|Acts 7:44-50: A Slice of History
A SLICE OF HISTORY
Central Thought: God is present among his people wherever they may be, and he calls his people to hear and obey him.
Stephen was one of the helpers selected by the Jerusalem church to assist in the benevolence ministry (Acts 6:5). Stephen's ministry, however, extended beyond benevolence. God worked miracles through him, and Stephen also argued with the Jews in a Jerusalem synagogue (Acts 6:9). Stephen's arguments frustrated his audience because they could not refute his wisdom or the Holy Spirit by whom he spoke (Acts 6:10). As a result, they dragged Stephen before the Sanhedrin, the religious and legal governing body of Judaism.
There they accused Stephen of speaking against the temple and the Mosaic law. Stephen rose to defend himself. He answered his critics by retelling the story of God's relationship with his people. God called Abraham when he lived in Mesopotamia and entered into covenant with him (Acts 7:2,8). God was also with Joseph when he lived in Egypt (Acts 7:9) even though his brothers had rejected him. God up raised Joseph as a ruler so that Jacob and his whole family could join him in Egypt (Acts 7:14). After a new Pharaoh arose, God raised up Moses to lead his people out of bondage (Acts 7:25) even though his brothers rejected him. God encountered Moses at Mount Sinai as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Acts 7:32). After leaving Egypt, God spoke to Israel at Mount Sinai (Acts 7:38). But even while Moses was with God on the mountain, they built a golden calf and rejected God's servant Moses (Acts 7:40-42).
God has been with his people wherever they have been. Whether they started out in Mesopotamia, or lived in Palestine when it was not their land, or served Pharaoh in Egypt, or received the law at Mount Sinai, God was with his people.
At this point in the story Stephen makes his climatic point. Up to this moment his audience was probably enraptured with the story which they knew so well. God has always been with his people.
Verse 44. The tabernacle was God's testimony to his presence. Just as the cloud in which God was present led them through the wilderness, so that cloud descended upon the completed tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-38). God testified to his presence among his people.
Verse 45-46. The tabernacle assured Israel of God's presence. Israel confidently conquered the land through Joshua and ruled the land through David. As long as God was with them, Israel could conquer their enemies (as in the Conquest) and enjoy the favor of God (as in the time of David).
Verse 47. Israel moved from an impermanent structure (a tent) to a permanent structure (a building) during the reign of Solomon. Once again, the cloud of God's presence settled upon the temple and assured God's people of his presence (1 Kings 8:10-13). The holy presence of God among his people was a gracious one.
Verses 48-50. But God has never been confined to a building. Solomon himself acknowledged that God could not be contained by a temple (1 Kings 8:27). God fills the whole earth. Stephen quotes Isaiah 66:1-2 as support for his statement. Heaven itself is God's throne, and his footstool is the earth. Even the universe which God created cannot contain him, how much less could an earthly building? The temple is not the only place where God dwells, even in the Old Testament. Rather, the temple is a sign of God's redemptive presence among his people. God is gracious to his people by being present among them. But the people of God must not think that they have somehow limited God by his temple. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of the whole earth. He is the creator God.
Stephen makes several points by retelling this familiar story. First, he reminds the Sanhedrin that God is not confined to Jerusalem. God has been with his people wherever they have been--Mesopotamia, Egypt, or Mount Sinai.
Second, he reminds them that God is not restricted to the Jerusalem temple. God graciously offered the testimony of his presence to Israel through the tabernacle and the temple. The tent and the building both represented the presence of God in Israel where God dwells in the midst of Israel so that they are his people and he is their God (Leviticus 26:11-12). This was the promise of God since Abraham (Genesis 17:7). The temple, however, was not some guarantee of Israel's favor irrespective of their obedience. Israel had only to remember Shiloh to remind itself that Jerusalem was no guarantee either (see Jeremiah 7:1-15). Now, we Christians are the place where God dwells. We are the temple of God and Leviticus 26:11-12 is fulfilled in us who have the Spirit of God dwelling in us (2 Corinthians 6:16; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19). We look forward to that day when the promise of God to dwell among us will be fully experienced at the second coming of Jesus Christ (Revelation 21:1-4).
Third, he reminds them that Israel has always been a rebellious people. When God called his people through a servant, his people often rejected him. When God called Joseph, his brothers rejected him (Acts 7:9). When God called Moses, his brothers rejected him (Acts 7:27-29). When they had crossed the Red Sea and encountered God at Mount Sinai, they rejected Moses again (Acts 7:39). Lastly, when God sent the Righteous One, his own Son, they rejected him as they did the other prophets (Acts 7:52).
t is on this last point that Stephen focuses his application. The Sanhedrin is no different that their fathers who rejected the prophets. Just like them, their hearts are uncircumcised. With a hard-hearted stubbornness, they rejected God's Messiah. They resist the testimony of God through his Holy Spirit. Though they have received the law by hands of angels, they do not obey it.
From that moment on, Stephen's fate was sealed. The Sanhedrin could not bear to hear these words which undermined the uniqueness of the temple and accused them of uncircumcised hearts of disobedience. The last straw was Stephen's testimony about his vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Such blasphemy could not be condoned, and just like their fathers, they persecuted the messenger rather than submitting to his message. Significantly, Saul was present at the stoning of Stephen and the persecution of the church shifted into high gear. Like so many times in the past, God's people did not believe God's message.
1. What major events in the history of Israel does Stephen mention in his speech?
2. Why does he note these particular events, and how do they contribute to the point he wants to make?
3. How has the presence of God upon the earth been manifested in the past, and how is it now?
4. Was the accusation against Stephen recorded in Acts 6:13-14 true? How does his speech respond to those accusations?
5. What points upset the Sanhedrin, and why would that motivate them to kill Stephen?
First published as "A Slice of History," Adult Bible Quarterly (Winter 1996-97), 21st Century Christian, 42-5.