In this longest speech recorded in Acts Chapter 7, Stephen intended to show that the Christian Gospel squared with Old Testament revelation. It is Stephen’s brilliant defense of what he believed and is a review of the history of the people of Israel. He answers the two charges against him, and he brings a third charge, which he levels, against the people.
Just to help you find it, his answer to their charge regarding Moses is summed up in Verse 37. They had charged him with saying that Moses’ teachings were to be changed (blasphemy!). Stephen answers by saying,
Moses himself told the people of Israel, ‘God will raise up a Prophet much like me from among your brothers.’ (Acts 7:37 TLB)
In other words, Stephen’s answer is that Moses himself had said that things were going to be changed, that God was going to raise up another prophet who, like himself, would speak to the people and give a whole new set of provisions for life from God. Then he answers the charge concerning the temple in a brief section toward the close of his message, Verse 44:
Our ancestors carried along with them a portable Temple, or Tabernacle, through the wilderness. In it they kept the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them. This building was constructed in exact accordance with the plan shown to Moses by the Angel. Years later, when Joshua led the battles against the Gentile nations, this Tabernacle was taken with them into their new territory, and used until the time of King David.
“God blessed David greatly, and David asked for the privilege of building a permanent Temple for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who actually built it. However, God doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. ‘The heaven is my throne,’ says the Lord through his prophets, ‘and earth is my footstool. What kind of home could you build?’ asks the Lord. ‘Would I stay in it? Didn’t I make both heaven and earth?’ (Acts 7:44-50 TLB)
His argument is that God himself, through the prophet Isaiah, had predicted that the temple would not always be an adequate place to worship God.
In fact, no building ever will be. God is bigger than buildings. God is the One who made all things, which makes the material from which a structure is made, and who makes the men who put that building together. God has not designed that he should be worshiped in a building made with hands. Isaiah said that not Stephen. And so he successfully answers this charge.
It is an important point he makes. The general teaching that a building can be called the house of God has always disturbed me. No building is the house of God, or ever was. Even the temple, as Stephen points out here, was not rightly called the house of God. “Where is the house which you will build for me, says the Lord? Did not my hand make all these things?”
When a church building is filled with people, who are indeed the house of God (for man is the house in which God intends to dwell — your body, and my body), there is a sense in which the building is the house of God, because God is there in his people.
But when we all leave and the lights are turned out, the building is no more the house of God than any other building. It is no more holy, no more sacred. It is nothing more than a building; an empty building to be used for whatever purpose is helpful at the moment. It is not the house of God. You are the house of God. That is the great truth that Stephen tries to get across to these people.
Then he levels a charge against them. He says, in effect, that far from following the great men of faith whom they professed to admire and revere, they were identifying themselves with the pagan and idolatrous forces that had opposed these people of faith throughout all the history of Israel, and had even put them to death on many occasions.
He selects from the course of Israel’s history three of the outstanding heroes of faith and indicates the contrast between them and his listeners.
Let’s read the words of the seventh chapter because this is a great message. I want to divide it as Stephen does and comment briefly here and there.
I want you to see how this mighty preacher of the early church developed his thesis:
- That God was always working through men of faith and vision who dared to change the status quo,
- Who dared to challenge the establishments of their day in the way the God himself always challenges, and
- Then to see how he draws the contrast with these who charge him.
He begins with Abraham, the first of the three figures:
This was Stephen’s lengthy reply: “The glorious God appeared to our ancestor Abraham in Iraq before he moved to Syria, and told him to leave his native land, to say good-bye to his relatives and to start out for a country that God would direct him to. So he left the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran, in Syria, until his father died. Then God brought him here to the land of Israel, but gave him no property of his own, not one little tract of land.
“However, God promised that eventually the whole country would belong to him and his descendants—though as yet he had no children! But God also told him that these descendants of his would leave the land and live in a foreign country and there become slaves for 400 years. ‘But I will punish the nation that enslaves them,’ God told him, ‘and afterwards my people will return to this land of Israel and worship me here.’
“God also gave Abraham the ceremony of circumcision at that time, as evidence of the covenant between God and the people of Abraham. And so Isaac, Abraham’s son, was circumcised when he was eight days old. Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob was the father of the twelve patriarchs of the Jewish nation. (Acts 7:2-8 TLB)
What is he saying? That Abraham was a man of lifelong faith, who dared to change his life pattern in obedience to God. Who left his country and even his father’s house and went out into a land he had never seen before, and there, though he never owned a foot of ground in the area, nevertheless believed that God would do what he had said.
Though he had no child he believed that God would give him descendants. God, of course, honored that promise and eventually gave him a child, Isaac, and in time fulfilled all the promises. Stephen here is drawing a very sharp unspoken contrast. Abraham, he said, your father, was a man of faith who dared to make changes in obedience to God. The next man from their past is Joseph:
These men were very jealous of Joseph and sold him to be a slave in Egypt. But God was with him, and delivered him out of all of his anguish, and gave him favor before Pharaoh, king of Egypt. God also gave Joseph unusual wisdom so that Pharaoh appointed him governor over all Egypt, as well as putting him in charge of all the affairs of the palace.
“But a famine developed in Egypt and Canaan, and there was great misery for our ancestors. When their food was gone, Jacob heard that there was still grain in Egypt, so he sent his sons to buy some. The second time they went, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, and they were introduced to Pharaoh. Then Joseph sent for his father Jacob and all his brothers’ families to come to Egypt, seventy-five persons in all. So Jacob came to Egypt, where he died, and all his sons. All of them were taken to Shechem and buried in the tomb Abraham bought from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father. (Acts7: 9-16 TLB)
Joseph was a man of integrity and truth who believed God, and God took him through deep waters and dark places, but eventually exalted and honored him and fulfilled His word to him in everything He promised. Joseph was a man of faith who obeyed God, and because he did, God fulfilled every letter of his word to him.
Therefore Joseph contrasts with these people standing before Stephen, who refuse to obey God just because it will mean some changes in their lives. Joseph went through constant change, and yet God honored him.