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Stephen’s witness sealed in blood
Acts Chapter 6, verse 8
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.
That Stephen was “full of God’s grace and power” means that he enjoyed special gifts in addition to the wisdom and faith that were noted at the time of his election as deacon. He was able to employ those gifts in doing great wonders and miraculous signs.
The signs pointed to God’s grace and power, which were not only present in Stephen but available for all. They were invitations to hear the gospel message.
To this point we have heard of only the apostles doing great wonders and miraculous signs. Now one of the administrators was doing them as well. Later we shall hear that Philip too performed such works. These men had faithfully used the gifts God gave them and carried out the responsibilities to which the church had elected them. God added more gifts and gave them further responsibilities.
Acts Chapter 6, verses 9-10
Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to
argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.
Freedmen were former slaves who had earned or been granted their freedom. Many Jewish freedmen returned to the land of their fathers and are included among those people whom Luke calls Grecian Jews.
Cyrene, the chief city of Libya at that time, had a Jewish community. Recall Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross. Alexandria was the capital city of Egypt then, and there were so many Jews there that they enjoyed the privilege of conducting their own civil government, which was separate from the gentile population.
Cilicia was the province in the southeastern corner of Asia Minor. Asia was what the Romans called their province in the westernmost part of Asia Minor. Its chief city was Ephesus.
Jews living in such places and others in the Diaspora used the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Septuagint), and even in Jerusalem they conducted their services and carried on their discussions of the Scriptures in Greek.
Stephen was probably a member of the larger group of Grecian Jews himself. It is also possible that Saul (who became Paul) was a member of such a synagogue, since his province was Cilicia and he was present at the trial and stoning of Stephen.
The important point that Luke wants to make, however, is that the people who argued with Stephen could not successfully stand up against his wisdom. He spoke by theSpirit, and no one can successfully argue with God.
Acts Chapter 6, verses 11-14
Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.” So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against the holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
Bribery was most likely part of the secret persuasion. Just as in the trial of Jesus, false witnesses were used in the attempt to silence Stephen. To blaspheme Moses was to blaspheme God, for Moses was God’s spokesman.
The testimony before the Sanhedrin was not worded in exactly the same way as the charges that had stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. Then it had been “blasphemy against Moses and against God.” The formal charge now was that Stephen constantly spoke “against the holy place and against the law.” In that form the charge was similar to the accusation in Jesus’ trial, the one on which two witnesses had finally been able to agree: “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days’” (Matthew 26:61).
The form of the charges was an attempt to appeal to the two religious schools that were represented in the Sanhedrin. The Sadducees would regard a threat against the temple as especially repugnant and blasphemous, for their religious concerns focused on the temple and its services. The Pharisees would react most negatively to a change in “the customs of Moses,” for their religious concerns focused on the Law of Moses and the many traditional regulations that had been added to it.
Since the witnesses were false, we can assume thatStephen had not said these things. What he and
the apostles had taught was that salvation is in Jesus Christ, not in the sacrifices or works of the law. Again, the apostles taught that Jesus is the “place” where salvation is found, not the
temple. As we read his address before the Sanhedrin, it will be very clear that Stephen did not speak against Moses or God or the law or the temple.
Acts Chapter 6, verse 13
All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit and so he was God’s messenger. Therefore, his face was like the face of one of God’s messengers. There was a supernatural brightness about him, God’s evidence for all to see that this man was his messenger.
Acts Chapter 7, verses 1-3
Then the high priest asked him, “Are these charges true?” To 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 Haran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’”
Stephen was not addressing the Sanhedrin as brothers and fathers in Christ, fellow believers. Rather, he respectfully addressed them as fellow Israelites and the supreme legal authority in Israel.
“The God of glory” is the glorious God who revealed his glory in his gracious dealings with Abraham and his descendants. The biblical references for Stephen’s recounting of God’s appearance to Abraham are Genesis 15:7 and Nehemiah 9:7, which specify Ur of the Chaldees as the place in Mesopotamia where God first appeared to Abraham. What God told Abraham at that appearance is
recorded in Genesis 12:1, which is quoted in Stephen’s speech at verse 3.
Before there was a temple, a Law of Moses, a circumcision covenant, or a land of Israel, there was a gracious promise from God and a man who believed that promise and was ready to act on it. From the beginning and throughout his address, Stephen would reverently recount God’s gracious dealings with his people. How could that be blasphemy? Also, at various places in his account, Stephen would speak of how Israel regularly rejected God by rejecting his spokesmen. That was not blasphemy on Stephen’s part either but a call to repentance.
Acts Chapter 7, verse 4
“So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living.
When we compare Stephen’s speech with the Genesis story of Abraham, there might seem to be a problem of arithmetic at this point. Genesis 11:26 reads, “After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.” Then 11:32 tells us that Terah died at the age of 205. After that death, said Stephen, God sent Abraham to the Promised Land. Genesis 12:4 says, however, that Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran to go to Canaan. Seventy years plus 75 years equals 145, not 205. Did Stephen (and other Jewish interpreters of the Scriptures) have a problem with simple addition? Only if Abraham was Terah’s first son. But 11:26 does not say that he was. It only mentions him first because he was the son whose story the author (Moses) was going to tell.
Acts Chapter 7, verse 5
He gave him no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child.
The only land that Abraham ever actually owned in the Promised Land was the Cave of Machpelah, which he purchased as a burial place when his wife Sarah died (Genesis 23:7-17). Otherwise he was a nomad, moving his flocks to wherever grazing was available. The promise was that he and his descendants would possess the land (12:6,7), but he was 75 when he left Haran and had no son (15:2). The father of believers simply took God at his word and moved.
Acts Chapter 7, verses 6-7
God spoke to him in this way: ‘Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But 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.’
Stephen was referring to Genesis 15:13-16, and he used the round number of 400 years, which is recorded there. Exodus 12:40 gives the exact number of years as 430.
This information from the Lord was a further test of Abraham’s faith. That his descendants would be strangers, enslaved and mistreated in a foreign country before inheriting the Promised Land, made the fulfillment of God’s promise seem very remote. But Abraham continued to trust God and his promise.
Acts Chapter 7, verse 8
Then 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.
The 12 patriarchs were the 12 sons of Jacob, the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel. Stephen’s references are Genesis 17:10-14; 21:4.
As he reverently recounted God’s gracious dealing with Abraham, how could anyone accuse Stephen of blaspheming God?
Acts Chapter 7, verses 9-13
“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt; so he made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace. “Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our fathers could not find food. When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers on their first visit. On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family.
Now began the history of rejection, Israel’s repudiation of God’s favored representatives. The first example Stephen cited was that of Jacob’s 11th son, Joseph. His brothers, Israel’s ancestors, hated him and did their worst to get rid of him. God, however, turned the evil act of the jealous brothers against Joseph to his good and gracious purposes.
Verses 9 to 13 report Stephen’s summary of chapters 37, 39, 41, 42, and 45 of Genesis.
Acts Chapter 7, verse 14
After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all.
Here Stephen was quoting the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament. Where the Septuagint has 75, the Hebrew original has 70. The Hebrew text combines the 66 persons who came from Canaan (Genesis 46:26) with Jacob, Joseph, and Joseph’s two sons (Genesis 46:27) to total 70. The Greek translation counts all 9 of Joseph’s descendants who were born in Egypt during his lifetime, adds them to the 66 people from Genesis 46:26, omits Joseph and Jacob from the count, and arrives
at the total of 75. The Hebrew text is the inspired text and the translators should not have changed the number to 75. Stephen was not endorsing their error. He was simply quoting a translation that he and other Grecian Jews regularly used.
Acts Chapter 7, verse 15-16
Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our fathers died. Their 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.
The move to Egypt is reported in Genesis 46:5-7, the death of Jacob in Genesis 49:33, and his burial in Genesis 50:1-13. The Old Testament does not record that the bodies of the other patriarchs were taken back to Canaan, but Stephen’s words inform us that this was so.
In verse 16 we see Stephen compressing the Old Testament history in order to say as much as possible in as short a time as possible. Therefore details are blurred in the summary of the burials. Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite (Genesis 23:10). It was located at Hebron and that is where Jacob was buried (Genesis 50:7-13). Jacob had bought a plot of ground at Shechem from the sons of Hamor, where he pitched his tent and built an altar (Genesis 33:19,20). There Joseph’s
bones were laid to rest (Joshua 24:32).
In none of what Stephen had said thus far was he blaspheming God. The Lord’s grace, Abraham’s faith, the patriarchs’ mistreatment of Joseph and, again, the Lord’s grace: these had been the subjects of Stephen’s speech. That was not blasphemy but an implicit indictment of the Sanhedrin and their treatment of Jesus. It was also a call to repentance, if they would hear it.
Acts Chapter 7, verse 17-20
“As time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt greatly increased. Then another king, who knew nothing about Joseph, became ruler of Egypt. He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our forefathers by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.
“At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for in his father’s house.
These verses are a summary of Exodus 1:6 to 2:4. Whatever information the new king of Egypt might have had, he would not be influenced by what Joseph had done for Egypt at the time of the famine.
“By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict” (Hebrews 11:23). “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29).
Acts Chapter 7, verses 21-22
When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.
For more detail concerning Moses’ rescue, read Exodus 2:3-10.
In Exodus 4:10 we read that Moses said: “O Lord, I have never been eloquent. . . . I am slow of speech and tongue.” In verse 12 God then promised, “I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” The content of what Moses said and the way in which he led Israel were from God, and they were, as Stephen said, powerful.
Acts Chapter 7, verses 23-29
“When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. The 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?’
“But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.
These verses summarize Exodus 2:11-22. Moses’ decision to visit his people was prompted not so much by curiosity as by concern. His concern was commendable, but his action in killing the Egyptian was not. God had not yet called him to act on behalf of Israel, and God never called him to take justice into his own hands.
Hebrews 11:24-26 provides an evaluation of why Moses identified himself with his own people: “By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.”
In verses 27 and 28 we have another example of the Israelites rejecting the man whom God planned to use for their rescue. Midian was east of Egypt, divided into two regions by the Gulf of Aqaba. Moses’ two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, are named in Exodus 18:3,4.
Acts, Chapter 7, verses 30-35
“After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to look more closely, he heard the Lord’s voice: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.
“Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals; the place where you are standing is holy ground. I 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.’
“This is the same Moses whom 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.
Sinai (Acts) and Horeb (Exodus) are two names for the same mountain. The call of Moses is recorded in Exodus chapter 3.
When the NIV translates Stephen’s words as “an angel,” it could as well have translated “the angel.” The Greek would allow either translation. A look at Exodus 3:2, to which Stephen was here referring, makes clear that it should be “the angel.” It was the Angel of the Lord, the second person of the Trinity before his incarnation, who appeared to Moses at the burning bush.
Israel had rejected Moses as ruler and judge; God sent him to be ruler and deliverer.
Acts Chapter 7, verse 36
He led them out of Egypt and did wonders and miraculous signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the desert.
The story of the deliverance from Egypt is told in Exodus chapters 11 to 14. Stephen’s “Red Sea” comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Hebrew in Exodus 13:18 says “Sea of Reeds,” which was a northern extension of the Red Sea.
“By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned” (Hebrews 11:27-29).
That had been a special time of grace for Israel. The wonders and miraculous signs of Stephen and the apostles were evidence that a new time of special grace for Israel had dawned. How long would it last? What would Israel do with it?
Acts Chapter 7, verse 37
“This is that Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.’
Peter had also cited this passage in his address to the crowd who gathered when the crippled man was healed (3:22,23). That prophet foretold by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15) had arrived. He had been put to death, but God had raised him to life. What would Israel do? Throughout the speech, Stephen was not so much defending himself as calling his judges to repentance.
Acts Chapter 7, verse 38
He was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.
The assembly in the desert was the congregation of Israel. The Israelites were not only a nation; they were also God’s “church.” Those who trusted the promises of God were a congregation of believers.
“The angel who spoke to [Moses] on Mount Sinai” refers to the Angel of the Lord, who had addressed him at the burning bush. The Angel was God himself, who later gave Moses the living words on the same Mount Sinai.
“Living words” are words that endure and are still valid. Stephen was speaking of “brief sayings,” and he meant the Ten Commandments. For the Old Testament account of the giving of the Law see Exodus chapters 19 and 20.