A Commentary by John Stott
Stephen’s defence – (iii) Moses (Acts 7:17-43).
Stephen’s third epoch (17-43) was dominated by Moses, through whose ministry God kept his promises to Abraham which had seemed to be in abeyance. Perhaps Stephen’s handling of Moses’ career (which he divides into three forty- year periods is longer and fuller than his account of the others because he had been accused of speaking against Moses (6:11). He leaves his judges in no doubt of his immense respect for Moses’ leadership and law-giving.
The Israelites’ exile and slavery in Egypt lasted for four bitter centuries. Had God forgotten his people, and his promise to bless them? No. He had warned Abraham of their 400 years of enslavement and mistreatment (6). But now at last *the time drew near* (the set time, for God is the lord of history) *for God to fulfil his promise to Abraham* (17a). God had actually made Abraham two promises, namely to give him both a seed (numerous descendants) and a land (Canaan). See Gn.12:1-3; 15:18-21; 22:15-18). The first promise was being fulfilled even during their Egyptian captivity, for *the number of our people in Egypt greatly increased* (17b). But how would the promise of the land be fulfilled? Only after much suffering. For another Pharaoh *became ruler of Egypt* who, knowing nothing about Joseph, ‘exploited’ (JB) the Israelites and *oppressed* them, even *forcing them to throw out their newborn babies* (18-19).
It was *at that time*, when the people’s sufferings were greatest and their prospects bleakest, that *Moses was born*, their God-appointed deliverer. ‘No ordinary child’ is NIV’s rendering of an expression which combines the ideas of his being beautiful and pleasing to God (20). For the first *three months* of his life he was nurtured by his own mother, but was then brought up in the Egyptian palace as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter (21). He was thus *educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians* and became *powerful in speech and action* (22).
At the age of forty, *he decided to visit his fellow Israelites*, in the sense of investigating their plight and seeking to remedy it (23). Witnessing two cases of injustice, he took things into his own hands. First, he tried to defend an Israelite, and killed the Egyptian who was ill-treating him (24). The following day he tried to reconcile two Israelites who were fighting, and appealed to them to remember that they were brothers who on that account should not hurt one another (26). In both cases he thought *his own people would realise* and acknowledge his God-given vocation *to rescue them* (25). *But they did not*. Instead, the Israelite who was ill-treating the other challenged Moses’ authority to be their *ruler and judge*, and enquired if intended to kill him as he had killed the Egyptian (27-28). Alarmed that his act of murder was known, Moses *fled to Midian*, where he settled down *as a foreigner*, married and had *two sons* (29). This was the beginning of his second forty-year period.
At the end of it came the turning point in his career, when God met and commissioned him. True, it is said to have been *an angel* who *appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai* (30). Yet it was *the Lord’s voice* which called him, and which announced that he was *the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob*, so that *Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look* (31-32). The divine voice then told him to remove his sandals because the place where he was standing, in the very presence of the living God, was *holy ground* (33). This statement was central to Stephen’s thesis. There was holy ground outside the holy land. Wherever God is, is holy. Moreover, the same God who met Moses in the desert of Midian was also present in Egypt, for he had *seen* his people’s *oppression* there, had *heard their groaning*, had actually *come down* in person *to set them free*, and was now sending Moses *back to Egypt* to effect their liberation (34). *The same Moses*, whom the Israelites had rejected as their *ruler and judge*, was now appointed *their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush* (35).
Moses’ third forty-year period was spent in the desert after he *led them out of Egypt*. Moreover, alike *in Egypt, at the Red Sea and …in the desert* his unique ministry as their deliverer and lawgiver had been authenticated (like the equally unique ministry of the apostles) *by wonders and miraculous signs* (36). *This is that Moses*, continued Stephen, wishing to magnify his ministry, who foretold the coming of the Messiah as a prophet like him (Dt.18:15), who was *in the assembly (ekklesia) in the desert*, along with the people and with *the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai*, and who *received living words*, oracles from God, to pass on to his people (37-38). True (and here Stephen anticipates how his defence will end), this greatly privileged nation *refused to obey* God. They not only *in their hearts turned back to Egypt*, but, rejecting Moses’ leadership, commissioned Aaron to make them substitute gods to go before them into the promised land (39-40). They then *brought sacrifices* to the golden calf and *held a celebration in honour of what their hands had made* (41), which provoked God to turn away from them and to give them up instead to *the worship of the heavenly bodies* (42a). Although Stephen backs up his accusation with the quotation from Amos 5 which dates from several centuries later, it nevertheless refers to the corrupt worship of Israel during their forty years in the desert. Their *sacrifices and offerings* were not in reality brought to Yahweh, whatever their claim may have been, but rather to pagan idols (42b-43).
Stephen has traced the life and ministry of Moses through its Egyptian, Midianite and wilderness periods, and has shown that in each period and place God was with him. Chrysostom understood the import of this. Both when Moses was being educated in the Egyptian palace and when God appeared to him in the desert of Midian, there is ‘not a word of temple, not a word of sacrifice’ (Chrysostom repeats this phrase). In fact the ‘holy ground’ at the burning bush was ‘far more wonderful…than…the Holy of Holies’, for God is nowhere said to have appeared in the inner sanctuary in Jerusalem as he did in the burning bush. So the lesson to learn from the experience of Moses is that ‘God is everywhere present’ and that ‘the Holy place is wherever God may be’.
Tomorrow: Acts 7:44-50. David and Solomon.
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.