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David Guzik :: Study Guide for Acts 7

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Stephen's Sermon to the Sanhedrin

A. A survey of Israel's history during the time of the patriarchs.

1. Background: Why did Stephen preach this sermon?

a. Remember the charges brought against Stephen in Acts 6:11 and 13-14: First, that he spoke blasphemous words against Moses, he spoke against the law, and spoke to change Jewish customs. Second, that he spoke blasphemous words against God and God's dwelling place, the temple.

b. In this sermon, Stephen gives a panorama of Old Testament history. We shouldn't think Stephen instructed the Sanhedrin on points of Jewish history they were ignorant of. Instead, Stephen wants to emphasize some things revealed in Jewish history they may not have considered: That God has never confined Himself to one place (like the temple), and that the Jewish people have a habit of rejecting those God sends to them!

c. This really is not a defense. Stephen isn't interested in defending himself. He simply wants to proclaim the truth about Jesus in a way people can understand.

i. "Such a speech as this was by no means calculated to secure an acquittal before the Sanhedrin. It is rather a defense of pure Christianity as God's appointed way of worship." (Bruce)

2. (Act 7:1-8) God's promise to Abraham.

Then the high priest said, "Are these things so?" And he said, "Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, 'Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.' Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell. And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abraham had no child, He promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his descendants after him. But God spoke in this way: that his descendants would dwell in a foreign land, and that they would bring them into bondage and oppress them four hundred years. 'And the nation to whom they will be in bondage I will judge,' said God, 'and after that they shall come out and serve Me in this place.' Then He gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham begot Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot the twelve patriarchs."

a. The high priest mentioned here was probably still Caiaphas, the same one who presided over the trial of Jesus (Matthew 26:57).

b. Stephen recounts Abraham's journey from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran, then from Haran to Canaan, amounting to a somewhat roundabout obedience to God's command. God had commanded Abraham Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you, and Stephen makes it clear this command came to Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia.

i. When Abraham lived in the land of the Chaldeans and received this command and promise, he did not immediately obey. First, he did not immediately go to a land that I will show you. Second, he did not leave his relatives, taking with him his father (who died in Haran) and his nephew Lot.

ii. Abraham's partial obedience did not take God's promise away. Instead, it meant the promise was on "hold" until Abram was ready to do what the Lord said. The promise didn't "progress" until Abraham left Haran and his father behind and went to the place God wanted him to go.

iii. Abraham will certainly become a giant of faith, even being the father of the believing (Galatians 3:7); yet he does not start there. We will see Abraham as an example of one who grows in faith and obedience.

c. As Abraham went from Mesopotamia to Haran to Canaan, God was with him all the time. Stephen began by saying the God of glory appeared to our father Abraham. Stephen wants to make it clear that God appeared to Abraham, and guided Abraham, and blessed Abraham when there was no temple. Abraham didn't need the temple to be close to God.

3. (Act 7:9-16) God's faithfulness through Joseph.

"And the patriarchs, becoming envious, sold Joseph into Egypt. But God was with him and delivered him out of all his troubles, and gave him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house. Now a famine and great trouble came over all the land of Egypt and Canaan, and our fathers found no sustenance. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first. And the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers, and Joseph's family became known to the Pharaoh. Then Joseph sent and called his father Jacob and all his relatives to him, seventy-five people. So Jacob went down to Egypt; and he died, he and our fathers. And they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem."

a. God was with him: Again, Stephen is emphasizing the spiritual presence of God with Joseph all the time. Joseph did not need to go to the temple to be close to God. There was no temple! Instead, God was with him all the time.

b. Stephen mentions the story of Joseph, because he is a picture of Jesus, in that the sons of Israel rejected Joseph, who later became a "savior" (and the only possible savior) for them.

i. The message is plain: "You people have a habit of rejecting the saviors God sends to you. Why don't you wake up and stop rejecting Jesus?"

c. Seventy-five people: How can Genesis 46:27 say there were seventy all together of the family of Israel, when Stephen in Acts 7:14 says it was 75? Stephen is quoting from the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, which says 75. The number in the Septuagint is not wrong, just arrived at in a different way, specifically adding five more sons (or grandsons) of Joseph born in Egypt.

d. The tomb that Abraham bought: The only land that Abraham ever actually "possessed" in Canaan was this burial plot. The rest was received only by faith.

4. (Act 7:17-29) Israel's rejection of Moses at his "first coming."

"But when the time of the promise drew near which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt till another king arose who did not know Joseph. This man dealt treacherously with our people, and oppressed our forefathers, making them expose their babies, so that they might not live. At this time Moses was born, and was well pleasing to God; and he was brought up in his father's house for three months. But when he was set out, Pharaoh's daughter took him away and brought him up as her own son. And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds. Now when he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended and avenged him who was oppressed, and struck down the Egyptian. For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand. And the next day he appeared to two of them as they were fighting, and tried to reconcile them, saying, 'Men, you are brethren; why do you wrong one another?' But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday?' Then, at this saying, Moses fled and became a dweller in the land of Midian, where he had two sons."

a. Moses is the next picture of Jesus, who was favored by God from birth and miraculously preserved in childhood and was mighty in words and deeds.

b. He supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand: When Moses offered deliverance to Israel, he was rejected, and rejected with spite, with Israel denying that he had any right to be a ruler and a judge over them.

i. Stephen's message is plain: "You have rejected Jesus, who was like Moses yet greater than him, and you deny that Jesus has any right to be a ruler and a judge over you."

5. (Act 7:30-36) God's call of Moses, and Moses' role as ruler and a deliverer for Israel, who previously rejected him.

"And when forty years had passed, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire in a bush, in the wilderness of Mount Sinai. When Moses saw it, he marveled at the sight; and as he drew near to observe, the voice of the Lord came to him, saying, 'I am the God of your fathers; the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.' And Moses trembled and dared not look. Then the LORD said to him, "Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I have surely seen the oppression of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt."' This Moses whom they rejected, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and a judge?' is the one God sent to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the Angel who appeared to him in the bush. He brought them out, after he had shown wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years."

a. Even though Israel had rejected Moses and his leadership, God appointed Moses with unmistakable signs, including the burning bush in the wilderness.

b. God's appearance to Moses at the burning bush is important to Stephen, because it shows that God's presence is not limited to the temple. God is bigger than the temple, and Moses did not need the temple to be close to God.

6. (Act 7:37-43) Israel's repeated rejection of Moses.

"This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, 'The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear.' This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us, whom our fathers would not obey, but rejected. And in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, saying to Aaron, 'Make us gods to go before us; as for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the Prophets: 'Did you offer Me slaughtered animals and sacrifices during forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You also took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, images which you made to worship; and I will carry you away beyond Babylon.'"

a. Moses promised that there would come after him another Prophet and warned that Israel should take special care to listen to this coming Prophet. But just like Israel rejected Moses, so they are rejecting Jesus, who is the Prophet Moses spoke of.

i. How are you rejecting Jesus Christ?  Have you received Him as your deliverer, as the one who can save you?

b. Moses, like Jesus, led the congregation of God's people, enjoyed special intimacy with God and brought forth the revelation of God.

c. In their hearts they turned back to Egypt … and they made a calf in those days: Israel continued to reject Moses, even after God had demonstrated that he was their deliverer.

i. The phrase and rejoiced in the works of their own hands is especially telling. One of the accusations against Stephen was that he had blasphemed the temple. It wasn't that Stephen spoke against the temple, but against the way Israel worshipped the temple of God instead of the God of the temple. Just as Israel worshipped the calf in the wilderness, so now they were worshipping the works of their own hands.

d. In their rejection of Moses and the God who sent him, Israel turned instead to corrupt idols, bringing upon themselves the judgment described in the passage quoted from Amos 5:25-27.

i. The idea behind then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven is as important as it is awesome. Paul later builds on the thought of God giving man over to his sinful desires in Romans 1:24-32.

ii. If we reject Jesus, what will we be given up to?

7. (Act 7:44-50) Even as Israel rejected God, they still had the tabernacle, and later, the temple.

"Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as He appointed, instructing Moses to make it according to the pattern that he had seen, which our fathers, having received it in turn, also brought with Joshua into the land possessed by the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers until the days of David, who found favor before God and asked to find a dwelling for the God of Jacob. But Solomon built Him a house. However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says: 'Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. What house will you build for Me? says the LORD, or what is the place of My rest? Has My hand not made all these things?'"

a. Our fathers had the tabernacle … Solomon built Him a house: Stephen's point is that the presence of the tabernacle or the temple did not keep them from rejecting God and His special messengers.

b. However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands: Stephen confronts their idolatry of the temple. In doing so, they tried to confine God within the temple. But God is too big to fit in any temple man could make.

i. On a more subtle level, many Christians do the same thing. It may not be the worship of a church building (though certainly that does take place from time to time), but it is the confinement of God to one place. In other words, the only place they meet God is at the church. As far as they are concerned, God is absent from the rest of their lives. God may as well only live at the church!

8. (Act 7:51-53) Stephen applies the sermon to his listeners.

"You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it."

a. You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you: One can imagine the angry whispering among the Sanhedrin as Stephen's history lesson begins to hit home. Stephen sees this and knows that they are rejecting the One God sent again, just like before.

b. Drawing on concepts from the Old Testament, Stephen rebukes those who rejected Jesus; they are stiff-necked (as Israel is described in passages like Exodus 32:9), and they are uncircumcised in heart and ears (as Israel is described in passages like Jeremiah 9:26). In using the two phrases together, he may have in mind a passage like Deuteronomy 10:16: Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer.

i. Almost 20 times in the Old Testament, God calls Israel stiff-necked. These religious leaders are being just as their fathers were.

ii. Israel prided itself on the sign of circumcision because it separated them from the Gentiles, but Stephen was essentially saying, "you are just like the Gentiles in your rejection of the Lord."

c. His main point was unmistakable: "As Israel was in its history, so you are today, you now have become the betrayers and murderers." Israel was proud that they had received the law of God and were guardians of the law, but Stephen reminded them, "you have not kept it."

9. Observations on Stephen's message.

a. Stephen's message is essentially twofold. First, God is no respecter of places. That is, though the temple was a wonderful gift from God, it was wrong to overemphasize it as "the house of God." Second, Israel is guilty of what they have always been guilty of: Rejecting God's messengers.

b. Jesus said that it is impossible for old wineskins to hold new wine (Matthew 9:17). Through Stephen, the Holy Spirit is showing how the old traditions of Judaism (especially the over-emphasis on the temple) cannot contain the new wine of Christianity.

c. God used Stephen's coming martyrdom to send the church out into the entire world, but God also used Stephen's message to show that there was no theological reason to prevent the gospel from going to the Gentiles.

i. The whole idea behind a permanent, stationary temple is "you come to me." This is why Israel, though they were a light to the nations, mainly thought in terms of the world coming to them for salvation. Through the church, God would show a different heart: "I will come to you," including the Gentiles.

d. The greatness of Stephen's sermon is not only in its content, but in its courage. "He takes the sharp knife of the Word and rips up the sins of the people, laying open the inward parts of their hearts, and the secrets of their souls … He could not have delivered that searching address with greater fearlessness had he been assured that they would thank him for the operation; the fact that his death was certain had no other effect upon him than to make him yet more zealous." (Spurgeon)

B. Reaction to the sermon of Stephen.

1. (Act 7:54) They were cut to the heart, and convicted by the Holy Spirit. Yet the Sanhedrin reacted with rage instead of submission to the Holy Spirit.

When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.

a. They show great anger, but who, really, are they angry with? Stephen is only the messenger. Their real anger is directed against the God they are rejecting.

b. The idea of gnashing at him with their teeth can't help but remind us of the imagery of Hell. Seven different times, Jesus described Hell as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12).

i. These men were prominent, successful, and appeared to be religious; yet they were rejecting God and revealing themselves as citizens of Hell.

ii. They didn't start gnashing when Stephen finished his speech. "All they could do in their frenzy was to gnash with their teeth. It was not a sudden outburst but the tense rather shows that it was prolonged." (Gaebelein)

2. (Act 7:55-56) Stephen's vision of Jesus.

But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, "Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!"

a. We are reminded again that Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit; this was the source of his courage, wisdom and power in preaching.

i. J.B. Phillips' translation has insight: Stephen, filled through all his being with the Holy Spirit. This is how we should be filled with the Holy Spirit!

b. Saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God: It is difficult to describe exactly what Stephen saw. We can't say if this was a personal vision or if some sort of "window to heaven" was opened, but going beyond the plain description of the text is pure speculation.

c. Jesus standing at the right hand of God: It is significant to note Jesus is standing here, as opposed to the more common description of Him sitting (Matthew 26:64, Colossians 3:1) at the right hand of the Father.

i. Why is Jesus standing here? Jesus stands in solidarity with Stephen at this moment of crisis. He does not impassionately react to the problems of His people.

ii. We might also consider that Jesus is standing to give a "standing ovation" to Stephen, whose fate makes him unique among believers. Stephen is the first of all martyrs among the followers of Jesus.

iii. "Stephen has been confessing Christ before men, and now he sees Christ confessing his servant before God." (Bruce)

3. (Act 7:57-58) The execution of Stephen by stoning.

Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

a. When Stephen declared that he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, it was too much. The Sanhedrin react quickly, violently, and together. When Jesus, before this same body of men, declared that He would sit at the right hand of God, they had the same reaction and sealed his death as a blasphemer (Matthew 26:64-66).

i. "For Stephen to suggest that the crucified Jesus stood in a position of authority at the right hand of God must have ranked as blasphemy in the thinking of those who knew that a crucified man died under the divine curse." (Bruce)

b. They cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord: These were distinguished, older men acting this way! The reaction of the Sanhedrin seems extreme, but is typical of those rejecting God and lost in spiritual insanity. They wail in agony and cover their ears at the revelation of God, which they regard as blasphemy.

i. What a dangerous thing it is to be religious apart from a real relationship with Jesus Christ! This fulfills what Jesus warned about in John 16:2-3: Yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me.

c. Ran at him uses the Greek word hormao. This is the same word used to describe the mad rush of the herd of swine into the sea (Mark 5:13). This was an out-of-control mob rushing at Stephen.

d. They cast him out of the city and stoned him: The extent of their rage is shown by their execution of Stephen, which was done without regard for Roman law, and which was performed according to traditional Jewish custom (stoning).

i. The second-century Jewish writing Mishnah, describes the practice of stoning: "When the trial is finished, the man convicted is brought out to be stoned … When ten cubits from the place of stoning they say to him, 'Confess, for it is the custom of all about to be put to death to make confession, and every one who confesses has a share in the age to come' … Four cubits from the place of stoning the criminal is stripped … The drop from the place of stoning was twice the height of a man. One of the witnesses pushes the criminal from behind, so that he falls face downward. He is then turned over on his back. If he dies from this fall, that is sufficient. If not, the second witness takes the stone and drops it on his heart. If this causes death, that is sufficient; if not, he is stoned by all the congregation of Israel." (Cited in Bruce)

e. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul: Saul stood there as the "supervisor" of the operation. As a member of the Sanhedrin, he had also approved of Stephen's execution.

i. Young man literally means, "a man in his prime." It certainly does not mean that Saul wasn't old enough to be a member of the Sanhedrin. In Acts 26:10, Paul says I cast my vote against them, and the plain implication was that he had a vote as a member of the Sanhedrin.

4. (Act 7:59-60) Stephen's last words.

And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not charge them with this sin." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

a. They stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." His life ended in the same way it had been lived: In complete trust in God, believing that Jesus would take care of him in the life to come.

i. "The fires … in the olden days never made martyrs; they revealed them. No hurricane of persecution ever creates martyrs; it reveals them. Stephen was a martyr before they stoned him. He was the first martyr to seal his testimony with his blood." (Morgan)

b. Lord, do not charge them with this sin: God answered Stephen's prayer, and used it to touch the heart of a man who energetically agreed with his stoning, though the man didn't know the prayer was being answered. When we get to heaven, make sure to look up Stephen and thank him for every blessing brought through the ministry of Saul of Tarsus.

i. God heard Stephen's prayer, and Paul is the evidence of it. We have no idea how greatly God can use us in our times of suffering.

ii. Augustine said, "If Stephen had not prayed, the church would not have had Paul."

c. Cried out with a loud voice, Lord, do not charge them with this sin: Stephen displays the same forgiving attitude that Jesus had on the cross (Luke 23:34). He asked God to forgive his accusers, and he made the promises loudly and publicly.

i. If the gospels contain that which Jesus began to do and to teach, they also only contain that which Jesus began to suffer. There is a sense in which Jesus suffers along with Stephen as he is martyred now.

d. He fell asleep: Tenderly, the text notes that Stephen did not "die." Instead, he merely fell asleep, and woke up in a much better world.

i. If Stephen fell asleep, the church had to wake up. "If there had been any rose-colored optimism about quickly winning the Jewish people to their Messiah, that was gone. The Church could not expect triumph without a bloody battle." (LaSor)

e. Stephen wasn't a superman, but he was a man filled through all his being with the Holy Spirit. You have no idea of how greatly you can be used of God as you walk in the power of the Holy Spirit.

© 2001 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission

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