Acts 7 Bible Commentary

McGarvey and Pendleton

<< Acts 6 | Acts 7 | Acts 8 >>
(Read all of Acts 7)
Verse 1.   "Then said the high priest, Are these things so?" Stephen responds in a long and powerful discourse.

There is great diversity of opinion among commentators, as to the logical bearing and connection of this discourse. We would naturally expect to find in it--if we regard it as properly a defense--a formal response to the charge which had been preferred. But it contains no direct answer to any of the specifications. He neither admits nor denies what was charged in reference to the destruction of the temple by Jesus and the changing of the customs delivered by Moses; though his silence may be regarded as an admission that the witnesses had spoken the truth on these points. Neither does he formally answer to the charge of blasphemy against Moses and against God, or against the holy temple and the law. The only thing in the discourse that has even an indirect bearing in this way, is his frequent reference to facts contained in the writings of Moses, which has been understood, by some commentators, as intended to indicate a degree of respect for Moses inconsistent with a disposition to speak blasphemy against him. But if such was his purpose, it is unaccountable that he should have pursued so indirect a course, instead of distinctly avowing the sentiments he intended to indicate. Again, this supposition can not account for the introduction of so many facts connected with the persecution of various individuals.

The best statement of the drift of the discourse, I think, is this: The charge against him was hypocritically preferred, and his judges had no intention to investigate it, but were using it merely as an excuse for his predetermined condemnation to death. They were now giving him somewhat the form for a trial, to keep up appearances before the people. Under such circumstances, Stephen knew that it would be useless to offer a formal defense; and, therefore, he does not undertake it. He sees, however, that his persecutors were identifying themselves, by their proceedings, with the unbelieving and persecuting portion of their forefathers, and he determines to make them stand forth to the people in this their true position. In prosecuting this purpose he selects his material from the writings of Moses, and shows that his accusers are with the persecuting party, while his Master and himself are side by side with Moses and others whom they had persecuted: Thus he hurls back upon them, and fastens on them, effectually, the charge which they had falsely preferred against him.

Verses 2-4.   We will now take up the different sections of the discourse, treating each separately, and showing their connected bearing upon his main purpose. Before exhibiting the manner in which Moses was treated by the ancestors of his audience, he first shows that the mission on which Moses came was a subject of prophesy: thus indicating, at the outset, an analogy between it and that of Christ. To do this, he must begin with Abraham, to whom this prophesy was first given; but his reference to Abraham is only for the historical introduction of his main theme. (2) "And he said: Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, (3) and said to him, Get thee out from thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into a land which I will show thee. (4) Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans, and dwelt in Haran: and thence, after his father died, he removed into this land in which you now dwell."

Verses 5-8.   Having now introduced Abraham, and brought him into the land of Canaan, Stephen quotes the prophesy, connected with the fulfillment of which he is to find the chief points of his argument. (5) "And he gave him no inheritance in it, not a footprint: and he promised to give it for a possession to him and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child. (6) But God spoke thus: That his seed should sojourn in a strange land, and they should bring them into bondage, and afflict them four hundred years. (7) And the nation to whom they shall be in bondage, I will judge, said God, and after these things they shall come forth, and serve me in this place. (8) And he gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so he begot Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac, Jacob; and Jacob, the twelve patriarchs."

The period of four hundred years is taken by Stephen from Genesis xv: 13, where God expresses himself, in round terms, of a period which was, more accurately, four hundred and thirty years, as we find in Exodus xii: 40, 41. This was not the period of their actual sojourn in Egypt; but, as we learn from Paul, (Galatians iii: 17,) and from the genealogical tables in Genesis and Exodus, it extended from the call of Abraham to the departure from Egypt.

Verses 9-16.   The speaker next proceeds to recount the circumstances which brought the people down into Egypt, in order that the rejection of Joseph, and the final salvation of the whole family through him, might stand out before his hearers, and be made to bear upon his final conclusion. (9) "And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt. And God was with him, (10) and delivered him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favor and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house. (11) Now, there came a famine on all the land of Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction; and our fathers found no sustenance. (12) But Jacob, having heard that there was grain in Egypt, sent out our fathers the first time. (13) And at the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers, and Joseph's kindred was made known to Pharaoh. (14) Then Joseph sent and called to him his father Jacob and all his kindred, seventy-five souls. (15) And Jacob went down into Egypt, and died, he and our fathers, (16) and were carried over into Sychem, and laid in the sepulcher which Jacob bought for a sum of money from the sons of Emmor, the father of Sychem."

There is a numerical discrepancy between moses and Stephen, in reference to the number of Jacob's family when they went into Egypt. Stephen makes then seventy-five, while Moses states them at seventy, including Joseph's family and himself.{1} The Septuagint translation of Genesis agrees with Stephen. Various methods of reconciling these statements are proposed, of which the only satisfactory one is this. The number given by Moses includes all "who came out of his loins, besides Jacob's sons' wives."{2} The number given by Stephen must, then, include five of their wives, who were, probably, all that were then living. The translators of the Septuagint, having some historical evidence, now lost to us, that five of their wives went with them, saw fit to fill up the number in their translation, and Stephen followed their enumeration.

It was Jacob, and not Abraham, who purchased the sepulcher from the sons of Emmor, as is certain from the history given in Genesis xxxiii: 19, 20; yet it is attributed to Abraham here in the common version, and most of the Greek manuscripts. It is far more likely, however, that the manuscripts should err, in a case of this kind, than that the error should have been committed by Stephen or by Luke. I have, therefore, not hesitated to insert the name of Jacob, instead of Abraham, in the text. Dr. Bloomfield says, "The best critics are of the opinion that Abraham is spurious."

Verses 17-29.   From this glance at the leading points in the history of Joseph, Stephen advances to the case of Moses, showing that his brethren rejected him in like manner, and were also finally delivered by him. (17) "But when the time of the promise of which God had sworn to Abraham was drawing near, the people increased and were multiplied in Egypt, (18) until another king arose who knew not Joseph. (19) The same dealt craftily with our kindred, and afflicted our fathers, so that they cast out their young children, in order that they might not live. (20) In which time Moses was born, and was exceedingly beautiful. He was nourished in his his father's house three months. (21) And when he was cast out, Pharaoh's daughter took him up, and nourished him for her own son. (22) And Moses was educated in all the learning of the Egyptians, and was powerful in words and in deeds. (23) And when he was full forty years old, it came into his heart to look after his brethren, the children of Israel. (24) And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended and avenged him who was oppressed, smiting the Egyptian. (25) Now he thought that his brethren would understand that God would, by his hand, give them salvation; but they did not understand. (26) The next day he appeared to them as they were fighting, and would have brought them to peace, saying, Men, you are brethren; why do you wrong one another? (27) But he who was wronging his neighbor thrust him away, saying, Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? (28) Do you wish to kill me as you killed that Egyptian yesterday? (29) Then Moses fled at this word, and became a sojourner in the land of Midian where he begot two sons."

In the rejection of Moses by his countrymen, when he was seeking to deliver them from bondage, according to the promise of God, Stephen has before the minds of the Sanhedrim another case bearing upon his final conclusion. It is true, that as yet they could not anticipate the use he intended to make of it, but the obscurity of his design awakened their curiosity, and rendered their mortification the more intense when at last it was suddenly developed. If they could have anticipated it, they would have stopped his mouth at the beginning.

Verses 30-37.   There were other incidents in the life of Moses fully as much to his purpose as this; and to these he proceeds to advert. (30) "And when forty years were completed, there appeared to him, in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush. (31) When Moses saw it, he wondered at the sight, and as he drew near to observe it, the voice of the Lord came to him. (32) I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Then Moses trembled, and did not dare to observe it. (33) And the Lord said to him, Put off thy shoes from thy feet; for the place on which thou standest is holy ground. (34) I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and have come down to deliver them; and now, come, I will send thee into Egypt. (35) The same Moses whom they rejected, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge? the same did God send to be a ruler and a deliverer, by the hand of the angel who appeared to him at the bush. (36) He led them out, after doing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years. (37) This is the same Moses who said to the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up to you from your brethren like me; him shall ye hear." In this passage, the speaker has not only presented, in a most emphatic manner, the contrast between the rejection of Moses by his brethren, and his appointment by God to the very office of ruler and deliverer, which they refused him, but has also made a further advance toward his final purpose, by introducing the prophesy uttered by this same Moses concerning the Messiah. This prophesy was still more apposite, because it refuted the charge that he had spoken blasphemy against Moses, in saying that Christ would change the customs appointed by him. If Moses himself foretold the coming of a successor who should supersede him, he alone pays proper respect to Moses who submits to his successor.

Verses 38-40.   To keep prominent the ill treatment received by Moses at the hands of the people, the speaker proceeds to note their conduct in the wilderness. (38) "This is he that was in the congregation in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, who received the living oracles to give to us. (39) Whom our fathers were not willing to obey, but thrust him from them, and in their hearts turned back into Egypt, (40) saying to Aaron, Make us Gods who shall go before us; for this Moses, who led us out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him." This instance of their rejection of Moses was much more flagrant than the first, seeing that it occurred immediately after the most splendid manifestations of God's presence with him; and that, in the very words which they addressed to Aaron, they acknowledged that it was he who had brought them out of Egypt. These circumstances also render more striking the analogy which Stephen is about to develop between him and Jesus; for he also had been rejected, notwithstanding the admission, by his enemies, that he had wrought miracles.

Verses 41-43.   Stephen next shows that the same people who so often rejected the servants of God, likewise rejected God himself. (41) "They made a calf in those days, and brought sacrifice to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. (42) And God turned, and gave them up to serve the host of heaven, even as it is written in the book of the prophets, O house of Israel, have you offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices during forty years in the wilderness? (43) You have even taken up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, figures which you made, to worship them; and I will carry you away beyond Babylon." With this brief glance at the subsequent fate of the people who had so often rejected their deliverers, covering a period of many centuries, and terminating with their captivity in Babylon, Stephen concludes his summary of facts; but, previous to the final application, which he saw would raise a storm in the Assembly, he has a few words in reference to the temple.

Verses 44-50.   Instead of either admitting or denying the charge of blasphemy against the temple, he undertakes to show the true religious value of that building. This he does, by first alluding to the movable and perishable nature of the tabernacle, which preceded the temple, and then, by showing, from the prophets, that the presence of God is not limited to temples made with hands. (44) "Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as he had appointed, saying to Moses that he should make it according to the pattern which he had seen; (45) which also, our fathers, having received, brought in with Joshua within the possession of the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers until the days of David, (46) who found favor before God, and desired to find a dwelling for the God of Jacob. (47) But Solomon built him a house. (48) Yet the Most High dwells not in temples made with hands, as says the prophet, (49) Heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool. What house will you build for me? says the Lord; or what is my place of rest? (50) Did not my hand make all these things?" By this statement, the speaker intrenches himself behind undisputed facts of their own history, and the sentiments of their own prophets, in reference to the temple, and is now ready to spring upon them the whole concealed power of the carefully arranged facts from the life of Moses and of Joseph.

Verses 51-53.   As Joseph, the divinely-selected savior of his brethren, had been sold by those brethren into slavery; and as Moses, divinely selected to deliver Israel from bondage, was at first rejected by them to become a sojourner in Midian, and was then sent back by the God of their fathers to be rejected by them again and again, notwithstanding the most indisputable manifestations of God's presence with him; and as all the prophets had met with a similar fortune, so, now, the final prophet, of whom Moses and all the prophets had spoken, had been rejected and slain by the sons of these persecuting fathers. The combined power of all these facts and analogies is now concentrated in the closing paragraph of the speech, and expressed in these terrific words: (51) "Stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are always resisting the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. (52) Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? They murdered those who announced before concerning the coming of the Just One, of whom now you have been the betrayers and murderers; (53) who received the law through the ranks of angels, and have not kept it."

The pent-up fires which had burned within the breast of Stephen from the beginning of these unjust proceedings, and had given an angelic glow to his features at the beginning of his speech, had been carefully smothered and controlled during the progress of his argument; but now that the restraints of the argument were withdrawn, they had burst forth in these scorching and blazing words.

Verses 54-60.   The exasperation of the Sanhedrim was the more intense, from the fact that the denunciation hurled upon them was not a sudden burst of passion, but the deliberate and sustained announcement of a just judgment. They had not been able to resist, in debate, the wisdom and the spirit by which he spoke, and now their efforts to convict him of crime had recoiled terribly upon their own heads. They had no course now left them, but the usual resort of unprincipled partisans when totally discomfited, and to this they rushed with fearful rapidity. (54) "When they heard these things, they were exasperated, and gnashed their teeth upon him. (55) But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, (56) and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. (57) Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and rushed upon him with one accord, (58) and cast him out of the city, and stoned him. And the witnesses laid off their garments at the feet of a young man called Saul. (59) And they stoned Stephen, calling on the Lord, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. (60) And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting to his death."

This was a strange way for a court to break up; the whole body of seventy grave rabbis, whose official duty it was to watch for the faithful and regular proceedings of law, leaving their seats, and rushing with the wild mob, amid hideous outcries and tumultuous rage, to the sudden execution of a prisoner absolutely untried and uncondemned. But the maddest pranks ever played upon this mad earth are witnessed when wicked men set themselves in uncompromising opposition to God and his holy truth. So uniformly has this been true in history, that, at the present day, when such opposition is to be sustained, whether on great or insignificant occasion, no well-informed man expects aught else than disregard of all the rules of justice and propriety. If the infuriated scenes which have been enacted under such circumstances, in the history of Christianity, could be dramatically represented, the performance might be appropriately styled, The Madman's Drama.

The vision witnessed by Stephen, while the Jews were gnashing their teeth upon him, need not be understood as the real opening of the heavens, so that the things within them could be seen by the human eye, but only a representation to his eyes, such as those granted to John in the isle of Patmos. It was vouchsafed both for his own encouragement in the hour of death, and that the remembrance of the words in which he described it, and the hue of countenance with which he gazed upon it, might remain indelibly impressed upon the minds of those who were present. There was at least one in the audience upon whom, we have reason to believe, this impression was deep and lasting. The young man Saul never forgot it; but, long afterward, when bending under the weight of many years, he makes sad mention of the part he took in these dreadful proceedings.{3}

The death of Stephen was an event of most thrilling interest to the young Church, and well deserves the large space allotted to it by the historian. The disciples had embarked, with all their interests, both temporal and eternal, in the cause of one, who, though he proved himself mighty to deliver, while present with them, had now gone away beyond the reach of vision, and no longer held personal converse with them. They had struggled on faithfully thus far, and, amid many tears, some stripes, and much affliction, they had still found a deep satisfaction of soul in his service. It was demonstrated that their faith could sustain them in life, even amid very bitter trials; but it was not yet known how it would sustain them in the hour of death. No one of their number had yet tried the dread reality, and no man can now tell how much their spirits may have wavered in the prospect, and inclined backward toward the faith of their fathers, distrustful of the new arm of salvation. How great the strength, therefore, and how sweet the consolation imparted to every heart, when the first who died was so triumphant in the pangs of death! After witnessing the scene, they could go onward in their tear-dimmed course of suffering, without one fear or care for that within the grace, or beyond it. At the late day in which we live, which has been preceded by the happy death of millions of Christians, and which is often yet made deeply glad by their triumphs in the trying hour, we are not able to appreciate the eagerness with which the first disciples drank in the consolations of this glorious death. It was a fortuitous and most fitting preparation for the fiery ordeal through which the Church were immediately afterward called to pass.

We omit any notice of the part taken by Saul in this shocking tragedy till we come to comment on the ninth chapter, where his career becomes the leading theme of the historian.

      {1} See Gen. xlvi: 26, 27.
      {2} Gen. xlvi: 26.
      {3} 1 Tim. i: 12, 13.