Acts Lesson Fourteen: 7:1-16 – Stephen’s Sermon Part 1
“Is this true?” the high priest asked. 2 “Brothers and fathers,” he said, “listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran, 3 and said to him:
Get out of your country
and away from your relatives,
and come to the land
that I will show you.
4 “Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. From there, after his father died, God had him move to this land you now live in. 5 He didn’t give him an inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground, but He promised to give it to him as a possession, and to his descendants after him, even though he was childless. 6 God spoke in this way:
His descendants would be strangers
in a foreign country,
and they would enslave
and oppress them 400 years.
7 I will judge the nation
that they will serve as slaves, God said.
After this, they will come out
and worship Me in this place.
8 Then He gave him the covenant of circumcision. After this, he fathered Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; Isaac did the same with Jacob, and Jacob with the 12 patriarchs. 9 “The patriarchs became jealous of Joseph and sold him into Egypt, but God was with him 10 and rescued him out of all his troubles. He gave him favor and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who appointed him ruler over Egypt and over his whole household. 11 Then a famine and great suffering came over all of Egypt and Canaan, and our ancestors could find no food. 12 When Jacob heard there was grain in Egypt, he sent our ancestors the first time. 13 The second time, Joseph was revealed to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 Joseph then invited his father Jacob and all his relatives, 75 people in all, 15 and Jacob went down to Egypt. He and our ancestors died there, 16 were carried back to Shechem, and were placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. (HCSB)
Although I would have preferred to cover Stephen’s sermon in one lesson, I felt that would be too long. Therefore, I’ll break it into a series of studies, most likely three, to cover the material in sufficient detail. In this lesson, we’ll cover the first part, from Abraham to the Patriarchs in Egypt.
This lesson is divided into two sections. The first covers verses 1-8, God’s covenant with Abraham, and the second covers verses 9-16, Israel’s rejection of Joseph.
God’s covenant with Abraham: God’s history with his people began with God’s call to Abraham to leave his country for an unknown destination.
The high priest follows the standard protocol for charges presented against a person before the Sanhedrin. The accused is allowed to respond to the charges. If effect, the high priest is asking, “Are these charges true?” “How do you plead, guilty or innocent?”
The speech follows, the longest of any address in Acts, appears on the surface to be unrelated to the charges that were brought against Stephen. However, as we work our way through it, we’ll see that the charges were subtly addressed and redirected toward those accusing him. Stephen was skillfully leading the Sanhedrin, preparing them for a more direct denouncement in the final part of his speech. His speech contains two main themes.
- God can never be tied down to one land or place, and, hence, His people are closest to Him when they are a “pilgrim people,” a people on the move to accomplish His will.
- Throughout the Old Testament days, the nation of Israel never disassociated God’s blessing from His gift and call to a specific piece of land.
- Stephen directly challenges this notion, illustrating that God’s blessings often occurred outside the promised land.
- God can meet His people anywhere, and each of those locations should be viewed as holy ground.
- Israel had a historical pattern of constantly resisting and rejecting the leaders God appointed. In this lesson, the leader they will reject is Joseph. This theme will be the stake through the heart of Stephen’s speech as he accuses the religious leaders of God’s chosen people of rejecting the very one they should be anticipating. The fulfillment of Israel’s true worship is the Messiah, and in rejecting Him, they were rejecting what ultimately the temple was all about.
The first thing to note about Stephen’s defense is that he shows great respect to the Sanhedrin, calling them his brothers and fathers. Stephen’s address to the Sanhedrin, which takes up almost all but a few verses in chapter seven, begins and ends with the phrase “God of glory” or “God’s glory.” If we remember back to the end of chapter six, we’ll recall that Stephen’s face shone like an angel, most likely in some way an expression of God’s glory. Scripture tells us and reminds us throughout that Israel is God’s chosen people, and as such, they were privileged to have that glory as part of their inheritance.
Romans 9:4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises.
However, through Old Testament history, we know that little by little, God’s glory had departed from the nation of Israel.
- First, from the tabernacle. 1 Samuel 4:19-22 Eli’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant and about to give birth. When she heard the news about the capture of God’s ark and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband, she collapsed and gave birth because her labor pains came on her. 20 As she was dying, the women taking care of her said, “Don’t be afraid. You’ve given birth to a son!” But she did not respond or pay attention. 21 She named the boy Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel,” referring to the capture of the ark of God and to the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 “The glory has departed from Israel,” she said, “because the ark of God has been captured.”
- Second, from the temple. Ezekiel 10:4, 18 Then the glory of the Lord rose from above the cherub to the threshold of the temple. The temple was filled with the cloud, and the court was filled with the brightness of the Lord’s glory… Then the glory of the Lord moved away from the threshold of the temple and stood above the cherubim.
But now, God’s glory had returned in the form of Jesus, but the nation of Israel had once again rejected their God.
John 1:14 The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed His glory, the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The glory of God had appeared to Abraham, telling him to leave his home and move to Canaan. Although Stephen quotes Genesis 12:1 in verse three of this passage, the preceding verse references Genesis 15:7. This subtle connection indicates that God was in control of Abraham’s movements from the very beginning. It was no coincidence that the family had first moved to Haran and then again to Canaan.
God appeared to Abraham before he ever saw the promised land. But Abraham never had an inheritance there. The promised land was never his land; it was for his descendants. The key theme is the promise of God. The Jews, and many Christians, have always understood God as the God of promise who never fails to deliver. For us, the promised land is heaven. For Abraham is could only mean a geographical location. However, Stephen makes a point that the geographical location is not the ultimate evidence of God’s blessing by the use of the phrase “not even a foot of ground.” Stephen’s point is that Abraham had no possession in the promised land, yet God was with him the entire journey. The promise of an inheritance to Abraham’s descendants was a promise in its fullest sense since at the time it was given to him, Abraham had neither land nor an heir to possess the land.
Verses 6-7 provide the pattern for the fulfillment of God’s promise, combining Genesis 15:13-14 and Exodus 3:12. Abraham’s descendants would be sojourners in a foreign land, Egypt. They would be enslaved and mistreated for about 400 years. They would eventually be delivered by another leader chosen by God and through the judgment of God on leaders of Egypt. After their deliverance, Israel would worship God “in this place.” These verses illustrate the promise-fulfillment pattern for the entire historical picture that Stephen is painting. God repeatedly renews His promise despite the constant failure of the people in rejecting their leaders over and over. The temple should have been the fulfillment of the promised goal to “worship Me in this place.” However, the real goal of God’s promise to Abraham was not the land; it was the freedom to worship and devote themselves to God. But we know that even the temple was not able to fulfill the promise. The promise is only fulfilled in Jesus.
Verse eight is a quick transition point. It indicates the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and progresses through a brief history of the patriarchs. The covenant of circumcision implies the birth of children, and the circumcision of Isaac confirms that God kept His promise of providing descendants to Abraham. The stage is now set for the next step in Stephen’s promise-fulfillment narrative, the story of Joseph.
Rejection of Joseph: Though Stephen never mentioned the Lord’s name, the parallel between Joseph and Jesus would likely surface in the minds of Stephen’s listeners. Both were loved by their fathers; both were sent to a foreign land; both brought blessing to the people, and both were restored to positions of glory at the end of their trials.
Before digging into this section of the passage, let’s look at the ways that Joseph resembled Christ.
- He was loved by his father.
- Genesis 37:3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than his other sons because Joseph was a son born to him in his old age, and he made a robe of many colors for him.
- Matthew 3:17 And there came a voice from heaven: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him!
- He was hated by his brethren.
- Genesis 37:4-8 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not bring themselves to speak peaceably to him. 5 Then Joseph had a dream. When he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 7 There we were, binding sheaves of grain in the field. Suddenly my sheaf stood up, and your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 “Are you really going to reign over us?” his brothers asked him. “Are you really going to rule us?” So they hated him even more because of his dream and what he had said.
- John 15:25 But this happened so that the statement written in their scripture might be fulfilled: They hated Me for no reason.
- He was envied by his brethren.
- Genesis 37:11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
- Mark 15:10 For he knew it was because of envy that the chief priests had handed Him over.
- He was sold for the price of a slave.
- Genesis 37:28 When Midianite traders passed by, his brothers pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him for 20 pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took Joseph to Egypt.
- Matthew 26:15 and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand Him over to you?” So they weighed out 30 pieces of silver for him.
- He was humbled as a servant.
- Genesis 39:1-2 Now Joseph had been taken to Egypt. An Egyptian named Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. 2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, serving in the household of his Egyptian master.
- Philippians 2:7a Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men.
- He was falsely accused.
- Genesis 39:16-18 She put Joseph’s garment beside her until his master came home. 17 Then she told him the same story: “The Hebrew slave you brought to us came to make a fool of me, 18 but when I screamed for help, he left his garment with me and ran outside.”
- Matthew 26:59-60 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false testimony against Jesus so they could put Him to death. 60 But they could not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. Finally, two who came forward 61 stated, “This man said, ‘I can demolish God’s sanctuary and rebuild it in three days.’ ”
- He was exalted to honor.
- Genesis 41:38-40 Then Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find anyone like this, a man who has God’s spirit in him?” 39 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one as intelligent and wise as you are. 40 You will be over my house, and all my people will obey your commands. Only with regard to the throne will I be greater than you.”
- Philippians 2:9-11 For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth — 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
- He was not recognized by his brethren the first time.
- Genesis 42:8 Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.
- Acts 3:17 “And now, brothers, I know that you did it in ignorance, just as your leaders also did.
- He revealed himself to them the second time.
- Genesis 45:1 Joseph could no longer keep his composure in front of all his attendants, so he called out, “Send everyone away from me!” No one was with him when he revealed his identity to his brothers.
- Zechariah 12:10 “Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the house of David and the residents of Jerusalem, and they will look at Me whom they pierced. They will mourn for Him as one mourns for an only child and weep bitterly for Him as one weeps for a firstborn.
- While rejected by his brethren, he took a Gentile bride.
- Genesis 41:45 Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah and gave him a wife, Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest at On. And Joseph went throughout the land of Egypt.
- Acts 15:6-11 Then the apostles and the elders assembled to consider this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them: “Brothers, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, testified to them by giving the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples’ necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.”
Stephen’s point is that the Jews treated Christ in the same way that the patriarchs treated Joseph. Just as Joseph suffered to save his people, Christ also suffered to save Israel and Gentiles; yet the Jews rejected Him.
Israel’s rejection of delivers.
- His brothers rejected him the first time and sold him into slavery.
- The brothers recognized him the second time when they returned to Egypt for more food.
- Israel rejected him the first time he tried to deliver Israel from bondage.
- When Moses came a second time, Israel accepted him, and he led them on a journey of deliverance.
- Israel rejected their Messiah when He came the first time.
- When Jesus comes a second time, Israel will recognize and receive Him.
God was not on the side of the jealous brothers, as famine and great suffering came over them. This verse serves as a bridge between what had transpired regarding Joseph and the circumstances surrounding the rest of the family.
There are two main points in these two verses.
- God was passing judgment on the land, which also included Joseph’s family.
- However, this judgment was not final. Joseph was the instrument that God used to deliver them.
- Although this point is not explicit in Stephen’s oratory, the Sanhedrin would be intimately familiar with the details surrounding those events.
- Initial blindness, secondary sight.
- Joseph’s brothers would only recognize him on their second visit.
- Moses was initially rejected but followed the second time.
- Israel rejected Jesus when He revealed Himself. Now, Stephen was “revealing” their Messiah a second time in the hope that some would recognize and follow their deliverer.
A secondary point to consider in these two verses is that both the deliverance by Joseph and Moses occurred outside the promised land. The special acts of deliverance that Stephen spoke about all occurred outside of the borders of Israel. God can, and has, worked out His master plan of salvation in Gentile territory, clearly demonstrating that He is willing to impact and include all people in redemption. The Sanhedrin were trying to keep God in a little box, while Stephen was clearly telling them that God was much bigger than their understanding.
This section of Stephen’s speech ends with reference to the migration of Jacob’s clan into Egypt and the burial of patriarchs at Shechem. Although Jacob was buried at Hebron, Joseph was buried at Shechem. Stephen’s use of Joseph’s burial site was meant to send a subtle signal to his judges. Shechem was also located outside the “holy land.” Even more stinging is that it was located in the territory of their despised neighbors, the Samaritans.
A summary of this section shows that God delivered Israel from famine and brought them in peace to Egypt by the hand of Joseph. God was faithful to His promises. However, the stage was set for the second part of the act, Moses. With a new king coming to Egypt, the cycle of oppression, rejection, and deliverance would happen again.
- The activity of God is not confined to a specific location. In the event of this passage, the location is the land of Israel. God spoke to Abraham in Mesopotamia and blessed Joseph in Egypt. We need to remember that today. God can choose to display His power in any location. Another point for the New Testament church is that a building (church building) has no special significance. WE are the church. We should never try and constrict or bottle up God.
- Worship can occur anywhere. The burning bush was holy ground, as was Mt. Sinai and the tabernacle. Too many Christians think of worship as the Sunday morning service. That is thinking too small. Our lives, Monday through Sunday, should be our worship time. Our lives are meant as a living sacrifice of worship to an infinitely holy God.
- As followers of Christ, we should continually attempt to “reveal” Jesus to a lost and dying world. As a result, we may meet continual rejection. When that happens, we should never be discouraged. Scripture shows that rejection is not unusual but rather to be expected. However, we should never give up sharing the life-changing and life-saving message of Jesus.