Stephen’s Defense Before The Sanhedrin; Israel’s History Of Disobedience; The Death Of The First Martyr; Our Introduction To Saul; Stephen’s Prayer For Forgiveness
Seven men had been appointed to assist the 12 Emissaries and serve the growing Messianic Community. One was singled out by Luke because of the grace that was evident in his life as shown by his closeness to God, and his faith and wisdom and the miracles he was enabled to do, and because of the opposition he stirred up, and because of the great message he gave to the Sanhedrin, and because he became the first among Messiah’s Community to be killed by the non-Messianic leaders, and because of the faithful way in which he died, and because his martyrdom was the launching point for the first great persecution against the Messianic Jewish movement.
Stephen was a great witness to the reality of the Resurrected Rabbi Messiah. Stephen was full of faith and the Holy Spirit, close to God, very knowledgeable about the Word of God, experiencing the true obedience of the Faith, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do miracles.
Stephen had been accused of very serious charges of blasphemy against God, Moses, the Torah and the temple. Even though these were charges that could result in imprisonment or death, Stephen was calm and peaceful in this time of trial. Even though they were false charges, he would need to answer the charges and defend himself before the Sanhedrin. The high priest said, “Are these things so”? No, these things were not so. But Stephen said more than that. Stephen’s defense was to go on the offense. He gave a synopsis of Jewish history, demonstrating that the majority of the Chosen People were almost always wrong. Our people had a pattern of rejecting the leaders that God sent to us. And, we had done the very same thing with the Greatest Leader Of All – Immanuel, the King Messiah whom the Father had just sent to be the Savior of the world! In making his defense, Stephen quoted extensively from the Tenach – from memory. His knowledge of the Scriptures should inspire us to be better students of the Word of God!
And he said, “Hear me, brothers and fathers! His opening remarks were respectful. They showed that he was one of them, and identified with them. He was not an enemy, but a brother of his peers and a son to the elders. The God of glory (the Supreme Being who is glorious and magnificent and worthy of honor) appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Leave your country and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you’. Then he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. The Chosen Nation had a good and supernatural beginning. Abraham was faithful and obedient. From there, after his father died, God had him move to this country in which you are now living. But He gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground, and yet, even when he had no child, He promised that He would give it to him as a possession, and to his descendants after him. The Lord promised father Abraham good things, but the fulfillment of all of God’s promises didn’t happen right away. In spite of not receiving an immediate possession, Abraham was faithful and obedient. Could Stephen be implying that those who have faith, like Abraham, must wait patiently for the fulfillment of the things promised to them? That even though Yeshua is the Messiah, the fulfillment of all the good things that will happen to those who believe in Yeshua won’t happen right away?
What this meant for Stephen was that even though he was the one who was faithful to God, he was alone and in a position of weakness – but he would not be weak forever! Even though he represented the truth, and the truth would ultimately prevail, it might not always prevail in the short term.
Sometimes God’s people, like Stephen and the rest of the Messianic Jewish Community are called upon to experience injustice and suffering – just like the Jewish people were called upon to suffer in the period of our Egyptian enslavement. But God spoke to this effect, that his descendants would be aliens in a foreign land, and that they would be enslaved and mistreated for four hundred years. And whatever nation to which they will be in bondage I Myself will judge’, said God, ‘and after that they will come out and serve Me in this place’. Knowing about the difficulties in store for his descendants, Abraham was faithful and obedient. God’s people may be mistreated for a time, even a long time like 400 years – but they will not be mistreated forever. Eventually they will be rescued and vindicated.
It might not have seemed to the Egyptians that the nation of Jewish slaves were the Chosen Nation, but they were! It might not have seemed to the Sanhedrin that Yeshua is the Messiah, but He was. It might not have appeared that the Yeshua-believing Jews were the faithful remnant, but they were. The Sanhedrin were acting like Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and they needed to stop it!
Stephen continued with his summary of Jewish history. 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. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were faithful and obedient to the things that the Lord asked them to do. The Jewish people had a good beginning. But, starting with the twelve sons of Jacob, a pattern of disobedience and unfaithfulness would ingrain itself in our national character. It started with Joseph and his eleven brothers. The patriarchs became jealous of Joseph and sold him into Egypt. The majority of the founders of the twelve tribes of the nation rejected the God-ordained leader of the Chosen Nation! That was very wrong. God had revealed that Joseph was to be the chosen leader of the nation. But the majority rejected God’s choice, and rejected Joseph and did something terrible to him – sold him into slavery. But in spite of their rejection, Joseph prevailed and was exalted and fulfilled God’s will and the rejected brother was made the leader of Israel!
Yet God was with him, and rescued him from all his afflictions, and granted him favor and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and he made him governor over Egypt and all his household. Now a famine came over all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction with it, and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers there the first time. On the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family was disclosed to Pharaoh. Then Joseph sent word and invited Jacob his father and all his relatives to come to him, seventy-five persons in all. And Jacob went down to Egypt and there he and our fathers died. Joseph, the honored and powerful assistant of the king of a great empire, who was at first rejected by his brothers, was later marvelously and shockingly revealed to them! He had become their God-ordained leader, just as the Lord had previously made clear. Joseph graciously forgave them and they were reconciled to him. Then, he saved them. And, that is what will happen one day with the One Who Is Greater Than Joseph! Messiah Yeshua, God’s Great Prime Minister, whom they had mistreated and rejected, will be acknowledged as God’s Prime Minister by all twelve tribes of Israel! Israel will be reconciled to Him and He will marvelously forgive us and save us!
From there they were removed to Shechem and laid in the tomb which Abraham had purchased for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. But as the time of the promise was approaching which God had assured to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt, until there arose another king over Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph. It was he who took shrewd advantage of our race and mistreated our fathers so that they would expose their infants and they would not survive. It was at this time that Moses was born; and he was lovely in the sight of God (and so was Yeshua, the prophet like Moses), and he was nurtured three months in his father’s home. And after he had been set outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him away and nurtured him as her own son. The God-appointed deliverer needed to be saved from a murderous scheme when he was an infant. The same was true of Yeshua, the prophet like Moses!
Moses was educated in all the learning of the Egyptians, and he was a man of power in words and deeds. So was Yeshua, the prophet like Moses! He was powerful in His teachings and in the miracles that the Lord enabled Him to do. But when he was approaching the age of forty, it entered his mind to visit his brothers, the sons of Israel. And when he saw one of them being treated unjustly, he defended him and took vengeance for the oppressed by striking down the Egyptian. And he supposed that his brothers understood that God was granting them deliverance through him, but they did not understand. (Nor did we understand that the same thing happened with Yeshua, the prophet greater than Moses. The majority didn’t understand that God was granting us salvation through Yeshua).
On the following day he appeared to them as they were fighting together, and he tried to reconcile them in peace, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers, why do you injure one another’? But the one who was injuring his neighbor pushed him away, saying, ‘who made you a ruler and judge over us? You do not mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday, do you’? At this remark, Moses fled and became an alien in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons. Moses, the God-ordained deliverer, was rejected by his people and had to leave the people whom he would later save. And, he left them for a long time. The same thing happened and will happen with Yeshua, the prophet greater than Moses!
After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning thorn bush. When Moses saw it, he marveled at the sight; and as he approached to look more closely, there came the voice of the Lord: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob’. Moses shook with fear and would not venture to look. But the Lord said to him, ‘take off the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. I have certainly seen the oppression of My people in Egypt and have heard their groans, and I have come down to rescue them; come now, and I will send you to Egypt’.
Stephen then gave the Sanhedrin the lesson he wanted them to understand from the life of Moses. This Moses whom they disowned, saying, ‘who made you a ruler and a judge?’ is the one whom God sent to be both a ruler and a deliverer with the help of the angel who appeared to him in the thorn bush (this angel is almost certainly “The Angel Of The Lord”. The Angel Of The Lord is the Son of God, the Messiah, before He came to Earth in the Incarnation). This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers’. Moses, the one whom our nation rejected, was in reality the God-sent, miracle-working leader and savior of Israel! So is Yeshua, the prophet greater than Moses!
Even after the Lord used Moses to do many great miracles and help the people, the great teacher and deliverer was rejected again by the majority of our faithless nation! This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you. Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘make for us gods who will go before us; for this Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what happened to him’. And, the Sanhedrin was doing the very same thing to Yeshua, the Savior greater than Moses and the teacher greater than Moses and the prophet greater than Moses! They were unwilling to be obedient to Yeshua and were rejecting, and by rejecting the Son, they were turning their backs on the Father!
Israel’s pattern of habitual disobedience continued after the golden calf fiasco. At that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, ‘it was not to Me that you offered victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, O house of Israel? You also took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rompha, the images which you made to worship. I also will remove you beyond Babylon’. The majority of the Chosen People continued to be unfaithful to God throughout our years in the wilderness. We rejected the true God and served other gods. We continued that pattern of faithless rejection of God for another 900 years. From the wilderness until the exile to Babylon, the majority of the nation worshiped other gods. Likewise, the rejection of God’s Son was equivalent to doing the same thing. To reject the Son is to reject the Father. The majority of the nation, led by the faithless Sanhedrin, were once again turning their backs on the Lord – which we had done so often before!
We continually rejected the God of Israel in spite of Him being so close to us. God’s presence in the Tabernacle testified of His reality and His truth and His nearness to us. Our fathers had the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness, just as He who spoke to Moses directed him to make it according to the pattern which he had seen. And having received it in their turn, our fathers brought it in with Joshua upon dispossessing the nations whom God drove out before our fathers, until the time of David. David found favor in God’s sight, and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for Him. However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says: ‘Heaven is My throne, and Earth is the footstool of My feet; what kind of house will you build for Me’? says the Lord, ‘or what place is there for My repose? Was it not My hand which made all these things’? No, the infinite God cannot be contained in a tent or house or temple – but He can fully live in a living and sinless human being who is made in His image! And, just as Israel was disobedient to God, even though He was close to us in the temple, the Sanhedrin had done the same thing. They were disobedient even though He came even closer to us in the Person of Yeshua, the One Who Is Greater Than The Temple, in whom God fully lives!
Finally, Stephen summarized his bold and true and powerful defense. You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it”.
In other words: I and the Messianic Yeshua-believing community are righteous and innocent. But you are the ones who are wrong! You are proud, stubborn, and not in a right relationship with God at the core of your beings! You are not hearing God speak to us in our day. You are resisting His Spirit! You are repeating the same pattern of faithlessness and disobedience that the majority of Israel has so often engaged in to our great detriment. Just as the majority of our ancestors killed the prophets, you members of the Sanhedrin betrayed and murdered Righteous Rabbi Yeshua, who always did what was right! You are lawbreakers and criminals of the highest order! Stephen had cleverly reversed their places. They were the one who should be on trial – not him!
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick (very very angry), and they began gnashing their teeth at him. They were experiencing tremendous anger and rage. In contrast, Stephen was experiencing something quite different. The Three-in-One God allowed this great servant in a very difficult moment to experience a rare glimpse into the very center of the universe! The veil that separates Heaven and Earth was torn allowing Stephen to see a heavenly vision. The Sanhedrin had sinned, and Stephen had made that clear. Now God allowed him to see and present to the Sanhedrin the positive side of his defense. But being full of the Holy Spirit (he was very close to God and God was very close to Him), he gazed intently into Heaven and saw the glory of God, and Yeshua standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the Heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”.
Stephen, who at that moment was very close to God, was privileged to see what few human beings have ever seen. He was given a glimpse into the very throne room of the universe! There he saw the glorious presence of God the Father, and there next to the Father was Yeshua the Son, in the position of greatest honor, at the Father’s right hand, standing there in a position to serve, standing to be in a position to quickly help His servants on Earth – like Stephen.
And, although it might not seem like Stephen was being helped by the Son of God, he was. He was being helped to tell the truth in a difficult situation; Yeshua was helping him with the grace to suffer and die in a way that honored God and fulfilled his life.
Due to Stephen’s charges against them and his declaration of his vision of Yeshua, the members of the Sanhedrin had worked themselves into a murderous rage. But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Luke introduces us to Rabbi Paul, who will become one of the very greatest witnesses for Yeshua the world has ever known. But Saul didn’t start off that way. He was one of those men who was close to the Sanhedrin and who rejected Yeshua and opposed and persecuted His followers).
They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Yeshua, receive my spirit”! Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. This is one of the few prayers directed to the Son of God Himself. Stephen died in faith, trusting God, trusting Yeshua, not angry at Him for allowing Him to die; asking Yeshua the Savior to receive his non-material part, the part of us that human beings can’t kill, into His presence in Heaven. Nor was Stephen angry at the Sanhedrin and their assistants for what they were doing. Like Yeshua dying and praying, Father forgive them, this great servant died praying for the forgiveness of those who were killing him. He fell asleep, because death for a great man like this (and Stephen is one of the greatest men who ever lived) is more like a short nap followed by a great awakening!
Lord, make us more like Stephen, who was filled with Your Holy Spirit!
Lord, make us more like Stephen, who was wise and knew Your Special Writings and understood what they really meant!
Lord, make us more like Stephen, who spoke the truth so boldly and clearly. May we not tone down the message and communicate to people who are not OK that they are OK!
Lord, make us more like Stephen, Your first New Covenant martyr and witness!
Lord, make us more like Stephen, who was able to stand firm in the midst of a great trial!
Lord, make us more like Stephen, who was so gracious and forgiving!
Notes On Chapter 7
The following note comes from The Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Acts, pages 340-341: There are a number of difficulties as to chronological sequence, historical numbers and the use of biblical quotations in Stephen’s address that have led to the most strenuous exercise of ingenuity on the part of commentators in their attempts to reconcile them… Verse 3 quotes the words of God to Abraham given in Genesis 12:1 and implies by its juxtaposition with v.2 that this message came to Abraham “while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he left Haran,” whereas the context of Genesis 12:1 suggests that it came to him in Haran. Verse 4 says that he left Haran after the death of his father, whereas the chronological data of Genesis 11:26-12:4 suggests that Terah’s death took place after Abraham’s departure from Haran. And verse 6 speaks of 400 years of slavery in Egypt, whereas Exodus 12:40 says 430.
We need not, however, get so disturbed over such things as, on the one hand, to pounce on them to disprove a “high view” of biblical inspiration, or, on the other hand, to attempt to harmonize them so as to support such a view. These matters relate to the conflations and inexactitude of popular Judaism, not necessarily to some then-existing scholastic tradition or to variant textual traditions. In large measure they can be paralleled in other popular writings of the day, whether overtly Hellenistic or simply more nonconformist in the broadest sense of that term. Philo, for example, also explained Abraham’s departure from Ur of the Chaldees by reference to Genesis 12:1 (De Abrahamo 62-67), even though he knew that Genesis 12:1-5 is in the context of leaving Haran (cf. De Migratione Abrahami 176). Josephus spoke of Abraham’s being seventy-five years old when he left Chaldea (contra Genesis 12:4, which says he was seventy-five when he left Haran) and of leaving Chaldea because God bade him go to Canaan, with evident allusion to Genesis 12:1 (cf. Antiq.I, 154
Two further difficulties … are (1) the number seventy-five in verse 14 for the total number who originally went down to Egypt, whereas Genesis 46:27 (MT) sets the figure at seventy (i.e., sixty-six plus Jacob, Joseph, Joseph, and the latter’s two sons), and (2), the confusion in verse 16 between Abraham’s tomb at Hebron, in the cave of Machpelah, which Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite (cf. Genesis 23:3-20) and wherein Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried (cf. Genesis 49:29-33; 50:13), and the burial plot purchased by Jacob at Shechem from the sons of Hamor, wherein Joseph and his descendants were buried (cf. Joshua 24:32). Again, these are but further examples of the conflations and inexactitudes of Jewish popular religion, which, it seems, Luke simply recorded from his sources in his attempt to be faithful to what Stephen actually said in his portrayal. And again, they can in large measure be paralleled elsewhere. Genesis 46:27 in the LXX, for example, does not include Jacob and Joseph but does include nine sons of Joseph in the reckoning, thereby arriving at “seventy-five souls” all together who went down to Egypt. And with And with this number both Exodus 1:5 (LXX) and 4QExod(a) at 1:5 agree. Likewise, the telescoping of the two burial grounds in this verse can be compared to the similar phenomenon with regards to Abraham’s two calls in verses 2-3.
There is remarkable psychological or emotional truth in Luke’s report of Stephen’s address. Stephen, with his life at stake, was speaking under intense emotion and with God-given eloquence. With remarkable verisimilitude Luke shows him using commonly understood language as in vivid terms and with burning eloquence he refers to Israel’s history. Stephen’s speech was not a scholarly historical survey; it was a powerful portrayal of God’s dealings with Israel and it mounted inexorably to a climax that unmasked the obstinacy and disobedience of Israel and of their leaders in Stephen’s time. Church history knows of few, if any, greater displays of moral courage than Stephen showed in this speech. And to dissect it on precisionist grounds shows lack of understanding of its basic truth.
A Note On Angels And The Revelation Of God
Stephen mentions angel or angels four times in his address to the Sanhedrin. Of importance is the help of angels in the giving of the Law. In his commentary on Acts, F.F. Bruce notes that the angel whom Moses saw (verse 30) was the special “Angel of the Lord” (Exodus 3:2), that is, God Himself in His manifestation to human beings. The “angel of the presence” of God (literally “the messenger of His face” is the angel who makes God’s presence real to human beings – in other words, the Angel of the Lord. The book of Exodus makes no mention of this angel in the account of the giving of the Law; we may compare, however, “the angel of God” in Exodus 14:19; also Exodus 33:14, “My presence will go with you” where “My presence” is literally “My face”. See also Isaiah 63:9 (in all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them). Deuteronomy 33:2 in the Septuagint reads: The Lord has come from Sinai, and shone forth unto us in Seir; He came with haste from Mount Paran, with the myriads of Kadesh were angels with Him at His right hand”.