Stephen: The Message of Warning
INTRO: What was Stephen accused of in his ministry to the Hellenistic Jews? (blaspheming Moses and God… by supposedly speaking against the Mosaic law and against God’s holy temple)
What seems to be Stephen’s focus in his response? - Historical review for the purpose of setting them straight, not only in terms of what he actually believes, but particularly in terms of their own standing with God.
Where is Stephen ultimately heading with this long response? (climax at vv. 51-53)
If we are attentive to the progress of Stephen’s speech as it builds to this climax, we will not view it as overly harsh or vindictive. Instead, what Stephen produces is true and faithful, and even loving, because it is a warning to those who continue to demonstrate that they are rejecting their own Messiah.
Our application of the text, then, should also match the tone of the text, which is a very serious warning that… all the privileges of association with God’s chosen people, and participating in their place and practice of worship, and even knowledge of the Holy Scriptures will not insulate you from idolatry and rejecting God. If you’re not worshipping God on his terms, you’re not worshipping God. You must respond to God’s saving grace through Christ alone.
Review first two sections (Abraham & Joseph): vv. 2-8 & vv. 9-16
The key figure is Abraham, the key feature is God’s promise and prediction, and the focus is God graciously initiating a special relationship and covenant with Abraham and his descendants.
The key figure is Joseph, the key feature is God’s providential care for his people, and the focus is God continuing to fulfill his prediction & promise.
And now in the third, and longest section (vv. 17 all the way through 41)…
The key figure is Moses, the key feature is God raising up a deliver, and the focus is connection to the Messiah juxtaposed to a rejecting and idolatrous people.
We will break this down into a couple of subsections, the first being the historical review of God raising up a deliverer in Moses, and the second beginning at the important turn in v. 35, where Stephen begins to apply his argument from this historical review (the pattern of rejecting Moses is repeated with God’s Messiah). Out of this section where Israel responds with rejection and idolatry flows another section concerning a right view of the temple.
Moses - God’s Deliverer (vv. 17-34)
Moses - God’s Deliverer (vv. 17-34)
This portion of Stephen’s speech will carry us in transition from Joseph to the earliest years concerning Moses, to a dramatic event when he is 40, and on to another critical event at age 80.
“But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph.
The time of the promise drawing near is a reference to things Stephen related earlier, that God promised and predicted to Abraham that his multiplied descendants would first be enslaved but then that he would bring them out from captivity to the land of Canaan and worship him there.
But in the flow of Stephen’s historical narrative, what happened when the faithfulness of Joseph was forgotten? All gratitude and loyalty was forgotten as well.
He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive.
Because the Hebrews were blessed by God and increased in number and strength, the Egyptians feared them and turned them into slaves. That fear continued to increase because even this did not slow their multiplication and strength. So Pharoah devised another plan to weaken them, which was to not allow male infants to live. Because the Hebrew midwives would not do this wicked thing and kill the males, Pharoah issued an edict that his own people should help him exterminate the male infants by casting them into the Nile (Ex 1:22).
Can you imagine how hard they must have tried to keep their infants hidden from the eyes of the Egyptians? It was into this context where Moses was born to a Levite couple.
At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.
Stephen summarizes the process in which Moses’ mother can’t hide him anymore, then places him in a basket made into an ark to float in the Nile, and how his sister is instructed to follow. When he is discovered by a daughter of the Pharoah, who decides to save the child and adopt him, his big sister is there to offer to find a Hebrew woman (his own mother!) to care for him until he is old enough to be weaned and return to the Pharaoh’s household.
Although the book of Exodus does not speak of it, Stephen briefly mentions Moses’ Egyptian education and pedigree, something well-understood in Jewish tradition.
It is noteworthy that Stephen doesn’t embellish (as writers of the time were prone to do with such magnanimous figures as Moses), but he sticks to what the Scriptures reveal and what is common knowledge. (Exaggerated stories about the uniqueness of his birth, elaborate details on the extent of his Egyptian education, and even his supposed legendary exploits as an Egyptian general.)
Instead, Stephen likely mentions this to demonstrate how God uniquely preserved and prepared this one who would serve as His messenger of deliverance. Although we find out later that Moses thought himself ill-suited to the task, the Biblical historian’s hindsight sees the fingerprints of God throughout these earliest years.
Now, when Moses is 40 years old, a critical event takes place, which will not only remove him from favor with Egypt, but shows his compassion for his own people and will also preview Israel’s response to his leadership.
“When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.
So this action of protection not only led to disdain rather than gratitude among the Hebrews, but it also meant that Moses’ own life was threatened by Pharoah. Moses flees to live in Midian for forty years. There he marries Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, and fathers two sons.
After forty more years, another critical event takes place. This time it is God’s direct intervention to send Moses back to Egypt as his agent of deliverance.
“Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’
Did you notice upon previous reading of the Exodus narrative that it seems to have been the messenger of the Lord which appears in the flame of fire in a bush? I wonder if there wasn’t an observable figure of some kind, such as in other cases of OT theophanies.
Regardless, when Moses is aware that this voice is that of God, he is afraid to look on God. This section from Stephen on the words of God is nearly a direct quotation from Ex. 3:5-8, only in the original the holy ground statement precedes “I am the God of your fathers.”
Not only is God presented here as holy, but he is compassionate toward his chosen people and faithful to his promises. Moses is chosen to be his messenger of deliverance.
All of this review concerning Moses has been building to this point: God’s chosen deliverer.
But it is at this point in Stephen’s speech where the subtle hints of Israelite rejection will be made plain, and connections to the Messiah are unveiled.
Like Moses, Like Jesus - A Rejected Savior (vv. 35-41)
Like Moses, Like Jesus - A Rejected Savior (vv. 35-41)
For Stephen, and also for Luke, this is the spot in Stephen’s rhetoric where the proverbial rubber meets the road. After Moses as God’s man for the exodus, Stephen becomes more transparent in connecting Moses to Jesus.
“This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.
[living oracles - Rather than belittling the law, Stephen has high regard for it… in its proper place, as we shall see.]
The people have already rejected Moses (back at v. 27), but he does in fact become their ruler and even judge. The Lord uses him to redeem (to deliver) the people out of slavery through signs and wonders. He is a prophet and a prototype of the coming one, whom he himself foretells. He mediates between God and the people, receiving and then giving the words of life. And yet he is still rejected by the people, and they turn instead to idolatrous worship of false gods.
It really should be clear that Stephen is arguing for Moses as a pattern (which we also call a type) that is fulfilled in the Messiah, who is Jesus, and that the Israel of that time is a pattern fulfilled by the leaders of Israel at present.
Not only is Christ the obvious referent of Moses’ words that “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers,” to who they should indeed listen (Deut 18:15), but consider the pattern fulfillment in all of these parts. The rejected Jesus is in fact ruler and judge, in a much more complete sense even than Moses. He performed signs and wonders to prove that he is the deliverer who was to come, even as his redemption yet greater significance. Christ mediates between God and man with not only words of life that fulfill the very spirit and purpose of the law, but also with spiritual life itself needed for perfect and permanent restoration to God.
But true to the pattern of these Israelites of old, Stephen’s audience persists in rejection of their Messiah. What Stephen continues to show then is that rejecting God’s messenger is equivalent to rejecting God’s leadership, which leads inevitably to idolatry. Their idolatry is shocking, as it should be. After all, who is Israel without God?
As we continue, we see Stephen’s argument that his present audience is continuing to fulfill the pattern of what took place in Israel’s previous idolatry.
Idolatry vs. God’s Purpose for the Temple (vv. 42-50)
Idolatry vs. God’s Purpose for the Temple (vv. 42-50)
Take particular note of that phrase at the end of v. 41, that they “were rejoicing in the works of their hands,” because it cannot be a coincidence in connection with Stephen saying about the temple that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands” (v. 48). Or that his quotation from Amos references the “tent of Moloch” (v. 43) in Israel’s idolatry, after which Stephen introduces the fact that God had even given them the “tent of witness,” meaning the tabernacle (v. 44).
But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: “ ‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’ “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen.
Because of their idolatry at the foot of Sinai while God was giving Moses the law, we see that God’s response is to judicially give them over to the sin they want, and their idolatry persists for generations. They would begin and continue with waves of worshipping the false deities of the nations around them, particularly those represented in the “host of heaven,” meaning worship of the sun, moon, stars and planets.
Stephen quotes from Amos, who mentions two specific pagan deities. Moloch was the Canaanite sun god, but Rephan is less certain. It’s possible that it could be connected with Repa, the Egyptian name for Saturn. But the point is that they worshipped the creation rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25).
Because of this ongoing rejection and idolatry, God disciplined them, sending them into exile. Where the original text says beyond Damascus of this exile, Stephen broadens it to “Babylon” to catch not only the first exile of the northern tribes—Israel—under Assyria, but also to include the later exile of Judah into Babylon.
And now Stephen further draws attention to the fact that this rejection leading to idolatry was even in the context of Israel having the tent of witness (the tabernacle) in their midst, and he uses it to carry forward the history from tabernacle to temple.
Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, “ ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’
Contrary to the accusations, Stephen shows his respect for the tabernacle and temple as God’s sacred meeting place with Israel. He traces the history through Joshua bringing the tabernacle into the promised land and to the days of David when he desired to make a permanent house for the Lord. God did allow Solomon to build a temple, but Solomon acknowledged its limitations:
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!
So although Stephen respects the temple, even as he respects the law, he points to the fact that the Most High God cannot be confined to a house made by human hands, and he quotes the prophet Isaiah (66:1-2), where God himself is speaking. God’s hands made all things. How can he be limited to only some particular place of worship on the earth?
Stephen seems to understand that the tabernacle/temple symbolizes God’s presence with his people and was God providing them a place to serve as their center of worshipping him. But worship of God was never meant to be confined only there.
What’s more, having the tabernacle didn’t prevent idolatry. Neither has the existence of the temple. Instead, Stephen’s listeners are elevating the temple itself to a place it ought not to have, meaning that the temple can become to them an idol. Don’t worship the meeting place instead of the God who meets us here. But in fact, God isn’t limited to only meeting us here, or limiting out worship of him to the temple.
In fact, the temple can’t last forever. It points to something greater to come. And that something greater has now come and is now here, through the one who is Messiah and Lord, Jesus Christ.
The bottom line: Even having the law and the temple hasn’t prevented you from rejecting the Messiah. Instead, you have made idols out of religion and a place of worship.
It becomes a little more clear now how Stephen has led up to the climax of vv. 51-53, which we’ll have to save for next time, and their response to it.
The warning and question from our text today seems to be, “Are you …”
Conclusion: Rejectors or Receivers
Conclusion: Rejectors or Receivers
If even God’s chosen people Israel couldn’t get this right, with all the proof of God’s presence with them and for them, surely we are all idolatrous rejectors of God.
All the privileges of association with God’s chosen people, and participating in their place and practice of worship, and even knowledge of the Holy Scriptures will not insulate you from idolatry and rejecting God. If you’re not worshipping God on his terms, you’re not worshipping God. You must respond to God’s saving grace through Christ alone.
Now is the time to repent of worshipping and trusting in anything other than God. And God says the only way to be right with him is to embrace Jesus as Lord. Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law, and became the perfect sacrifice, and rose again, so that through him we might have direct access to God (a better temple). Will you receive him?
For those of us to are amazed at our salvation by grace and know that we are his own possession, we stand in awe of God, knowing that we are now under the law of Christ, and that we ourselves are the temple of God’s presence on earth by the Holy Spirit he has placed within us. We gather together in worship not because this place is God’s house, but because God has made us his house. Let us be a holy house of God’s work, who do not worship creation but the Creator, who do not worship religion but the one who rules over all, who do not limit God to our locale but are spreading the Kingdom of Jesus Christ out from among us.