Chapter 15: Stephen’s defence before the Council
1 And the high priest said, ‘Are these things so?’ 2 And Stephen said:
‘Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3 and said to him, “Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.” 4 Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. 5 Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. 6 And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. 7 “But I will judge the nation that they serve,” said God, “and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.” 8 And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.
9 And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him 10 and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favour and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11 Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. 13 And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. 15 And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers 16 and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. 17 But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt 18 until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. 19 He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. 20 At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, 21 and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds. 23 When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarrelling and tried to reconcile them, saying, “Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?” 27 But the man who was wronging his neighbour thrust him aside, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?” 29 At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons. 30 Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32 “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.” And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. 33 Then the Lord said to him, “Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.”
35 This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge?”—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.” 38 This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. 39 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, “Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: “Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 43 You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.”
44 Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. 45 Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 46 who found favour in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, 49 “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?”
51 You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who retold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, 53 who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.’
The cynical question that need not be asked
The chief priest is probably behind the perjurers’ wicked lies, supported by his unjust, dishonest and biased Council of ‘judges’. Stephen is a God-fearing man of deep integrity and compassion. He neither blasphemed God, nor criticised Moses, nor predicted Jesus’ destroying the temple, nor His changing Moses’ customs. Perjurers accuse a righteous man of blasphemy! How bizarre and wicked!
Stephen’s insistence on God’s truth that Jesus is both eternally Divine and sinlessly human3 is regarded as blasphemy by those who reject Jesus as Messiah and so oppose him too. Jesus was falsely misrepresented when, talking about the temple, he predicted the coming death and resurrection of His own body.4 He never said He would destroy the temple. So why should his devoted follower, Stephen, claim that He did?
The high priest asks, ‘Are these things so?’ What seems a reasonable question starts the next hypocritical charade of so-called ‘justice.’ Jesus earlier met the same deceitful opposition from the same religious rulers, as did Peter and John.5
The defence speech that is so much more than a defence speech!
Like his Saviour before him, Stephen makes no attempt to defend or save himself. He knows that the crooked Council has already reached its verdict and decided its sentence. The case against him will be ‘proved’. He will be stoned for blasphemy. He has a higher and nobler aim than saving his own skin. Like Peter and John, he now bravely takes the opportunity to speak for His Lord. In Acts 7:2–50, he shares God’s word with his Jewish hearers through recounting their own history. In Acts 7:51–53, he applies its unpalatable truths to their hard hearts, no doubt hoping that some will repent of their sins and trust in the Saviour Christ, whom they now hate.
The history lesson that is so much more than a history lesson!
The history of Israel’s up and down relationship with their God is riddled with pride, rebellion, hard-heartedness, self-interest, refusal to listen, and disobedience , despite God’s unerring faithfulness. He has often commanded them to repent, return to Him, be restored by Him, and so be blessed. Repentance has been intermittent and often short-lived.
Stephen traces some of God’s gracious dealings with his sinful people through men of God whom He equipped and used. He starts with the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God made promises and a covenant with Abraham. Although old, childless and married to a barren wife, he would become the father of God’s covenant people the Jews. Joseph was Jacob’s son jealously rejected by his brothers but raised by God to become their saviour in Egypt in a time of great famine. Pharaoh’s cruel enslaving of the Israelites, after they settled in Egypt, is the scene for Moses to deliver Israel after God commissioned him at the burning bush. He was saved by Pharaoh’s daughter when Jewish baby boys were being killed. He fled from Egypt after rejection by his own people. He returned to lead and save them from slavery. He then contended with the idolatry and rebellion of the same people. God introduced, through him, pure worship in the tabernacle in the wilderness, as Israel journeyed to the Promised Land. After Moses’ death, his lieutenant, Joshua, led the Israelites with the tabernacle into that Promised Land. King David later wanted to build a permanent temple, but God did that through his son and successor, Solomon.6 Stephen concludes this potted history by stressing God’s greatness, reminding the many religious hypocrites on the Council, by using some words of the prophet Isaiah,7 to emphasise that no building and no temple is big enough to contain the Lord God of Heaven!
Each historical leader mentioned underlines the quality and uniqueness of the Lord Jesus Christ, the God-man, who alone is perfect. He is infinitely greater than all the leaders put together. Jesus said about Abraham, ‘Before Abraham was I am’.8 He showed Himself to be the eternal God in human flesh. Isaac and Jacob benefited from God’s promises and covenant with Abraham. God promises on oath that believers in Jesus are saved eternally.9 Joseph, a godly man, pictured physically what Jesus does spiritually for those He saves. Joseph fed the starving. Jesus is the bread of life.10 He feeds spiritually those who come to Him.
But Joseph was a mere man who lived, died and was buried in a coffin.11 Jesus, the eternal son of God, lived a sinless life, died a death that saves sinful people still today, and rose again and lives with the power of an endless life!12 His tomb was empty! Moses was a judge and a prince.13 Jesus is far greater14 and the ultimate and eternal Judge and King of Kings.15 ‘The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’.16 It is solely that grace and truth through the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour, which enables repentant sinners to enjoy God’s pardon and receive eternal life. It is not available through Moses or trying to keep God’s law.17 Joshua is Hebrew for ‘Saviour’: he took God’s people into the Promised Land. Jesus, the only Saviour, takes His people into an eternal Heaven.18 King Solomon, guided and helped by his father, King David, built the temple. Both father and son are long since dead. King Jesus, God the eternal Son, is Creator and Sustainer of all creation19 and His name is forever worthy of all praise.20 He is infinitely and eternally greater than any building, including the temple, because He is God! He also did what no other person could do: He bore our sins and took the punishment for them on the cross, rose again, and lives today to enter the lives of all who trust Him.
The message that results in martyrdom
Every message needs to be applied practically. Although it will cost him his life, Stephen does that now. He accuses the religious chiefs of pride—they are ‘stiffnecked’. They have sinful hearts and refuse to listen to God’s remedy for their sin—they are ‘uncircumcised in heart and ears’. Like their rebellious forefathers, they ‘always resist the Holy Spirit of God’ as He seeks to convict them of sin and point them to Christ.21 They have betrayed and murdered the ‘Just One’, the Lord Jesus Christ. They are privileged to have ‘received’ God’s law but they ‘have not kept it’.22 They know they are guilty as charged. Stephen’s message is over. He will soon be stoned to death. But his sacrifice will inspire Christians of all ages everywhere to witness faithfully for Christ. It will bear amazing fruit in the lives of some of his hearers, including Saul, the holder of the clothes of Stephen’s killers. Soon the risen Lord Jesus will remind him on the Damascus Road how hard it was for him to kick against his pangs of conscience23 on his way to faith in Christ.
Questions on Chapter 15
Stephen’s Defence before the Council—Acts 7:1–53
A. What can you learn here from the way Stephen uses the history of God’s dealings with people about God, His people, and those who oppose God’s message? What lessons can you learn?
Acts 7:1–50 and refer to footnote references throughout Chapter 15.
B. Consider Stephen. What are the main things that strike you about him in this hour of great need? Does he ever blaspheme? How can you avoid taking God’s name in vain?
Acts 7:1–50, Isaiah 26:3, Philippians 4:6–7, Isaiah 40:31, 2 Timothy 4:2–5, Psalm 46:1, Exodus 20:7
C. In what ways is Jesus so superior to Moses and the Temple? How will those truths comfort Stephen?
Acts 7:17–50, Hebrews 3:1–6, Acts 7:22, Exodus 2:11–15, 2 Timothy 4:1,8, Acts 17:31 Revelation 17:14, Revelation 19:16, John 1:17, Acts 4:1–12, John 6:68, John 10:26–30, 2 Chronicles 6:1–11, John 1:1–3, Hebrews 1:1–2, Revelation 5:11–12, Philippians 2:5–11
- Exodus 20:7, the fourth of the Ten Commandments, forbids blasphemy and says: ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’. Stephen would not blaspheme God. He could not blaspheme Moses, who was a mere man and not God. In any case, Stephen never spoke against Moses, but treated his memory with grateful respect. ↩
- Acts 6:8–14 and Chapter 14 of this book, A Problem Solved, the Word Spread, and Opposition Stirred. ↩
- For example John 1, Hebrews 1, Philippians 2:5–11, Hebrews 4:15 ↩
- John 2:18–22 ↩
- Matthew 26:57–67, Acts 4:1–3,13–18, Acts 5:17–40 ↩
- 2 Chronicles 6:1–11 ↩
- Isaiah 66:1 ↩
- John 8:58 ↩
- Hebrews 6:17 ↩
- John 6:35 ↩
- Genesis 50:26 ↩
- Hebrews 7:16, 22–28 ↩
- Exodus 2:14 ↩
- Hebrews 3:5–6 ↩
- 2 Timothy 4:1,8, Acts 17:31, Revelation 17:14, Revelation 19:16 ↩
- John 1:17 ↩
- Ephesians 2:8–9, Acts 4:12, John 6:68, John 10:28 ↩
- John 14:2–3,1 Peter 1:3–5 ↩
- Genesis 1:1, John 1:1–3, Hebrews 1:1–2 ↩
- Revelation 5:12, Philippians 2:9–11 ↩
- John 16:7–11,13–15 ↩
- Romans 2:17–29 ↩
- See Acts 9:5, Acts 26:14,Acts 22:20. Goads are pointed sticks to jab cattle to drive them forward—Saul’s pangs of conscience at persecuting innocent Christians, and holding the coats of those who stone and kill Stephen must have been such goads. ↩