Today we study Acts 7:17-43, which is part III of Stephen’s defense in his trial before the Sanhedrin. It also is part of the record of the disciples’ witness in Jerusalem prior to their witness in Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). We also characterized the larger section as a series of firsts for the Church. Last Sunday we studied 6:8-7:16, which included the arrest of Stephen and the first two parts of his defense before the Sanhedrin, which focused on Abraham and Joseph respectively.
As we begin this section, the first thing I want to remind you of is the fact that the false witnesses had accused Stephen of speaking against Moses and the law (6:11-14) in addition to speaking against the temple. And of course Moses was the person through whom God gave Israel the law.
Verses 17-18 tell us that the birth and rearing of Moses was part of God’s larger plan to fulfill his promise to Abraham that Abraham’s descendants would inherit the Promised Land. Israel had prospered and multiplied greatly in Egypt. They now were strong enough in numbers to do what God had called them to do. Indeed Israel had done so well in Egypt that they were more numerous than the Egyptians, and God may not have been able to get them to leave Egypt apart from the oppression brought about by the Pharaoh “who had not known Joseph.”
That particular Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites and ordered their male babies killed in order to decrease their population (v. 19; Ex. 1:8-16). It was during this time that Moses was born. His family hid him for three month, but then they set him adrift on the Nile at a place where Pharaoh’s daughter could find him. Pharaoh’s daughter did find him, and she adopted Moses and raised him as her own son (vv. 20-22). Therefore Moses received the best education possible in those days.
Stephen says that Moses presented himself as Israel’s deliverer, symbolically at least, when he was forty years old (v. 23). Exodus 2:11 simply tells us, “when Moses had grown up.” Then in verse thirty Stephen says that Moses had the burning bush experience, “when forty years had passed.” And in verse thirty-six Stephen mentions that Moses led the people in the wilderness for forty years. Thus Stephen divided Moses’ life into three forty-year periods. It isn’t clear whether Stephen intended anything special by that division of Moses’ life. Perhaps it was just a means of remembering the outline of it.
At any rate Moses, who apparently knew he was a Hebrew by birth, and who may have had a vague understanding that God had appointed him as the deliverer of the Hebrews, saw an Egyptian oppressing a Hebrew, and he killed the Egyptian (v. 24-25). The next day Moses saw two Hebrews fighting, and he tried to reconcile them. In the process he learned that his killing of an Egyptian the day before was widely known. Therefore, in order to preserve his life, Moses fled to Midian (vv. 26-29). Moses settled down in Midian, married and had two sons.
Moses spent the next forty years in Midian. But then one day in the wilderness of Sinai, he saw a strange sight, a bush that burned but was not consumed. Stephen explains that it was an angel appearing to him. But Exodus 3:2 is clearer. That verse tells us that it was the Angel of the Lord who spoke to Moses from the bush. The Angel of the Lord is the Old Testament designation for Christ in his pre-incarnation days. Therefore whether the person speaking is referred to as the Angel of the Lord, or as God, it is the same difference.
The divine voice told Moses to remove his sandals, because the ground on which he was standing was holy ground (v. 33). This is important to Stephen’s defense in the same way that Abraham’s call to leave Mesopotamia was. Abraham’s call demonstrated that God goes anywhere he wants to go and cannot be confined to any one place. Likewise God’s declaration that the ground where God called Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt was holy demonstrated that there is holy ground outside the Holy Land. Indeed, any place God is is a holy place.
The message that God gave to Moses that day was clear. He declared, first, that he still was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (v. 32). Second, he had heard the cries of his mistreated people, and he would deliver them. And third, Moses would be his agent for their deliverance.
Stephen now turns to the theme of rejection of God’s deliverer. Israel rejected Moses as their ruler and deliverer at the time he had killed the Egyptian. Now forty years later, God sent Moses back to Egypt to deliver them and rule over them.
Stephen brought out this same theme in respect to Joseph. God revealed in dreams that Joseph would rule over his parents and brothers, but Joseph’s brothers rejected that idea and sold him into slavery. However years later Jacob and Joseph’s brothers had to accept Joseph’s deliverance and rule.
In this matter of the peoples’ rejecting their deliverer and ruler, both Joseph and Moses prefigured Christ. Verse thirty-six tells us that Moses performed signs and wonders during his deliverance of Israel from Egypt. Those miracles also prefigured the ministry of Jesus. When Jesus came as the messianic deliverer, God’s people rejected him. But he performed signs and wonders and offered deliverance from sickness, demons, and sin. Now Christ rules over all who have accepted his deliverance.
In verse thirty-seven, Stephen quotes Deut. 18:15, and it is important. If you will turn to Deut. 18:15-18 and read it, you will see that the “me” in the phrase “prophet like me” in verse 15 was Moses. If you come back to today’s lesson, in verses 37-38 Stephen reminds his listeners that God promised to raise up a prophet like Moses who would speak the words of God to the people. This “prophet like Moses” turned out to be the Messiah, Jesus.
F. F. Bruce summarizes the situation well, when he says, quote, “ There in the wilderness Moses was guide to the people; there they were constituted the ekklesia [congregation] of God; there they had the ‘Angel of the Presence’ in their midst; there they received from Moses the living oracles of God. What more could the people of God want?” Well, verses 39-40 tell us that they wanted more, or at least something different. They rejected Moses’ leadership “and in their hearts they turned back to Egypt.” In Moses absence, while he was communing with God on Mt. Sinai, they convinced Aaron to make them a golden calf to worship (v. 41).
Stephen went on to say that God “handed them over to worship the host of heaven.” The
“host of heaven” refers to the gods associated with the stars. Stephen saw that later idolatry was the result of the idolatry in Moses day. That’s why he quotes Amos 5:25-27.
We will deal with part IV of Stephen’s defense, which focuses on David and Solomon, in the next essay.