Stephen, one of the original seven, powerfully proclaimed the Word of God effectively. He saw more clearly than some the implications of the work of Christ. False accusations were brought against him, but his “defense” in Acts 7 was a proclamation of the glory of God.
God summons you to live in covenant fellowship with him. The God of glory appeared to his people. Stephen’s message is a significant element in Acts. It is the longest sermon or speech that Luke records, and it sets the stage, theologically as well as chronologically, for the dispersion of the church and the beginning of the Gentiles being brought in.
Stephen begins with the historical account of God’s dealing with his people, something that the Sanhedrin may have listened to with interest. He shows that God had repeatedly shown himself to his people (often outside the promised land) and had entered into a covenant with them. That prepares for the end of the message where he, as a covenant messenger like the Old Testament prophets, will challenge the disobedience and unbelief of his hearers. God was with Abraham in Ur and in Haran. He was with Joseph in Egypt and the oppressed people there. He never had been confined to the geography of the land of Israel.
The God of glory calls you to walk by faith. Stephen’s development of Abraham’s journey of faith and his expectant waiting for the promised child parallels Hebrews 11:8-16. Joseph’s faith was evident in his obedient trust. He experienced God’s blessing in a foreign land.
Stephen is suggesting, as Paul and Hebrews make explicit, that we walk by faith, not by sight. Neither Stephen’s original audience, nor the first readers of Acts, nor you, the church today, are to focus on externals. God graciously calls you and expects you to live in obedient fellowship with him, not presuming on the blessings you have received from God.
Stephen’s defense is a call to live in the presence of God. Listen to the covenant messengers. The history of God’s dealings with Israel through Moses recounts God’s repeated deliverances and constant care, verses 20-43. The covenant with Abraham is recalled in verse 32 as well as the great event of covenant redemption, the Exodus, verse 36.
Moses is crucial to Stephen’s message, for he anticipated the greater prophet to come, verse 36. The recounted rebellion against Moses was directed ultimately against the Messiah. The history of Israel was one of rejecting God’s covenant messengers, from Egypt through the wilderness. Now Stephen stands before the leaders of Israel as another witness (remember that the word “martyr” means witness), reminding them of the judgments that God threatened if they persist in their rejection of the Messiah. Stephen had been accused of changing the customs of Moses (Acts 6:14), but the rejectors of Moses were a disobedient covenant people, not the followers of the Messiah.
Stephen had also been associated with the accusation made against Jesus, that he would destroy the temple (see John 2:19; Matthew 26:60-61; Mark 14:57-59). Stephen, who had been debating with Jews from the provinces, may have understood more clearly some of the implications of the completed work of Jesus both for the inclusion of Gentiles among the covenant people and for the cessation of temple ceremonies. He points out that long before the temple had been built, God had Moses build the tabernacle, according to his pattern (verse 44), a pattern which Hebrews 9:23-28 ultimately reflects the heavenly sanctuary.
The God of glory created the heavens and the earth, Isaiah 66:1-2, and could never be confined to a building made with human hands, as even Solomon recognized, 1 Kings 8:27. Stephen’s defense, like the book of Hebrews, calls you to be a pilgrim people, to focus on what is eternal, not what is going to be shaken and destroyed. “Stephen’s overview of Israelite history, with its attention to the themes of the locale of worship and the leaders appointed by God, provides a theological transition in the narrative of Acts to the dispersion of the church among the Gentile nations. Soon persecution would bar most Christians (certainly the Hellenistic wing of the church) from access to the temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, such a scattering was God’s curse against rebellious people, excluding them from his presence and his land (Deut. 28:64; Ezek. 36:19). But with the saving achievement of the Messiah Jesus, Herod’s temple had become obsolete. Exclusion from the edifice that dominated Zion was no longer exclusion from the courts of the Lord, for Jesus was the new temple as well as the final Deliverer.” (Dennis E. Johnson, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, p. 95).
He concludes his “defense” with a profoundly offensive move, accusing his judges of following in the steps of their forefathers by killing, not just the prophetic messengers of the covenant, but even the Righteous One. You cannot be neutral about Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate messenger from and the revealer of the God of glory. Listen to him.