Stephen gives a defense of the gospel
In this passage Stephen gives a defense of the gospel. He is accused of blaspheming God denigrating the temple and the customs of Moses (chapter 6:13-14). The high priest asked Stephen, “Are these things so?”
Stephen answers by taking men who are experts of the Old Testament through a brief history of the redemptive purpose of God. In doing so, he will rebuke their trust in outward forms and righteousness. They do not lack zeal, but humble faith to the point that their hearts are not like the prophets but like those who opposed them. Stephen reminds them of what faith looks like.
He begins with Abraham (verses 2-8). Abraham was called by God to leave his country and kindred and go to the place God sent him. God promised Abraham he would have descendants and that in the future they will possess the land, though at the time Abraham was alone in a strange land.
The purpose of God in redeeming them was that they would worship him (verse 7). He gave them a covenant sign of circumcision signifying he is their God and they are his people. There was no temple in Abraham’s day. Nevertheless God commended Abraham for his faith. God has always required a heart of faith more than outward things. This is Stephen’s point to his accusers.
Stephen turns to Joseph next (verse 9-16). He emphasizes that Joseph, though rejected by his brothers, was God’s vessel of deliverance for them. They find food and shelter from the very one they had been evil to, a pattern of what Christ (the Bread of life) does for sinners.
Stephen continues with the life of Moses. He divides Moses’ life into three forty year periods. In the first, he reminds them of God’s favor on Moses, born under Pharaoh during a time of great oppression. God sent Israel a deliverer, without whom Israel would have remained in bondage.
In the next period of Moses’ life, Stephen emphasizes the rejection of Moses as a deliverer by the people of Israel, forcing Moses to leave Egypt (verse 29). The Jewish leaders, in rejecting Christ, were showing similar unbelief. God never saved the people of Israel because they were righteous; it was always his grace.
This is reinforced by the account of God appearing to Moses in the burning bush at Mount Sinai (verse 30). Moses trembled at being in the presence of the holy God. God tells Moses he is sending him back to Egypt to deliver his people. He remembers his promise to Abraham.
Despite the great salvation which was accompanied by many signs and wonders, including going through the Red Sea (verse 36), Stephen reminds his hearers that the hearts of the people turned back to Egypt. Even when they outwardly practiced the customs Moses gave them, their hearts were far from God. Idolatry characterized Israel rather than faith in the Lord (verse 42).
Stephen then addresses the issue of the temple (verses 44-50). The temple represented the presence of God among his people, but it became viewed by the people of Israel in a way that did not honor God. Their allegiance was in name only, and worship was perfunctory. Instead of a place to humbly honor the Lord, the temple had become another object of idolatry for them.
Stephen, in recounting these stories, is responding to the charges against him. His point is that the people accusing him are acting in the same way toward Christ that rebellious Israel acted toward the prophets God sent them. They show no evidence of faith. They are proud, and in rejecting Christ are rejecting the prophet Moses had said would come (verse 37).
Moses trembled in the presence of God. The men who are judging Stephen were not familiar with this trembling. Self-righteous hearts have little fear of the Lord. But God is holy, and Christ came to save sinners. These men had already heard Peter tell them that there is no other name under heaven whereby men may be saved (Chapter 4:12). They were not moved.
If you refuse to be reconciled in the name of Christ, it doesn’t matter who you are. You can be a Jewish leader who runs the temple. It is possible to be a church member, to hear the Word of God, enjoy the company of God’s people, and yet have a heart far from God. This is Stephen’s warning.