Following the installation of the Seven to the position of caring for all the widows of the church, Luke highlights one of these 7 men: Stephen, beginning in Acts 6:8. Stephen ministered within the Jerusalem community, given a special grace from God with uncommon power to perform miracles. Stephen’s acclaim within the community prompted those who belonged to the Freedmen synagogue in Jerusalem to argue with Stephen about his doctrine and the miracles he wrought. Despite their efforts, they had no ability to refute the transcendent wisdom that Stephen possessed as he continually made irrefutable arguments from his superior knowledge of Scripture.
Since they could not silence Stephen, they bribed other men to spread the statement that Stephen was a blasphemer. They then incited a crowd of the common people and the religious leaders against him. Stephen was physically ambushed, apprehended, and dragged before the Sanhedrin. Before the Sanhedrin, false witnesses lied under oath, accusing Stephen of speaking against the holy temple of Jerusalem and the law that Moses received. Further, they stated that Stephen had declared that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple and make them follow ways not given or taught by Moses to their ancestors. The Sanhedrin members stared intently at Stephen, watching to see how he would react to such allegations; but he stood before them with his face aglow, filled with the Spirit and empowered for fearless testimony before his accusers, with his face “like the face of an angel.”
The high priest demanded that Stephen answer these charges, and so Stephen embarked upon a lengthy elaborate and powerful offensive address beginning in Acts 7:2, attributing his charges back upon these men! He first addressed these men as fellow Jews and also with a title of respect. Stephen then began to explain how “the God of glory” had appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia all the way back when Abraham was still a pagan idolater. But this appearance of God took place before the giving of the Law, before the building of the temple, outside of Canaan before Israel was a nation! It was there that God appeared to Abraham, summoning him to embark on the path of faith. Initially, Abraham went out from the land of the Chaldeans to settle in Haran; but after his father Terah died, God resettled him in the land of Canaan. All throughout, Stephen is emphasizing the divine initiative and actions of God.
Although Abraham lived in the promised land of Canaan, God did not give it to him as a possession, not even 1 square foot! However, God did promise to give the land to Abraham and to his descendants. Remarkably, this promise was given to Abraham who at the time was both landless and childless! But God told Abraham that this promise would come about through Abraham’s offspring who would be foreigners in a land that belonged to other people. And these other people would enslave and afflict them for 400 years! However, such harsh treatment of Abraham’s descendants would NOT go unpunished by God; and God would be with them, even during their time of slavery. God would be the One to deliver them, bringing them out of this land so that they could render religious service in the worship of Yahweh.
The ultimate goal of God’s promise was not the land – rather, it was the freedom to render true worship and devotion to God! Stephen’s words surely confront the Sanhedrin, but they also assure Luke’s readers that God’s history of salvation is dependent on God’s promise rather than on human realities. God’s judgment on Egypt has already come to pass – He is NOW judging those who would seek slavish devotion to the physical temple, afflicting God’s sojourners. In Acts 7:8, Stephen describes the external sign that God gave to Abraham as an intimate sign reminding the Israelites of their covenant-bound commitment to God … the sign of circumcision. But Abraham’s “possession” of circumcision is NOT Stephen’s focus: Abraham’s obedience in circumcising Isaac (and Isaac and Jacob circumcising their sons) IS the focal point, and it stands in stark contrast with those whom Stephen will eventually exclaim to have uncircumcised hearts and ears!
In all the places of their migration, God was with Abraham AND his sign-bearing posterity. Long before there was a holy place there was a holy people to whom God had pledged Himself. And through this son-bearing, we can see how the covenant promises of God began to be fulfilled with respect to Abraham’s offspring. Stephen’s speech is considerably longer, and we will cover those parts in future teachings.
You can listen to this teaching on Acts 6:8 – 7:8 by clicking on the following link: Stephen’s “Offensive” Defense (Part 1)