1 Then the high priest asked Stephen, ‘Are these charges true?’
What were the charges? (You may want to look at Acts 6:8-15.)
This may be a difficult study as Stephen’s response is long and complicated.
Perhaps it would be best to read the whole passage from Acts 7:2 to 7:53 (Share the reading among those who are happy to read). As it is being read encourage the group to look out for parts where he is answering the specific charges. After it has been read you can use the excerpt I quoted from Benson’s commentary (https://biblehub.com/commentaries/acts/7-1.htm) which highlights specific verses.
2 To this he replied: ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. 3 “Leave your country and your people,” God said, “and go to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
4 ‘So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. 5 He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. 6 God spoke to him in this way: “For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and ill-treated. 7 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,” God said, “and afterwards they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.” (Genesis 15:13,14)
8 Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.
9 ‘Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.
11 ‘Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. 12 When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers on their first visit. 13 On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. 14 After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. 15 Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our ancestors died. 16 Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.
17 ‘As the time drew near for God to fulfil his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. 18 Then “a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt”. (Exodus 1:8) 19 He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.
20 ‘At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for by his family. 21 When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. 22 Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.
23 ‘When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. 24 He saw one of them being ill-treated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defence and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. 25 Moses thought that his own people would realise that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. 26 The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, “Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?”
27 ‘But the man who was ill-treating the other pushed Moses aside and said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? 28 Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?” (Exodus 2:14) 29 When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.
30 ‘After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. 31 When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: 32 “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 3:6) Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.
33 ‘Then the Lord said to him, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.” (Exodus 3:5,7,8,10)
35 ‘This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, “Who made you ruler and judge?” He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.
37 ‘This is the Moses who told the Israelites, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.” (Deut. 18:15) 38 He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.
You may want to have a break here – comment on how God had been with his people all this time, and repeat the prophecy: “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.”
39 ‘But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron, “Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt – we don’t know what has happened to him!” (Exodus 32:1) 41 That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and revelled in what their own hands had made.
42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:
‘“Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
for forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
43 You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek
and the star of your god Rephan,
the idols you made to worship.
Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon”. (Amos 5:25-27 see Septuagint)
44 ‘Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. 45 After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, 46 who enjoyed God’s favour and asked that he might provide a dwelling-place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him.
48 ‘However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
49 ‘“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
50 Has not my hand made all these things?” (Isaiah 66:1,2)
51 ‘You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: you always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.’
Stephen’s defence demonstrated his ‘statement of faith’ and covered:
He acknowledged the glory of God revealed to the fathers, v2; the calling of Moses, v3-4, etc.; the dignity of the law, v8, 38, 44; the holiness of the Temple, v7, 45, 47. And, indeed, that the law was more ancient than the temple; the promise more ancient than the law.
For God showed himself to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their children, v2, etc., 9, etc., 17, etc., 32, 34, 45; and they showed faith and obedience to God, v4, 20, etc., 23; particularly by their regard for the law, v8, and the promised land, v16.
Meantime God never confined his presence to ‘this place’, or to the observers of the law. For he had been worshipped acceptably, before the law was given, or the temple built, and even outside the ‘Promised Land’ v2; v9; v33; v44.
In fact the Old Testament fathers and their posterity were not tied down to this land, as their various sojournings, v4, etc., 14, 29, 44, and exile, v43, show.
But you and your fathers have always been evil, v9; have withstood Moses, v25, etc., 39, etc.; have despised the land, v39; forsaken God, v40, etc.; superstitiously honoured the temple, v48; resisted God and his Spirit, v51; killed the prophets, and the Messiah himself, v52; and failed to keep the law, which you hold so highly, v53.
Therefore God is not bound to you, much less to you alone.
54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.
What was the root cause of their anger?
They were the ‘Teachers of the Law’. It was their job to interpret scripture to the people, their job to correct error. They believed they were above criticism. There can only be two alternative responses when the Holy Spirit convicts people: here there was no repentance; rather such resistance that in their anger they refused to listen to any more. (Also jealousy? 5:17)
55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
What had started as a properly constituted court of law had simply degenerated into a howling mob intent on death and destruction.
Saul, a disciple of Gamaliel (5:34, 22:3) approved of this (8:1) and as we will soon see, immediately went on to persecute Christians to their death 22:4, 26:10).
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.
1 And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.
Saul, far from being an innocent bystander now becomes the leader of the persecution of Christians. As he himself said:
‘I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished’ (Acts 22:4-50).
And: (chapter 26) ‘9 I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities’ (26:9-11).
Note in verse 1 that ‘all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria’ . This was a major persecution and many thousands of Christians were forced to leave Jerusalem, even seeking sanctuary amongst the Samaritans. Many would eventually move to other countries.
Initially the Apostles remained in Jerusalem, to continue to support those who had been arrested and those who remained – perhaps now as an ‘underground church’.
A terrible time for the new Christians – but as we will see, this was to be the springboard for the church to start to grow:
4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went