendour, and dignity. God showed his glory to Moses when he revealed to him his name (that is, his nature, character, and power), Ex 33:18-34:7. God also revealed his glory in the awesome physical manifestation of the Shekinah, Ex 24:17, which appeared at significant moments of the biblical story as a sign of God’s active presence, Ex 33:22; 34:5. See also Ex 16:7,10; 24:15-17; 40:34f; Lev 9:23f; 1 Ki 8:10f; Eze 1:28; 8:4; 9:3; 10:4; 11:22f; Mt 17:5; Lk 2:9; Acts 1:9; 1 Thess 4:17; Rev 1:7.
According to the NT, God’s glory is set forth in the person and work of his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, Jn 1:14-18; 2 Cor 4:3-6; Heb 1:1-3.
1. God has an intrinsic, essential glory. This is as essential to the Godhead, as light is to the sun, cf Acts 7:2, ‘The God of glory’. God is most jealous of his glory: he may give us many things, wisdom, honour, riches, and all the riches of his grace; but he will not give his glory, Isa 48:11, “I will not yield my glory to another”.
2. God has an ascribed glory, which his creatures labour to bring to him, 1 Chron 16:29, ‘Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to his name’; 1 Cor 6:20, ‘You were bought with a price. Therefore honour God with your body’. We glorify God when we lift up his name in the world, and magnify him in the eyes of others, Phil 1:20, ‘…so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death’.
7:4 Then he went out from the country of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After his father died, God made him move to this country where you now live. 7:5 He did not give any of it to him for an inheritance, not even a foot of ground, yet God promised to give it to him as his possession, and to his descendants after him, even though Abraham as yet had no child.
7:6 But God spoke as follows: ‘Your descendants will be foreigners in a foreign country, whose citizens will enslave them and mistreat them for four hundred years. 7:7 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ said God, ‘and after these things they will come out of there and worship me in this place.’
7:8 Then God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision, and so he became the father of Isaac and circumcised him when he was eight days old, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs. 7:9 The patriarchs, because they were jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt. But God was with him, 7:10 and rescued him from all his troubles, and granted him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household.
7:11 Then a famine occurred throughout Egypt and Canaan, causing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. 7:12 So when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our ancestors there the first time. 7:13 On their second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers again, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 7:14 So Joseph sent a message and invited his father Jacob and all his relatives to come, seventy-five people in all.
7:15 So Jacob went down to Egypt and died there, along with our ancestors, 7:16 and their bones were later moved to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a certain sum of money from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.
Abraham – According to Josh 24:32, is was Jacob (not Abraham) who bought the plot of land from the sons of Hamor. Calvin calls this mention of the name of Abraham a ‘manifest error’. However, he does not (pace Rogers and McKim, (The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, p110) ascribe the error to Luke himself, but rather implies that this is a scribal error.
Archer (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties) thinks it possible that the plot of land was bought twice, it having fallen back into the possession of the local nomadic people during the intervening period. This, according to Archer, would be similar to the case of the well of Beersheba, which was originally purchased by Abraham (Gen 21:27-30) and later secured by Isaac (Gen 26:28-31). Archer adds that the reference to ‘the tomb’ in the present verse is proleptic, meaning, ‘the land which was later used as a tomb’.
7:17 “But as the time drew near for God to fulfill the promise he had declared to Abraham, the people increased greatly in number in Egypt, 7:18 until another king who did not know about Joseph ruled over Egypt. 7:19 This was the one who exploited our people and was cruel to our ancestors, forcing them to abandon their infants so they would die.
7:20 At that time Moses was born, and he was beautiful to God. For three months he was brought up in his father’s house, 7:21 and when he had been abandoned, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son.
7:22 So Moses was trained in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words and deeds.
“Powerful in his words and deeds” – Does this contradict passages such as Ex 4:10, 14-16; 6:12, 30 (as the Sceptic’s Annotated Bible suggests)? No: Moses’ protestation that he was slow of speech reflects his lack of willingness, rather than his lack of ability. The narrative shows that it was he, and not Aaron who was indeed ‘powerful in speech and action’.
7:23 But when he was about forty years old, it entered his mind to visit his fellow countrymen the Israelites. 7:24 When he saw one of them being hurt unfairly, Moses came to his defense and avenged the person who was mistreated by striking down the Egyptian. 7:25 He thought his own people would understand that God was delivering them through him, but they did not understand.
7:26 The next day Moses saw two men fighting, and tried to make peace between them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why are you hurting one another?’ 7:27 But the man who was unfairly hurting his neighbor pushed Moses aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us? 7:28 You don’t want to kill me the way you killed the Egyptian yesterday, do you?’
7:29 When the man said this, Moses fled and became a foreigner in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.
7:30 “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the desert of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning bush. 7:31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and when he approached to investigate, there came the voice of the Lord, 7:32 ‘I am the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’
Moses began to tremble and did not dare to look more closely. 7:33 But the Lord said to him,‘Take the sandals off your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 7:34 I have certainly seen the suffering of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to rescue them. Now come, I will send you to Egypt.’ 7:35 This same Moses they had rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge?’ God sent as both ruler and deliverer through the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush.
7:36 This man led them out, performing wonders and miraculous signs in the land of Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years.
7:37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers.’ 7:38 This is the man who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors, and he received living oracles to give to you.
‘Stephen’s point is that in Deut 18:15 Moses pointed beyond himself and beyond the instruction that came through him to another whom God would raise up in the future and to whom Israel must give heed; therefore, Israel cannot limit divine revelation and redemption to the confines of the Mosaic law.’ (Expositor’s Bible Commentary)
7:39 Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him, but pushed him aside and turned back to Egypt in their hearts, 7:40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go in front of us, for this Moses, who led us out of the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him!’
The assembly – ekklesia. Obviously, the expositor should take care not to invest all occurrences of this word with all the various meanings that it can bear. See Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, p61.
7:41 At that time they made an idol in the form of a calf, brought a sacrifice to the idol, and began rejoicing in the works of their hands.
7:42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: ‘It was not to me that you offered slain animals and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, house of Israel? 7:43 But you took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rephan, the images you made to worship, but I will deport you beyond Babylon.’
7:44 Our ancestors had the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness, just as God who spoke to Moses ordered him to make it according to the design he had seen.
7:45 Our ancestors received possession of it and brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors, until the time of David. 7:46 He found favor with God and asked that he could find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob.
7:47 But Solomon built a house for him. 7:48 Yet the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands, as the prophet says,
7:49 ‘Heaven is my throne,
and earth is the footstool for my feet.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is my resting place?
7:50 Did my hand not make all these things?’
“The Most High” – God was so addressed by Solomon at the dedication of the temple, 1 King 8:27.
“Does not live in houses made by men” – lit. ‘made with hands’. This is precisely what could be said of the dwellings of idols, and therefore might well have enraged the Jews. See Acts 17:24.
‘Stephen’s point is not that it was wrong to construct either the tabernacle or the temple, but that they should never have been regarded as in any literal sense God’s home. For ‘the Most High does not live in houses made by men’ (48). Paul was to make the same point to the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17:24). And, although this sentiment is not expressed in the Old Testament in so many words, Solomon himself understood it. After the temple had been built he prayed: ‘But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! (1 Ki.8:27; cf. 2 Ch.6:18) Instead of quoting this, however, Stephen cites Isaiah 66:1-2 where God says: ‘Heaven is my throne and the earth my footstool’. So ‘what kind of house or resting place’ could be built for him? God is himself the Creator; how can the Maker of everything be confined within man-made structures? (49-50).’ (Stott)
‘He was charged with speaking against the temple. He had now shown that he had due veneration for it, by his declaring that it had been built by the command of God. But he now adds, that God does not need such a temple. Heaven is his throne; the universe his dwelling-place; and therefore this temple might be destroyed. A new, glorious truth was to be revealed to mankind, that God was not confined in his worship to any age, or people, or nation. In entire consistency, therefore, with all proper respect for the temple at Jerusalem, it might be maintained that the time would come when that temple would be destroyed, and when God might be worshipped by all nations.’ (Barnes)
See Acts 17:24. ‘Stephen’s preaching tended to liberate Christian thinking from the necessity of a temple (Acts 7:46-50), and Paul thought of the church and Christians as the new temple (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19-20). For John, the ideal which the temple represented will ultimately be realized in a “new Jerusalem” (Rev. 21:2).’ (Holman)
‘Today too the church may face the temptation of an “edifice complex,” assuming that unless a visible structure for the worship of God is raised and maintained, we haven’t truly worshiped or borne an effective witness. Stephen gives us perspective. Remember, it is the transcendent God we are worshiping. He does not need our buildings to receive our praise. We may need them to facilitate worship and witness. But we must make sure we need them and use them for the right reason.’ (IVPNTC)
‘God is not confined to buildings set aside for him. Stephen had been accused of speaking against the temple (6:13). Although he recognized the importance of the temple, he knew that it was not more important than God. God is not limited; he doesn’t live only in a house of worship, but wherever hearts of faith are open to receive him (Isaiah 66:1-2). Solomon knew this when he prayed at the dedication of the temple (2 Chronicles 6:18). God wants to live in us. Is he living in you?’ (HBA)
‘It is not difficult to grasp Stephen’s thesis. A single thread runs right through the first part of his defence. It is that the God of Israel is a pilgrim God, who is not restricted to any one place. Key assertions in his speech are that the God of glory appeared to Abraham while he was still in heathen Mesopotamia (2); that God was with Joseph even when he was a slave in Egypt (9); that God came to Moses in the desert of Midian, and thereby constituted the place ‘holy ground’ (30,33); that, although in the wilderness God had been ‘moving from place to place with a tent as [his] dwelling’ (2 Sam.7:6; cf. 1 Ch.17:5), yet ‘the Most High God does not live in houses made by men’ (48). It is evident then from Scripture itself that God’s presence cannot be localized, and that no building can confine him or inhibit his activity. If he has any home on earth, it is with his people that he lives. He has pledged himself by a solemn covenant to be their God. Therefore, according to his covenant promise, wherever they are, there is he also.’ (Stott)
7:51 “You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did! 7:52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold long ago the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become! 7:53 You received the law by decrees given by angels, but you did not obey it.”
‘The phrase “stiff-necked” was fixed in Israel’s memory as God’s own characterization of the nation when it rebelled against Moses and worshiped the golden calf (cf. Ex 33:5; Deut 9:13). And the expression “with uncircumcised hearts and ears” recalls God’s judgment on the apostates among his people as being “uncircumcised in heart” (cf. Lev 26:41; Deut 10:16; Jer 4:4; 9:26). And now, says Stephen, speaking like a prophet of old, God’s indictment rests upon you just as it did on your idolatrous and apostate ancestors.’ (Expositor’s Bible Commentary)
‘Stephen’s address began with the fraternal greeting “Men, brothers and fathers.” It affirmed throughout his deep respect for such distinctly Jewish phenomena as the Abrahamic covenant (vv.3–8), circumcision (v.8), and the tabernacle (vv.44–46). He repeatedly referred to “our father Abraham” and “our fathers” in such a way as to stress his ready acceptance of his Israelite heritage (vv.2, 11–12, 15, 19, 39, 44–45). Yet his repeated use of the second person plural pronoun in vv.51–53 shows his desire to disassociate himself from the nation in its recurrent refusal of God throughout its history. Consequently, taking the offensive, Stephen drives home his point: “Your fathers always resisted the Holy Spirit.… Your fathers persecuted the prophets.… You received the law put into effect through angels, but you have not obeyed it.” Perhaps he jabbed with a finger at his accusers—though even a blind man would have felt his verbal blows.’ (Expositor’s Bible Commentary)
Stephen is Killed, 54-8:1
7:54 When they heard these things, they became furious and ground their teeth at him.
‘Stephen probably intended to say more, but he was interrupted by the fury of his audience.’ (NBC)
Furious – dieprionto tais kardiais autōn, ‘sawn through their hearts’
Stephen’s vision reminds us of Christ’s baptism and transfiguration. In each case, God was not only giving courage for the task ahead, but also signalling a significant step in the progress of redemption. In Stephen’s case, that significant step is the estrangement of God’s new community from his traditional people. Christianity could no longer be seen as a movement within Judaism, but as a worldwide faith. (See the discussion in NBC)
Peterson finds a number of points of significants in Stephen’s vision: ‘As a recipient of divine revelations he resembles Abraham and Moses (Acts 7:2, 30–31). His vision of Jesus as ‘the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’ recalls Daniel 7:13–14; Psalm 110:1 and Jesus’ own prediction before the Sanhedrin (Mt. 26:64; Mk. 14:62; Lk. 22:69). His declaration of this vision confirms the resurrection and glorification of Jesus to those who were responsible for his death. It proclaims his centrality to the purposes of God, and implies that the risen Christ is about to judge those who oppose him.’
‘Luke means that when Stephen raised his eyes to heaven, immediately Christ appeared to him. But before that he tells us that Stephen was given other than earthly eyes, whose vision enabled him to rise as far as the glory of God. From this we receive the general consolation that God shall be no less with us, provided, leaving the world behind, all our senses seek after him; not that he will appear to us in an external vision as he did to Stephen, but that he will so reveal himself within us as to give us a true knowledge of his presence. And this way of seeing should be enough for us, since, by his grace and power, God not only shows that he is near us, but also proves that he lives in us.’ (Calvin)
Jesus standing at the right hand of God – ‘Standing’ suggests readiness for activity (as opposed to sitting, which indicates completed activity). Jesus is standing ready to receive the first Christian martyr.
Acts 7:56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
“I see heaven open” – ‘But it may be asked, How were the heavens opened? So far as I am concerned, I judge that nothing was changed as to the nature of the heavens, but that Stephen was given a new sharpness of vision which, overcoming all obstacles, penetrated to the invisible Kingdom of Heaven. For, even if heaven had been torn apart, no human eye could have reached so high as to see it. Therefore, only Stephen saw the glory of God. As to the wicked who stood there, not only was this spectacle hidden from them, but also they were so blinded within themselves as not to perceive the open light of truth. Therefore, he says that the heavens were opened to him, because nothing prevented him from seeing the glory of God. From this it follows that the miracle was wrought not in the sky, but in his eyes.’ (Calvin)
“The Son of Man” – Apart from Jesus himself, Stephen is the only person in the NT who uses this title. ‘The appropriateness of this to Stephen’s situation is obvious. Jesus has effectively been on trial again before the leaders of Israel through the testimony of his witness. The vision granted to Stephen proclaims the fulfillment of Jesus’ own prediction. As the Messiah at God’s right hand, Jesus is the one who will judge and rule the nations (Dn. 7:14; Ps. 110:2–7).’ (Peterson)
Standing at the right hand of God – This posture has been variously interpreted:-
For many commentators, it signifies the readiness of the risen Lord to welcome the martyr – just like the pentient criminal in Lk 23:43 – into his presence the moment he died.
Dispensationalist commentators take the reference to Jesus as ‘standing’ to confirm their view that the distinctive gospel message for the church age was not proclaimed until the time of Paul’s preaching. Stephen’s death, accordingly took place in the transitional period between Israel and the church, when Jesus was not yet seated at God’s right hand.
For Bruce, ‘the presence of the Son of Man at God’s right hand meant that for his people a way of access to God had been opened up more immediate and heart-satisfying than the temple ritual could provide.’
Peterson suggests that this particular point in the narrative, however, it is more likely to be a way of asserting the readiness of the Son of Man to act in judgment against those who deny him (cf. Isa 3:13, where standing is the posture for judgment). Such an apocalyptic vision does not mean that the opportunity for the Jews has finally and decisively ended. It is rather a specific warning to those who have rejected Jesus and his witnesses in the past and who are about to reject him again by killing Stephen.
But, ‘regardless of what position ones takes, we should emphasize the idea of “witness” as being connoted in Jesus’ “standing.” Stephen has been acknowledging Christ before the council, and now he sees Christ acknowledging his servant before God (cf. Mt 10:32). The proper posture for a witness is standing. Stephen has been condemned by an earthly court and appeals for vindication to a heavenly court.’ (EBC)
Acts 7:57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,
‘Stephen never quite makes the point, but the implied punchline, never delivered because his hearers shouted him down and covered their ears, is ‘the promise to Abraham has now, at last, been fulfilled in the Righteous One you crucified!’ For him, too, the real point of the covenant was not possession of the land or the physical temple, but the inner relationship with God, which was now open to all who were ready to abandon loyalty to land and temple, and believe in Jesus.’ (Motyer, Israel in God’s Plan)
Acts 7:58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Began to stone him – The Sanhedrin, who had tried Stephen, did not have the power to have anyone put to death. And yet death by stoning is a Jewish, not a Roman, means of execution. We are probably meant to infer that Stephen was the victim of mob violence, rather than a judicial sentence (indeed, there is no mention in the passage of such a sentence being passed).
The witnesses – One formality was observed, in that the stoning was carried out in the presence of those who were witnesses to Stephen’s ‘blasphemy’ (cf. Lev 24:14).
A young man named Saul – He was probably a member of the Sanhedrin, Acts 26:10. From this description, he was anything from 24 to about 40 years old.
Acts 7:59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Stephen prays in the words of Psa 31:5. ‘It is a striking example of a form of words originally applicable to the Father being addressed to the Son, and shows how the early Christians placed Jesus on the same level as the Father.’ (Marshall)
Acts 7:60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them” – It is clear from the previous verse that Stephen’s prayer was addressed to Jesus. The New World Translation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, obscures this by translating the present verse as follows: ‘Then, bending his knees, he cried out with a strong voice: “Jehovah, do not charge this sin against them.”‘
Stephen’s prayer for the forgiveness of his executioners echoes the words of Jesus in Lk 23:34.
‘His words stand in striking contrast to his attitude of denunciation in his speech, and illustrate how the Christian, while denouncing sin and disobedience to God in order to lead his hearers to repentance, must also have pastoral concern for them, and pray that they might be forgiven.’ (Marshall)
‘There are several parallels between the death of Jesus and the death of Stephen. In both cases false witnesses were produced and the charge was one of blasphemy. In both cases too the execution was accompanied by two prayers, as each prayed for the forgiveness of his executioners and for the reception of his spirit as he died.’ (Stott)
He fell asleep – ‘an unexpectedly beautiful and peaceful description of so brutal a death.’ (F.F. Bruce)
Acts 8:1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.
Saul was there– and would have heard Stephen’s dying words of forgiveness. Augustine said: ‘The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen.