Stephen acts as his own lawyer
Stephen’s prickly history lesson1The high priest turned to Stephen and asked, “Is all of this true?”
2Stephen said, “Brothers and fathers, listen. God himself, in all of his glory, appeared to our ancestor Abraham back when Abraham still lived in the land between the rivers,  before he moved to Haran.  3God told him, ‘Leave your land and your family. I want you to come to a land I’ll show you.’
4“So Abraham left the land of the Chaldean people, and he lived for many years in Haran. After Abraham’s father died, God told him to move on to this land where we’re living now. 5Yet, God didn’t give him anything to inherit here—not so much as a tiny plug of ground. God did, however, promise to give this land to his descendants—even though Abraham didn’t have any children at the time.  6God also told Abraham that his descendants would immigrate to a foreign land and live there for 400 years, during which time they would get abused and enslaved. 7But God said, ‘I will punish the nation that turns them into slaves. After that, Abraham’s descendants will leave that land and come back here to worship me in this very place.’  8God made an agreement with Abraham. It was a sacred contract that Abraham had to sign and seal with his own blood, in the ritual of circumcision. After that, Abraham became the father of Isaac, who was circumcised on the eighth day of his life. Isaac became the father of Jacob. And Jacob became the father of our 12 great ancestors. 
Joseph sold down the river9“Our ancestors got jealous of their brother Joseph. So they sold him as a slave and sent him off to Egypt. God went with him. 10God rescued him. Not only did God pull him up out of the misery, but God gave him wisdom and then put him on the good side of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. The king promoted Joseph, assigning him the job of running the palace and governing the whole country of Egypt.
11“A famine swept over Egypt and Canaan,  decimating the land and terrorizing the people. Our ancestors ran out of food. 12Jacob heard there was grain down in Egypt. So he sent our ancestors to buy some. 13Joseph didn’t tell his brothers who he was until they came back for a second visit. That’s also when Pharaoh got to meet Joseph’s family. 14Joseph sent for his father, Jacob, and the rest of his relatives—75 in all. 15Jacob moved his family down to Egypt. He lived there and died there. So did his 12 sons, the founding fathers of our nation.
16“Their bodies were carried back to Shechem for burial in a tomb that Abraham had bought with silver from the sons of Hamor.  17When it came time for God to deliver on the promise he made to Abraham, our people experienced a growth spurt in Egypt. 18That’s when a king rose to power in Egypt who didn’t know anything about Joseph. 19This king exploited our people and abused our ancestors. He forced our people to abandon their newborn babies to the elements—to leave them outside unattended, so they would die.
Baby Moses, raised a prince in Egypt20“That’s when Moses was born—a child who was lovely, as far as God was concerned. For three months, the parents of Moses took care of him in their home. 21When they abandoned him, Pharaoh’s daughter rescued him, adopted him, and raised him as her son. 22So Moses got an Egyptian education. Trained in Egyptian wisdom, he grew into a dynamic leader who knew how to use his words to get the job done.
23“He was about 40 years old when he decided to go out in the fields and visit his relatives, our ancestors—the people of Israel. 24He saw an Egyptian hurting one of them for no good reason. So he delivered some instant justice. He killed the Egyptian. 25He mistakenly thought his relatives would see this as a sign that God was with them and was going to save them. 26He went back out into the fields the next day and saw some of them arguing with each other. He tried to help them settle the fight peacefully. He said, ‘Gentlemen, you are brothers. Why are you hurting each other?’
27“But the culprit trying to put a hurt on his neighbor gave Moses a hard shove and said, ‘Who made you king and judge? 28Do you want to kill me, the way you killed the Egyptian yesterday? Oh yeah, we saw that.’
Moses, fugitive on the run29“When Moses heard this, he knew he had no choice but to get out of the country. He fled to Midian,  where he raised two sons. 30After 40 years in exile, he was out in the badlands near Mount Sinai when an angel appeared to him inside the fire of a burning bush. 31When Moses saw this, he wondered what in the world was going on. He stepped closer to get a better look. In that moment, he heard the voice of the Lord. 32‘I am the God of your ancestors. I’m the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.’ Moses started shaking. He didn’t dare look in the direction of the Voice.
33“The Lord said, ‘Take those sandals off your feet. The ground you’re standing on is reserved for me.  34As sure as I can see you standing here, I have seen how the Egyptians are abusing my people. I’ve heard the pain sounds they make, groaning through their misery. I’m coming now to save them. And I’m sending you back to Egypt.’  35So who was it God sent to lead the people and save them from the judgment of the Egyptians? It was the same Moses the people rejected by saying, ‘Who made you king and judge?’ As it turns out, God did—through an angel who appeared in the burning bush.
Moses leads the slaves to freedom36“Moses led the people out of Egypt. All the while—through Egypt, the Red Sea, and the badlands—he performed incredible miracles and signs that proved God sent him. 37This is the same Moses, by the way, who told the people of Israel, ‘God is going to send you another prophet, just as he sent me. This prophet will be one of your own brothers.’  38Moses traveled with our ancestors through the badlands. He was there with them at Mount Sinai, where the angel spoke to him. Moses is the one who got the sacred words that guide our lives and that have been passed along to you.
39“Our ancestors didn’t want to hear anything Moses had to say. They wanted to go back to Egypt. 40They told Aaron,  ‘Listen, we need you to make us some gods who will lead us. We have no idea what happened to that Moses guy who led us out of Egypt.’  41So they made themselves an idol that looked like a calf. Then they threw a party to celebrate what a good job they did. 42God turned his back on them and walked away. He decided to let them go ahead and worship any of the gods they wanted to. The prophets quoted what God had to say about that:
“‘People of Israel, did any of you bring me sacrifices—any animals at all during those 40 years in the badlands? No, you did not.
So I’m going to send you far away—exiling you to Babylon and beyond.’ 
The first Jewish worship center44“Our ancestors made the tent worship center  during that stretch of time in the badlands. They built it according to design specs God gave Moses. 45They took it with them when Joshua led them into battle to drive the people out of our land. It was still there clear up to the time of King David. 46It became obvious that God was particularly fond of David. David asked if he could have the honor of building a temple for the God of Jacob.  47Instead, Solomon built it.
48“But the fact is, no temple made by humans can hold the God Most High. It’s like the prophet said,
“‘I park my throne in heaven.
I park my feet on earth; it’s my footrest.
What kind of house can you possibly build for me that’s better than that?
Stephen executed by a mob54The Jews became so furious they clenched their teeth. 55Stephen, full of God’s Holy Spirit, looked up into the sky. He saw God in all of his glory, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. 56Stephen said, “Look, I can see it. Heaven has opened up. I see the Son of Humans standing at the right side of God.”
57The crowd screamed in anger, covering their ears as they rushed him. 58They drove him outside the city walls, and they started to stone him. Jews who had accused Stephen took their coats off so they could get down to business. They threw the coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59The men kept stoning Stephen as he prayed, “Lord Jesus, welcome my spirit!” 60As Stephen collapsed to his knees he screamed out, “Lord, don’t hold these men responsible for this sin.” With those words, he died.
Literally, “Mesopotamia,” which is in what is now Iraq.
A city in what is now southern Turkey, near the northern border of Syria.
Abraham was 100 years old when his wife Sarah finally gave birth to their son, Isaac (Genesis 21:5).
Stephen is referring to stories that show up in Genesis 12:7; 15:13-14; Exodus 3:12.
Jacob’s sons became the founding fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Canaan was the ancient name for what is now roughly the nation of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority.
There’s a tradition in Shechem that says the sons of Jacob were buried there. Bible experts are perplexed about where Jacob was buried, however. Genesis 50:13 says he was buried at Machpelah near what is now the city of Hebron. But Joshua 24:32 says he was buried at Shechem. That’s about 50 miles (80 km) north of Hebron.
Midian is a territory that seems to have shifted a bit in Bible times. At one point it seems to have been in what is now Jordan. But by the time of Moses, the people of Midian lived in what is now Saudi Arabia, along the east bank of the Red Sea. Some of the people seem to have lived in the Sinai Peninsula too, in what is now Egypt. That’s where Moses encountered God in a burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Literally, “holy.” Objects considered holy, such as furnishings and utensils in the Temple, were considered holy because they were reserved for sacred use only. People considered holy were those devoted to God.
This story shows up in Exodus 3:5-10.
Aaron was the big brother of Moses (Exodus 7:7).
Moses was up on Mount Sinai for a long stretch of time, receiving the Ten Commandments. The Bible reports that stretch of time as 40 days (Exodus 34:28). But many Bible experts say that was simply a common way of referring to many days or to several weeks.
Amos 5:25-27. Invaders from the Babylonian Empire, in what is now Iraq, conquered the Jewish nation in 586 BC. They destroyed Jerusalem and exiled many of the survivors to scattered areas around their capital city of Babylon, south of what is now Baghdad.
Often called the Tabernacle.
The phrase is another way of saying “the God of the people of Israel,” since Jacob (also known as Israel) was considered a founder of the nation. His 12 sons produced families who became the 12 tribes of Israel.
Isaiah is the prophet who seemed to predict more about Jesus than any other prophet. His most famous passage linked to Jesus seems to describe the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus: Isaiah 53. Jewish legends report that Isaiah was cut in half with a wooden saw. Jeremiah, another prophet who seemed to predict the coming of Jesus, was stoned to death, according to Jewish tradition.
The Greek word more literally describes someone God considers righteous. Many Bibles translate the word “Righteous One.” But it’s obvious in the context that Stephen is talking about Jesus, the Messiah sent by God.
When the high priest asked Stephen if he was guilty as charged of badmouthing God and Moses, Stephen launched into a lecture about Jewish history. Why do you think he did that? It seems like a distraction—an attempt not to have to answer the question.
When Stephen stood before the council that listened to his case, he was standing in front of a lot of Jewish Bible scholars who had the power to convict him or acquit him. What these experts in Jewish history got from Stephen, a minister in charge of what amounts to a soup kitchen, was a speech about Jewish history. How do you think they might have felt about that?
Stephen tells the council that Jacob was buried in “Shechem” (Acts 7:16). What do you make of the footnote about the confusion over where Jacob was buried? “There’s a tradition in Shechem that says the sons of Jacob were buried there. Bible experts are perplexed about where Jacob was buried, however. Genesis 50:13 says he was buried at Machpelah near what is now the city of Hebron. But Joshua 24:32 says he was buried at Shechem. That’s about 50 miles (80 km) north of Hebron.”
When you read the history lecture Stephen gave the council, what line do you think the council members would have considered most offensive? Take your pick.
- “You pigheaded people! You might be circumcised, but you aren’t Jews—not in your heart, where it counts” (Acts 7:51).
- “You’re deaf to the truth” (7:51).
- “Which prophet was it that your fathers didn’t torture?” (7:52).
- “Your fathers killed the prophets who predicted the coming Messiah. And now you have murdered the Messiah himself!” (7:52).
- “You’re the guilty ones! You have received God’s law from his angels, and you do nothing but break it!” (7:53).
Why would Stephen talk like that, ripping into the most powerful people in the Jewish world (Acts 7:51-53)? He had to have known that speaking this bluntly to the very council that orchestrated the execution of Jesus was going to lay him out like flatbread.
What do you make of Stephen’s last words, “Lord, don’t hold these men responsible for this sin” (Acts 7:60)? If Stephen didn’t think these men were responsible for murdering him, who do you think he felt was responsible?
LIFE APPLICATION. Stephen told the council that when the Lord talked to Moses at the burning bush, the Lord said, “Take those sandals off your feet. The ground you’re standing on is reserved for me” (Acts 7:33). The footnote says the phrase “reserved for me” is literally “holy.” The word “holy” is a tough one for Christians to understand, let alone for non-Christians. If you had to translate that word for someone who’s not religious, how would you explain it?