Stephen spends most of his time on Moses because Moses is the one charged with blaspheming. He divides Moses’ life into three stages. The first given in Verses 17-29:
“As the time drew near when God would fulfill his promise to Abraham to free his descendants from slavery, the Jewish people greatly multiplied in Egypt; but then a king was crowned who had no respect for Joseph’s memory. This king plotted against our race, forcing parents to abandon their children in the fields.
“About that time Moses was born—a child of divine beauty. His parents hid him at home for three months, and when at last they could no longer keep him hidden and had to abandon him, Pharaoh’s daughter found him and adopted him as her own son, and taught him all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he became a mighty prince and orator.
“One day as he was nearing his fortieth birthday, it came into his mind to visit his brothers, the people of Israel. During this visit he saw an Egyptian mistreating a man of Israel. So Moses killed the Egyptian. Moses supposed his brothers would realize that God had sent him to help them, but they didn’t.
“The next day he visited them again and saw two men of Israel fighting. He tried to be a peacemaker. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘you are brothers and shouldn’t be fighting like this! It is wrong!’
“But the man in the wrong told Moses to mind his own business. ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us?’ he asked. ‘Are you going to kill me as you killed that Egyptian yesterday?’
“At this, Moses fled the country and lived in the land of Midian, where his two sons were born. (Acts 7:17-29 TLB)
You may ask, “Why did Stephen tell these stories to people who knew them by heart?” It is because he wanted to remind them of something. They had said to him, “You are blaspheming Moses, the great leader, the infallible authority.”
But Stephen was saying,
- “Have you forgotten that Moses was a failure the first eighty years of his life?
- Have you forgotten that when Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was acting by the human knowledge and resources, he possessed, that he fell flat on his face?
- And that when Moses tried to deliver his people, instead of becoming to them a missionary, as Moses thought God had appointed him, Moses became a murderer and had to flee. Instead of being a deliverer he became a refugee.
- Have you forgotten about Moses? He was a failure when he did not act by faith.”
Then the second stage:
Forty years later, in the desert near Mount Sinai, an Angel appeared to him in a flame of fire in a bush. Moses saw it and wondered what it was, and as he ran to see, the voice of the Lord called out to him, ‘I am the God of your ancestors—of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ Moses shook with terror and dared not look.
And the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground. I have seen the anguish of my people in Egypt and have heard their cries. I have come down to deliver them. Come, I will send you to Egypt.’ And so God sent back the same man his people had previously rejected by demanding, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us?’ Moses was sent to be their ruler and savior. (Acts 7:30-35 TLB)
Catch the argument now. “You want to follow Moses,” he says. “Well, Moses failed when he walked by the sight of his own eyes and in the wisdom of his mind. But when God appeared and empowered him and taught him the proper source of strength and authority, He sent him back, and this same Moses, whom they would not receive as ruler and judge, God sent back to be a ruler and deliverer.”
Stephen is driving home this point: The only one worth following is God! When men and women, boys and girls, act in faith toward God they have all the power of an omnipotent God behind them. But when they refuse to obey God they fall flat on their faces! The arm of flesh will fail you. Everything will turn to dust in your hand. Nothing will work out, and instead of being victors you will become victims.
And now the third stage, by which Stephen drives home his point with a vengeance:
And by means of many wonders and miraculous signs, he led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and through the wilderness for forty years.
Moses himself told the people of Israel, ‘God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among your own people.’ Moses was with our ancestors, the assembly of God’s people in the wilderness when the angel spoke to him at Mount Sinai. And there Moses received life-giving words to pass on to us.
But our ancestors refused to listen to Moses. They rejected him and wanted to return to Egypt. They told Aaron, ‘Make us some gods who can lead us, for we don’t know what has become of this Moses, who brought us out of Egypt.’ So they made an idol shaped like a calf, and they sacrificed to it and celebrated over this thing they had made. Then God turned away from them and abandoned them to serve the stars of heaven as their gods! In the book of the prophets, it is written,
‘Was it to me you were bringing sacrifices and offerings during those forty years in the wilderness, Israel? No, you carried your pagan gods—the shrine of Molech, the star of your god Rephan, and the images you made to worship them. So I will send you into exile as far away as Babylon.’ (Acts 7:36-43 NLT)
Stephen says that the people refused to obey Moses and so they began that whole system of idolatrous worship, which led God, at last, centuries later, to disperse them into the country of Babylon for seventy years of captivity.
His whole point is that, as they turned from Moses and disobeyed him they fell into these evil idolatrous practices so that God had to judge them. And, his point is, Moses himself had said that it would happen again.
Moses had said, “God will raise up unto you a prophet like unto me; and him you must hear.” And this, of course, would be Jesus. Jesus is the one they are now rejecting. They are following exactly the path of their fathers. Now, if you skip down to Verse 51, you get this conclusion.
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 7:51a RSV)
These Jews would understand these terms. “Stiff-necked” — proud, stubborn, they would not bow their heads at all. “Uncircumcised in heart” — the foreskin of their heart has never been removed; there had been no exposure of their life to the grace and the glory of God. They were defiled, yet refused to repent.
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (Acts 7:51-53 RSV)
What blunt truth this is. It was terribly hard to bear. These rulers of the Jews became so enraged that we read in the next verse,
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. (Acts 7:54 RSV)
They ground their teeth against him; they gnashed their teeth. They were so stirred by this truth that they could not stand it. That is what truth does. You must either accept it or fight against it. Truth never permits you to remain neutral, never leaves a middle ground; it always bursts through and drives you either to one side or the other. As Jesus repeatedly said of his ministry,
“I have not come to bring peace on the earth, but a sword…” (Matthew 10:34),
(I have come to divide people.) “He who is with me gathers; he who is against me scatters…” (Matthew 12:30).
You can tell who is with him because they are harmonizing and healing, gathering together, and breaking down dividing walls. Those who are against him are dividing and severing, causing divisions and fomenting factions, creating schisms, scattering. And this is what these rulers experienced:
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:54-56 RSV)
Those are almost the identical words that Jesus himself had used before this same group just a few weeks earlier. He had said, “But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven…” (Matthew 26:64).
When they heard Stephen say this, they knew the issue was Jesus, not Stephen. What do you do with Jesus of Nazareth? Their Scriptures condemned them. There was not a word they could say against Stephen. The very Scriptures they professed to believe, in his mouth had condemned them, and they knew it. The issue clearly was Jesus. They either had to crown him or to crucify him again. They either had to kiss his feet or kill his servant, one or the other. They chose to kill his servant. We read,
But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears [i.e., put their hands over their ears so they could not hear Stephen’s words] and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him, and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting to his death. (Acts 7:57-8:1a RSV)
A vivid picture, is it not? It is noteworthy to see how God stands by his faithful martyr here. Stephen’s eyes are opened, even in the presence of the council, and he sees the Lord Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father. It is my conviction that every believer who dies sees this event, that when a believer steps out of time into eternity, the next occurrence waiting for him is the coming of the Lord Jesus for his own.
Here Stephen sees him waiting to step out and receive him in a few moments when he is taken out of the city and stoned to death. And this is the sight that greets the eyes of those who fall asleep in Jesus, and Stephen sees it. He prays to him in words that echo those of Jesus himself on the cross. Jesus had prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” (Luke 23:34). Stephen says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit, and do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Twice in this account, we have reference to young Saul of Tarsus. All of those who killed Stephen laid their garments at his feet. He kept the clothes of the rest while they were doing the stoning. He had voted against Stephen in the council; he was consenting unto his death.
But the idea the Holy Spirit wants us to grasp from this account is a truth that we have exemplified here, and that has been manifested through the church many times since this day: The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. When the church suffers this way, it always grows immensely.
And this has always been true. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Out of the blood of Stephen there came the preaching of Paul. By the death of this first martyr, there was brought to the church the heart and soul of the mighty apostle to the Gentiles, the Apostle Paul. Paul never forgot this scene. It was etched in his mind and memory so that he could never forget.
To this memory Jesus referred when he said to Saul, arresting him on his way to Damascus, “Saul, Saul…It hurts you to kick against the goads…” (Acts 26:14 RSV). What did he mean? This memory of Stephen was like a goad digging at young Saul’s conscience, bothering him always, and preparing his heart for that moment when the Lord Jesus, who had received Stephen’s spirit, would appear and reveal himself to this young man who would be converted and become Paul the Apostle.
As we come to the close of Chapter 7, we also come to the end of the opening phase of the church’s expansion. Jesus himself had said, in Acts 1:8 “You shall receive power after the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses, [in three stages:] in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.”
At the beginning of chapter eight, you find the apostles now thrust out into Judea and Samaria. The end of the first phase has come, and the opening of the second now begins. Later, when Paul is converted, we find the beginning of that campaign which is still the occupation of the church in this very day and hour, the carrying of this great gospel unto the uttermost parts of the earth.
This book of Acts is an unfinished book. We are still privileged to be writing it today. In this day and age, there may be some who will be called, like Stephen, to lay down their lives for Jesus’ sake. The opposition is sharpening; the hostility is emerging, more vicious, more furious, more enraged on every side.
Sooner or later, as with these rulers,
- Confronted with the truth, they cannot avoid,
- The depths of depravity that lie in the human heart,
- Often covered with a religious glaze,
- Will break out,
- Will erupt like lava from an active volcano,
- Will vomit out upon this earth in a tremendous manifestation of hostility against the message of Jesus Christ and persecution of its bearers.
We may face this in our day, who knows? May God grant that, like Stephen, we will be faithful unto death?
Our Father, this account has sobered us as we realize that this is no child’s play we are engaged in. And this is no Sunday school picnic. There is nothing Mickey Mouse about this. It is a real battle, and it can come to blood and sweat and tears. We pray, Father, that we may, like Stephen, be found faithful unto death, recognizing that the One whom we serve is the rightful Lord of heaven and earth. To him, all power is committed, right now, in heaven and on earth. Nothing can withstand us; nothing can stop us. Nothing can thwart the moving of his program through this age. May we be in line with it, honestly, openly, genuinely, and sincerely? Judge among us, Father, any sham, any phoniness, any fakery, and purge it out from our midst, that we may be, as these early Christians were, men and women filled with power, with spirit, with charm, with love, and with grace. We ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.