Acts 7 is the longest in the book of Acts (60 verses), following the shortest (chapter 6 has 15 verses). In chapter 7 we hear Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin. Having been charged with “speaking against this holy place and against the law” (6:13), Stephen answers by giving a historical survey of Israel’s history, highlighting the nation’s rejection of Moses’ leadership. Stephen also makes the case that God’s dwelling place cannot be confined to a building. Finally, Steven (full of the Holy Spirit) directly confronts the hard-hearted rebellion of the Jewish leaders, pouring gasoline on an already raging fire. The members of the Sanhedrin lose all decorum and become an enraged mob. They stone Stephen to death, placing their outer robes under the care of Saul.
As I read through chapter 7 using the NIV Study Bible, I realized that Stephen’s speech poses some challenges for harmonizing his words with the Old Testament record. Most of these differences can be accounted for when considering Stephen is summarizing vast sweeps of Israel’s history, condensing the material and rounding off numbers. He is clearly a man very knowledgeable of the Scriptures, able to quote from Amos (7:42-43 is taken from Amos 5:25-27) and Isaiah (Acts 7:48-49 is from Isaiah 66:1-2). He is speaking under fire and not giving a tidy classroom lecture.
My interest in chapter 7 is to understand the flow and purpose of his defense—why does he choose to cite the information he does. Most importantly, I want to reflect on how he is “full of the Holy Spirit” (7:54) as he delivers this stinging rebuke of those who sit in judgment on him.
While I won’t focus on the historical tour of Israel’s history given by Stephen, I do want to mention several observations that impacted me. The stories of the Patriarchs and Moses are a reminder to me that God is sovereignly working out His plan for history in accordance with His will and His promises. He promised Abram a great land and promised to bring his descendants back to that land after 400 years of slavery. In God’s time and in His way, He kept His promise: “As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham . . .” (17). God’s unfolding plan included overseeing (even orchestrating) events that were either perplexing (“He gave him no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground . . . at that time Abraham had no child”—5) or painful (“they sold him as a slave into Egypt”—9). God’s ways did not seem linear or lovely at times.
Also, God’s call to leadership doesn’t guarantee others will recognize or receive the one called: “Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not” (25); “This is the same Moses whom they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge’” (35). Leadership can evoke jealousy (“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph”—9) or rebellion (“But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt”—39). In spite of this, God was working to confirm His word and fulfill His promise.
It seems the “purpose” of Stephen’s speech is not simply to answer to the charges laid against him (speaking against the “holy place and against the law”–6:13). Stephen refuses to stay on the defensive but goes on the offensive—charging the Jewish leaders with resisting the Holy Spirit (51). The specific way they have resisted the Holy Spirit is by murdering the Righteous One (52). As their fathers had done with Moses, so these leaders failed to see Jesus as God’s ruler, judge, and deliverer. Like their fathers, they too had failed to obey God’s words (53). They had also failed to understand God’s Word about the temple: the God who met Moses in a burning bush (31-32) was the God who “does not live in houses made by men” (48). Heaven is His throne and earth is His footstool (49). To try and confine Him to the temple was impossible and foolish.
Near the end of his speech, Stephen is said to be “full of the Holy Spirit”. The Greek construction uses a present participle (being full) followed by an adjective (full). This would seem to indicate an ongoing condition rather than having an ingressive force (beginning to be full). If that’s the case, Stephen’s speech was given with the help of the Holy Spirit. This lines up with what we are told in Acts 6:10 regarding Stephen’s earlier debates with his attackers: “they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.”
So Stephen’s defense, including his stinging rebuke and accusations against the Sanhedrin were given while he was full of the Spirit. Evidently, being full of the Holy Spirit does not necessarily make one’s speech politically correct or conciliatory. This is a good reminder for me as I tend to equate Spirit-filled speech with pleasant, agreeable words. But that is not always the case, as Stephen’s example shows.
But the mention of the Spirit’s fullness is linked not so much with his speech but his sight: “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” (55). God’s Spirit enabled Stephen to see the unseen (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). This glimpse into heaven gives him a supernatural serenity in the midst of a raging mob; his eyes and heart are focused on Jesus and heavenly realities. The Spirit’s fullness also empowered him with supernatural forgiveness towards those who stoned him to death: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (60). Like Jesus, he asks God to grant forgiveness to those who sinned in taking his life.
This chapter, both in its historical review of Israel’s history and in its recounting of the martyrdom of Stephen, is a reminder that God does not always spare His people from unjust suffering. The Lord knew that Abraham’s descendants would be “enslaved and mistreated four hundred years” (6). This included the heartbreaking reality of having their infant boys killed (19). The Lord saw their oppression and heard their groaning (34), but did not intervene to stop the mistreatment. At least not until the four hundred years were fulfilled.
The Lord did not spare Stephen from being lynched and stoned to death. All for telling the truth! Most of all, the Lord did not spare His only begotten Son from being “murdered” (52). God does not always protect his people from earthly suffering. But He opens heaven to receive His faithful servants. They receive a royal welcome from Christ Himself (56).