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Acts 7

Scripture: Acts 7:1-8:1

Highlights:

  • Stephen is accused of blaspheming God and Moses by supposedly preaching that Jesus of Nazareth said he’d destroy the temple and change the customs of Moses (i.e. The Law) .
  • When asked by the high priest how he pleads, Stephen reinterprets the history of Israel through the lens of Jesus in the following way:
Stephen’s Speech (briefly) Implications of the Speech
We have a common father in Abraham Stevie was stating that he was a Jew, and that he respected God, Moses and the Temple. He was starting with a common heritage on common ground with the Sanhedrin.
The presence, or glory, of God–the same “shekinah” that eventually settled on the tabernacle, then temple, to indicate that God dwelled among his people–appeared to Abe in Mesopotamia and gave him instructions to pick up and move Abraham didn’t need the temple to experience God, just faith. God can meet people anywhere, temple or no temple. Holy land or no holy land.
After Abe, there was Isaac then Jacob then the twelve patriarchs. The patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, so they sold him to Egypt Israel’s descendants rejected their leader.
God was with Joseph in Egypt and rescued him there. Then God exalted Joe to a high position with the Pharaoh. God’s saving activity can take place anywhere.
There’s a famine and Joe is able to help his family out. It’s not until the second visit that the patriarchs recognize their brother. They all move down to Egypt to be together. Israel’s forefathers failed to recognize their future savior.
Moses comes along (many years later when the Jews were no longer appreciated by the king) and tries to help some of his people by killing an Egyptian. The people Moses helped ended up not trusting him. Moses got spooked and ran away to Midian. Israel’s descendants initially failed to recognize Moses as their leader.
Many years later God appeared to Moses in the burning bush (in the desert near Mt. Sinai), and told him that he was now standing on holy ground. Moses did not need the temple or rituals to encounter to God. And what makes a place sacred is God’s presence. Without God there, there’s just dirt.
Moses saves his people from Egypt. Though the Israelites initially rejected Moses, he still became their leader and savior. God’s chosen one wins, even if you don’t like it.
Moses told the people that, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people,” and he received “living words” (i.e. the Law) from God. The law is delivered by revelation and it is alive and relevant. However Moses pointed to someone beyond himself who should be listened to. God’s revelation won’t be limited to the law. There is an additional messenger of God that the people must not reject.
The Israelites lost faith in Moses, and in his absence made an idol they could easily see and worship. They made sacrifices to the idol and reveled in “what their hands had made.” The temple was believed to be the visible proof that God was present. It was the central place for worship and sacrifices in Israel. It was “what their hands had made.” In other words, Stephen was implying that the Jews’ veneration of the temple was the same to God as worship of the golden calf.
Stephen quotes the book of Amos to remind them that God punishes those who reject him by turning away from them and handing them over to the consequences of their actions (which ultimately leads to exile) The Jewish leader’s faith is centered around an idol (the temple), and though they think they are acting like God’s people, they’re not. As a result, ruin and exile is coming. Exile is seen as the ultimate form of punishment for breaking the covenant with God–removal from the holy land.
We used to have a tabernacle (built according to God’s specifications) that moved around with us. God was wherever his people where. The tabernacle was God’s provision of a structure for true worship. Mobile. Temporary. Ready to move.
David wanted to build God a permanent house. God ended up letting Solomon build it, but reminded everyone that the earth is his, so no one should think they can contain God with something they build. The temple has become an attempt to contain and control God. Those in charge of the temple have become idolators.
You people are just like your forefathers–you fail to hold true to the law, you resist the Holy Spirit, and you have failed to recognize your savior. In fact, you killed him. Steve is saying he actually doesn’t have the same heritage as his audience. His linage is one of faith, theirs of rejection and idolatry.Stephen is letting them know that God is judging them. The people who call themselves Abraham’s descendants have consistently failed to respond to God throughout their history. Failure to recognize Jesus now is failure to heed the words of Moses (the word of law). Abraham’s true people are those who accept the “Righteous One” and follow the Holy Spirit.Stephen is turning the tables on the Sanhedrin and calling them the real blasphemers. He is claiming to be more faithful to the story of God and the prophets than they were.
  • Everyone’s riled up and Stephen references the messianic-laden passages of Psalm 110 and Daniel 7 to describe how he now sees Jesus as the triumphant “son of God.”
  • The Sanhedrin goes ape, takes Stephen outside and stones him  to death.
  • As he dies Stephen follows in his Savior’s footsteps by commending his spirit to Jesus’ care (just as Jesus asked of the Father), and requests that God forgive his attackers.
  • Paul (then known as Saul) looks on with approval.

Historical Context:

The Temple

“…before the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the three great pillars of popular Jewish piety were (1) the land, (2) the law, and (3) the temple.” [Longenecker]

The temple served as the religious, political and economic epicenter of first century Judaism.  Religiously, it was first and foremost a symbol of God’s presence. It was the official place of sacrifice and of prayer for all Jews. It stood a symbol to the world that YHWH was with Israel. Politically it gave the nation an unifying identity. Economically, lots of money passed through it in the form of tithes and offerings. (Based on Jesus’ efforts to drive out the money changers, it seems as though the economics of the temple had overshadowed it’s other functions.)

“The Temple which should have become their greatest blessing was in fact their greatest curse; they had come to worship it instead of worshipping God. They had finished up with a Jewish God who lived in Jerusalem rather than a God of all men whose dwelling was the whole universe.” [Barclay]

The tabernacle was the initial “dwelling place” for God. Moses built it according to God’s specifications. Generations later David requested to build a more permanent home for God (“Why should God live in a tent when the king lives in a palace?” David reasoned). The text implies that the temple was more of a concession on God’s part to human desire, than his real purpose. God did not particularly want a house built in his honor. Instead, God told David that God would build David a “house” — an everlasting dynasty. The real temple (“dwelling place of God”) is the house of David, built through his Savior, whose offspring are those who believe in him.

Stephen seems to be pointing out that one of the problems with a permanent, stationary temple is that it implies people have to “come to God,” versus what history tells us about what God really tends to do–go find his people.  This mindset of “God is in the temple, so everyone must come to us to see God” is why Israel (who was supposed to be a light to the nations)  thought in terms of the world coming to them for salvation. Christians believed that God would “come to you,” even those outside of Israel, the Gentiles–hence the upcoming missionary activity in Acts.

The Glory of God

The Jews associate the glory of God — the Shekinah — with the moveable tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 40), and later the temple (Ezekiel 43). So right at the beginning of his speech Stephen establishes that God needs neither tent nor temple to be present with people. “God’s self-revelation is not limited to the land of the Jews, certainly not to Jerusalem and the temple.” (GCI)

Stephen also uses the word glory to counteract the charge of blasphemy against God. It shows that Stephen regarded him as worthy of honor and praise.

Stiff Necked People

To be “stiff necked” means to be stubborn. One theory suggests that the term has its origins in the agricultural history of ancient Israel. When farmers would plow their fields by using oxen, if the ox didn’t want to follow the guidance of the farmer it would stiffen the muscles in its neck. This would make it impossible to guide the ox where it needed to go.

God used the term “stiff necked” to characterize Israel’s attitude toward him several times in the Old Testament [Exodus 33Leviticus 26;Deuteronomy 9Jeremiah 4].  The Sanhedrin would’ve heard this as a great insult.

Calling their ears and hearts uncircumcised seems to contrast their outward/physical obedience to the law (i.e. traditional circumcision) with their spiritual obedience/willingness to follow God.

Son of Man Sitting At the Right Hand

Not long before Stephen stood in front of the Sanhedrin, Jesus stood in front of this same group. When the high priest asked Jesus if he were the Messiah. Jesus answered: “I am…and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14). They reacted reacted by saying that Jesus had blasphemed and should be put to death. However, they decided not to stone Jesus right then. Stephen was not so fortunate.

This image of Jesus at God’s right hand is based on Psalm 110, in which the Messiah is portrayed as triumphant over Israel’s enemies.

Calling Jesus the “son of man*” has its roots in Daniel 7. Here, too, the Messiah is portrayed as the conqueror and victor.

“For Stephen to suggest that the crucified Jesus stood in a position of authority at the right hand of God must have ranked as blasphemy in the thinking of those who knew that a crucified man died under the divine curse.” (Bruce)

Interesting side note: This is also the only time that the phrase “the son of Man” appears in the New Testament outside the Gospels, and the only time it is spoken by a disciple. 

Stoning

The second-century Jewish writing Mishnah, describes the practice of stoning: “When the trial is finished, the man convicted is brought out to be stoned . . . When ten cubits from the place of stoning they say to him, ‘Confess, for it is the custom of all about to be put to death to make confession, and every one who confesses has a share in the age to come’ . . . Four cubits from the place of stoning the criminal is stripped . . . The drop from the place of stoning was twice the height of a man. One of the witnesses pushes the criminal from behind, so that he falls face downward. He is then turned over on his back. If he dies from this fall, that is sufficient. If not, the second witness takes the stone and drops it on his heart. If this causes death, that is sufficient; if not, he is stoned by all the congregation of Israel.” (Bruce)

Saul’s Approval

“Luke’s phrase ‘at his feet’ may signify that Paul is a leader of the opposition to Stephen. Perhaps he is instrumental in rushing Stephen and dragging him outside of the city to a place of stoning. Luke uses the expression ‘at the feet’ three times in the story of church members selling their property and bringing the money to the apostles (4:35, 37 and 5:2). There it is clear that the expression is meant to convey the apostles’ leadership.” (GCI)

If this action was a recognition of his authority, Paul may have been one of the instigators, if not the ringleader, behind Stephen’s trial and execution. His success in getting Stephen killed may have earned him the leadership role in the subsequent persecution of Christians.

Observations:

  • This is the longest speech by an invidual in Acts.
  • Why recap the history of Israel?  Stephen wanted to let them know that he believed in the same things as his accusers did, but that because of Jesus he now saw them through a new perspective. He also was showing that Jesus was the culmination of their hopes, not an offshoot, distraction or contradiction. Jesus represented the same God, the same truth, the same Law, they believed in.
  • “Peter had earlier reinterpreted some scriptures in light of his new understanding of Christ, now Stephen read the history of the Old Testament with new eyes in the light of the life and death of Jesus” (Furneaux).
  • Stephen retells Israel’s story “in terms not of commandments and shrines, but in terms of promise and fulfillment, of prophetic sendings, and the challenge to obedience.” [Johnson]
  • Stephen’s speech sets the stage for broader missionary activity because of the implications that God meets people where they’re at, and that his people are defined by faith and obedience. (GCI)
  • Interesting that Stephen points out that God did not save the patriarchs from famine in their new homeland. Rather, they had go to Egypt (to where God was with Joseph) in order to get food.
  • When Stephen said that God doesn’t live in houses “made by human hands” he was implying that the temple had become an idol.  The Jews used the phrase “made with human hands” to refer to idol worship (Sibylline Oracles 14; Is 31; Wisdom of Solomon 14 – IVP). Stephen was saying that Israel now worshipped the temple of God instead of the God of the temple.
  • “Stephen develops a strong contrast between the idolatry condemned by Amos—the shrine [skene] of Molech and the idols (typous)—and the tabernacle [skene] of the Testimony constructed according to the pattern (typon) God gave Moses” (IVP)
  • Interesting that Jesus is never mentioned by name in Stephen’s speech.
  • Stephen makes the point that Abrham, Joseph, and Moses had to make a break from their current societies/situations to follow God.
  • Stephen’s speech helps set the stage that there is “a new understanding of ‘the holy place’ in terms of a community (rather than a physical shrine)” (Williams).
  •  Stephen commits his spirit to Jesus directly. Note how words that formerly applied to the Father are now addressed to the Son. Jesus was in the role of God, in the sense of being the one who saves.
  • Luke notes that Stephen did not “die.” Instead, he merely fell asleep. A nod to the belief in the resurrection of the dead.

Discussion:

  • Stephen’s speech implies that God can work outside of established religious customs/buildings/traditions. How has that been shown to be true throughout the rest of the church’s history? How is that being seen today?
  • Stephen accused the Jewish leaders of trying to cage God in the temple and in the “holy land” of Judea. How have modern Christians confined God to the church building? To America?
  • The tabernacle seemed to be God’s preferred “dwelling” because of it’s mobility/flexibility/impermanence. How does God maintain his mobility today? Where does he dwell? How did Jesus embody this ideal? How did Jesus identify himself/contrast himself with the temple?
  • The temple became an idol because it became an “image of God” that could be worshipped. What “image of God” is an idol today?
  • What foundational ideas in Christian theology does Stephen’s speech represent?  How are these principles still relevant today?
  • How does the modern church perpetuate the idea that people have to “come to God” vs. the idea that Stephen encourages, which is “God goes to the people”?

References:

Post Discussion Perspectives:

  • Why was Stephen so accusative of his accusers? Did his speech get him killed or was he going to die regardless?
  • How long did Stephen have to prepare his speech? How much of this insight about Israel’s history was part of his normal debate with the Synagog of the Freedman, how much was his personal education, and how much was the Holy Spirit?
  • The church still mostly sees God as living in a building/cathedral/worship center. We naturally try to contain God. (Though, gothic cathedrals are all kinds of awesome… from an architectural and aesthetic point of view)
  • Church buildings can easily become like the temple–ornate boxes to hold our traditions and concept of God at a distance. How can we  “tabernacle” God vs. “temple” him? Missions? Home Communities? What can we do to keep ourselves flexible, fluid and open to moving to the next location?
  • God is restless, on the move. He prefers to be on the front lines where the action is.
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2 thoughts on “Acts 7

  1. Pingback: Acts 13 | Our Home Community

  2. Pingback: Acts 15 | Our Home Community

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