A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 7:1-53. 2). Stephen makes his defence.
Many students of Stephen’s speech have criticized it as rambling, dull and even incoherent. A good example is George Bernard Shaw in his preface to *Androcles and the Lion*. Calling Stephen ‘a quite intolerable young speaker’ and ‘a tactless and conceited bore’, he describes him as having ‘delivered an oration to the council, in which he …inflicted on them a tedious sketch of the history of Israel, with which they were presumably as well acquainted as he’. Others have found his speech lacking not only in interest but in point. Dibelius, for instance, wrote of ‘the irrelevance of most of this speech’. Such negative assessments of Stephen’s oratory are by no means universal, however. William Neil even calls his speech ‘a subtle and skilful proclamation of the gospel’.
It is important to bear in mind the nature and purpose of Stephen’s speech. After the two serious accusations had been levied at him, the high priest challenged him with the direct question: *Are these charges true?* (7:1). So Stephen needed to defend himself against them in such a way as to develop an *apologia* for his radical gospel. What he did was not just to rehearse the salient features of the Old Testament story, with which the Sanhedrin were as familiar as he, but to do it in such a way as to draw lessons from it which they had never learned or even noticed. His concern was to demonstrate that his position, far from being ‘blasphemous’ because disrespectful to God’s word, actually honoured it. For Old Testament Scripture itself confirmed his teaching about the temple and the law, especially by predicting the Messiah, whereas by rejecting him it was they who disregarded the law, not he. Stephen’s mind had evidently soaked up the Old Testament, for his speech is like a patchwork of allusions to it.
a). The temple.
It was not because of its architectural magnificence that the Jews prized the temple, but because God had promised to ‘put his Name’ there and to meet his people there. Several psalms bear witness to Israel’s consequent love for the temple. For example, ‘One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.’ (Ps. 27:4; cf. pss. 15:42-43,84,122,134, 147,150). This was right. But many drew a false conclusion. They conceived of Yahweh as so completely identified with the temple that its existence guaranteed his protection of them, while its destruction would mean that he had abandoned them. It was against these notions that the prophets inveighed (eg. Je.7:4). Long before them, however, as Stephen pointed out, the great figures of the Old Testament never imagined that God was imprisoned in a building.
What Stephen did was to pick out four major epochs of Israel’s history, dominated by four major characters. First he highlighted Abraham and the patriarchal age (7:2-8); then Joseph and the Egyptian exile (9-19); thirdly Moses, the exodus and the wilderness wanderings (20-44); and lastly David and Solomon, and the establishment of the monarchy (45-50). The connecting feature of these four epochs is that in none of them was God’s presence limited to any particular place. On the contrary, the God of the Old Testament was a living God, a God on the move and on the march, who was always calling his people out to fresh adventures, and always accompanying and directing them as they went.
(i) Abraham. (7:2-8).
It is no accident that Stephen describes Yahweh as *the God of glory*, for his ‘glory’ is his self-manifestation, and Stephen is about to give details of how he made himself known to Abraham. He *appeared* to him first *while he was still in Mesopotamia*, specifically in Ur of the Chaldeans (Gn.11:28), while he and his family ‘worshipped other gods’ (Jos.24:2). Yet even in that idolatrous context God appeared and spoke to Abraham, telling him to uproot himself from his home and people and migrate to another country which he would later show him. Some commentators regard Stephen as having made a mistake in this, because they deduce from Genesis 11:31 – 12:1 that God’s command to Abraham was given him at Haran, not Ur. But Genesis 12:1 can be translated, ‘The Lord had said to Abram’ (NIV), suggesting that what he told him in Haran was actually a confirmation of what he had already said to him in Ur. Certainly God later announced himself to Abram as ‘the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans…’, and both Joshua and Nehemiah bear witness to this (Gn.15:7; Jos.24:3; Ne.9:7), So Abram left Ur *and settled in Haran*. But from there *God sent him* on the next stage of his journey to the land of Canaan. *He gave him no inheritance* in it, however, *not even a foot of ground*, but instead *promised* that *his descendants* (though at the time he had no child) *would possess the land*. At the same time, even they would not inherit it immediately, for first they were to be *strangers in a country not their own*, where they would be both *enslaved and ill-treated for four hundred years* (Stephen is content with the round figure, although the precise length of their slavery was 430 years). (cf.Gn.15:13; Ex.12:40-41). Even during their cruel servitude God had neither forgotten nor forsaken them; he intervened to *punish the nation* which had enslaved them and so to rescue them from their bondage. (7)
We cannot miss Stephen’s emphasis on the divine initiative. It was God who appeared, spoke, sent, promised, punished and rescued. From Ur to Haran, from Haran to Canaan, from Canaan to Egypt, from Egypt back to Canaan again, God was directing each stage of his people’s pilgrimage. Although the whole fertile crescent from the River Euphrates to the River Nile was the scene of their migrations, God was with them. Why was this? It was because *he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision* (8), that is, made a solemn promise to Abraham to bless him and his posterity, and gave him circumcision to signify and seal the covenant. So, long before there was a holy place, there was a holy people, to whom God had pledged himself. He then renewed the promise he had made to Abraham, first to his son Isaac, then to his grandson Jacob, and then to his great grandsons *the twelve patriarchs* (8b). Thus Stephen makes the transition from Abraham to Joseph, the second great figure of the Old Testament he singles out (9-16).
Tomorrow: Acts 7:1-53. 2). Stephen makes his defense (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.