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Before he was stoned, Stephen gives a huge speech (Acts 7) going over Israeli history, from Abraham through Moses to David.

I really don't understand the purpose of it. What is the overall message? And why does he need to go into so much detail? The most puzzling bit for me is the end, where he goes from you can't make a house for God to you stiff-necked people in almost the same breath.

The only theory I have is that he is using Moses as

  1. an archetype of Jesus and
  2. a way of getting through to his audience, since they considered speaking against Moses as blasphemy, as bad as speaking against God (Acts 6:11).
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I'm pretty sure that it is not simply to delay his death as long as possible... – Wikis May 31 '12 at 19:48
up vote 10 down vote accepted

I had to outline Stephen's speech to see if he answered the question directly:

  • Abraham was given a promise of a land.
    His father stood in the way. So Abraham did not receive the inheritance.

  • Joseph was given the promise of a kingdom.
    His brothers stood in the way. So he did not get the kingdom he looked for (asking for his bones to be carried out of Egypt).

  • Moses was given a promise of a land.
    The people opposed him. So he died in the wilderness.

  • David was given a promise of a perpetual kingdom.
    The people worshiped idols and opposed God. So they were taken into captivity.

  • God promised Israel that he would dwell among them.
    Christ became incarnate. But he was opposed by those who worshiped a building made with human hands.

The tabernacle in the wilderness was erected in a single day as a symbol that the Lord would "come quickly" to his people. Jesus would tear down the idolatrous system of merit by works of the hand, and three days later build the tabernacle where God dwells with men in his own resurrection.

This is the same theme as Hebrews 11 & 12 where the fathers looked for a city not built with hands. The author of Hebrews makes the point that all these things were just shadows of the fulfillment in Christ. Stephen effectively preaches the same sermon but points the finger at the ones who oppose Jesus as the ante-types of the ones who always opposed the chosen one of God.

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That outline is very helpful to understanding Stephen's argument. Thanks! – Jon Ericson Jun 5 '12 at 20:44
By the way, I tried to reformat the answer so that it's a little easier for me to read. Don't hesitate to ask in chat or on the meta if you need help getting your posts looking the way you want them. The formatting was designed by programmers for programmers, so it might not be intuitive to everyone else. – Jon Ericson Jun 5 '12 at 20:47
@Jon I'm barely able to navigate. I figure there is always a competent programmer sitting in the wings just chomping at the bit to correct my errors... and sure enough one came flying out of the rafters ;-) Thanks for doing that. But since you're here, how do you do a three-column table? – Bob Jones Jun 5 '12 at 20:56
It appears there is no direct support for tables. You might consider using this tool, but it will probably look strange for mobile devices. – Jon Ericson Jun 5 '12 at 21:11
Thanks. That is cool. Now I have to find the question concerning Ex 4 where I needed it.. – Bob Jones Jun 5 '12 at 21:21

Stephen's long and meandering history may not appear to have a point, let alone answer the charges leveled against him. But Stephen is indeed addressing these charges:

“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.”

Here's what I think 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 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) But the Holy Land is still a special place.

But Stephen still maintains that it is the place to which God has promised and called his people.

  • God promised this land to Abraham (7:5).
  • God promises that Abraham's descendents will worship in this place (7:7)
  • Jacob and the patriarchs are buried here (7:15-16).

In a bit of a side note, Stephen links the covenant of circumcision with the promise of the land (7:7-8). I think this important for later questions about circumcision in Acts 15.

(3) 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 as their deliver 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 Sinai receiving the the law so Stephen's implies that his audience in a similar is denying that Jesus is ascended and mediating for us in the presence of God.

(4) Israel has rejected God's pattern and instead worshiped the temple 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 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 of Israel by God 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.

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Acts 7 takes 8 to 9 minutes to read out loud and most of it is Stephen's speech. So that's a fairly long answer to the question "Are these things so?" However, Acts 6:8-15 makes clear that this speech is essentially Stephen's defense against a charge of blasphemy. From that perspective, he wasn't give much time at all.

So what are we to make of this speech, which is too short to be a word-for-word transcription of Stephen's defense, but too long to be a simple answer to the high priest's question? Presumably, Luke following the model of Thucydides, who wrote:

With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.—Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.1.22

We know from Acts 7:54 that Paul (nee Saul) was present as a witness to Stephen's execution. Since Luke traveled with Paul at times, we can speculate with confidence that he was Luke's source for the incident.

The context of Stephen's arrest and trial, do indicate connections to Moses:

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “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.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.—Acts 6:8-15 (ESV)

Also notice the crime Stephen was charged with: "This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law." Given that Jesus himself spoke words predicting the downfall of the Temple and Jerusalem, and also condemned the standard practices of the Pharisees, it seems likely the charges against Stephen were based on fact. So he could not mount a defense on basis of a false accusation.

Therefore Stephen's defense turns on an understanding of the broad sweep of history that lead up to the life and death of Jesus. The speech hammers home the point that the Mosaic Law was insufficient to fulfill God's promise to Abraham. (There's a strong consonance to Paul's argument along the same lines in Galatians.) To drive the point home, Stephen points to the execution of prophets and Jesus himself as proof that the council of elders did not keep the law or listen to the Holy Spirit. It's the "...And Justice for All" defense:

You're out of order! You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order!

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