A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 6:8 – 7:60. Stephen’s defence: b). The law.
The false witnesses had accused Stephen of two blasphemies, namely of ‘speaking against this holy place and against the law’ (6:13). In response to both accusations he developed a similar defence, namely that in each area he was more biblical than they. That is, the Old Testament Scriptures laid less emphasis on the temple, and more emphasis on the law, than they did. We have followed his argument in relation to the temple; now in relation to the law he turns the tables on his judges. It is not he, he maintains, who has shown a disregard for the law, but they, like their fathers before them. The accused assumes the role of the accuser. This theme has already been sketched in the earlier part of Stephen’s speech. His respect for Moses and the law was unambiguous. His acknowledgement of Moses’ divine vocation has been plain beyond question. Moses’ birth and early education were superintended by God (20-22). His call came direct from God, who spoke to him out of the burning bush (31-32). His appointment as Israel’s ruler and deliverer was made ‘by God himself’ (35), and from the same God ‘he received living words’ to pass on to the people (38). The shocking disrespect which Moses received, then, came not from Stephen but from the Israelites themselves. It was they who failed to recognize him as their heaven-sent deliverer (25), who ‘pushed Moses aside’ (27), who rejected his leadership (35), and who in the desert ‘refused to obey him’; instead in their hearts they turned back to Egypt and became idolaters (39ff). It was similar with the prophets. Stephen quoted two of them with approval (Amos in verses 42-43, and Isaiah in verses 48-50), but in both citations the prophets were rebuking Israel.
So now, having exposed Israel’s past unfaithfulness to the law and the prophets, Stephen went on to accuse his judges of the same sin.
We notice how Stephen boldly called the Sanhedrin *stiff-necked*, meaning stubborn, an epithet which both Moses and the prophets had applied to Israel. (eg. Ex.32:9; 33:3,5; 34:9; Dt.9:6, 13: 10:16; 31:27; 2Ch.30:8; Je.17:23). And though they insisted on bodily circumcision, he described them as having *uncircumcised hearts and ears*, another expression which was common to Moses and the prophets (eg. Lv.26:41; Dt.10:16; 30:6; Je.6:10; 9:26; Ezk.44:7) and which implied that they were ‘heathen still at heart and deaf to the truth’ (NEB). Indeed, in their wilful rejection of God’s word, he said to them; *you are just like your fathers* (51).
Pressing home his indictment in greater detail, Stephen declared them guilty of sinning against the Holy Spirit, the Messiah and the law. First, *you always resist the Holy Spirit* (51) by rejecting his appeals. Secondly, whereas their fathers had persecuted every prophet (cf.Lk.6:23; 11:49ff; 13:34), and even *killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One*, they had been still worse, for they had *betrayed and murdered him* whom the prophets had predicted (52). Thirdly, although they had been specially privileged to receive the law through the mediation of angels, they had *not obeyed it* (53).
Stephen’s speech was not so much a self-defence as a testimony to Christ. His main theme was positive, that Jesus the Messiah had come to replace the temple and fulfil the law, which both bore witness to him. As Calvin put it, ‘No harm can be done to the temple and the law, when Christ is openly established as the end and truth of both’.
Tomorrow: Acts 7:54-60. 3). Stephen is stoned.
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.