Throughout the book of Acts, a repeated emphasis has been placed on two things: the activity of the ruling, risen Christ through His apostles to accomplish His program, and the preciousness of the Bible—then just the Old Testament—to the early church. On this latter point, it is most evident the earliest believers were Bible-saturated people, as the Scriptures easily weave in and out of their preaching and prayers like one would expect from those who knew them intimately. The lengthy narrative which focuses on Stephen in Acts 6:8-7:60 is no exception, as these themes are heavily present. Because of the length of this section, it is divided into three parts. This week focused on the man (6:8-15) and the messenger (7:1-53), while next week will focus on the martyr (7:54-60).
A. The Man (6:8-15)
This section of Acts immediately follows the narrative in verses 1-7. Stephen is one of those chosen by the apostles to oversee the distribution of daily food to the Hellenistic widows. Recall that the church numbers well over twenty thousand believers by this point. Likely many were those converted not only at the day of Pentecost but other Jewish people in Jerusalem for the holiday. Most would have chosen to stay in Jerusalem, at least for the short term. The thousands of people coupled with the fact that many would have been ostracized for following a Man put to death less than three months earlier meant many would have been needy, lacking food and housing. The mercy ministries needed for all of these people would have been immense, and Stephen was one of those deemed mature enough and biblically-grounded enough to direct them. Imagine the speed at which Stephen would have had to mature, the communion with God he would have to have had, for the church to widely recognize in him the qualities the apostles dictate in verse 3! He would have been saved a few months at least and a few years at most (it is possible he had traveled among the seventy during Jesus’ earthly ministry). Obviously he was a man steeped in the Word of God, which doubtless contributed to his fruitfulness.
It is during the time “the word of God kept spreading” (v. 7) that Stephen’s ministry takes off. God is blessing his service and (likely) preaching with manifestations of divine power. The risen Lord is pleased to work through Stephen to advance His program and authenticate His message. Then, Jewish men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen—very likely a synagogue of Roman Jews who had purchased their freedom after being enslaved by a Roman general in 63 BC—which included a contingent of Jews from Cilicia, in which was Tarsus, the hometown of Paul, begin arguing with Stephen over the Messiahship of Jesus. Verse 10 is most interesting given that it parallels with something Jesus said in Luke: “I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute” (v. 15). “To cope” in Acts is the same word translated “resist” in Luke. As such, their only recourse is to make unfounded accusations against him, using “false witnesses” to accuse him of blasphemy and opposing God’s Law (vv. 11-14). By this point, these Jewish leaders have incited a riot among the people, who physically dragged Stephen before the Sanhedrin, where the apostles themselves have been multiple times already, as has their Lord. Interestingly, it is only Luke’s gospel which records the third of Jesus’ trials before this group on Friday morning of Passion Week, where He tells them, “From now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (22:69), a clear reference to the eschatological, messianic, exalted authority He would enjoy as the resurrected incarnate Son following His resurrection (cf. Matt. 28:18; Acts 2:30-36, 13:32-33; Romans 1:3). It is that authority He will act on as He gives Stephen words to speak that will also spark a persecution that will take His words to new places…and expose the heart of a wicked Pharisee named Saul.
B. The Messenger (7:1-53)
Because this is a greatly extended portion of Scripture, my reflections on it will only be at the highest level of elevation, so to speak. Stephen gives a jet-tour review of the Old Testament, not unlike the summaries found in Nehemiah 9 and Psalm 78, with one major difference: Stephen does not once mention the covenant mercies and grace of God. Perhaps this is an implicit nod to the setting aside of the Jewish nation—the centuries of repeated failure and rejection have reached an awful head in their abandonment of their Messiah, and they will be out of God’s graces until the return of Christ.
Naturally, Stephen begins with Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation and a man revered about as much as Moses. It is important here to recall who Stephen is speaking to. He has just come out of a debate with Jews from several different nations outside Israel, and now he is talking to Jewish leaders who know their own history and that they are currently under Roman occupation. Though the nation was restored to the Land after the Babylonian decimation, it was only to a fraction of the former glory and never fully recovered. The Jews had been cast out of their land—God’s land—and were under the heel of one Gentile nation after another. Of course, great hatred for the Assyrians and Babylonians would have been passed down over generations. Yet Stephen reminds them that their beloved father Abraham was a Gentile, a pagan—from the very Babylonia that would take his descendants captive hundreds of years later!
After discussing aspects of God’s gracious covenant-keeping among the patriarchs (vv. 5-18), Stephen highlights Moses as a type of Christ. It is interesting that he says the fathers disowned him (v. 35); this is the same word Peter uses in chapter 3 (vv. 13-14) referring to the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Christ. It is also the word used for denying oneself daily in Luke 9:23. Moses was ordained by God to be a ruler and judge (v. 35b), just as Jesus is and will be. Moreover, the One whose lit. “hand” commissioned Moses for this task is “the angel who appeared to him” is “the angel of [Yahweh]” (Exodus 3:2), who is Himself “God,” the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (v. 6), “I AM” (v. 14). Moreover, this revered Moses told the Jewish people that God would send a Prophet like him to the nation, a Prophet to whom they were directly accountable to fully obey, on pain of divine chastening (v. 37; cf. Deut. 18:15-19).
In verses 38-41, the Holy Spirit through Stephen indicts the Jewish people—who are just like their fathers—of the very things of which they accuse him. They have repudiated Moses and the God he revealed. They have altered the customs of God to suit their needs (such as inducing the sons of Hamor to be circumcised so they could kill them and loot their city in revenge of the rape of Dinah, taking a covenantal symbol of a cleansed and inclined heart for their own vengeful purposes, v. 16; cf. Gen. 34). They have rebelled against the Law of God, making idols with their own hands at the very time Moses was getting the 10 Commandments from Yahweh! They even desecrated the holy place by exchanging God’s tabernacle for ones they made for false gods (v. 43). Here, as when confronted during the ministry of Jesus, the issue is holding fast to man-made traditions and ideas instead of God’s inspired words (Matt. 15:11). As Moses warned them, they have whored after their own thinking and perspectives instead of cleaving to God’s self-revelation (Numbers 15:39).
Over and over God has sent them prophets, and finally even His beloved Son, and at every turn they have completely spurned Him. Indeed, this pattern of rejection is what has caused God to set the nation aside for the duration of the present age and graft the church into the trunk of covenant blessing—a people to whom the promised kingdom is given, who bear its fruit (Matt. 21:33-44). Israel is the people whom God has invited to the wedding feast for His royal Son and have met His invitation with paltry excuses. After all this God sent them “other slaves” (22:6), the apostles, elders, and prophets of the church, who shared the work of the crucified and risen Son with them. God saw their continued rejection and in response destroyed their city, a reference to the judgment of AD 70 (v. 7). Then, God invites other people—Gentiles—to partake of the wedding feast in Israel’s place (vv. 8-10). It is important to note that there is not a separate program for the church, nor does the program offered to Israel stop until some future time. There is one program, one kingdom, albeit in different phases and with distinct institutions administering various aspects of its progress and rule. The church participates in the very same kingdom and program Jesus offered to Israel. That the banquet is depicted as beginning before AD 70 with Gentile guests indicates the kingdom is not merely future but present as Christ rules from heaven. As God handed Old Testament Israel over to demonic influence for their paganism (Acts 7:43; the “hosts of heaven” are elsewhere described in the OT as demons); so God has set the nation aside today for their rejection of “the Righteous One” (v. 53).
As God’s program is currently focused on church saints, it is good to close this reflection with some self-examination. We participate in the New Covenant, in the Davidic promise of an anointed ruler over God’s chosen people. We have the indwelling Holy Spirit and the promise of a new and fruitful life under God’s Lordship. What are we doing with it? Are we like Stephen—servant-hearted, bold, overflowing with Scripture, with wisdom, with faith and the fear of the Lord, setting ourselves to be as useful to the progress of God’s kingdom plan as possible? Or, are we like Israel—recipients of every good promise yet utterly bound to our own depraved thinking, handing the Son of God over for a hollow autonomy and prideful self-satisfaction that will end in thorough chastening, and damnation for the self-deceived? O, may God grant us in covenant mercies an outpouring of His sanctifying and empowering Spirit, that His precious Word might be believed and obeyed, and our lives made of great use to Him, unto the exaltation of our glorious God.