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Stephen's Defense

INTRODUCTION: In the passage for this study, Stephen stands before the Jewish council, and he is asked to respond to the charges brought against him. His defense unfolds as a narrative of the history of Israel that should have led all God-fearing Jews to the same conclusion reached by Stephen and all others who were saved by grace through faith; when that history is seen as the precursor to the teaching, miracles, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This study will examine the history as Stephen presented it from the Old Testament, and the reasons why his outlined sequence is a logical scriptural defense for Stephen against any charge of blasphemy. The detail that Stephen includes indicates his familiarity with, and firm belief in, the Hebrew scripture passages he alludes to as he speaks extemporaneously before well educated religious leaders. None of the New Testament had been written at this time, but the life and works of Jesus were well known in Jerusalem and Israel, especially to the religious leaders who so violently opposed Jesus.

Later, the converted Paul provides a statement to verify that the teachings, miracles, and resurrection of Jesus were widely known throughout Israel. "25 But he said, I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness. 26 For the king knows of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner." (Acts 26:25-26 AKJV).

NOTE: All Bible text is taken from the American King James Version of the Bible.

A - Acts 7

1 Then said the high priest, Are these things so? 2 And he said, Men, brothers, and fathers, listen; The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelled in Charran, 3 And said to him, Get you out of your country, and from your kindred, and come into the land which I shall show you. 4 Then came he out of the land of the Chaldaeans, and dwelled in Charran: and from there, when his father was dead, he removed him into this land, wherein you now dwell.

COMMENTS: When the high priest asked Stephen if the charges of blasphemy were true, Stephen opened with an address of respect to his audience: using first a general term of "men", moving to "brothers" as a term denoting Jewish peers, and concluding with "fathers" denoting his respect for authority. He began to establish his answer that his faith was not at all contrary or blasphemous, by starting with Abraham, the father figure of all Jews. It was important to highlight the fact that Abraham obediently left Mesopotamia for Charran (i.e. Haran) because the God of glory had appeared to him with that instruction while he was still in esopotamia. When Abraham's father was dead, Abraham was no longer in Charran, because God had caused him to move to the land wherein these Jews now resided; and their presence there at this time was proof that God had kept his promise to bring Abraham's descendents into that land. This brings to focus that the very father of all Jews was obedient to the call of God, even to the point of leaving his homeland and his kindred to follow after God. An unstated conclusion is that all who are true Jews in their heart must demonstrate the same faithful obedience to God's instruction even when the result is not clear, or immediate.

"1 Now the LORD had said to Abram, Get you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you: 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing: 3 And I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you: and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed. 4 So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken to him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran." (Genesis 12:1-4 AKJV).

Well after Stephen's death, the writer of Hebrews characterized the obedience by faith of this same act by Abraham. "By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing where he went." (Hebrews 11:8 AKJV).

B - Acts 7

5 And he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child. 6 And God spoke on this wise, That his seed should sojourn in a strange land; and that they should bring them into bondage, and entreat them evil four hundred years. 7 And the nation to whom they shall be in bondage will I judge, said God: and after that shall they come forth, and serve me in this place.

COMMENTS: Stephen continues to refer to scripture showing that Abraham had to place his faith in God's word about promises concerning future events. As he dwelt in Canaan, he had no property ownership and he had no offspring at that point when God promised to make Abraham a great name for future generations, and that would be from his own offspring. "4 And, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, This shall not be your heir; but he that shall come forth out of your own bowels shall be your heir. 5 And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if you be able to number them: and he said to him, So shall your seed be. 6 And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness. 7 And he said to him, I am the LORD that brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it." (Genesis 15:4-7 AKJV). God also told Abraham that he would die in peace at a good old age, knowing that after a long period of oppression, the Lord would punish the enslaving nation and bring his descendents back into Canaan. "13 And he said to Abram, Know of a surety that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not their's, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; 14 And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. 15 And you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 But in the fourth generation they shall come here again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." (Genesis 15:13-16 AKJV).

So the promise to Abraham was not only far off, but it also required growth of the number of his descendents while they were under oppression. As Stephen is speaking before the ruling council composed of men who seemingly accept this history as demonstration of God's fulfilled revelation to Abraham, they should be tracking with Stephen to the next step of God's plan.

C - Acts 7

8 And he gave him the covenant of circumcision: and so Abraham begat Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat the twelve patriarchs. 9 And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt: but God was with him, 10 And delivered him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favor and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house.

COMMENTS: Stephen presents a very condensed version of The unfolding of God's promises, and the child of promise is circumcised on the eighth day as required by God's covenant with Abraham. "3 And Abraham called the name of his son that was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac being eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 And Abraham was an hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born to him." (Genesis 21:3-5 AKJV).

Isaac and Rebekah had two sons, but Stephen does not even mention Esau (AKA. Edom). . Even though they were born as fraternal twins, Jacob is the one blessed by the Lord. Later Jacob's name was changed by the Lord to Israel as he returned from his grandfather's homeland where he had gotten his wives, the mothers of his twelve sons. "And he said, Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince have you power with God and with men, and have prevailed." (Genesis 32:28 AKJV).

Jacob's son Joseph was sold into slavery, but God took Joseph from the position of a slave to that of second only to Pharaoh in Egypt. Stephen's statement about Joseph was clear in giving God the glory, as he said, "God was with him, and delivered him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favor and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh." Stephen's inspired summary statements of the Old Testament provide accurate commentary. "39 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, For as much as God has showed you all this, there is none so discreet and wise as you are: 40 You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than you. 41 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt. 42 And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it on Joseph's hand, and arrayed him in clothing of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; 43 And he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him, Bow the knee: and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt." (Genesis 41:39-43 AKJV). The scripture that these educated Jews should know very well, records the working of God even though Joseph was carried into Egypt as a slave because of the envy of his own brothers who were all under the covenant of circumcision.

D - Acts 7

11 Now there came a dearth over all the land of Egypt and Chanaan, and great affliction: and our fathers found no sustenance. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was corn in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first. 13 And at the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers; and Joseph's kindred was made known to Pharaoh. 14 Then sent Joseph, and called his father Jacob to him, and all his kindred, three score and fifteen souls. 15 So Jacob went down into Egypt, and died, he, and our fathers, 16 And were carried over into Sychem, and laid in the sepulcher that Abraham bought for a sum of money of the sons of Emmor the father of Sychem.

COMMENTS: As Stephen stated, so continues the record of the Old Testament. "1 Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said to his sons, Why do you look one on another? 2 And he said, Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt: get you down thither, and buy for us from there; that we may live, and not die." (Genesis 42:1-2 AKJV). Pharaoh was gracious to Joseph and his family when he heard of them. "15 Moreover he kissed all his brothers, and wept on them: and after that his brothers talked with him. 16 And the fame thereof was heard in Pharaoh's house, saying, Joseph's brothers are come: and it pleased Pharaoh well, and his servants. 17 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, Say to your brothers, This do you; lade your beasts, and go, get you to the land of Canaan; 18 And take your father and your households, and come to me: and I will give you the good of the land of Egypt, and you shall eat the fat of the land." (Genesis 45:15-18 AKJV).

Stephen recounts the fact that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were buried in Canaan, while the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel remained in the land of Egypt. When Jacob moved his entire family down into Egypt they were few in number, and when he died, he was not buried in Egypt, but his bones were carried up to the burial plot that Abraham had purchased in Canaan. "4 And when the days of his mourning were past, Joseph spoke to the house of Pharaoh, saying, If now I have found grace in your eyes, speak, I pray you, in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, 5 My father made me swear, saying, See, I die: in my grave which I have dig for me in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me. Now therefore let me go up, I pray you, and bury my father, and I will come again. 6 And Pharaoh said, Go up, and bury your father, according as he made you swear." (Genesis 50:4-6 AKJV). So, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were buried in the burial plot of the patriarchs, and none of these three patriarchs remained alive in their natural bodies to see the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham. But Jesus made a startling statement about Abraham seeing that fulfillment. We have that record; and perhaps Stephen new of the teaching of Jesus on this matter.

"56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. 57 Then said the Jews to him, You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham? 58 Jesus said to them, Truly, truly, I say to you, Before Abraham was, I am." (John 8:56-58 AKJV). Jesus not only saw Abraham because Jesus existed before Abraham, but Abraham was able to rejoice to see Jesus in the flesh because Jesus made this statement about Abraham! "37 Now that the dead are raised, even Moses showed at the bush, when he calls the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 For he is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live to him." (Luke 20:37-38 AKJV).

E - Acts 7

17 But when the time of the promise drew near, which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt, 18 Till another king arose, which knew not Joseph. 19 The same dealt subtly with our kindred, and evil entreated our fathers, so that they cast out their young children, to the end they might not live. 20 In which time Moses was born, and was exceeding fair, and nourished up in his father's house three months: 21 And when he was cast out, Pharaoh's daughter took him up, and nourished him for her own son. 22 And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds.

COMMENTS: Joseph was used of God to provide for the children of Israel, but after his death, Joseph was forgotten by the Egyptians. Believers should not forget about Joseph in the same way as did the unbelieving Egyptians; because Joseph had this to say to his fearful brothers after their father had died. "But as for you, you thought evil against me; but God meant it to good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive." (Genesis 50:20 AKJV). Each step being outlined by Stephen, demonstrates that our God is in complete control of all of history to bring about that which He has determined. If we had been among the Jews who lived in Egypt after Joseph's death and before the exodus under Moses, would we have been able to hold onto a stable faith in our God as we were oppressed? As we wait for the return of Christ, do we maintain a stable faith despite much suffering around the world? Since the Jewish religious leaders were holding Stephen as a blasphemer, even though they had the same record of scripture as he had, should we be surprised when many people of today reject the evidence that Christ Jesus is Lord and Savior, and even hate those who proclaim Christ?

F - Acts 7

23 And when he was full forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended him, and avenged him that was oppressed, and smote the Egyptian: 25 For he supposed his brothers would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not. 26 And the next day he showed himself to them as they strove, and would have set them at one again, saying, Sirs, you are brothers; why do you wrong one to another? 27 But he that did his neighbor wrong thrust him away, saying, Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Will you kill me, as you did the Egyptian yesterday? 29 Then fled Moses at this saying, and was a stranger in the land of Madian, where he begat two sons.

COMMENTS: Although Moses was highly revered among the Jews in Stephen's time, he had been rejected by the children of Israel and caused to flee from Egypt after he had killed an Egyptian in defense of a mistreated Jew. Moses was a shepherd in the land of the Midianites (rendered as Madian in the Acts passage) for forty years before the Lord sent him back to his people. When Stephen mentions that Moses had two sons before he returned to Egypt, he does not include the detail that their mother was a Midianite woman. But it is interesting that the Midianites were also descendents of Abraham through Ishmael (the circumcised son of the Egyptian slave woman), and the men who had bought Joseph as a slave and sold him into Egypt over three hundred years earlier, were Midianites! Those Midianites were descendents of a circumcised son of Abraham, but not descendents of the circumcised son of promise.

G - Acts 7

30 And when forty years were expired, there appeared to him in the wilderness of mount Sina an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he wondered at the sight: and as he drew near to behold it, the voice of the LORD came to him, 32 Saying, I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Then Moses trembled, and dared not behold. 33 Then said the Lord to him, Put off your shoes from your feet: for the place where you stand is holy ground. 34 I have seen, I have seen the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and I have heard their groaning, and am come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you into Egypt.

COMMENTS: Forty years is a long time with seemingly no progress in God's plan for Moses, or for the release of the children of Israel from their plight in Egypt. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob said he had come down to deliver "his people", so Moses was to be God's instrument as God brought about the deliverance. He commissioned Moses to return to the land of bondage. And this was because the Lord said, "I have seen the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and I have heard their groaning." The Lord Jesus came not to lead His people out of one physical land and into another, but rather out of the bondage to sin and death, and into His kingdom of eternal life. Stephen will continue this subtle comparison between Moses and Jesus, rather than using more direct terms, but being more direct probably would not have been effective anyway at this point because of what he will later say about the Jews who are his audience.

H - Acts 7

35 This Moses whom they refused, saying, Who made you a ruler and a judge? the same did God send to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the angel which appeared to him in the bush. 36 He brought them out, after that he had showed wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red sea, and in the wilderness forty years.

COMMENTS: God had sent Moses but the people rejected him by saying, "who made you to be a ruler and a judge over us?" But God had sent him for this very purpose, so they were rejecting God. Stephen's audience utterly fails to recognize the parallel of their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. After many signs and miracles performed by God, Moses did lead the people out of Egypt as he had been sent to do. Moses continued to lead them in the wilderness for forty years before they could enter the land promised to Abraham, but they repeatedly rebelled against God as they thought more about what they left in Egypt, than what God had promised in a land they had not yet seen. This was not like Abraham, their forefather in faith, who believed in a promise that was far off in time. And after many signs and miracles, Jesus capped his witness of truth with his own resurrection from the dead! Unbelief has remained unchanged throughout man's history, as man rejects truth not by a lack of evidence, but by a lack of faith in the God of truth.

I - Acts 7

37 This is that Moses, which said to the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up to you of your brothers, like to me; him shall you hear. 38 This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spoke to him in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give to us: 39 To whom our fathers would not obey, but thrust him from them, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt, 40 Saying to Aaron, Make us gods to go before us: for as for this Moses, which brought us out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.

COMMENTS: Stephen now reminds his listeners that Moses had said God would send another prophet like himself, and they would need to hear (and respond to ) him. God was with the congregation (rendered above as church) in the wilderness, and with Moses in Mount Sinai, and even with the forefathers. Those forefathers received the "lively oracles" [the words leading to true life) to pass on to succeeding generations, but many of them rejected God and asked for a golden calf to worship, and dismissed Moses as not worthy to follow.

Stephen is still too subtle for his audience here, as he is leading up to the point of a more direct and offensive comment to them. They will not accept that Jesus is that prophet promised by God unless the Holy Spirit works in their hearts, and Stephen probably knows they will continue in their unbelief. The phrase "in their hearts turned back again into Egypt" that Stephen used is not a direct quote from scripture, but it is an accurate characterization. Stephen does use a partial quote when he states what the forefathers spoke from their hearts. "And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him." (Exodus 32:1 AKJV). Turning in the heart back to Egypt then, is parallel today to desiring to hold onto the things offered by this temporal world and rejecting the grace gift of eternal life offered by Christ Jesus through faith in His word.

J - Acts 7

41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. 42 Then God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, O you house of Israel, have you offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices by the space of forty years in the wilderness? 43 Yes, you took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, figures which you made to worship them: and I will carry you away beyond Babylon. 44 Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as he had appointed, speaking to Moses, that he should make it according to the fashion that he had seen. 45 Which also our fathers that came after brought in with Jesus into the possession of the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers, to the days of David; 46 Who found favor before God, and desired to find a tabernacle for the God of Jacob. 47 But Solomon built him an house. 48 However, the most High dwells not in temples made with hands; as said the prophet, 49 Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will you build me? said the Lord: or what is the place of my rest? 50 Has not my hand made all these things?

COMMENTS: Worship of the calf in the wilderness and worship of worthless idols in the land of promise was the reason God gave them up as a nation to be carried off captive to Babylon. The tabernacle in the wilderness and Solomon's great temple were before the people to draw them to the God who cannot be contained in any temple prepared by man. The most High says that heaven is his throne and earth is his footstool: who can build a house for him? The "Jesus" mentioned in the Acts passage is the Greek equivalent of the name Joshua in the Old Testament. Joshua, the son of Nun, led Israel into the land after the death of Moses, and hundreds of years for the nation Israel are represented through the period of the judges and the kings before the removal of the people to Babylon. What a long time for God to tolerate the disobedience of his nation before finally removing them from their promised territory! His mercies are new every morning, and His love endures forever. The Jews who are listening to Stephen's discourse are in the land of Israel by God's mercy, but they are once again as a people rejecting God as their sovereign ruler.

K - Acts 7

51 You stiff necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom you have been now the betrayers and murderers: 53 Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.

COMMENTS: Now Stephen brings this history of continual rejection of God's Spirit right before his audience as the sin they personally bear because they rejected Jesus the Just One, and betrayed him to death. The circumcision established by God was to witness an action in the heart: it was much more than just a sign in the flesh. These men have remained uncircumcised in their heart through rejection by unbelief. They did not apply the truth written for all saints by Moses. "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiff necked." (Deuteronomy 10:16 AKJV). And Moses even made it clear that this is not done in our own strength, for God will do that work within our hearts. "And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live." (Deuteronomy 30:6 AKJV). After the many centuries under Joshua, various judges, and many kings, the Jews still needed to heed the same message as Jeremiah prophesied in the last years of the kingdom in Judah. "Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, you men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings." (Jeremiah 4:4 AKJV).

And after Paul was converted by the Lord, he echoed the imperative of this message regarding the heart. "But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God." (Romans 2:29 AKJV). John the baptist, speaking by the Spirit, prepared the way for Christ as he plainly told the Jews that salvation is an inheritance through God, not of man's heritage. "And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say to you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham." (Matthew 3:9 AKJV). The apostle Paul as transformed by Christ, underwrites the crucial importance of faith, not physical descent through Abraham, for salvation performed by God. "6 Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. 7 Know you therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. 8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel to Abraham, saying, In you shall all nations be blessed. 9 So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham." (Galatians 3:6-9 AKJV).

And this is not contrary to the teaching of Christ Jesus, as he responded to the outspoken faith of a centurion. "10 When Jesus heard it, he marveled, and said to them that followed, Truly I say to you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. 11 And I say to you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 8:10-11 AKJV). So, this is the truth that the persecutors of Stephen had missed, which will lead to their own destruction.

--- Reflections in prayer ---

Lord I thank you that entrance into your kingdom is based upon your grace and mercy, and not on any merit within myself, and there is no exclusion based on ancestry. Stephen is a blessing to me as one who combined his knowledge of the scripture, his exposure to the apostles, and his willingness to trust you in the face of strong and threatening opposition because he was filled with your Holy Spirit. Lord transform me within by your truth, as I continue to read and study your word, with trust because you have also sealed me with your Spirit. The history of salvation by faith is a great blessing to me just as it was to Stephen. Your mercy, patience, and compassion are very evident in the pages of scripture as you preserved through many centuries of rebellion, a remnant of those who believed among your chosen nation. Thank you Lord for providing additional scripture on this side of the cross so the message of your free gift of salvation is even more sure to those who will believe. Strengthen me Lord that I will bear witness for you when times are easy and you provide opportunity, so it will be a well established pattern of my life that will carries through if I should come under strong and dangerous opposition as did Stephen. Amen.

Published 8 January 2007

Stephen Martyred