At the close of the sixth chapter we saw Stephen standing before the Jewish Sanhedrin, where he was called into account for preaching Jesus crucified and raised again from the dead. One might have thought that his glorious face, lit up as it was by the light of Heaven, would have softened the hearts of those who sat in judgment upon him, but it seemed to have the opposite effect. It stirred up more hatred against him and against the gospel he preached.
The Promise to Abraham (Acts 7:1-8)
The high priest put the question to Stephen, “Are these things so?” That is, “Did you really say that Jesus of Nazareth was to destroy the temple and change the customs Moses delivered?”
In Acts 7 we have Stephen’s defense. We might say we see Stephen led by the God of glory up to the glory of God. You will notice verse 55, “But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God.”
He begins his defense by relating God’s dealing with their great progenitor Abraham; how God led Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans and brought him into the land of Canaan, and definitely promised the land of Canaan to him and to his seed after him. But Abraham died without possessing any of it, except the grave in which he buried his wife Sarah. Yet Stephen had the confidence that eventually Abraham would possess the land of Canaan, which God promised to him. It is true he has passed on to a better country, “for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” But nevertheless, the promise remains, that land shall yet be the dwelling place of the seed of Abraham.
The Egyptian Bondage (Acts 7:9-16)
In this section our attention is drawn to some remarkable facts. Stephen showed how God permitted the people of Israel to go down to Egypt, at first to be favorably received and then to fall into sad bondage and slavery. He reminded his hearers how they were eventually delivered. But here he emphasized the patriarchs’ relationship to their brother Joseph. They hated Joseph because he was their father’s favorite. He was hated also for his dreams that told of his coming glory, and so they sold him to the Ishmaelites who carried him down into Egypt.
Joseph is a type of Christ. He was rejected at first, but the day came when his brethren bowed before him and recognized his authority. The story of Joseph pictures Christ’s first and second advent. Our blessed Savior when He came the first time was rejected. His own people spurned Him, refused Him, and the Gentiles put Him to death on Calvary’s cross. But that is not the end of the story. He is coming again and will be manifested in power. The day will come when His own earthly people will bow before His feet and recognize Him as their Brother, Jesus who is also their Savior and their Lord.
The Wilderness Experience (Acts 7:17-50)
Stephen proceeded to tell of the deliverance from Egypt through Moses, who was rejected the first time and then later received. It is easy to follow the logic in Stephen’s mind. He is pointing out to the people of Israel that invariably in their history they rejected their deliverer the first time and accepted him the second time. The story of Moses is somewhat different. Moses’ life divides into three sections of forty years each. He spent forty years learning the wisdom of the Egyptians and forty years unlearning it and learning instead the wisdom of God. After that, he was forty years leading the Israelites through the wilderness until they came to the borders of the land of Canaan.
Stephen emphasized that from the beginning there was a great love in Moses’ heart for his people and he longed to see them freed from bondage. He went out and tried to help alleviate their suffering and distress, but they did not want his help. They said, “Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?” They rejected him and he had to leave Egypt and go to the far side of the desert, where he remained for forty years. In the meantime his people were enduring greater and greater suffering, all because they had rejected their redeemer.
What a picture of Israel down through the centuries! God raised up Jesus in accordance with His prophecy by Moses: “The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken” (Deuteronomy 18:15). And so Jesus came, “to preach the gospel to the poor…to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.” But they did not understand; they spurned Him and said, “We will not have this man to reign over us.” “We have no king but Caesar.” So God took Him up on high. We read in Hosea 5:15: “I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offense, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early.” Has any nation suffered as Israel has suffered? Has any nation endured as much? In Lamentations 1:12 we read: “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.”
You may ask, Why this affliction—why has God permitted this suffering to come upon the people with whom He chose to enter into covenant relationship? It is because in the time of His visitation, when the Deliverer came, they spurned Him. Israel had to stay forty years longer in Egypt because they did not recognize Moses as their deliverer, but in due time they did receive him. Forty years in Scripture is the full period of testing and trial.
God met Moses in the wilderness at Mount Horeb by the burning bush—in itself a symbol of the nation of Israel. The bush burned continuously but was not consumed; and Israel has suffered continuously but remains today. And Israel will remain when the last of the Hitlers and anti-Semites have passed away because God has said, “This people have I formed for myself.” But when will they be brought into the place of blessing? When the great Prophet comes the second time, then “they shall look upon me whom they pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10).
Stephen showed that Moses, in his rejection at first, and acceptance the second time, is a type of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me: him shall ye hear. This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness [that is, the congregation of the Lord of old in the wilderness] with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sinai, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us: To whom our fathers would not obey, but thrust him from them, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt (Acts 7:37-39).
Israel’s history down through the centuries has been that of forgetting God and turning to the ways of the Gentiles, all of which accounts for their continual suffering.
Egypt is a type of the world, and it is quite possible for Christians in their hearts to turn back to Egypt—the world—and not know what crucifixion with Christ means. Many are not able to say with Paul, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14). It is one thing to recognize we are dead to the corrupt world, dead to the licentious world, dead to the vulgar world; it is quite another thing to recognize that the cross of Christ comes also between the believer and the esthetic world. A great many of us who are not tempted by the corruption of the world, fall under the spell of the culture and refinement of the world. We love the world’s songs, its plays, its art; the result being that our hearts are largely in the world instead of wrapped up in God Himself. We may learn a lesson from the experiences of Israel as we continue to read the charge Stephen gave.
The children of Israel said, “Make us gods to go before us: for as for this Moses, which brought us out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him” (Acts 7:40). You see, Moses had gone up into the holy mount to receive the tables of the covenant from God and they could not see him. They wanted a leader they could see. It is easier to walk by sight, than by faith. “They made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice unto the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. Then God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven.” He allowed them to sink into idolatry and experience the result of its dreadful corruption.
Stephen continued by quoting from the Old Testament prophet Amos 5:25-26:
O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices by the space of forty years in the wilderness? Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, figures which ye made to worship them: and I will carry you away beyond Babylon (Acts 7:42-43).
The reason given here for the captivity in Babylon was that the people made the calf in the wilderness. Even in that distant past they cherished false gods and had never judged that sin. This is a solemn thought. Let us never forget: Sin never dies of old age! It goes on working like leprosy, until it is dealt with in the presence of God. They never judged that sin and it led them deeper and deeper into idolatry for which they were eventually driven into captivity.
Stephen’s Final Indictment (Acts 7:51-60)
And so Stephen rehearsed the history of Israel up to the building of the temple by Solomon and showed how God all along had displayed His grace but they had been continuously rebellious against Him, Then he turned on the audience and cried, “You are just like your fathers were!” It took courage for Stephen to say this. It was like the prisoner putting the judge on the docket. There sat the leaders of Israel to judge him, but this devoted servant of God spoke the word that judged them! “Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.” What a tragic indictment that was, and how true it still is! God through the Holy Spirit has spoken to us as a people in many, many ways, but we have rejected His testimony, spurned His Word, and resisted the Holy Spirit. God give us grace to humble ourselves before we are broken in judgment. For we must either bow in penitence under the mighty hand of God or be humbled in the day when His judgments are poured out on us. Stephen continued:
Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One [that is, of the Lord Jesus]; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it (52-53).
There they stopped him. He hadn’t finished; he had a great deal more to say. He doubtless intended to go on and present the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ, but they would hear no more. “Cut to the heart,” they ground their teeth in hatred of him.
“But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.” This is very significant. We are told in the Epistle to the Hebrews that when Jesus had by Himself purged our sins, He sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; but here, as Stephen looked up, he saw the Lord standing. What does it mean? It is just as though the blessed Lord in His great compassion for Stephen had risen from His seat and was looking over the battlements of Heaven to strengthen and cheer the martyr down on earth. Stephen exclaimed, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” That revealing vision should have broken them down, brought them to repentance, and shown them they were fighting against their own best interests. Instead (so hardened were they in their sins), “they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.”
Thus Saul comes into the picture. He was to take up the story that Stephen had to drop.
They stoned Stephen, as he called on the Lord, “Receive my spirit.” “And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Oh, the love that filled that man’s heart! “Don’t judge them for this.” It was like the beloved Master saying, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
And with these words he fell asleep—and that is what death is to the Christian, falling asleep. The fear of death is gone,
[For Christ] also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And deliver them who through the fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (Hebrews 2:14-15).