Stephen's History Lesson (Part 1)
The council, after hearing the false charges leveled against Stephen, gazed at him and saw his face as that of angel. The high priest, pretending to be objective, then asked Stephen if the charges were true. "Are you guilty or not?" They expect him to attempt to defend himself, but this he does not do (at least not directly). Instead, he will give them a lengthy history lesson with a blistering application to themselves! This man of wisdom knew that a formal defense was useless in this case. He had no hope of a fair trial since they had false witnesses in place. He, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, uses this opportunity to rebuke them. As we consider his speech, we will see one main theme repeated: The Israelites have a sad history of spiritual blindness and opposition to God's plan--and the current Sanhedrin council was no different than the ignorant Israelite rebels of the past!
"And he said, 'Brethren and fathers, listen: the God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, 'Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.' Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell. And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abraham had no child, He promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his descendants after him. But God spoke in this way: that his descendants would dwell in a foreign land, and that they would bring them into bondage and oppress them four hundred years. 'And the nation to whom they will be in bondage I will judge,' said God, 'and after that they shall come out and serve Me in this place.' Then He gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham begot Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot the twelve patriarchs" (Acts 7:2-8).

Stephen begins his history lesson with the great patriarch Abraham. He recounts God calling Abraham to leave his home and also promising Abraham (who was childless at the time) a great land for his descendants, after a period of bondage in a foreign land (Egypt). God's interaction with Abraham clearly illustrates that the divine presence is not inherently tied to the temple or the region of Palestine. God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot twelve sons (or "patriarchs"), which included Joseph. Before moving on, it is worth observing that Stephen referred to the "God of glory." Does that sound like a blasphemer to you?

Stephen's speech continues in Acts 7:9-16:

"And the patriarchs, becoming envious, sold Joseph into Egypt. But God was with him and delivered him out of all his troubles, and gave him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house. Now a famine and great trouble came over all the land of Egypt and Canaan, and our fathers found no sustenance. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first. And the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers, and Joseph's family became known to the Pharaoh. Then Joseph sent and called his father Jacob and all his relatives to him, seventy-five people. So Jacob went down to Egypt; and he died, he and our fathers. And they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem."

Joseph's older brothers were envious of him. They rejected him and God's will (namely, that they would bow down and serve him). However, even though they sold him as a slave, God's will was still accomplished (in a foreign land, Egypt). Joseph was faithful and patient, and God eventually rewarded him with great power and authority (he was superior to all Egyptians except Pharaoh himself). Joseph helped save many people from the devastating famine that lasted seven years, and this is how he was reunited with his brothers and father. Here again the Lord is seen as being active outside the borders of Canaan. The entire family then relocated to Egypt. As a side note, there is no contradiction between the number Stephen mentions (75) and the number Moses mentions (70) regarding the total of those who moved to Egypt. There are several possible methods of harmonizing these numbers. First, 70 becomes 67 when Joseph and his two sons are subtracted (for they were already in Egypt and were not sent for and called by Joseph). 67 + 8 = 75, which leaves at least 8 wives (who were "relatives") to be included in Stephen's number. It is impossible to know for certain how many of Jacob's wives and his son's wives were still alive at that time, but 8 is not impossible. If one argues for a larger number of wives still being alive, that is not problematic. It can be shown that of the 70 Moses mentioned, some came "symbolically" (i.e., they were not born yet at the time of the move but came along in the loins, if you will, of their fathers; cf. Heb. 7:9,10). So, if Stephen counted more than 8 wives, he is therefore not counting some of the grandchildren who were not yet born at the time of the move. In either case, a contradiction cannot be proven here.

"But when the time of the promise drew near which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt till another king arose who did not know Joseph. This man dealt treacherously with our people, and oppressed our forefathers, making them expose their babies, so that they might not live. At this time Moses was born, and was well pleasing to God; and he was brought up in his father's house for three months. But when he was set out, Pharaoh's daughter took him away and brought him up as her own son. And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds. Now when he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended and avenged him who was oppressed, and struck down the Egyptian. For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand. And the next day he appeared to two of them as they were fighting, and tried to reconcile them, saying, 'Men, you are brethren; why do you wrong one another?' But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday?' Then, at that saying, Moses fled and became a dweller in the land of Midian, where he had two sons" (Acts 7:17-29).

After Joseph died, a different Pharaoh was not so kind to his descendants. They enslaved them and rejected God's will (namely, that the Israelites must become a mighty nation with a large number of people). The Egyptians tried to contain the swelling Israelite population, but such an effort was futile. Moses was raised by Pharaoh's daughter and was wise and mighty in words and actions. At the age of 40, Moses visited his people, apparently with the intent to deliver them from their bondage. But, Israel rejected Moses, just as Joseph's brothers had rejected him. Their rejection was irrelevant, however, for God would use Moses (when the time was right) as a deliverer from slavery as He had used Joseph as a deliverer from starvation.

"And when forty years had passed, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire in a bush, in the wilderness of Mount Sinai. When Moses saw it, he marveled at the sight; and as he drew near to observe, the voice of the Lord came to him, saying, 'I am the God of your fathers--the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.' And Moses trembled and dared not look. Then the LORD said to him, 'Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.' This Moses whom they rejected, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and a judge?' is the one God sent to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the Angel who appeared to him in the bush. He brought them out, after he had shown wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years" (Acts 7:30-36).

Despite Israel's rejection of Moses, God sent him to be both a ruler and a judge over them at the age of 80. In speaking to him through the burning bush, we learn that there is holy ground apart from the temple! God enabled Moses to redeem the Israelites from Pharaoh with a mighty hand. Moses performed many miracles in Egypt, the Red Sea, and the wilderness over four decades.

"This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, 'The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren, Him you shall hear.' This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us, whom our fathers would not obey, but rejected. And in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, saying to Aaron, 'Make us gods to go before us; as for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the Prophets: 'Did you offer Me slaughtered animals and sacrifices during forty years in the wilderness, o house of Israel? You also took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, images which you made to worship; and I will carry you away beyond Babylon'" (Acts 7:37-43).

This same Moses, whom the Jews loved and respected so greatly in the first century, was the one who prophesied about the coming of the Great Prophet whom God would raise up from Israel. As we noted back in Acts 3:22,23, Jesus the Christ was that Great Prophet! Jesus was the Redeemer who came to release people from their slavery to sin. He worked mighty miracles to show that He spoke by the Father's authority, but the Israelites still rejected Him and murdered Him! Nevertheless, this would not thwart God's will, for He would raise Jesus from the dead three days later! Is the Sanhedrin starting to get the message? Stephen also further reviews the rejection of Moses (and God) by the Israelite nation in the wilderness. They rejected Moses in spite of several significant facts: (1) He had worked mighty miracles by the power of God, and (2) He had received the word of God from God Himself on Mt. Sinai (again, there was holy ground apart from the temple!). Nevertheless, the people would not obey. They turned their hearts back to Egypt. They asked Aaron to make an idol for them for guidance. Additionally, they were involved in other idolatrous practices besides the golden calf Aaron had made. Stephen proves this by quoting from Amos 5:25-27 and Jeremiah 25:9-12.

We will consider the remainder of this lengthy and powerful speech in our next lesson, including its blistering conclusion.

Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.