Stephen's defence. (1-50) Stephen reproves the Jews for the death of Christ. (51-53) The martyrdom of Stephen. (54-60)
Verses 1-16 Stephen was charged as a blasphemer of God, and an apostate from the church; therefore he shows that he is a son of Abraham, and values himself on it. The slow steps by which the promise made to Abraham advanced toward performance, plainly show that it had a spiritual meaning, and that the land intended was the heavenly. God owned Joseph in his troubles, and was with him by the power of his Spirit, both on his own mind by giving him comfort, and on those he was concerned with, by giving him favour in their eyes. Stephen reminds the Jews of their mean beginning as a check to priding themselves in the glories of that nation. Likewise of the wickedness of the patriarchs of their tribes, in envying their brother Joseph; and the same spirit was still working in them toward Christ and his ministers. The faith of the patriarchs, in desiring to be buried in the land of Canaan, plainly showed they had regard to the heavenly country. It is well to recur to the first rise of usages, or sentiments, which have been perverted. Would we know the nature and effects of justifying faith, we should study the character of the father of the faithful. His calling shows the power and freeness of Divine grace, and the nature of conversion. Here also we see that outward forms and distinctions are as nothing, compared with separation from the world, and devotedness to God.
Verses 17-29 Let us not be discouraged at the slowness of the fulfilling of God's promises. Suffering times often are growing times with the church. God is preparing for his people's deliverance, when their day is darkest, and their distress deepest. Moses was exceeding fair, "fair toward God;" it is the beauty of holiness which is in God's sight of great price. He was wonderfully preserved in his infancy; for God will take special care of those of whom he designs to make special use. And did he thus protect the child Moses? Much more will he secure the interests of his holy child Jesus, from the enemies who are gathered together against him. They persecuted Stephen for disputing in defence of Christ and his gospel: in opposition to these they set up Moses and his law. They may understand, if they do not wilfully shut their eyes against the light, that God will, by this Jesus, deliver them out of a worse slavery than that of Egypt. Although men prolong their own miseries, yet the Lord will take care of his servants, and effect his own designs of mercy.
Verses 30-41 Men deceive themselves, if they think God cannot do what he sees to be good any where; he can bring his people into a wilderness, and there speak comfortably to them. He appeared to Moses in a flame of fire, yet the bush was not consumed; which represented the state of Israel in Egypt, where, though they were in the fire of affliction, yet they were not consumed. It may also be looked upon as a type of Christ's taking upon him the nature of man, and the union between the Divine and human nature. The death of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, cannot break the covenant relation between God and them. Our Saviour by this proves the future state, ( Matthew 22:31 ) . Abraham is dead, yet God is still his God, therefore Abraham is still alive. Now, this is that life and immortality which are brought to light by the gospel. Stephen here shows that Moses was an eminent type of Christ, as he was Israel's deliverer. God has compassion for the troubles of his church, and the groans of his persecuted people; and their deliverance takes rise from his pity. And that deliverance was typical of what Christ did, when, for us men, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven. This Jesus, whom they now refused, as their fathers did Moses, even this same has God advanced to be a Prince and Saviour. It does not at all take from the just honour of Moses to say, that he was but an instrument, and that he is infinitely outshone by Jesus. In asserting that Jesus should change the customs of the ceremonial law. Stephen was so far from blaspheming Moses, that really he honoured him, by showing how the prophecy of Moses was come to pass, which was so clear. God who gave them those customs by his servant Moses, might, no doubt, change the custom by his Son Jesus. But Israel thrust Moses from them, and would have returned to their bondage; so men in general will not obey Jesus, because they love this present evil world, and rejoice in their own works and devices.
Verses 42-50 Stephen upbraids the Jews with the idolatry of their fathers, to which God gave them up as a punishment for their early forsaking him. It was no dishonour, but an honour to God, that the tabernacle gave way to the temple; so it is now, that the earthly temple gives way to the spiritual one; and so it will be when, at last, the spiritual shall give way to the eternal one. The whole world is God's temple, in which he is every where present, and fills it with his glory; what occasion has he then for a temple to manifest himself in? And these things show his eternal power and Godhead. But as heaven is his throne, and the earth his footstool, so none of our services can profit Him who made all things. Next to the human nature of Christ, the broken and spiritual heart is his most valued temple.
Verses 51-53 Stephen was going on, it seems, to show that the temple and the temple service must come to an end, and it would be the glory of both to give way to the worship of the Father in spirit and in truth; but he perceived they would not bear it. Therefore he broke off, and by the Spirit of wisdom, courage, and power, sharply rebuked his persecutors. When plain arguments and truths provoke the opposers of the gospel, they should be shown their guilt and danger. They, like their fathers, were stubborn and wilful. There is that in our sinful hearts, which always resists the Holy Ghost, a flesh that lusts against the Spirit, and wars against his motions; but in the hearts of God's elect, when the fulness of time comes, this resistance is overcome. The gospel was offered now, not by angels, but from the Holy Ghost; yet they did not embrace it, for they were resolved not to comply with God, either in his law or in his gospel. Their guilt stung them to the heart, and they sought relief in murdering their reprover, instead of sorrow and supplication for mercy.
Verses 54-60 Nothing is so comfortable to dying saints, or so encouraging to suffering saints, as to see Jesus at the right hand of God: blessed be God, by faith we may see him there. Stephen offered up two short prayers in his dying moments. Our Lord Jesus is God, to whom we are to seek, and in whom we are to trust and comfort ourselves, living and dying. And if this has been our care while we live, it will be our comfort when we die. Here is a prayer for his persecutors. Though the sin was very great, yet if they would lay it to their hearts, God would not lay it to their charge. Stephen died as much in a hurry as ever any man did, yet, when he died, the words used are, he fell asleep; he applied himself to his dying work with as much composure as if he had been going to sleep. He shall awake again in the morning of the resurrection, to be received into the presence of the Lord, where is fulness of joy, and to share the pleasures that are at his right hand, for evermore.
Acts 7:1-60 . DEFENSE AND MARTYRDOM OF STEPHEN.
In this long defense Stephen takes a much wider range, and goes less directly into the point raised by his accusers, than we should have expected. His object seems to have been to show (1) that so far from disparaging, he deeply reverenced, and was intimately conversant with, the whole history of the ancient economy; and (2) that in resisting the erection of the Gospel kingdom they were but treading in their fathers' footsteps, the whole history of their nation being little else than one continued misapprehension of God's high designs towards fallen man and rebellion against them.
2-5. The God of glory--A magnificent appellation, fitted at the very outset to rivet the devout attention of his audience; denoting not that visible glory which attended many of the divine manifestations, but the glory of those manifestations themselves, of which this was regarded by every Jew as the fundamental one. It is the glory of absolutely free grace.
appeared unto our father Abraham before he dwelt in Charran, and said, &c.--Though this first call is not expressly recorded in Genesis, it is clearly implied in Genesis 15:7 and Nehemiah 9:7 ; and the Jewish writers speak the same language.
4. when his father was dead, he removed into this land--Though Abraham was in Canaan before Terah's death, his settlement in it as the land of promise is here said to be after it, as being in no way dependent on the family movement, but a transaction purely between Jehovah and Abraham himself.
6-8. four hundred years--using round numbers, as in Genesis 15:13 Genesis 15:16
7. after that shall they come forth, and serve me in this place--Here the promise to Abraham ( Genesis 15:16 ), and that to Moses ( Exodus 3:12 ), are combined; Stephen's object being merely to give a rapid summary of the leading facts.
8. the covenant of circumcision--that is, the covenant of which circumcision was the token.
and so--that is, according to the terms of this covenant, on which Paul reasons ( Galatians 3:1-26 ).
the twelve patriarchs--so called as the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel.
9-16. the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt, but God was with him--Here Stephen gives his first example of Israel's opposition to God's purposes, in spite of which and by means of which those purposes were accomplished.
14. threescore and fifteen souls--according to the Septuagint version of Genesis 46:27 , which Stephen follows, including the five children and grandchildren of Joseph's two sons.
17. But when--rather, "as."
the time of the promise--that is, for its fulfilment.
the people grew and multiplied in Egypt--For more than two hundred years they amounted to no more than seventy-five souls; how prodigious, then, must have been their multiplication during the latter two centuries, when six hundred thousand men, fit for war, besides women and children, left Egypt!
20-22. In which time--of deepest depression.
Moses was born--the destined deliverer.
exceeding fair--literally, "fair to God" (Margin), or, perhaps, divinely "fair"
22. mighty in words--Though defective in utterance ( Exodus 4:10 ); his recorded speeches fully bear out what is here said.
and deeds--referring probably to unrecorded circumstances in his early life. If we are to believe JOSEPHUS, his ability was acknowledged ere he left Egypt.
23-27. In Acts 7:23 Acts 7:30 Acts 7:36 , the life of Moses is represented as embracing three periods, of forty years each; the Jewish writers say the same; and though this is not expressly stated in the Old Testament, his age at death, one hundred twenty years ( Deuteronomy 34:7 ), agrees with it.
it came into his heart to visit his brethren--his heart yearning with love to them as God's chosen people, and heaving with the consciousness of a divine vocation to set them free.
24. avenged him that was oppressed, and smote the Egyptian--going farther in the heat of his indignation than he probably intended.
25. For he supposed his brethren would have understood, &c.--and perhaps imagined this a suitable occasion for rousing and rallying them under him as their leader; thus anticipating his work, and so running unsent.
but they understood not--Reckoning on a spirit in them congenial with his own, he had the mortification to find it far otherwise. This furnishes to Stephen another example of Israel's slowness to apprehend and fall in with the divine purposes of love.
26. next day he showed himself unto them as they strove--Here, not an Israelite and an Egyptian, but two parties in Israel itself, are in collision with each other; Moses, grieved at the spectacle, interposes as a mediator; but his interference, as unauthorized, is resented by the party in the wrong, whom Stephen identifies with the mass of the nation ( Acts 7:35 ), just as Messiah's own interposition had been spurned.
28, 29. Wilt thou kill me, as thou didst the Egyptian yesterday?--Moses had thought the deed unseen ( Exodus 2:12 ), but it now appeared he was mistaken.
29. Then fled Moses, &c.--for "when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses" ( Exodus 2:15 ).
30-34. an angel of the Lord--rather, "the Angel of the Covenant," who immediately calls Himself JEHOVAH (Compare Acts 7:38 ).
35-41. This Moses whom they refused, saying,. Who made thee a ruler and a judge, &c.--Here, again, "the stone which the builders refused is made the head of the corner" ( Psalms 118:22 ).
37. This is that Moses which said . . . A prophet . . . him shall ye hear--This is quoted to remind his Moses-worshipping audience of the grand testimony of their faithful lawgiver, that he himself was not the last and proper object of the Church's faith, but only a humble precursor and small model of Him to whom their absolute submission was due.
38. in the church--the collective body of God's chosen people; hence used to denote the whole body of the faithful under the Gospel, or particular sections of them.
This is he that was in the church in the wilderness, with the angel . . . and with our fathers--alike near to the Angel of the Covenant, from whom he received all the institutions of the ancient economy, and to the people, to whom he faithfully reported the living oracles and among whom he set up the prescribed institutions. By this high testimony to Moses, Stephen rebuts the main charge for which he was on trial.
39. To whom our fathers would not obey, &c.--Here he shows that the deepest dishonor done to Moses came from the nation that now professed the greatest jealousy for his honor.
in their hearts turned back . . . into Egypt--"In this Stephen would have his hearers read the downward career on which they were themselves entering."
42-50. gave them up--judicially.
as . . . written in the book of the prophets--the twelve minor prophets, reckoned as one: the passage is from Amos 5:25 .
have ye offered to me . . . sacrifices?--The answer is, Yes, but as if ye did it not; for "neither did ye offer to Me only, nor always, nor with a perfect and willing heart" [BENGEL].
43. Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Molech, &c.--Two kinds of idolatry are charged upon the Israelites: that of the golden calf and that of the heavenly bodies; Molech and Remphan being deities, representing apparently the divine powers ascribed to nature, under different aspects.
carry you beyond Babylon--the well-known region of the captivity of Judah; while "Damascus" is used by the prophet ( Amos 5:27 ), whither the ten tribes were carried.
44. Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness--which aggravated the guilt of that idolatry in which they indulged, with the tokens of the divine presence constantly in the midst of them.
45. which . . . our fathers that came after--rather, "having received it by succession" (Margin), that is, the custody of the tabernacle from their ancestors.
brought in with Jesus--or Joshua.
into the possession--rather, "at the taking possession of [the territory of] the Gentiles."
unto the days of David--for till then Jerusalem continued in the hands of the Jebusites. But Stephen's object in mentioning David is to hasten from the tabernacle which he set up, to the temple which his son built, in Jerusalem; and this only to show, from their own Scripture ( Isaiah 66:1 Isaiah 66:2 ), that even that temple, magnificent though it was, was not the proper resting-place of Jehovah upon earth; as his audience and the nations had all along been prone to imagine. (What that resting-place was, even "the contrite heart, that trembleth at God's word," he leaves to be gathered from the prophet referred to).
51-53. Ye stiffnecked . . . ye do always resist the Holy Ghost, &c.--It has been thought that symptoms of impatience and irritation in the audience induced Stephen to cut short his historical sketch. But as little farther light could have been thrown upon Israel's obstinacy from subsequent periods of the national history on the testimony of their own Scriptures, we should view this as the summing up, the brief import of the whole Israelitish history--grossness of heart, spiritual deafness, continuous resistance of the Holy Ghost, down to the very council before whom Stephen was pleading.
52. Which of, &c.--Deadly hostility to the messengers of God, whose high office it was to tell of "the Righteous One," that well-known prophetic title of Messiah ( Isaiah 53:11 , Jeremiah 23:6 , &c.), and this consummated by the betrayal and murder of Messiah Himself, on the part of those now sitting in judgment on the speaker, are the still darker features of the national character depicted in these withering words.
53. Who have received the law by the disposition--"at the appointment" or "ordination," that is, by the ministry.
of angels, and have not kept it--This closing word is designed to shut up those idolizers of the law under the guilt of high disobedience to it, aggravated by the august manner in which they had received it.
54-56. When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, &c.--If they could have answered him, how different would have been their temper of mind!
55. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God--You who can transfer to canvas such scenes as these, in which the rage of hell grins horribly from men, as they sit condemned by a frail prisoner of their own, and see heaven beaming from his countenance and opening full upon his view--I envy you, for I find no words to paint what, in the majesty of the divine text, is here so simply told. "But how could Stephen, in the council-chamber, see heaven at all? I suppose this question never occurred but to critics of narrow soul, one of whom [MEYER] conjectures that he saw it through the window! and another, of better mould, that the scene lay in one of the courts of the temple" [ALFORD]. As the sight was witnessed by Stephen alone, the opened heavens are to be viewed as revealed to his bright beaming spirit.
and Jesus standing on the right hand of God--Why "standing," and not sitting, the posture in which the glorified Saviour is elsewhere represented? Clearly, to express the eager interest with which He watched from the skies the scene in that council chamber, and the full tide of His Spirit which He was at that moment engaged in pouring into the heart of His heroical witness, till it beamed in radiance from his very countenance.
56. I see . . . the Son of man standing, &c.--This is the only time that our Lord is by human lips called THE SON OF MAN after His ascension ( Revelation 1:13 , 14:14 are not instances). And why here? Stephen, full of the Holy Ghost, speaking now not of himself at all ( Acts 7:55 ), but entirely by the Spirit, is led to repeat the very words in which Jesus Himself, before this same council, had foretold His glorification ( Matthew 26:64 ), assuring them that that exaltation of the SON OF MAN which they should hereafter witness to their dismay, was already begun and actual [ALFORD].
57, 58. Then they cried out . . . and ran upon him with one accord--To men of their mould and in their temper, Stephen's last seraphic words could but bring matters to extremities, though that only revealed the diabolical spirit which they breathed.
58. cast him out of the city--according to Leviticus 24:14 , Numbers 15:35 , 1 Kings 21:13 ; and see Hebrews 13:12 .
and stoned--"proceeded to stone" him. The actual stoning is recorded in Acts 7:59 .
and the witnesses--whose hands were to be first upon the criminal ( Deuteronomy 17:7 ).
laid down their clothes--their loose outer garments, to have them taken charge of.
at a young man's feet whose name was Saul--How thrilling is this our first introduction to one to whom Christianity--whether as developed in the New Testament or as established in the world--owes more perhaps than to all the other apostles together! Here he is, having perhaps already a seat in the Sanhedrim, some thirty years of age, in the thick of this tumultuous murder of a distinguished witness for Christ, not only "consenting unto his death" ( Acts 8:1 ), but doing his own part of the dark deed.
59, 60. calling upon God and saying, Lord Jesus, &c.--An unhappy supplement of our translators is the word "God" here; as if, while addressing the Son, he was really calling upon the Father. The sense is perfectly clear without any supplement at all--"calling upon [invoking] and saying, Lord Jesus"; Christ being the Person directly invoked and addressed by name (compare Acts 9:14 ). Even GROTIUS, DE WETTE, MEYER, &c. admit this, adding several other examples of direct prayer to Christ; and PLINY, in his well-known letter to the Emperor Trajan (A.D. 110 or 111), says it was part of the regular Christian service to sing, in alternate strains, a hymn to Christ as God.
Lord Jesus, receive my spirit--In presenting to Jesus the identical prayer which He Himself had on the cross offered to His Father, Stephen renders to his glorified Lord absolute divine worship, in the most sublime form, and at the most solemn moment of his life. In this commitment of his spirit to Jesus, Paul afterwards followed his footsteps with a calm, exultant confidence that with Him it was safe for eternity ( 2 Timothy 1:12 ).
60. cried with a loud voice--with something of the gathered energy of his dying Lord
Lord--that is, JESUS, beyond doubt, whom he had just before addressed as Lord.
lay not this sin to their charge--Comparing this with nearly the same prayer of his dying Lord, it will be seen how very richly this martyr of Jesus had drunk into his Master's spirit, in its divinest form.
he fell asleep--never said of the death of Christ. for Christ, amidst all the darkness of its perpetrators; and how many have been cheered by it to like faithfulness even unto death!