In this essay we continue our study of Acts 2:1-8:1a, which is a record of the disciples’ witness in Jerusalem prior to their witness in Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). I also have characterized the section as a series of firsts for the Church. In the last essay we studied 6:1-7, in which we saw the first formal organization of the Church.
Today we are studying Acts 6:8-7:16, which includes the arrest of Stephen and the first part of his defense at trial. Luke already has introduced Stephen as one of the seven deacons, all of whom were full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom (6:3). Therefore they were gifted beyond the gift of administration to which they were called.
In verse eight Luke reintroduces Stephen as one “full of grace and power,” and he informs us that Stephen worked many signs and wonders in Jerusalem. This activity caused a strong hostile reaction from the members of the so-called synagogue of the Freedmen. The name of the synagogue suggests that freed slaves founded it. And the geographical areas mentioned suggest that the members mostly were Hellenistic, that is Greek-speaking, Jews from the Dispersion (v. 9).
They tried to argue with Stephen, but they could not withstand his Spirit-empowered reasoning. So they resorted to false witnesses who accused Stephen of blasphemy. That resulted in his arrest and a trial before the Sanhedrin (vv. 10-13). They leveled three charges against him. First was the already-mentioned charge of blasphemy (v. 11). Second, they accused Stephen of speaking against “this holy-place,” meaning the temple, and against the law (v. 13). And third, they claimed that Stephen taught that Jesus would destroy the temple and Jewish customs (v. 14). These charges remind us of the charges brought against Jesus himself during his trial before the Sanhedrin (Mk. 14:55-58).
Interestingly, the charges brought against Stephen were not a total fabrication. Rather, they were a perversion of things Stephen actually said. So let’s dig a little deeper into them. Stephen simply was teaching what Jesus had taught. As for the temple, John chapter two tells us that after cleansing the temple (vv. 13-17), the Jewish religious authorities challenged Jesus to give them a sign to prove he had the authority to do that cleansing (v. 18). And Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They took him literally and responded that it took 46 years to build the temple, and would he rebuild it in three days? But then John explains that Jesus meant destroy the temple of his body, not the Jerusalem temple (vv. 19-22).
As for the law, Jesus refuted some of the Pharisaic interpretations of the law, but he never refuted the law itself. Indeed Jesus affirmed the law in the strongest of terms. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declared, quote, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets: I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Mt. 5:17).
Verse 15 is interesting. Luke tells us that the members of the Sanhedrin all observed that Stephen’s face looked like the face of an angel.
Next, in 7:1-8 we see Stephen’s defense against the charges. After the charges were presented, the high priest, who would have been Caiaphas, challenged Stephen with a direst question: “Are these things so?” And Stephen proceeded to defend himself. However, it isn’t the kind of defense we would expect. Rather than directly addressing the specific charges, Stephen launches into a rather lengthy history of Israel in which he indirectly addresses the charges against him.
The defense is in four parts, and we are studying the first two parts in this essay. In each part Stephen focuses on a particular significant person in Israelite history, and he uses that history to make his defense. The first significant person is Abraham. Stephen begins his defense by showing that God first appeared to Abraham in idolatrous Mesopotamia, where God called Abraham to move to Canaan (Gen. 12:4). This meant that God was not confined to any particular place and that he goes wherever he wants. Mesopotamia literally means “between the rivers,” because it is located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Stephen goes on to mention that God promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit Canaan, even though Abraham was childless at the time of the promise (v. 5). Stephen also mentions the prophecy that God gave Abraham about the oppression of Israel in Egypt and their deliverance from it (vv. 6-7: cf. Gen. 15:13-14).
John Stott points out that Stephen’s emphasis on divine initiative is important. He writes, quote, “It was God who appeared, spoke, sent, promised, punished, and rescued. From Ur to Haran, from Haran to Canaan, from Canaan to Egypt, from Egypt back to Canaan again, God was directing each stage of his people’s pilgrimage.” And Stott concludes, “So, long before there was a holy place [a temple], there was a holy people to whom God had pledged himself” [emphasis mine].
In 7:9-16 we see part II of Stephen’s defense, which focuses on Joseph. Stephen begins with the fact that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. But God blessed Joseph in Egypt (v. 9), and he rose to be the ruler over that whole land, second in authority only to Pharaoh himself (v. 10). A great famine caused Joseph’s family to seek food in Egypt (vv. 11-12), which provided Joseph with an opportunity to save his family. During the brothers’ second visit, Joseph revealed himself to them (v. 13). That led to Pharaoh’s giving permission for Joseph to invite his entire family to live in Egypt.
According to the Septuagint (LXX), seventy-five family members made the move (Gen. 46:27; Thus Stephen obviously got his number from the LXX (Ex. 1:5; v. 14). But the Hebrew Old Testament says seventy family members moved to Egypt. The difference in the count lies in a different way of counting. The Hebrew account includes Jacob, Joseph, and Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. The LXX, on the other hand, omits Jacob and Joseph and includes nine of Joseph’s sons. Since Manasseh and Ephraim are part of the nine sons listed in the LXX, the total difference is five people.
Jacob and his sons never returned to Canaan alive. They all died in Egypt (v. 15). When Jacob died, Joseph arranged to fulfill Jacob’s request to be buried in the cave at Machpelah, where Abraham and Isaac were buried (Gen. 49:29-50:14). But the bones of the others remained in Egypt until the Exodus (v. 15). Then the Exodus generation brought their bones to the plot of ground near Shechem that Jacob had bought and buried them there (Josh. 24:32).
Turning to application, in my opinion, the main lesson here is Stephen’s stand on the truth in the face of false witnesses. Truth is not always honored, but it is the place on which to stand.
Another important lesson is the fact that God cannot be localized. He is not confined to any particular place, and he goes wherever he wants.