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Lesson 18: Stephen: the Message (Acts 7:1-53)

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In 1777, William Dodd, a well-known London clergyman, was condemned to be hanged for forgery. When his last sermon, delivered in prison, was published, a friend commented to Samuel Johnson that the effort was far better than he had thought the man capable of. Dr. Johnson replied, “Depend upon it, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.”

I cannot say whether Stephen sensed that he was about to be stoned to death when he delivered this message before the Sanhedrin, but his mind was wonderfully concentrated! More than just speaking well because of the threat of death, Stephen spoke powerfully because he was filled with the Holy Spirit (7:55). It is the longest sermon in Acts, and so the Holy Spirit thought it to be important enough for Luke to record it to the extent that he did.

Perhaps Luke wanted his largely Gentile audience to get a brief history of God’s dealings with Israel. The sermon also serves as a transition to the Gentile mission that follows this chapter, in that it shows Israel’s continued stubborn rejection of God’s message and messengers. It shows that God had worked in many places and ways with His servants down through the centuries, and so worship is not limited to the land of Palestine or to the temple. Like Abraham, who obediently followed the Lord, so God’s people must go where He leads.

Stephen was charged with speaking against Moses, against God, against the temple, and against the law and the customs handed down by Moses (6:11. 13, 14). While overall his message shows the charges to be false, it is more a sermon that traces God’s historical dealings with Israel, Israel’s history of rebellion against God, and a climax that indicts his hearers of the very charges that they were bringing against him. They were guilty of rejecting Moses and the law, and even worse, they had just killed the Righteous One whom God had sent for their salvation. Thus the overall theme is that …

Stephen’s sermon points us to the sovereign, abundant grace of God toward rebellious sinners, but also to the danger of hardening our hearts against God’s grace.

Stephen’s message focuses on three issues: (1) the patriarchal period (7:2-16); (2) Moses and the law (7:17-43); and, (3) the tabernacle and temple (7:44-50). The conclusion (7:51-53) is a scathing denunciation of the Sanhedrin, who were following in the rebellious pattern of their forefathers. First we will look at the explanation of Stephen’s message, and then at the application of it.

The explanation of Stephen’s message:

Rather than working through the message in detail, which would take far more time than I have, I want to show you three dominant themes that are woven throughout it. Also, there are several difficult historical problems that I do not have time to comment on. If you are interested in these, you can consult the best commentaries. But I will mention one as an example.

In verse 16, Stephen says that the patriarchs were removed from Egypt to Shechem, where they were laid in the tomb which Abraham had purchased from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. However, Genesis says that Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah (near Hebron) from the sons of Heth (Genesis 23), whereas Jacob bought a piece of land from the sons of Hamor in Shechem (Gen. 33:19). Also, Jacob was buried in the Cave of Machpelah (Gen. 50:13), whereas Joseph was finally buried on the land in Shechem (Josh. 24:32). Scripture does not say where the other sons of Jacob were buried, although Josephus claims that they were buried in Hebron (Antiquities 2.8.2 [199]).

How do we reconcile all of this? Some say that Stephen simply got confused under pressure. This would not necessarily undermine the doctrine of the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture, which only would require that Luke accurately recorded what Stephen said. But, since Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit and since he obviously knew the Old Testament so well, it is not likely that he erred. There are two possible solutions.

First, it may be that Abraham made the original purchase in Shechem, where he built an altar (Gen. 12:6-7), but that since he did not settle there, the land reverted to the original owner, necessitating Jacob’s repurchase of it. Thus we would be lacking information regarding Abraham’s original purchase that perhaps both Stephen and his audience knew from Jewish tradition.

A second suggestion is that due to the time pressure and duress that Stephen was under, he simply telescoped the two accounts into one. His audience would have known that Joseph and Jacob (“they” of 7:16) were buried in separate places. His telescoped reference was sufficient for his audience to recall the entire account without Stephen going into greater detail about who exactly bought what and which man was buried in which place. If Stephen had made a glaring error, his hostile audience would have pounced on it as proof that Stephen was not a knowledgeable man. The fact that they did not shows that Stephen’s shortened reference was acceptable to everyone concerned.

I’ll leave you to find and delve into the other historical problems in Stephen’s message. Let’s focus rather on three themes:

1. Israel’s history reveals God’s sovereign, abundant grace.

Stephen demonstrates clearly that God initiated the process of calling out a people for His name and that He continued to pour out His grace on these people in spite of their own rebellion. He began by calling Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran (7:2). Stephen refers to God as “the God of glory,” showing His majesty and separateness from sinful humanity. Abraham was a pagan idolater, living in a pagan culture, with no merit in him for God to appear to him and make a covenant with him. Why did God not call Abraham’s entire family, or why did He not tell Abraham to reach out to the cities of Ur or Haran, rather than to make the long journey to the land of Canaan? We do not know. All we know is that God sovereignly chose Abraham and poured out His grace on him. God’s sovereignty is further underscored in 7:4 where Stephen states that God removed Abraham into this country. The nation of Israel owed its existence to God’s gracious promise to make a great nation out of Abraham’s descendants and to give them the land of Canaan.

Furthermore, God’s hand was on Joseph, in spite of the wickedness of his brothers in selling him into slavery. God sovereignly used the famine in Canaan to get Jacob and all of his descendants into Egypt, where Joseph cared for their needs. God’s sovereignty and grace are seen in the way He protected the fledgling nation during the 400 years in Egypt, in spite of their trials.

When the time of God’s promise to Abraham approached (7:17), He sovereignly raised up Moses, who is the only baby in the Bible called beautiful (7:20)! But, as Stephen notes, Moses was born at the very time that Pharaoh decreed the death of the Jewish infants (7:19-20). Why would God do that? As John Calvin explains, it was to show that “that time is most fit for God to work in, when there is no hope or counsel to be looked for at man’s hands” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Acts 1:268). In His sovereign grace, God protected Moses through Pharaoh’s daughter, and provided him with an education “in all the learning of the Egyptians,” so that “he was a man of power in words and deeds” (7:22).

But in spite of his learning and power, the people of Israel did not at first accept Moses as their deliverer. He had to flee for his life and spend 40 years in the wilderness of Midian. Stephen’s sermon is the only place in the Bible that we learn that Moses was about 40 when he had to flee to Midian, and that he spent 40 years there. Then, God again sovereignly appeared to Moses in the burning bush and promised to use him to deliver Israel from slavery. Stephen makes the point that it was the same Moses whom Israel had at first rejected that God sent to deliver the nation (7:35). It was this same Moses who predicted that God would raise up another prophet after him (7:37). Stephen is not so subtly implying that Jesus is that Prophet, rejected the first time!

But in spite of God’s sovereign, abundant grace, Israel rebelled against God and His servant Moses in the wilderness. They turned back to Egypt in their hearts (7:39) and worshiped the golden calf. God gave the nation up to their idolatry, so that later they worshiped the false gods of Canaan (7:42-43). Even so, in His grace God had given them the tabernacle, and later the temple, as the place where He met with them, although as Stephen reminds them by quoting Isaiah 66:1-2, God is not bound by a man-made dwelling, since He made all things. Thus all through his message, Stephen emphasizes God’s sovereign, abundant grace, shown to the nation of Israel in spite of her repeated sins.

2. Israel’s history reveals their own stubborn, rebellious propensity to reject God’s gracious dealings with them.

We have already seen this theme as we looked at God’s grace, and so I do not need to go over it in detail. But note the repeated pattern of the nation’s rejecting the deliverers whom God had sent. Joseph’s brothers (the patriarchs of the nation) at first wickedly rejected him, but later found him to be their “savior” from death by starvation. Israel in slavery in Egypt at first rejected Moses as their deliverer, but later it was this very man whom God raised up to be both ruler and deliverer (7:35). The parallel with these wicked men to whom Stephen was speaking is obvious. They had rejected the very One whom God had sent as Messiah and Savior. And yet, like Joseph’s brothers and like Israel under Moses, God was offering them another chance to repent and follow Jesus!

3. Israel’s history reveals their pattern of limiting worship to a sacred place, rather than to a sacred Person, who made all that is.

The Jews in Stephen’s day were fiercely loyal to the land, to Jerusalem, and to the temple as the only center for worshiping God. So throughout his message, Stephen repeatedly shows them that God historically had revealed Himself to His servants in Gentile territory, apart from the temple. He called Abraham in the land of Mesopotamia. He did not give Abraham any inheritance in the land, “not even a foot of ground” (7:5). God predicted to Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land, but not until they were enslaved and mistreated in a foreign land for 400 years (7:6).

Also, God revealed Himself to Moses in the foreign land of Midian through the burning bush. That ground was holy because the living God was there (7:33). Also, God was with Moses and the nation in the wilderness (outside of the land), and God spoke directly to Moses on Mount Sinai (also outside of the land; 7:38). By calling the law “living oracles,” Stephen shows that the charge of him speaking against the law was not true. He reverenced God’s Law. It was the rebellious nation that had repeatedly despised it.

Stephen brings up the tabernacle and the temple, but not at great length (7:44-50). By his brevity with reference to the temple (7:47) and by the quotation from Isaiah (7:48-50), Stephen is not despising the temple, but he is challenging the mindset that the Jews had toward the temple. They boasted in the temple as if it gave them special access to God, in spite of their wicked behavior. Stephen is showing them that the main issue is not the place where they worshiped, but rather having their hearts right before the Person of the Holy Creator.

The Jews in Jeremiah’s day had done the same thing. Through the prophet, God said, “Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal, and walk after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—that you may do all these abominations?” (Jer. 7:9-10). They thought that having the temple gave them special privileges with God, no matter how corrupt their behavior. Stephen is indicting the Jews in his day with the same charge. They thought that worship at the temple gave them a place of special blessing, even though their hearts were wicked and far from God.

Note the repetition in his sermon of the word “hands.” In 7:41, he mentions how in the incident of the golden calf, Israel rejoiced in the work of their hands. In 7:48, Stephen declares, “However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands.” In 7:50, through Isaiah, God declares, “Was it not My hand which made all these things?” Stephen’s point is, men can build idols with their hands, and even temples that they mistakenly think God will dwell in, but the Most High God and Creator is not limited by man-made objects. Whether we worship in a beautiful temple or at a burning bush in the wilderness, we must reckon with His holy presence by cleansing our hearts from all idolatry and wickedness. It is possible to go through the impressive outward motions of worship, but to have stiff necks and uncircumcised hearts and ears (7:51). It is possible to boast in our knowledge of God’s Word, but not to obey it (7:53).

While much more could be said, Stephen’s message reveals these themes. God’s sovereign grace is abundantly shown to rebellious sinners, but we must take heed to the danger of hardening our hearts against His grace. Even though Israel had a history of spiritual privilege unlike any nation on earth, she rejected her Savior and incurred God’s judgment. The temple that she boasted in was destroyed in A.D. 70, and Israel was scattered among the nations for 19 centuries. How can we apply this sermon to ourselves?

The application of Stephen’s message:

1. We should rejoice in and proclaim God’s abundant mercy toward hardened sinners.

This is at least the third time that the Sanhedrin, which was responsible for crucifying Jesus, had heard the gospel and had an opportunity to repent. They heard Peter preach after they arrested him and John in connection with the healing of the lame man in the temple (4:1-12). They again heard Peter and the apostles offer them repentance and forgiveness of sins after they had been arrested, miraculously freed, and re-arrested (5:29-32). Now, again, they hear Stephen powerfully set forth God’s gracious dealings with the nation, in spite of their rebellion. While he never mentions the name of Jesus, he refers to Him as the Righteous One (7:52), and his vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God testifies to the Council again of His resurrection (7:56). If God had given these murderers just one chance to repent after crucifying Jesus, He would have been abundant in mercy. But to give them three opportunities shows His super-abundant grace!

All of us who have experienced God’s salvation know that it was in spite of, not because of, anything in us! Like Abraham, if God had not sovereignly called him by His grace, he would have lived and died as a pagan in a pagan land. Do you rejoice daily in God’s grace to you, the sinner? If you do, you will want to tell other sinners about His grace toward them.

2. We should guard against presuming on God’s grace by falling into a pattern of sin.

Paul tells us that Israel’s history should be a warning to us not to crave evil things as they craved, nor to be idolaters, as they were, nor to act immorally, nor to try the Lord, nor to grumble as they did (1 Cor. 10:6-10). It is a gross misunderstanding and misapplication of God’s grace to presume that we can go on sinning and just keep on claiming His grace. As Paul puts it in Romans 6:1-2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be!” Jude 4 warns us about “ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” In Titus 2:11-12, Paul shows us the proper response to God’s grace. He says that it instructs us “to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.”

3. We should guard against going through the outward motions of worship, when our hearts are far from God.

Israel was God’s chosen nation. They had His covenant promises, His pattern of worship given to Moses on Mount Sinai, the tabernacle where His glory was shown, and then the temple in all its splendor. God had dispossessed the pagan nations and given Israel their land. They had received the law as ordained by angels. Yet in spite of all these privileges, their hearts were far from God! They had a history of killing the prophets that God sent them, culminating in their eventually killing the Lord Jesus Christ.

Like Israel, we have had great spiritual privileges. We live in a nation founded upon biblical principles. We have a history of great spiritual opportunity. We have the Bible in our language in multiple translations. We have freedom to worship without persecution. We can hear the Bible taught on Christian radio or through many other resources. And yet it is easy to fall into the trap of going through the outward motions of Christianity, but not walking in reality with the living God. The building that we meet in is not God’s house. Our bodies are the temple of the living God, and so we must walk in holiness before the Lord, beginning in our hearts. To offer worship to God when we have not repented of our sins is an offense toward Him (Mark 7:6-8, 20-23).

4. We should imitate Stephen by being more concerned about bearing witness to the truth than about our own protection.

As I said earlier, Stephen does defend himself with this sermon. He shows that he reverenced God, he thought highly of Moses, and he did not speak against the temple or the law. But his main thrust was not to defend himself, but to bring God’s truth to bear on the consciences of these hypocrites. He identifies with them repeatedly throughout the sermon. Eight times (7:11, 12, 15, 19, 38, 39, 44, & 45) he refers to “our fathers.” But when he gets to the pointed application at the end, he shifts to “your fathers” (7:51, 52). He isn’t speaking with polite generalities that no one would connect with their own behavior. He wants them to feel the guilt of their terrible sin of murdering Jesus. Only when they have been convicted in their hearts will they see their need for God’s forgiveness and salvation.

While we should treat each person with grace and tact (Col. 4:6), we also should not be so nice, focusing only on God’s love, that the person never comes under conviction of sin. Until a sinner feels the weight of his guilt before a holy God, salvation is a nice idea, but it’s not a crucial necessity. Often we back off from the hard aspects of the gospel because we want people to think well of us. But we have not proclaimed the gospel if we avoid the subjects of sin, righteousness, and judgment.

Conclusion

We are going to conclude our service today by partaking of the Lord’s Supper. It is very easy for something we do so often to become an outward ritual that we go through without getting our hearts right before God. Paul warned us that we must first judge ourselves rightly before God, and then partake. If not, we may incur His severe discipline, even to the point of physical death (1 Cor. 11:27-31). As the elements are handed out, examine your own heart before God. Make sure that your faith is in Christ as your Savior and Lord. Confess any known sin. Pray with David (Ps. 139:23-24), “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Do God’s grace and patience have limits? Is there ever a time when we cannot offer His grace to rebellious sinners?
  2. Since we all sin repeatedly in many ways, how can we know if we are presuming on God’s grace?
  3. How can we guard against outward Christianity? How can we keep our hearts genuinely close to God?
  4. Was Stephen too confrontational in his indictment of his audience? How can we know how confrontational to be when we present the gospel to someone?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Grace, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)