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).
  • I'm pretty sure that it is not simply to delay his death as long as possible... May 31, 2012 at 19:48
  • The reason Luke dedicates such a long portion of text to his dissertation is because it basically represents the new faith's first systematic manifesto; Christianity's apologia pro vita sua, as it were.
    – Lucian
    Oct 25, 2021 at 7:10

7 Answers 7


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.

  • 2
    That outline is very helpful to understanding Stephen's argument. Thanks! Jun 5, 2012 at 20:44
  • 2
    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. Jun 5, 2012 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, 2012 at 20:56
  • 1
    It appears there is no direct support for tables. You might consider using this tool, but it will probably look strange for mobile devices. Jun 5, 2012 at 21:11
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    @BobJones Sorry I had to downvote. Way too many up votes. Your answer depends too much on Hebrews 11 and 12 and not on what Stephen has said or appears to imply. Where does Stephen mention that Abraham's father stood in his way? Where does he say that Joseph was looking for a kingdom? Where does he state that Moses died in the wilderness? I agree that Stephen is saying the events he mentions were types and shadows fulfilled in Christ and his generation but you've added a great deal to what Stephen has actually said. May 9, 2013 at 6:21

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.


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!


Stephen narrated a long history relating to God's grand vision to reaffirm his position that both the Law and the temple would be done away with. He recounted where the ancestors of Israel had come from, the purpose of their call, what God expected of their ancestors, their rebellion against God and the consequences to come upon the new generation of Israelites. This is what Stephen began to say: "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 them “Get out of your country and from your relatives and come to the land I will show you” (Acts 7:1-3).

In short, the ancestors of Israel migrated from Mesopotamia, the land between the two rivers Euphrates and Tigris, which is largely occupied by modern Iraq. Given the Mesopotamian background of the Israelites, many biblical studies have focused on understanding Mesopotamian history and religion; and their influence on Israelite religion and culture. These anthropological studies have focused on what was happening in Mesopotamia and why God called Abraham and his family out of the land of the Chaldeans. Interest in Mesopotamia also stems from the fact that it was the cradle of human civilization. The Mesopotamians invented the wheel. They built the first temples (ziggurats). They invented writing on clay tablets. Indeed, the Mesopotamians have the earliest records of human history. Much of the diverse creation stories emerged from Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia was a fertile land and attracted many ancient peoples to fight for a place in the region (Gen. 11:2). Many great civilizations have conquered and occupied parts of Mesopotamia before. They include the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Later, Babylon the Great became the spiritual and cultural center of Mesopotamia. Therefore Mesopotamia had great influence on global religion and culture.

The Mesopotamians were polytheistic. The great flood occurred in Mesopotamia. But the Mesopotamians gave their own interpretation of the flood event as found in the legendary Epic of Gilgamesh. They also had their own versions of creation stories with variations among the ancient Near Eastern countries. They built their temples, with their own elaborate systems of pagan worship. Indeed Mesopotamian mythological traditions obscured knowledge of the true God.

But God revealed Himself to Abram while he was still in Mesopotamia. It is apparent that with the isolation of Abram from Mesopotamia, the God of the Israelites was going to prepare and set him and his descendants on a spiritual war path against Mesopotamian mythological traditions, described by Isaiah as “superstitions from the East” (Isaiah 2:6); and aimed to eventually destroy her traditions and influence on global secular culture (Jer. 50 & 51). The prophetic victory song of Rev. 18:2: “Babylon the great has fallen!” reflects the accomplishment of this divine vision!

Therefore in God’s grand vision, He was going to grant the Israelites a new understanding of Mesopotamian historical experiences such as Noah's flood event; and a new religion altogether. According to Stephen, as part of God's plan, He gave their ancestors the tabernacle made according to the pattern in heaven as a symbol of God’s presence with the Israelites (Acts 7:44). God did not permit them to build any images of earthly objects and worship them. But their ancestors rebelled against God, made a graven image – the golden calf, and worshiped it according to the traditions of their fathers (Acts 7:39-43). This defeats God's grand scheme. And it provoked God to anger; so He destroyed the golden calf.

Then came also David, who proposed to build a temple for God. But the worship of gods in temples was also a contemporary religious tradition of the ancient Near Eastern peoples. God was therefore displeased with David’s proposal because like the golden calf, it defeats the purpose for which He called their ancestors from Mesopotamia. God therefore queried, (paraphrased): “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool. How can you contain me in a temple built with hands?

But because David found favour with God, He permitted his son Solomon to build the temple. In many other ways, when the Israelites rejected Him, God gave them up and dealt with them under such principles of the world (Gal. 4:3). Paul explains that God cleverly utilized such worldly elements (as the temple) of worship as pedagogical techniques and foundational concepts to teach spiritual truths whilst ameliorating them to give the Israelites a gospel taste. Given the background that the temple contradicts God's purpose for calling their ancestors from Mesopotamia, Stephen showed the contending Jews that, in time to come, the temple would suffer the same fate as the golden calf. This revelation by Stephen about the fall of the temple is what the Jews could not take; and they stoned him. In sum, the narrative of Stephen points to a new religious order that opposes Mesopotamian mythological traditions. And indeed, all Mesopotamian traditions which had religious extension into Judasim through the Law were bound to be abolished in the New Testament.


In short,

Stephen was outlining the lineage of faith that existed from Abraham until Jesus.

God's people are people of faith (Hebrews 11)

Stephen was a man full of faith (Acts 6:5), and every event he listed was an example of faith (and subsequent actions) by God's people in what God had spoken.

Stephen speaks about Egypt because this was a time when God brought much tribulation upon his people through trials and bondage.

This was a time to test God's peoples faith.

And as Moses led the Exodus, God began to reveal those men that were not of faith. Men of Israel that had been corrupted through idol worship, or men in Egypt that had mingled themselves within God's people.

Not all of these men were rooted out, and some of them made it to the promised land. These men were the fathers of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

As Jesus knew, so Stephen knew that they were not men of faith.

And in his speech he is calling them out as worshippers of Moloch and Remphan and exposing when their fathers first began to be assimilated within God's people.

Hence the distinction Stephen makes between "our fathers" and "your fathers"

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    – agarza
    Oct 18, 2021 at 15:27

Before Joshua died, he gave a similar lengthy speech to the Israelites outlining their history in Joshua 24.

Stephen might have pattern his speech after Joshua's. Initially, he tried to appeal to their strong sense of being the same people and shared the same history. Alas, history itself showed that Act 7:

51 You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit, just as your fathers did. 52Which of the prophets did your fathers fail to persecute? They even killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One. And now you are His betrayers and murderers— 53you who received the law ordained by angels, yet have not kept it.”

At this point, they could no longer tolerate Stephen's speech.

Why did Stephen give such a long speech?

I don't think Stephen had planned the long speech at the outset. He was just taking things a tiny step at a time and see where it would lead and it led to his death according to the purpose of God.


I know many have tried to give some explanation, to make some sense out of it. And I don't necessarily disagree with all the conclusions.

But like you highlighted the jump in reasoning made little sense, it felt very much like an incomplete speech.

From fhe God who made heaven and earth cannot reside in a man made house to you stiff necked people ... I felt he was actually heading towards what Jesus said about us humans being the actual temple of God and where He indeed resides.

I strongly feel the ending part of that speech was indeed removed, or edited. Can't say why, but that very detailed and long speech did not end in a coherent way.


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