This is part of an ongoing study of the book of Acts. If you’d like to catch up, you can read the previous studies here. Before you begin today, be sure to read the entire chapter of Acts 7:1-8:1 here, and don’t forget to sound off in the comments below.
In the last chapter, Luke told us that Stephen was arrested under the false pretenses of speaking against the law and the temple. Now, we see that Stephen is being tried in a very impromptu court by the high priest himself. He is asked directly if the charges of blasphemy against him are true.
Stephen’s response is one of the most unique messages recorded in Acts, and one of the most intriguing to me in all of Scripture.
Teaching the Teachers
Stephen did not directly refute the charges against him. Instead, he chose to explain the scriptures to the most educated teachers of scripture on planet earth. He could not have chosen a more awkward place to give a lesson on the Bible, but he did prove to them that the charges against him were false by how he began and ended his defense.
To understand why Stephen says what he says, we first need to understand a little more about how his judge and jury thought. The Sanhedrin, the combined ruling religious class, was currently being presided over by the Sadducees, who had been installed by the Roman governor over Jerusalem. As I have said before, this was strictly against the laws and customs of the Jews to have a pagan choose the high priest.
The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection, so they were very opposed to everything about Jesus and the church. They did hold in common, with all other religious Jews, that the covenant of circumcision given to Abraham was the primary law governing Jewish life. So that is where Stephen began his testimony.
Stephen started by telling the court about how God called Abraham and his father Terah to leave Babylon and go to Canaan. This probably caught their attention and settled the angry group down. Stephen showed them that he was not uneducated in the matters of his ancestry or the law. He affirmed his belief in the law of circumcision, which was half of what he was accused of.
Next, he explained how the Israelites ended up in Egypt. The fact that he chose to remind this crowd that God had told Abraham that his descendants would live in captivity for 400 years is important. Stephen reminds them again when Moses was 40 that they knew the time for that prophecy to be fulfilled had come and that Moses thought of himself as Israel’s liberator. This is important because of what had recently transpired in Israel, but we will come back to that.
Stephen reminded his accusers that Moses was rejected more than once as Israel’s God-appointed leader, something critical to his argument. He showed them how God took Moses away from a place of governmental authority in Egypt (when he had to flee for murder) and brought him back instead under the power of the Holy Spirit with signs, wonders and miracles.
Then Stephen reminded them that Moses had prophesied that another prophet, “like him,” would come and that Israel was to listen to Him. Moses was speaking prophetically of the Messiah to come.
But the people did not listen to nor obey Moses. Stephen showed them that God gave them over to their evil desires to worship idols and receive the penalty for it. He then abruptly finishes his testimony by reminding them that this journey ended with David selecting and Solomon building the temple. This was the other half of what Stephen was accused of; speaking against the temple.
He then lashes out at the Sanhedrin with accusations that they were no better than their ancestors who had gone before them and refused to obey Moses. He accused them of killing the Messiah, the one Moses said would come.
The Other Prophecy Not Mentioned
What Acts 7 and Stephen do not say is the other prophecy the Sanhedrin had surely been following. There are only two prophecies in scripture with 400 plus year time frames on them. The first is the one Stephen mentions about Moses and the timing of the prophecy to Abraham being fulfilled. The other was given in Daniel 9.
25“Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. 26After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing.
We see here that the angel giving this message said the Messiah would be “cut off.” As it turns out, the edict to rebuild Jerusalem was given by Artaxerxes of Persia in 444 BC. The 69 “sevens” equals 483 years, which according to the Jewish calendar (not our Gregorian calendar) equates to 33 AD. In fact, because of recent scholarship, we know that the date it refers to is April 3, 33 AD.
Certainly these scholars Stephen was talking to who were familiar with Abraham’s prophecy about being in Egypt for 400 years would have been intimately aware of Daniel’s prophecy and that they were also in the promised prophetic timing. Stephen clearly points this out to them and tells them that they are the ones who “cut off” this Messiah.
Wrestling With God
The Sanhedrin were “cut to the heart.” It is interesting that Luke doesn’t say they hardened their hearts, but that what Stephen said wounded them. They knew what he was saying was true, but they were so entrenched in their political, religious and financial power that they could not give up what they had. His words angered them enough to bring the murderous spirit they had already surrendered to again.
When people are cut to the heart like this, they have two choices: surrender to God or surrender to the flesh. During the American Great Awakening, people listening to the great preachers would grasp the pews in front of them hard enough to impress their fingers into the wood, visible today. They were cut to the heart by their sin the same as these Sanhedrin, but many of them surrendered to God.
Like children, those present put their hands over their ears as they rushed Stephen to his death when he proclaimed that he saw the Messiah stand up from His throne to honor him. This angered them even further because they could not conceive of a God who would stand up in honor of a man, especially the man they were about to kill for blasphemy.
Stephen died following the example he learned from Jesus. His last prayer was that God would not hold this sin against those who were doing it. Because we have this testimony, and it did not come from Stephen, we must assume that Luke was able to hear this story directly from Paul (called Saul) and others in attendance that day, so God honored the most selfless prayer mankind may know. There is nothing more that can be taken forcefully away from us than our lives, and here we see Stephen laying his down with forgiveness in his heart. May we learn the same today.
The first verse of chapter 8 is actually the conclusion of Luke’s thought here. He made the point to say that Saul was there approving of Stephen’s death. Soon, the book of Acts will shift to follow this new character.
Questions for Chapters 6-8
- In what ways is your heart hard to hear the truths God would speak to you today?
- In what ways was Jesus like Moses?
- Why do you think Stephen tried to teach the teachers and preachers of Israel? Why didn’t he just directly defend himself?
- When was a time you were defensive when God may have wanted you to use the opportunity to share His good news with others?