Lesson II.E.1: Stephen’s Sermon Part 1a of 7
by John Lowe
(Laurens SC, USA)
Stephen's speech is piercing, logical, and powerful; not intended to conciliate, but to show the Jews their own sins.
January 15, 2014
Acts of the Apostles
By: Tom Lowe
Lesson II.E.1: Stephen’s Sermon Part 1a of 7 (7:1-53)
Part 1: verses 1-14
Stephen makes a rather long defense of himself before the council, after all, he is facing a death sentence. He doesn’t go directly to the point raised by his accusers, but instead goes into a lengthy history of his nation (I believe we are only given a small part of his speech). His objective seems to have been to show:
1. That he deeply respected, and was very knowledgeable of the history of the Jewish nation.
2. That in resisting the formation of the Gospel kingdom they were merely following in their fathers' footsteps—the entire history of their nation was one continuous misunderstanding of God's plans and intentions towards fallen man, and they were in rebellion against Him and His plans.
1 Then said the high priest, Are these things so?
Then said the high priest.
The last verse of the preceding chapter stated, “And all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel (6:15)” The glorified countenance of Stephen had caused a pause of surprise and admiration, which the high-priest interrupts by asking the accused to make his defense.
The high priest acted as president of the Sanhedrim (Acts 9:11; Matthew 26:622).
This high priest was probably Theophilus, the son of Annas, son-in-law of Caiaphas, and brother of Jonathan. Since he was the official in charge of the proceedings he called for Stephen to defend himself against the charge of blasphemy (Acts 6:13, 143). Steven is allowed to plead his case, but it would be under a disguise and pretense of a fair trial, since the court had already determined to put him to death.
“But how could Luke get all this circumstantial information?” is a legitimate question. He might have been present, and heard everything; or, it is more likely that he heard the account from Paul while serving as his companion, for we know Paul was present when Stephen was judged and stoned, because he was consenting to his death, and held the coats of those who stoned him (Acts 7:584; Acts 8:15; Acts 22:206).
“Why did Stephen preach this sermon?” is another legitimate question. Do you remember the charges brought against Stephen in Acts 6:117 and 13-143: First, they charged him with speaking blasphemous words against Moses and the Law, and that he urged others to change Jewish customs. Second, that he spoke blasphemous words against God and God’s dwelling place, the temple. In this sermon, Stephen gives a brief history of the Jewish nation as it is reported in the Old Testament. We shouldn’t suppose that Stephen’s purpose was to instruct 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! 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. Such a speech could not secure an acquittal before the Sanhedrin. It is essentially a defense based upon the truth that pure Christianity is God’s appointed way of worship.
Stephen, as far as we are told, had not known the Lord during His life on earth. Certainly, he was not appointed, like the apostles, to be a witness of that life. He was simply the instrument of the Holy Ghost, distributing the gospel of Christ to anyone who would listen.
Are these things so?
Can you see with your mind’s eye this brave man standing alone before the highest Jewish court, and can you hear the court’s president as he asks, “Is it true what they say, that you have spoken blasphemous words against the temple, and the law, and have you said that Jesus of Nazareth will destroy our temple and our law? What do you have to say for yourself, and in your own defense? Did you really predict the destruction of the temple? And did you actually say that Jesus of Nazareth will change our customs, abolish our religious rites and temple service? Have you spoken these ridiculous, blasphemous things against Moses, and against God? There was a hint of justice in that Stephen was permitted to defend himself. And, in the course of making his defense, he would give an account of their history from the beginning of their nation; and he would show how kindly God had dealt with them, and in return, how ungraciously they and their fathers had treated Him. And all this naturally led him to the conclusion, that God could no longer bear with a people whose cup of iniquity had been overflowing for a long time; and therefore they might expect to receive from God, wrath, without mercy.
Are these things so? Have you ever spoken any words that threatened our God, His Law, or the temple? If you have, will you renounce them now, or will you stand upon your words? Guilty or not guilty?" This may have had the appearance of fairness, and yet it seems to have been said with an air of haughtiness; and one gets the impression that he has prejudged the defendant, that, if it were true, that he had indeed spoken such words, he will certainly be declared a blasphemer, in spite of whatever he may offer in the way of justification or explanation.
2 And he said , Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken ; The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran,
And he said
This is where Stephen’s speech begins. It was supposed to be his reply to the high priest’s question; but he addressed the whole Sanhedrim, and instead of defending himself, he talked about Jewish history and will show that Jesus was the long-anticipated Messiah. He said,
Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken.
He calls them men, brethren, and fathers. Brethren was a Hebraism; it was common practice with the Jews to call those of their own country and religion, brethren; and he calls them fathers because of their age and out of respect for their position as members of the great council of the nation, who were chosen out of the senior and wiser part of the people. These were the usual titles by which the Sanhedrin was addressed. Stephen was perfectly respectful, and showed that he was willing to render appropriate honor to the institutions of the nation, even though, for the most part, these men were the sworn enemies of Christ. And because they governed the people and had the oversight of the Church, which God had not yet cast off, he did not hesitate to call them fathers. It wasn’t flattery, nor did he hope to gain their sympathy or support by it; but he called them that to honor the government appointed by God, until the time when their authority is taken from them. Nevertheless, the respect he showed for the position they held did not prevent him from giving voice to the words which the Holy Spirit placed in his mind. The Spirit would instruct him in his defense to reveal the fact that his accusers were fighting God, and to preach Christ. Stephen will rapidly outline Jewish history. He will make a point with every fact he cites; the main points being:
1. That Abraham was called while he was uncircumcised, and the Christ was promised through his seed before he was circumcised.
2. That Joseph, who was a type of Christ, was rejected by his brethren, and afterward saves them.
3. That Moses was also rejected and despised, but God chose him to save Israel.
4. That the Israelites went whoring after false gods and were carried into captivity.
5. That God had the tabernacle and temple built, but was careful to assure Israel that he dwelt not in temples made with human hands.
6. That their Moses, whom the people rejected and refused to obey, predicted a prophet who would be like himself.
7. That in the rejection of Christ, they showed the same spirit as their fathers who had rejected and slain the prophets who predicted Christ's coming.
The speech is piercing, logical, and powerful; not intended to conciliate, but to show the Jews their own sins.
The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham.
The God of glory is a Hebrew form of expression denoting "the glorious God." It expresses His "majesty, or splendor, or magnificence"; and the word "glory" is often used to describe the marvelous appearances in which God has shown Himself to people, (Deuteronomy 5:248—also see Exodus 33:18; Exodus 16:7, Exodus 16:10; Leviticus 9:23; Numbers 14:10). Perhaps Stephen meant to assert that God appeared to Abraham in some glorious manifestation, so that there would be no doubt that he was being addressed by Almighty God. Furthermore, the word "glory" may have been meant to ward off the charge of "blasphemy" against God, and to show that he regarded Him as being worthy of honor and praise.
By beginning with God’s appearance to Abraham he indicates that he doesn’t disagree with the fathers on what constitutes true religion—the religion of the Jews. For them, all religion, the worship of God, the doctrine of the law, all prophecies, depended upon that covenant which God made with Abraham; therefore, when Stephen declared that God appeared to Abraham, he embraced the law and the prophets, which stem from that first revelation.The God of Glory would also serve to distinguish Him from the false gods worshipped by the heathens.