A Tipping Point

We are about to consider the passage which describes Stephen’s discourse before the High Council, which I believe marks a tipping point in God’s efforts to win Israel’s heart as a nation and usher in the promised Millennial Kingdom.  This is a good place to summarize what has transpired so far:

  • Since the days of Abraham, the Scriptures have focused on God’s plans for Israel.
  • The focus is still on Israel through Jesus’ earthly ministry (although it had much broader ramifications that were still hidden by God at that time)
  • Jesus earthly ministry was certified through miracles, including raising the dead to life
  • Jesus trained His disciples for the Tribulation and the Millennial Kingdom as His crucifixion approached
  • Throughout Jesus earthly ministry He was opposed by the leadership of Israel, who ultimately were responsible for His death
  • After His death, burial and resurrection, Jesus was seen to be alive by hundreds of people
  • Jesus disciples saw Him ascend into Heaven miraculously
  • Jews and proselytes who were gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and others
  • Peter has publicly addressed those gathered in the Temple, explaining the coming of the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of promises to Israel
  • Peter has explained that all of Israel is guilty of crucifying their Messiah, and they must repent before the Millennial Kingdom will manifest itself.
  • Peter and John have been called before the High Council twice and told not to teach in the name of Jesus, having been jailed twice and flogged once.
  • The ministry of the disciples, now apostles, has been marked by the same kinds of miracles as was the ministry of Jesus.
  • The number of believing Jews has grown to more than 10,000.
  • The believing Jews are living on the Temple grounds communally, sharing all wealth with each other in anticipation of the coming of the Kingdom.
  • Seven men have been chosen to manage the daily distribution of food among the believers, with Stephen being the most prominent.

The overall picture at this point in Luke’s narrative is that God has been offering the long-awaited Millennial Kingdom to Israel, if she will only acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah and repent of having killed him.  We have seen the believing community in Jerusalem blossom, but always to the consternation of Israel’s religious leaders.  They, like their fathers, are stiffnecked and rebellious.  How long will God’s patience put up with their unbelief?

I believe that the passage we are about to study is a tipping point at the pinnacle of Israel’s unbelief.  From this point on, God will gradually set aside their program temporarily, and will gradually introduce another program to reach the Gentiles in spite of  Israel’s obstinate rejection — He will do an “end run” around their unbelief.  But how He will do it is still hidden in His heart, a mystery about to be revealed through another apostle, the most unlikely of candidates…

Stephen’s Discourse

We’ll not take Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin apart verse by verse as we have in many other passages in Acts, but please take the time right now to read Acts 6:9-7:1.  I’ll wait for you!

Welcome back!  Notice in this passage you have just read that Stephen’s trouble didn’t come directly from the leaders of Israel.  It came from a group of men living in Jerusalem who were of the diaspora, the Israelites scattered among foreign nations.  Although they were from many different nations, they had established their own synagogue, known as the Synagogue of the Freedmen (gr. legowmenays Libertinown, lit. “Free Speechers”).  They responded to Stephen’s teaching by arguing against him.  As is often the case with “free speech” advocates (who really want to silence all free speech except their own), they turned to darker methods when they could not silence him through debate and logic.  They bribed unscrupulous men to make false accusations that would get Stephen in trouble with the authorities.  Today we would say that the leaders of this synagogue “framed” Stephen.

It’s interesting in v15 that Luke says the members of the High Council saw Stephen’s face as if it were “the face of an angel.”  Luke doesn’t elaborate, but we presume that he meant that Stephen’s face was radiating light — a truly radiant complexion!  If so, it reminds us of the face of Moses, which he covered in the presence of the people (Exodus 34:29-35).  That, however, did not prevent Israel from rebelling against Moses, and like their forefathers, it did not prevent the members of the High Council from resisting the words of Stephen either.

The specific false charges they brought against Stephen were that he incessantly

  • spoke against “this holy place” (the Temple) by saying that Jesus the Nazarene would destroy it, and
  • spoke against the Law by saying that Jesus the Nazarene would alter the customs which Moses had established

The High Priest’s opening question (he didn’t get a word in edgewise afterward) was, “Are these things so?”  To the mindset of the Council, these things were heresy and conveniently worthy of death by stoning under the Law.  Were they true?  Yes and no!  Like any statement from a good false witness, they represented half-truths.  Stephen, therefore, knowing who he was dealing with, proceeded to out-pharisee the entire council by recounting the entire national history of Israel, as if the members of the High Council were once again schoolboys attending classes in the local synagogue.

The logical progression of his remarks demonstrates that Stephen was speaking to Israelites as an Israelite about the promise of an Israelite Messiah and an Israelite Kingdom.  Please take the time to read Acts 7:2-50 for yourself before proceeding further in this blog post.

Welcome back again!  Let’s do some observation.

  • With what person does Stephen begin relating this history lesson? (7:2) ______________  (Thought Question: Why doesn’t he begin with Adam?)
  • What did Abraham not inherit in his lifetime, but which was promised to his offspring? (7:5) __________  (Thought Question: Is that different from what we are promised today?)
  • What else did God promise Abraham? (7:6-7) _____________ in _________ for ______ years, and that after that time God would bring them ______ to their _______
  • Did that prophecy come true? (7:8-36)  _______  (Thought Question:  Was Stephen against Moses or ignorant of the importance of Moses role in Israel’s history?)

Before proceeding to v37 and beyond, I need to put a bit of a disclaimer here.  I have not gone into the details of Stephen’s history lesson, and there are some problems with it.  In one place Stephen’s account differs clearly from the record in the Old Testament, and there are other small issues.  I have not “glossed over” this passage in an effort to avoid having to deal with them.  They simply are unprofitable for an overall understanding of the nature and intent of Stephen’s message.  It is more important here to see the forest than argue about a particular pine cone on one tree!  All of Stephen’s message so far has been to establish the importance of God’s promises to Abraham (and consequently to Israel) and the importance of Moses’ position in Israel’s history.  All of this is a prelude to where he goes next…

Having established Moses as an authority from God, Stephen now in v37 uses that authority to remind them of something else God said.  Even before he quotes Moses, he reminds them that Moses said it to the sons of Israel (not to all of mankind).  Moses told them that God would raise up another prophet “like himself from their brethren.”  If we take this quote literally, it means that this other prophet would be human like Moses and would be a genetic descendent of Abraham.  Stephen did not (nor did Moses) tell them that this prophet’s ancestry would be unimportant or that he would come from any line of descent other than Abraham.  This also was a promise to Israel by an Israelite concerning their future King and Kingdom.

In v38 Stephen expands on who this other prophet was and is, reminding them that He was with the congregation as they left Egypt and proceeded to Mount Sinai, spoke to Moses there, and accompanied their ancestors thereafter.  He also received “living oracles” to pass on to them (a reference to the countless prophets God had sent to them over the centuries).  By implication, Stephen has identified this “other prophet like Moses” as One who is eternal and ageless!

Stephen then proceeds to point out their rejection of this “other prophet” in vv39-43, demonstrating that the members of the High Council were following in exactly the same pattern of rebellion that their forefathers had.  To drive the point home, he quotes Amos who described their duplicity in bringing with them the false gods and idols of other nations from the days in Egypt all the way to the Babylonian deportation.

All of this is in response to the second accusation concerning his purported disdain for the “customs of Moses”.  In vv44-47 Stephen takes up the former accusation concerning the Temple.  He begins with the first earthly abode of God, the Tabernacle constructed according to Moses’ direction, and then proceeds to the days of David and Solomon who built the original Temple in Jerusalem.  Bear in mind, dear reader, that the Temple where Stephen was being tried was not that glorious temple built by Solomon, but was a poor replacement — Herod’s temple.  By describing the original Temple, Stephen was reminding them that God had already destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and so to predict that Herod’s cheap copy could also be destroyed was clearly in the realm of possibility.  Had he taught that Jesus the Nazarene would destroy this cheap copy?  So what!  God had already destroyed the original!

But Stephen’s argument concerning the Temple now ascends to a higher plateau in vv48-50.  God cannot be contained by a house built with human hands!  Not the Tabernacle, not Solomon’s Temple, and certainly not Herod’s Temple.  The High Council, who controlled the Temple grounds, which included the Holy of Holies, was acting like they were the possessors of God — as if He could be contained in wooden boxes behind thick curtains, for them to dole out as they pleased.  In a nutshell, Stephen clearly told them that God was bigger than them and was not constrained by their puny presupposing authority.

Please take a moment to read Acts 7:51-53 before proceeding further on this page.

If there was any doubt among the members of the High Council about what Stephen was saying, he cleared it up for them in his concluding statement.  He says of them

  • they are stiffnecked
  • they are uncircumcised in heart
  • they always resist the Holy Spirit
  • they are just like their forefathers
  • their forefathers persecuted and killed the prophets who had announced the coming of the Righteous One
  • they, like their forefathers, persecuted and killed the Righteous One Himself
  • they received the law as ordained by angels but didn’t keep it

Note that the expression in v53, “you who received the law as ordained by angels” is a direct reference to Israel, not to the world as a whole.  He is not speaking allegorically.  Stephen, in God’s behalf, is even at this point dealing with Israel and the obstinacy of her leaders.

The Council’s Reaction

Please take the time to read Acts 7:54-8:1 for yourself now.  I’ll wait right here for you to return!

Welcome back again!

As we have described before, the council’s reaction was as if they had been slashed (not stabbed) deeply with a knife.  Stephen, in contrast, sees directly into heaven to the throne of God, where he sees Jesus standing at God’s right hand.  He describes what he is seeing, and it is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  The Council’s members (1) cried out with a loud voice, and (2) covered their ears.  I’m reminded of a scene from an episode of the modern television series Monk, where the disfunctional detective is trying to avoid hearing what his nurse is trying to tell him.  He does two things — he begins babbling loudly and covers his ears.  It keeps the outside sound from coming in, and fills the inside with noise to drown out all else.  Monk did it out of reason, but the High Council did it out of rage.  They could no longer stand to hear what Stephen was saying.  This goes beyond Winston Churchill’s remark about stumbling over the truth and going on as if nothing has happened.  It goes beyond Peter telling the High Council that the apostles must obey God rather than men.  It is, in fact, the high point in the Council’s rejection of the Messiah and His Kingdom.  I believe it marks the point at which Israel finally provoked God sufficiently that He began the setting aside of Israel’s program and began a new approach in spite of Israel. 

Luke tells us that they rushed upon Stephen as if their minds were synchronized, drove him out of the city, and began stoning him to death.  Stephen cried out to God to receive his spirit, and asked God to forgive his persecutors, not holding it against them.  In the process, a new character is introduced into the story line.  As those who were stoning Stephen (heavy, sweaty labor) laid aside their robes, a young man named Saul kept track of them.  But as 8:1 tells us, he did more than check coats — he was a “cheerleader,” not only agreeing with the stoning of Stephen, but doing so “heartily.”

In the next post we’ll take a closer look at the probable upbringing of this young man Saul to help us understand what brought him to this point — and why he seems to be such an unlikely candidate for what God has in mind for him!

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