Stephen Gives The Sanhedrin A History Lesson
THE LIFE OF ABRAHAM: ACTS 7:1-8
Stephen’s sermon or history lesson is the longest recorded message in the Boole of Acts. Verse 1 finds Stephen being tried by the Sanhedrin on the trumped up charge of blasphemy. The high priest wanted to know if the charges against Stephen were true. He asked Stephen that question in Acts 7:1. As Stephen begins his defense in verse 2, we see him take a fairly different approach than most. Here, Stephen was on trial for his life, and instead of trying to defend himself, we see him, in a sense, putting the Sanhedrin on trial. He then proceeds to give them a history lesson based on their past. Starting in verse 2 he opens with the life of Abraham.
In the Gospels we have two genealogies given of the Lord Jesus Christ. The one in Matthew’s account, which was written to Jews, goes back only as far as Abraham. The one in Luke, written to Gentiles goes back to Adam and then to God Himself. When the Jews traced their history as a people, they went back to the father of their nation, Abraham.
In verse 2 Stephen tells us that the glory of God appeared to Abraham and in verse 3 told him to leave his homeland and “come into a land that I will show you.” Verse 4 informs us that Abraham left his home in the land of the Chaldeans. Abraham did not know where he was going but was willing to trust God. The Hebrew writer in Heb. 11:8 alludes to this fact. “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.” In verse 5 we are told that Abraham did not receive any of the land of Canaan for his own ownership. The only land that he owned was a field with a cave he purchased for a burial place (Gen. 23:Iff). The land was promised for his offspring. When the promise was made, Abraham had no children. But he believed God’s promise. In verse 6 God told Abraham that his offspring would be enslaved in a foreign land for 400 years. This is the prophecy of the bondage in Egypt. Verse 7 says that the nation they would be in bondage to would be judged by God. After the judgment of Egypt, the Children of Israel were to serve God in Canaan. Verse 8 tells us of the covenant of circumcision. It also introduces us to the patriarchs.
This section shows us that Abraham was a man of hope. He was always willing to look to God to keep His word. He was always looking forward to be ready to do God’s will. He was not like the Sanhedrin, living in the past and clinging to the past. He was always ready to answer God’s call.
THE LIFE OF JOSEPH: ACTS 7:9-19
Stephen has told the Sanhedrin about the faithful life of Abraham who was willing to live by faith. In verse 8 he introduced the patriarchs. In the verse we are studying we have the account of the life of Joseph. Verse 9 tells us that the patriarchs became jealous of Jacob’s favoritism toward Joseph. They sold him into slavery and told Jacob that he had been killed by a wild beast. Stephen brings out the fact that what was meant for evil God turned to good. God was with Joseph in Egypt.
Joseph’s brothers had meant evil but God overruled. They knew that he would end up in slavery in Egypt. They thought he would be mistreated. But Jehovah God was with Joseph, even in the land of Egypt. Verse 10 tells us that God granted that Joseph be favored by Pharaoh. Joseph became the second-in-command in the land of Egypt.
In verse 11 we have the famine Joseph said would take place happening. Verse 12 informs us that Jacob, upon hearing that there was grain in Egypt, sent 10 of his sons there to buy grain. Joseph made himself known to them on their second journey to the land of Egypt. Verse 14 reveals to us that Joseph, acting on authority from Pharaoh, invited the patriarchs to settle in Egypt. Verse 15 tells us that Jacob and his family came to live in the land of Egypt. Jacob lived out his years and died in Egypt. In time all of the patriarchs died. In verse 16 they were buried in the land of their fathers.
This section shows that God was not bound to a certain area. He was with Joseph even in the land of Egypt. William Barclay, in The Daily Study Bible Series: Acts of the Apostles, had this to say,
The picture of Abraham is succeeded by the picture of Joseph. The key to Joseph’s life is summed up in his own saying in Genesis 50:20. At that time his brothers were afraid that, after the death of Jacob, Joseph would take vengeance on them for what they had done to him. Joseph’s answer was ‘As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.’ Joseph was the man for whom seeming disaster turned to triumph. Sold into Egypt as a slave, wrongfully imprisoned, forgotten by the men he had helped, the day yet came when he became prime minister of Egypt. Stephen sums up the characteristics of Joseph in two words—grace and wisdom. . . . Once again the contrast is there. The Jews were lost in the contemplation of their own past and imprisoned in the mazes of their own law. But Joseph welcomed each new task, even if it was a rebuff, and adopted God’s view of life.
In verse 17 we’re reminded of ‘the promise to Abraham that his offspring would be in bondage. All through the life of Joseph they enjoyed great favor with the rulers of Egypt. The children of Israel multiplied and increased in population. In verse 18 we’re told that there arose a new king that cared nothing about Joseph. Who was this new king? J. W. McGarvey had this to say,
The Shepherd kings were Asiatic Semites who had invaded Egypt manyyears before and naturally favored the family of Joseph. The other king that arose was most likely one of pure Egyptian blood, who displaced the sovereignty of the Hyksos rulers and reestablished the Thebian kings.”
Gareth L. Reese, in his book, New Testament History: Acts, had this to say,
The Hebrew idiom means ‘not caring for.’ It can hardly be supposed that the verb is to be taken literally, i.e., that Pharaoh literally knew nothing of the name and deeds of Joseph. This expression therefore must be understood as meaning he did not show special favor to the people of Joseph. Because of the change of dynasties, the promises of the Shepherd kings of another generation were ignored and the contracts made were deliberately broken by the new Pharaoh. Whenever there is a revolution, gratitude for great deeds done by the leaders who are thrown out of power is forgotten. The old class of favored people is often oppressed by the new government.
Stephen now tells the Sanhedrin something about the character of this new Pharaoh. He tells them how this Pharaoh mistreated the people. He tells of Pharaoh’s cruelty against the people. It was in this dreadful time that Moses was born. Verse 20 says that he was lovely in the sight of God. Moses was hidden and kept in his mother’s home for three months. This was in direct disobedience to the commands of Pharaoh. Pharaoh had decried that all male children be put to death. Verse 21 tells us how Pharaoh’s daughter came to find Moses. It tells us how she brought him up as her own son. Verse 22 informs us that he was brought up learning the knowledge of the Egyptians. Before Moses fled Egypt, he was a man of power in words and deeds.
In verse 23, Moses is nearing forty years of age. This verse tells us that Moses thought it best to go and visit with his brethren. In verse 24 he saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian. Moses then killed the Egyptian thinking his people would see that he was trying to help them. Verse 25 tells us this. He thought that they would realize that he had come to deliver them from Egyptian bondage. Verse 26 tells us that the very next day Moses saw two of the children of Israel fighting and tried to intercede. He asked them why they were fighting. They told him it was none of his business. Verse 27 tells of their rebuke. Verse 28 shows that they saw him when he killed the Egyptian the day before. Moses must have thought that no one saw him do that evil deed. Verse 29 says that Moses fled the land of Egypt. Verse 29 further states that Moses sojourned in the land of Midian where he married and fathered two sons. This section ends with Moses trying to aid his people and them rejecting him. God’s people bad rejected the messengers of God all through -the Old Covenant times. It was just as -the Sanhedrin was doing at the present time during the life of Stephen.
MOSES RETURNS TO EGYPT TO LEAD THE EXODUS: ACTS 7:30-41
The Record here in Acts simply says that 40 years had taken place. By reading the Book of Exodus, we are told of the events -that took place in the life of Moses. History tells us that the Pharaoh whom Moses fled had died. Moses is now 80 years of age. The time had come for God to bring about the plans to free His people from Egyptian bondage. Verse 30 gives us the account of the burning bush. Just like you and I would do Moses marveled at the sight. It is not natural for a bush to be on fire and not be consumed. But it happened then. The God we serve is all powerful and can control the elements of nature. In verse 31 Moses went a little closer to see what was happening. It was at this time that the voice of Jehovah God began speaking to him. Verse 32, proves, without a shadow of a doubt, that Jehovah God is eternal. He was not only the God of the living; here He says He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Record then informs us that Moses shook with fear. I’m sure that you and I would do the same. In verse 33 God tells Moses that he is standing on holy ground and to remove his shoes.
In verse 34, the Father reassures Moses that He has been aware of the oppression of the Children of Israel in Egypt. He says that He has heard their groans. He informs Moses that the time has come for deliverance. God says that He is going to send Moses. Stephen is referring to Exodus 3:7-10.
Forty years earlier the people had rejected and disowned Moses, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge.” God now is sending Moses to be both a ruler and a deliverer.
In verse 36, Stephen refers to the deliverance of the Children of Israel from Egyptian bondage. He also refers to the Exodus. He refers to the Red Sea and also to the forty years of wanderings in the wilderness. In the 37th verse Stephen is referring to a speech made by Moses to the sons of Israel which is recorded in Deuteronomy 18:15-18. It was in this passage that Moses looked forward to and gave the prophecy that God would raise up the Messiah. One of the charges against Stephen was that he was blaspheming Moses. Here we see that he holds Moses in high esteem and it was the Sanhedrin, in their rejection of Jesus, were the ones who were opposing Moses.
Verse 38 refers to the “ekklesia” in the wilderness. It is a Greek word that we thave translated church. But this is referring to an event in the Old Testament. There was no church before the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The New American Standard gives the proper translation of ekklesia. It is translated as congregation. Perhaps the term church, even today is a misnomer. A better rendering might be community.
Here in verse 38, the fact is brought forth that God was with His people wherever they were. He was not confined to a certain locale. In verse 39 we find that the people were disobedient to God and wanted to go back to Egypt. In verse 40 they even stooped to idolatry. This is the account of the golden calf. (Exodus 32)
THE CONTINUING DISOBEDIENCE OF THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL: ACTS 7:42-50
In verse 42, Stephen refers back to the prophet Amos. He says that God gave them up to the hosts of heaven. Concerning this verse, William Neil had this to say about verse 42-43,
The host of heaven: the narrative of the Exodus in the Ο. T. makes no reference to the Israelites having worshipped sun, moon and stars during their wanderings, but Jeremiah (19:13) accuses the people of his day of having been guilty of this type of idolatry. Paul also echoes this Jewish idea, that the punishment for sin is that the sinner is allowed to sink into even deeper sinfulness (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28).
The book of the prophets: is the collection of the oracles of the twelve Minor Prophets. The quotation is from Amos 5:25-27, where the prophet, denouncing the traffic in religion in his day, points to the contrast between the austere, simple faith and practice of the Exodus wanderings and the elaborate sacrificial rites that became the essence of Israel’s worship. The second half of the quotation in Amos is a prophecy that the Israelites will be banished beyond Damascus, carrying their Assyrian idols with them. Stephen, however, takes the Amos passage to mean a condemnation of Israel for not worshipping the true God in the wilderness as Moses had enjoined them, but for practicing idolatry instead.
Concerning the two gods mentioned, James Burton Coffman, in his commentary on Acts, published by Firm Foundation, has this to say,
‘Moloch’—This old god of the ammonites was worshipped at Mari about 1800 B.C. and was associated with the sacrifice of children in the fire. Solomon built a high place for this god on a hill east of Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:7); Ahafi burned his children (2 Chron. 28:3), and Manasseh did the same (2 Kings 21:6); and Samaria was judged for this sin (2 Kings 17:17).
Concerning verse 44, Charles Caldwell Ryrie, in the Ryrie Study Bible, has this to say, “Tabernacle of testimony, i. e. the tabernacle was a testimony to the presence of God in their midst.”
Verse 45 continues the rebellion of the Children of Israel from the time of Joshua, who led the people into the land, to the time of King David. Verse 46 informs us that King David found favor in God’s sight and desired to build a permanent dwelling place for the God of Jacob. We know that according to verse 47, that it was Solomon who built the temple. Verse 48 brings out the fact that God is not bound by time and space. He is not confined to a certain locale. He does not dwell in houses made by human hands. Stephen, in verse 49, quotes from Is. 66:1. In verse 50 God says “Was it not My Hand which made all these things.” This is from Isa. 66:2. Stephen has completed most of the lesson. He has brought the Sanhedrin through the history of the Jewish people. He has shown, in this last section, that -they were continually being rebellious.
STEPHEN INDICTS THE SANHEDRIN FOR THE DEATH OF JESUS: ACTS 7:51-53
Now we have come to the conclusion of the history lesson -which Stephen has been presenting. He has presented his case or defense, now comes the time to strike the telling blow. He has been talking about the past, but now he gets down to addressing the present. In verse 51 he tells the Sanhedrin that they, like their predecessors -have been guilty of resisting the Holy Spirit. Then, in verse 52, he asks, which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? Stephen then accuses them of killing those who announced the coming of the Righteous One. He then gets to the crux of -the matter. He accuses them of murdering the Christ. According to verse 53, they received the law but did not keep it. What would the Sanhedrin do? How would -they react to this?
THE STONING OF STEPHEN. ACTS 7:54-60
The Sanhedrin did not want to hear these words. In verses 55-56, Stephen is given a glimpse of glory. In verse 56, “Son of Man,” this is the only place in the Bible where this term is used except by Jesus Christ Himself. The Sanhedrin had heard enough. They stopped up their ears. Verse 57 tells us that they rushed upon him. In verse 58-60 we have the stoning of Stephen. The Sanhedrin, at this time, did not have the authority to sentence someone to death. That authority remained in the hands of the Romans. Although the Sanhedrin did not get the authority to execute Stephen they nonetheless committed this evil deed. They went through the formalities as if it was a legal execution, but in reality, it was a lynch mob murdering another servant of the Most High God. In verse 58, we have the first mention of Saul, who later became Paul the Apostle.
In verse 59, we have the actual stoning of Stephen. Stephen said, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit.” They continued to hurl the stones. Stephen prayed “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” This reminds us of the death of Jesus Christ. He then fell asleep.
James Burton Coffman had this to say in concluding the 7th Chapter of Acts.
‘He fell asleep. . Taking their cue from what Jesus had said regarding the sleep of Lazarus and that of the daughter of Jairus, the Christians quickly adopted this euphemism for death. It is not so much the superficial resemblances between ordinary sleep and the sleep of death, but the pledge of the resurrection which illuminates this beloved metaphor. Upon the gravestones of two millennia, the believing community of the saints in Christ have engraved upon the tombs of their beloved dead the sacred words, ‘Asleep in Jesus!’
Please read the 8th chapter of Acts in preparation for the next lesson. It will be called “The Spread of the Gospel in Judea and in Samaria.”
Until next time, MARANATHA!