Acts 7:1-53 New International Version (NIV)
Stephen’s Speech to the Sanhedrin
7 Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”
2 To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. 3 ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’[a]
4 “So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. 5 He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. 6 God spoke to him in this way: ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. 7 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’[b] 8 Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.
9 “Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.
11 “Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. 12 When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers on their first visit. 13 On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. 14 After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. 15 Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our ancestors died. 16 Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.
17 “As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. 18 Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’[c] 19 He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.
20 “At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child.[d] For three months he was cared for by his family. 21 When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. 22 Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.
23 “When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. 24 He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. 25 Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. 26 The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’
27 “But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? 28 Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’[e] 29 When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.
30 “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. 31 When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’[f] Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.
33 “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’[g]
35 “This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.
37 “This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’[h] 38 He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.
39 “But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’[i] 41 That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. 42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:
“‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
43 You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek
and the star of your god Rephan,
the idols you made to worship.
Therefore I will send you into exile’[j] beyond Babylon.
44 “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. 45 After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, 46 who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.[k] 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him.
48 “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
49 “‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
50 Has not my hand made all these things?’[l]
51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”
Stephen’s speech, part 1: Abraham’s faith in God, 7:1-8
Stephen’s answer to the high priest’s question is the longest speech in ‘Acts’. In it, Stephen showed that God wants people to worship him everywhere, not just in one special place. God is everywhere. Stephen talked about people whose stories are in the Old Testament. The men in the Sanhedrin already knew these stories very well. But Stephen was not just repeating the stories. He was using the stories to teach them new things. Stephen used examples from Jewish history to teach about real faith and worship. The Old Testament showed that Jesus, the Messiah, would come. Stephen told the men how it showed this. Jesus used the Old Testament like that, too. (for example, Luke 24:27).
Stephen began his speech with a greeting that was polite and friendly. He called his audience ‘brothers and fathers’. This reminded them that he was a Jew too. Then he started his lesson from history. Abraham was among the earliest people in all the Jewish history. And he was among the most important people in it. Stephen showed how Abraham had great faith. When Abraham lived, the Jews did not have their own nation or Temple. They did not get those until many hundreds (100s) of years later. But God showed himself to Abraham. God told him to leave his country. Abraham did not know where he was going. But he obeyed God. People who want to obey God must always be willing to leave. They must go wherever God leads them. Stephen showed that God can appear in front of people anywhere. They do not have to be in a special place.
Abraham arrived in the country that God had promised to him. He trusted God again. Abraham had no children. But God said that Abraham’s descendants would own the country. Abraham believed all God’s promises. And all God’s promises became true. Abraham did have children and their descendants were slaves in Egypt. They did leave Egypt and they did live in the Promised Land.
Circumcision was a sign that showed God’s covenant with Abraham. It was the only sign that people could see for that covenant. So, circumcision was very important to the Jews. Here, Stephen was reminding them why it was so important. God had given this sign to them. Abraham had a special friendship with God. God had made this covenant because Abraham had trusted him. And Abraham had obeyed him.
‘Our famous ancestors’ means Jacob’s 12 sons. These were the ancestors of the 12 great families in Israel.
Stephen’s speech, part 2: Joseph, 7:9-16
Stephen continued his lesson about history. He told the story about Joseph. Joseph was Jacob’s favourite son (Genesis 37:3). Joseph had dreams that he was superior to his brothers. His dreams showed that later he would rule over them (Genesis 37:5-11). His brothers were jealous of him. They hated him and they sold him as a slave.
But Stephen showed that nothing could stop God’s plan for Joseph. Although Joseph was in a foreign country, God was with him. ‘Pharaoh’ was the name that people always called the kings of Egypt. Pharaoh did not believe in God but God used him. Pharaoh gave to Joseph what he needed. Joseph became an important ruler, too.
The men in the Sanhedrin knew this story about Joseph very well. But Stephen told it in a new way. He showed how well God looked after his people. God told Joseph to get ready for the famine. God told him about it 7 years before it happened (Genesis 41:25-32). At the right time, Jacob (Joseph’s father) heard that there was food in Egypt (Genesis 42:2). There, God provided food for the Jews’ ancestors. It was in a country that was not their own country. To emphasise this, Stephen mentioned Egypt 8 times in this story. God had promised that the Jews would have their own country. But that promise had become too important to them. They could not make God stay in one place. They could not do that, even if that place was special to them. God is with his people wherever they live. Stephen was teaching this wonderful fact to them.
Stephen’s speech, part 3: Moses, 7:17-43
God had warned Abraham about what would happen. And what God told him had become true (Acts 7:6). The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for 400 years. But God had not forgotten his promise. This promise had two parts.
1. God had promised that Abraham would have many descendants. This had already happened. ‘Our people in Egypt had increased in number.’
2. God had promised to give to his people their own country. This had not happened. And it did not seem likely now, because they were slaves in Egypt. Things had become worse.
The new king did not know about Joseph and he did not respect the Israelites. He thought that they were too many in number. So, the king made them kill their male babies. (Look also at Exodus 1:22.) And he forced them to work.
Stephen now introduced Moses into the story. Moses was a very special child. God had chosen him to rescue the Israelites. So, God had saved his life by a miracle (Exodus 2:1-10). Stephen said good things about Moses here. The Jews had accused him of talk ‘against Moses’ (Acts 6:11). Perhaps that is why he said those good things now. Stephen wanted to show that he admired Moses very much.
Stephen told this part of the story in a new way. He showed that the Israelites had tried to stop God’s plan. They did not realise that Moses would save them from the Egyptians. They did not realise that God had chosen him. Later, the Jews rejected God’s other prophets. Then they rejected their Messiah, the Lord Jesus. In the first century, Jews were very proud of their nation and their culture. They thought that they were superior to all other nations and cultures. But Stephen showed that the Jews’ great leader Moses had been born in a foreign country. When Moses was a child, a foreign woman brought him up. He learned from a foreign culture. Stephen praised this culture. He called it ‘the knowledge that the Egyptians knew’ (verse 22). Not everything that the Egyptians did was right. Stephen was not saying that. But not everything that they did was wrong. So, he was not saying that, either. In the first century, Jews wanted to keep themselves completely separate from Gentiles. This caused arguments in the first church. Stephen was showing that Jews could mix with Gentiles. It did not make the Jews less holy.
Moses had killed an Egyptian. He was defending someone who was from his own people, the Israelites. So, he ran away from Egypt. Like his ancestors, Abraham and Jacob, Moses left his home and he lived ‘as a foreigner’ (verse 29). (Look also at Exodus 2:22.)
God spoke to Abraham and Joseph when they were far from their own country. Moses was far from the country that God had promised to the Israelites. But now, this Gentile land was ‘holy ground’ (verse 33). This was because God had spoken to Moses there. A long time before God’s people (the Jews) built their Temple, God had shown himself to them. He had shown himself to them in foreign countries. Holy places are holy because God is there. They are not holy because of the country that they are in. God can show himself to people anywhere.
God showed that he had not forgotten his covenant with Moses’ ancestors. He was still ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (verse 32). God’s people were suffering as slaves in Egypt. He cared about that and he would rescue them. God told Moses that he was sending him. Moses would act with God’s authority.
Again, Stephen emphasised that the Jews had rejected Moses as their ruler at first. But he had led them out from Egypt. God showed the people that he had chosen Moses. The proof was that Moses did miracles. He did not do miracles in just one place. He did them in Egypt. He did them at the Red Sea. And he did them in the desert. God showed that he was with Moses wherever he went.
Stephen repeated Moses’ words about a prophet (the Messiah). This prophet would be ‘someone from among your people’, like Moses. (Look also at Acts 3:22.) As those people had rejected Moses, so Jesus’ own people rejected Jesus.
The Israelites were in the desert. They were far away from the Promised Land. But God was there with them. He was speaking to them by means of Moses. But they did not obey God. They rejected the leader whom God had chosen. They were very ungrateful.
Then the Israelites rejected God. God was giving the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. But while he was doing that, the Israelites made an idol. They worshipped something that they had made. They stopped worshipping God, who had made them!
‘The book that contains the prophets’ messages’ includes the book by the prophet Amos. The verses that Stephen uses here are from Amos 5:25-27. These verses show how the Israelites worshipped many false gods. At first, they had worshipped one idol in the desert. God allowed them to do what they wanted. God always allows us to choose what we do. We can choose to do good things. Or we can choose to do bad things. The Bible shows to us what is right. And it shows to us what is wrong. The Holy Spirit guides us. But we are free to choose. God never forces us to obey him.
Stephen’s speech, part 4: People who do not obey, 7:44-53
This tent was called the ‘tabernacle’. The ‘tabernacle’ was like a temple that people could carry with them. God had given the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Its words were on two pieces of stone. These pieces of stone were big and flat. They were in a special box inside the tent. The people believed that they must have this special tent with them. Then God would be there too. They carried it in the desert. They took it with them into the Promised Land. And they had it for several hundred years.
King David wanted to build a temple instead of the tent. At that time, the Jews had their own country. They thought that they would always stay there. They did not need to carry the tent with them. It was Solomon, David’s son, who built the first Temple. The Jews’ enemies destroyed it in 587 BC. Then the Jews built a second one. The Romans destroyed the second Temple in 63 BC. The Temple in this book called Acts was the third Temple. King Herod the Great had built it. He started it in 19 BC. But it took many years to finish. It was the most magnificent Temple. But Stephen reminded the Jews that God was bigger than any Temple. Stephen said some words from the book by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 66:1-2). God is bigger than heaven and earth. He made all things. He cannot stay in one place only.
Both the Law and the Temple were very important to the Jews. Stephen showed that although the Law and the Temple were important, God was more important. And God was much bigger. Their idea about God was too small!
The people in Stephen’s audience were proud about their religion. They thought that they were very holy people. They studied the scriptures. But they did not hear what God was saying. They thought like people who do not know God. They were exactly like their ancestors. Their ancestors had rejected the prophets. Now the Jewish leaders here had rejected ‘God’s righteous Servant’, the Messiah. And there was something even worse than that. They had killed him. Peter had already said twice that they had killed the Messiah (Acts 4:10; 5:30). Stephen also said that they had not obeyed the Law (verse 53). God had chosen the Jews for his special purposes. He had given the Law to them. He had sent his Messiah. But they had opposed both the Law and the Messiah.