posted on Jul, 11 2014 @ 05:04 PM
The final speech of Stephen fills the seventh chapter of Acts
We ought to expect expect great things from it, because the previous chapter has already called him an unrivalled speaker, “full of grace and
power”, in his debates with his opponents.
“They could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke”- Acts ch6 v10
His opponents have now brought him in front of the Sanhedrin.
There are two charges against him, that he threatened an end to the Temple, and that he threatened an end to the Law of Moses.
“This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the Law; for we have heard him say that Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place
, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us”- ch6 vv13-14
Then Stephen makes his defence.
It doesn’t look like a great speech, at first glance; it looks rambling and disjointed.
But that’s the true master at work.
Giving what sounds like a leisurely and unspectacular speech is what keeps him alive long enough to present his message, before his enemies can
realise what he’s doing.
vv2-8 The opening passage is a safe, uncontroversial account of the beginning of God’s relationship with Israel, from the calling of Abraham down to
the sons of Jacob.
It includes the promise of the land, and the covenant of circumcision.
It’s about the common heritage which Stephen shares with his audience, and it gives them no reason to expect any challenge to their beliefs.
It’s the kind of opening they might find re-assuring.
vv9-16 Then he jumps to the story of Joseph.
Again, this is a simple summary of the account found in scripture.
However, there are points in the story of Joseph which have parallels in the story of Jesus.
Firstly, Joseph was betrayed by his brethren and sold to his enemies.
Secondly, being taken down into Egypt, Joseph went ahead of his brethren, as the Psalmist observes;
“He had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph who was sold as a slave”- Psalm 105 v17
He prepared the way for them.
Thirdly, his brethren did not know him the first time they met him.
They came to recognise him only on the second encounter.
Just as Jesus, having been betrayed, and having “gone ahead”, will be recognised when he returns.
Stephen does nothing to draw attention to these parallels.
He just leaves the facts there, in the narrative, for people to think about at in their own time.
Next he moves on to a much longer account of the early life of Moses.
When he comes to the story about killing the Egyptian, he drops in a poignant observation not supplied by his scriptural source;
“He supposed that his brethren understood that God was giving them deliverance by his hand, but they did not understand”- v25
This is very pointed indeed, because Jesus had the same expectation; that the Jews would understand how God was giving them deliverance by his
This episode is followed by the episode of the Burning Bush, revealing God’s determination to save his people, and culminating in the instruction
sending Moses back to Egypt.
Stephen can then dwell on the irony of the contrast between the two episodes.
The Israelites had rejected Moses, with the question “Who made you a ruler and a judge?”
Yet this was the same man whom God later appointed as their ruler, the man who would save them from their troubles (vv35-36).
He was also, incidentally, the man who forewarned his people that God would raise up another prophet in the same way.
Which suggests, of course, the possibility that they might repeat the mistake they made with Moses, and once again reject the man who had been sent by
But that thought is left unspoken.
As for the Law- yes, Moses received the “living oracles”.
But the people rejected him again and refused to obey him, and worshipped other gods instead of the God of Israel (vv38-43).
Nobody has noticed yet, but Stephen has already answered the first charge.
The charge was one of rejecting Moses and his Law.
And the answer is that they themselves, in the persons of their ancestors, did exactly the same thing.
So what can they criticise?
The second charge is considered more briefly.
Stephen tells the story of the tent of witness, and how it was finally replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem.
Then he quotes the words of Isaiah, that God needs no house to live in.
That’s enough in itself, though he does not press the point, to answer the second charge.
The charge was one of rejecting the Temple.
The answer is that God himself never wanted or needed a Temple.
Nobody has noticed yet, but the two charges have already been answered in full.
He was accused of wanting the Law and the Temple to be destroyed, and he has answered, in effect, that there is no reason why they should not be
If he had said these things outright, at the beginning, then he would have provoked a violent reaction, and his reasons would not have been heard.
But he kept himself under restraint, leaving his arguments incomplete, leaving his conclusions unspoken, so that his message could be delivered into
their unconscious minds.
Once the bulk of his message has been safely delivered, though, he can afford to let loose, and he does let loose.
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit…Which of the prophets did your fathers not 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.”
This part of his message could not be disguised or made palatable, for it rebukes their own guilt and forces Jesus upon their attention as the one
sent by God.
Stephen shows himself to be a great orator by the timing of that outburst.
Not at the opening of his speech, when it would have got him killed on the spot.
But held back for another fifty verses, until his case had been laid out, and the reaction of the Jews was too late to suppress the words which had
already been spoken.
At that point, his hearers are nearly ready to kill him.
Now that the job has been done, he may as well give them the signal.
When he looks into heaven and sees Jesus “standing at the right hand of God”, and announces the fact, that will do.
Even though they throw stones at him, they have unconsciously absorbed his teaching.
It’s possible that many of them mulled over his words, in their own time, and finally came to accept his gospel message.
It’s possible, I believe, that Saul of Tarsus was one of them.
But if Saul was convinced by the case that Stephen made, he would not have acknowledged the fact even to himself.
One way of understanding the persecuting zeal he displayed over the next few years would be to regard it as a classic example of behaviour “in
The rebuke he received, on the road to Damascus, was that he was “kicking against the pricks”.
And what were those “pricks”, if not the nagging suspicion, which he tried to thrust away from his conscious mind, that Stephen was right?
If it should be true that the words of Stephen were partly instrumental in the final conversion of Paul, then this will have been one of the most
important speeches in the history of the church.
And once again the overall speech has been built on the common heritage of Stephen with the rest of the Jews.
It presents the relation between God and his people as a continuous history from the time of Abraham, one that comes to a climax with Jesus Christ