3 Points in Stephen’s Seemingly Pointless History

October 25, 2013  Leave a comment

Before his stoning, Stephen gives the longest recorded speech (Acts 7) of anyone outside Jesus in the New Testament.  In it, he recounts Israel’s history, from Abraham all the way down to Solomon.  But the scenes he includes appear isolated and unconnected, leaving many readers scratching their heads wondering the point?

But Stephen is indeed addressing his accusers and the charges they’re bring against him.

“This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” (Acts 6:13-14)

Here’s what he wants his audience to grasp.

(1) God calls people outside the temple and the Holy Land.

Being a rather short summary, Stephen’s speech is not a complete record of Israel’s history. There’s a great deal he omits and what he omits is just as important as what he includes. For instance, God appears many times to the patriarchs in the land of Canan but Stephen never mentions these appearances. Instead he focuses on God’s activity outside the promised land.

  • God calls Abraham while he is still in Mesopotamia even before he lived in the closer land of Haran (7:2).
  • Abraham lived only as an alien and a stranger in Canan (7:4-5).
  • Abraham’s descendants were also aliens and strangers in a foreign land (7:6-7).
  • Joseph rose to power in Egypt and saves his family there (7:9-16).
  • Moses is rasied in Egypt as an Egyptian (7:20-22)
  • Moses encounters God in the land of Midian near Mt. Sinai (7:29-34).

God clearly calls people outside the places most revered by the Jews.

(2) God is in the habit of raising up quasi-gentile saviors whom the Jews oppose

Joseph and Moses are representive figures through which Stephen makes an implied comparison to Jesus. Like Jesus

  • Joseph is rejected by his brothers but God rescues him and places him over a gentile nation where he rescues the wider world and his family (7:19-16).
  • Moses is rejected by Israel but God calls Moses from a gentile land to rescue Israel from bondage (7:17-37).

Stephen even makes the implied comparison between Jesus and Moses more explicit. After laying out the pattern established in the life of Moses, Stephen quotes Moses as saying, “God will send you a prophet like me from your own people (7:37).” And of course Jesus fits the pattern.

Also Just as Israel claimed not to know what happened to Moses when he was on Mount Sinai receiving the the law so Stephen’s implies that his audience similarly is denying that Jesus is ascended and mediating for us in the presence of God.

(3) Israel has continued to reject God’s pattern and instead worshiped the temple and Holy Land as an idol.

Stephen makes a subtle comparison between the Israelites past idolatry and their present fixation upon the temple. Note the parallels between the following two statements.

He received living oracles to give to us. Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 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.” And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 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? 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.”

Stephen then says

“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. 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, who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands,, as the prophet says, “‘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? Did not my hand make all these things?

These two passages are parallel for the following reasons

  1. Both begin with a statement about what Moses recieved on the Mountain
  2. Both claim that Israel rejected what Moses received.
  3. Both speak about exiting/entering a land and or the beginning and ending of the Exodus.
  4. Both speak about what Isrealite hands had made
  5. Both conclude with a Old Testament citation.

Just as the children of Israel worship the “work of their hands” (7:41) so Stephen’s audience is worshiping a temple “made by hands” (7:48). Just as God exiled Israel for idolatry so Stephen appears to imply that God is going to exile the present generation for an idolatrous attachment to the temple.

The pattern God showed Moses on the mountain was a movable, mobile tent. God does not dwell in permanent houses made by man. His spirit moves wherever he pleases and the tent was designed to move with him.

Further evidence for Stephen accusing his audience of Idolatry is found in the claim that they are “stiff-necked” like their fathers (Acts 7:51). “Stiff-necked” is a word picture which derives from the experience of plowing with cattle. When a cow is “stiff-necked” it refuses to go where its owner wants it to go. The term is first used by God for Israel after they made the golden calf (Exodus 32:9, 33:3, 5, 34:9). Its relatively rare elsewhere. G. K. Beale makes the observation that Israel in this idolatrous act is becoming what they worshipped – a calf.  And so is Stephen’s audience.

Matthew Scott Miller

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