Stephen’s Rhetorical Sublimity (Acts 7:1-53)| Jared Betts

Understanding Stephen’s Sermon

Today we will be giving closer consideration to Stephen’s defense of the Christian faith. As was mentioned last week, there are some who describe Stephen’s sermon as a recitation of insignificant historical facts with no theological point. Others have referred to it as an irrelevant speech that fails to address the charges brought against him that are seen in the previous verses:

“This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.”[1]

I hope by the end of this sermon, we will all see that Stephen’s sermon is not merely an insignificant recital of Jewish history or an irrelevant speech that fails to make a point, but that it is, as J.A. Alexander says, a “rhetorical sublimity.” As was said last time, this means that it is work of profound persuasion and grandeur that should leave people in awe. Stephen’s sermon truly is a masterfully crafted and meticulously delivered defense and confirmation of the Christian faith from the Scriptures.

I believe the best way for us to look at Stephen’s rhetorical sublimity, and to see it in all of its beauty, is not necessarily by an exhaustive word for word exposition, but rather a point-by-point one. To do a word for word exposition would take an inordinate amount of time and would distract us from Stephen’s point. I believe this is what many people end up doing. They over analyze what Stephen is saying, and in a manner of speaking miss the forest through the trees.


A Sermon Full of Error?

Before we begin to look more closely at Stephen’s words, I would be remiss if I did not briefly mention that his sermon is said to be filled with multiply historical inaccuracies and contradictions. Several examples that people point to are:

  1. The Call of Abram, was it in Ur or Haran? Stephen says it was in Ur, whereas Genesis 12:4 places it in Haran. Which is it?
  2. The age of Terah when he died, was it 205 or 145? Genesis 11:32 states that Terah lived to be 205 years of age. Genesis 11:26 tells us that Terah was 70 when he had Abram, Nahor, and Haran. If Abram was 75 when he left the land of Haran at the death of his father, that would appear to mean Terah was only 145 years old when he died. Why does Scripture say he was 205? Did he live 60 more years after Abram left Haran? If so, does not the Scripture contradict itself when it says that God removed him from Haran after his father died?
  3. The length of Israel’s bondage in Egypt, was it 400 or 430 years? Stephen says it was 400 years, but Exodus 12:40 states 430. Is Stephen right or is Moses?
  4. The number of Jacob’s family, was it 75 or 70? Stephen says 75, but Genesis 46:26-27, Exodus 1:5, and Deuteronomy 10:22 says 70. Do these contradict one another?

These are only some of the supposed discrepancies. This obviously causes people to question the inerrancy, infallibility, and reliability of the Scriptures. We can see that it is a critical thing to consider. Is Stephen’s sermon full of inaccuracies? Are the Scriptures tainted with fault and error and, therefore, entirely untrustworthy?

What we need to understand is that all of these apparent contradictions are resolved when one applies a keen eye to the Scriptures. When one does this with each example, they will find absolutely no contradiction in the Word of God. We can rest assured that what we have is the inspired, inerrant, infallible, and That is a further study you can do for yourself, and I would encourage you to not take my word for it, but to see it for yourself.

Please note as well that it is also preposterous to conclude that Stephen was able to recite false historical information without being corrected by the men who understood the history well; or that Luke, who was understood to be a meticulous historian, would actually record historical error by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

We can rest assured that God’s Word stands the test of all criticism. It does not matter what people throw at it. It will always prove to be His inerrant, infallible, and all sufficient Word. The grass will wither, and the flower will fade, but His Word will endure forever.


The Rhetorical Sublimity of Stephen

Let us now begin to consider Stephen’s words. What we want to do is first keep the accusations brought against Stephen at the forefront of our minds and then look at his sermon in segments in an attempt to discern what he is driving home with Abraham, and with Joseph, and with Moses, and finally with David and Solomon. As was said last week, we can very easily see what he is pointing us to in history, but the real question for us is why does he see fit to use these instances to defend himself against their accusations? What truths are being reinforced to absolve him of not only altering the customs handed down by Moses, but speaking against the holy place, which specifically referred to the temple, but also in a broad sense to Jerusalem and the entirety of the holy land of Israel? What is Stephen pointing out to his audience in these portions of Scripture?

We should take a moment to consider that these accusations are being brought against Stephen by men from what was known as the Synagogue of the Freedmen. These were men who had homes in Rome, but they cared so much for the city of Jerusalem that they built a synagogue there at their own expense. This tidbit of information gives a glimpse of how sacred they viewed the land. It was of great priority to them, as well as every other Jew.

Let us not forget as well that the temple was everything to the Jews. It was the very heart and center of their theocratical and ceremonial system. To them it was the God ordained sacred place of worship. It is where the Law of God was preserved. It is where God revealed Himself to His people and was relational with them. It was where sacrifices were offered, and forgiveness for sin experienced. It was the representation of God’s dwelling place among His people. It is where people went to meet with God. It is where God manifested His glory under the Old Covenant.

The gospel message, however, reveals that under the New Covenant, Jesus Christ is the true temple. He is the Word that became flesh and pitched His tent among us. In Christ, we behold the glory of God. It is through Christ that God reveals Himself to people, and through Him that people have relations with Him. It is through faith in Christ alone that forgiveness for sin and abundant life is experienced. God is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth through Jesus Christ regardless of local. People do not need to be in a specific land or structure to meet God and worship Him. All they need to do is but turn to Jesus in faith. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the exclusive means to the Father. There is no other way to God. He is the new and true temple.

Since He is the temple, everyone, therefore, who is trusting in Him are likened to living stones that are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.[2] Genuine believers are, as Ephesians teaches, “growing into a holy temple in the Lord.” We are “being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.”[3] As Paul says, “We are the temple of the living God.”[4] The true temple of God is not a physical structure made by human hands, it is Jesus and His body.

We can deduce that Stephen was espousing these truths based on their accusations that he speaks against the holy place and the customs of Moses. These men did not fabric a lie out of left field. They took what he was saying and twisted it in a manner that painted him out as being hostile and antagonistic to Moses and consequently God Himself. They did not understand that the things he was teaching were the very things the Law pointed to and foreshadowed. Christ did not abolish the Law through His Person and substitutionary work on the cross in the stead of sinners, He fulfilled it.

When asked if the accusations were so, he shows these men who not only put top priority in the land but believed that customs were a means of achieving righteousness with God, and that He could only be met within the confines of the temple, that God had deep relations with His people outside of the holy land, before the ceremonial law was given, and without the agency of the temple.

  1. Stephen begins by pointing to God’s appearance to Abraham – Acts 7:1-8:

There are several important things Stephen has drawn out with God’s relationship with Abraham:

First, God appeared to him, not while he was in the land they deemed sacred, but while he was in Mesopotamia. Stephen reveals that prior to Israel’s possession of the land and the construction of the temple, the God of glory (Notice the wording Stephen choses to use) met with Abraham. Abraham did not need to go to a specific location to meet with God. God met the great father of the nation in a distant land, and while he was an idolater at that.[5] Stephen begins by pointing out that God is not confined to working within the sacred land or structures. They were not necessary for Him to be relational with those whom He chooses.

The second thing Stephen draws to light is that God did remove Abraham into the cherished country these men were then living in, but He gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground. Abraham was a foreigner in the land with no possession of it, yet His relationship with God was still intact. He even proceeds to show them that though God promised to give it to him and to his offspring after him, none of the patriarchs would fully possess it by saying:

But God spoke to this effect, that his descendants would be aliens in a foreign land, and that they would be enslaved and mistreated for four hundred years. ‘And whatever nation to which they will be in bondage I Myself will judge,’ said God, ‘and after that they will come out and serve Me in this place.’”

Stephen’s point is that God’s people would not even start worshiping in the land they now possess until after 400 years of bondage in Egypt. Their lack of possessing the land, however, had no bearing upon them being God’s people. It was God’s calling and choosing them.

Third, God appeared to Abraham and called him friend prior to his circumcision. The implication is that Abraham was not made right with God through ceremony or customs. His righteousness was based on faith and not on works. Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. Stephen shows, as Matthew Henry stated, “That Abraham was taken under God’s care and into communion with Him, before he was circumcised.”

You almost wonder if the world view of a young man named Saul was somewhat fractured as Stephen made this point. It is this same Saul who once looked to his circumcision as something, but then deemed it nothing and argued against its ability to save in the book of Romans saying:

1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven,
And whose sins have been covered.
“Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”

Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; 11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.

13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.”[6] 

  • From Abraham, Stephen moves to Joseph – Acts 7:9-16

Notice how heavily Stephen focuses on Joseph in regard to his proximity to the land and God’s relation with him. Joseph was sold as a slave out of the land of Canaan and into the land of Egypt, yet God was with Him. Again, His relation to the land had no bearing on his relation to God. In fact, it was his relation to God that put Him there. His brothers meant it for evil, but God meant it for good to save His people from the famine. God sent Joseph into Egypt as a slave and rescued him from all his afflictions and granted him favor and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and he made him governor over Egypt and all his household.

            As Governor of Egypt, Joseph was used by God to prepare the nation of Egypt to survive the famine that was going to impact the world. Stephen states that:

“11 Now a famine came over all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction with it, and our fathers could find no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers there the first time. 13 On the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family was disclosed to Pharaoh. 14 Then Joseph sent word and invited Jacob his father and all his relatives to come to him, seventy-five persons in all.”

What was the result of it being revealed that Joseph was alive and inviting his family down to where he was? Jacob went down to Egypt and there he and our fathers died. Stephen reminds his hearers that Jacob spent the last part of his life apart from the land they loved. He reminds them that their forefathers did not just visit Egypt for a time, they died there. They left the land never to return, but though the patriarchs lived and died in Egypt apart from the land, God did not cease to be their God.

  • With Israel now in Egypt, Stephen now deals with Moses – Acts 7:17-34

They charged Stephen with speaking against Moses, and he shows several things about this man whom they say he is against:

First, he shows his admiration of him. He refers to him as one who was lovely in the sight of God, and a man of power in words and deeds given his Egyptian education.

Second, he draws to light Moses’ desire to deliver God’s people from their bondage, supposing that his brethren understood that God was granting them deliverance through him, thus indicating that though they were in a distant land God had never forsaken them. As Stephen says, “But they did not understand.” When Moses went back to them, they rejected him saying, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? They successfully opposed the one sent by God, and as a result, he fled and became an alien in the land of Midian. Modern day Midian, by the way, is Saudi Arabia, and for those that do not know, that is not the promised land.

Now I believe this is one of the main points Stephen had been working towards with Moses and we naturally end up here because of the peoples rejection of him. This man is not only cutoff from the people of God, but he is far from the beloved land in the middle of the Midian wilderness, yet God appears to him in the flame of a burning thorn bush, prior to the giving of the Law and without the agency of the temple saying:

“I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and Isaac and JacobTake off the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.

If there ever was such thing as authentic sacred ground, this is the location is it not, the place on which Moses’ feet touched? No one, however, knows where the exact location of this is, and even if they could find it, would it still be a sacred place? Should people attempt to discover this location in order to experience the presence of God? The answer is no, because the only thing that made it sacred at the time of Moses was God’s presence being manifested. Once this ceased, so did the sacredness. It is clear through God’s interaction with Moses that God is not confined to the land or the temple.

In Acts 7:35-43, Stephen also reinforces that their forefathers had successfully rejected the one whom God had chosen to deliver them. Their forefathers were against Moses though God made it clear through miracles that He was delivering them through him:

35 “This Moses whom they disowned, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ is the one whom God sent to be both a ruler and a deliverer with the help of the angel who appeared to him in the thorn bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren.’ 38 This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you. 39 Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us; for this Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt—we do not know what happened to him.’ 41 At that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, ‘It was not to Me that you offered victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, O house of Israel? 43 You also took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rompha, the images which you made to worship. I also will remove you beyond Babylon.’”

Stephen was charged with wanting to alter the customs of Moses and he calls to their attention that their history is marred with men and women who rejected Moses and the customs handed down by him. Israel not only failed to recognize their liberator, but they also failed to obey his instruction. Their forefathers were the ones who were against Moses and God.

He also reminded them that this Moses who was attested by God with great wonders is the same one who spoke of a Prophet that would come that people must listen to or forever perish. That prophet was Christ, and what did the people do with Him? They rejected Him and killed Him. They were against Moses because they killed the Christ he had instructed them to listen to.

  • The Tabernacle and the Temple – Acts 7:44-50

After recounting Israel’s unfaithfulness and proving that he is on the side of Moses because he is following the one who Moses spoke about, Stephen begins to further absolve Himself of the accusations that he is teaching against the holy place.

The first thing he points to is that after the tabernacle was constructed it was mobile. God’s dwelling was not confined to a specific location. God moved with the people and was with them in the wilderness before they even possessed the land. God, therefore, did not need the land to be relational with His people.

His most critical point, however, is when he begins to draw their attention to God’s disposition to the temple itself after they take possession of the land through Joshua. He says:

46 David found favor in God’s sight, and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for Him.”

Do not miss what he is implying to these men. He is showing them not only that God made no rush to have the temple constructed, but that the physical temple itself was not necessarily God’s idea. Here is a man after God’s own heart     wanting to build this great structure for Him, but God does not permit him to do it. The physical temple was not a top priority to God. In fact, God said to David, “Did I speak a word with one of the tribes of Israel…saying ‘Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?’”[7]

Stephen finally points out not only that God did not initiate the construction of the temple, but that God Himself expressed having no need of it by saying:

49 Heaven is My throne,
And earth is the footstool of My feet;
What kind of house will you build for Me?’ says the Lord,
‘Or what place is there for My repose?
50 ‘Was it not My hand which made all these things?’”

A physical temple cannot contain the Creator of the cosmos. To think it can is sheer foolishness. As Stephen said, “The Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands.”


Like Fathers like Sons

This is why we began by talking about the Jews view of the temple. It was everything to them. Stephen, however, just showed that what they prize was nonexistent through much of Israel’s history, yet God stilled had deep relations with His people. He shows that what was of greatest priority to them, was not necessarily the greatest priority to God, and what was the greatest priority to God, they killed! They nailed His Son to the cross at the hands of godless men and put Him to death, but God raised Him back to life. As Stephen says:

51 You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. 52 Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; 53 you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.”

As I have heard R.C. Sproul say, “Their circumcision never went past their private parts.”

I do not believe Stephen uttered these words in a fit of rage, but from a genuine desire for them to see that they are no different then their fathers who sold Joseph into slavery, or rejected Moses as their deliverer. To suggest that Stephen said this in frustration or malice is inconsistent with the character we see in him as he is being stoned to death by them. You see no anger in Stephen towards these men as they are killing him, only pity and a desire for them to experience God’s forgiveness.

His desire was for them to turn to the true and new temple. The One where people can behold the glory of God, and experience genuine forgiveness and true life. The One through whom people can worship the living God in spirit and in truth regardless of geographical locale. His desire was for them to turn to Christ, who is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him because He forever lives to make intercession for them.


Come to the True and New Temple

My question for all is this, have you come to the true and new temple? Have you turned to the One whom Moses spoke of? Yes, many of you can say that you know Christ, but the question is, does Christ know you? Do you see Him working in you to conform you to His holy image? Are you certain of His calling and choosing you because you see Him perfecting you?

May we know that the true and new temple is not far. You do not need to go to some distant land to meet Him or search out some sacred structure. He is not accessed through some custom or ritual. If you but turn from yourself in repentance, and cling to Him through faith you will be forgiven your sin and given the life and righteousness of Christ. He said:

28 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Today, if you hear His voice do not neglect so great a salvation. Turn to Christ, the true and new temple, and be saved!


[1] Acts 6:13-14

[2] 1 Peter 2:4-5

[3] Ephesians 2:19-21

[4] 2 Corinthians 6:16

[5] Joshua 24:2

[6] Romans 4:1-13

[7] 2 Samuel 7:7

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