In Acts 6:11–14, Stephen is falsely accused of blaspheming God by speaking ill of the Mosaic Law and the temple. Acts 7 then records his speech, notable because it is the longest speech in Acts and one by a non-apostle.
Given a quick read of his speech, we might wonder why it took Stephen 50 verses (Acts 7:2–53) to answer these charges. A closer examination of his words, however, reveals a carefully-crafted response that not only answers the charges against him, but also builds a case to rebuke Israel, ending in a climactic fashion by doing just that.
In leading up to his climactic rebuke, Stephen speaks of how Israel historically sinfully treated the very ones that God had sent to deliver them, how God in turn exalted these prophets, and how God then used these men to deliver His people. Stephen obviously speaks of other people and issues along the way (Abraham in Acts 7:2–8; the temple in Acts 7:44–50), but we will focus on Joseph (Acts 7:9–16) and Moses (Acts 7:33–43) in order to show how Stephen would parallel Israel’s persecution of them with how they had treated Jesus and continued to treat His followers. As Stephen would put it, “As your fathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51).
First, we consider how Joseph was treated by his brothers, “the patriarchs” (Acts 7:9). They were “jealous of Joseph” and therefore “sold him into Egypt” (Acts 7:9), the beginnings of his sufferings, identified as “all his afflictions” (Acts 7:11). “God,” however, exalted Joseph in that He “was with him and rescued him…and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh…who made him ruler over Egypt” (Acts 7:9–10). Joseph then went on to deliver his family during “a famine” and “great affliction” (Acts 7:11; cf. 7:11–14).
Second, we consider that Moses was treated in a similar way. He was stirred to help his fellow Israelites and even killed an Egyptian in his zeal (Acts 7:23–24). “He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand” (Acts 7:25). In fact, one Israelite represented the nation when he “thrust him [i.e., Moses] aside” and asked, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?” (Acts 7:27). Even after the exodus, Israel again “thrust him aside” and followed idols instead (Acts 7:39). Despite these sufferings, Moses was “sent as both ruler and redeemer,” spoke to the God at the burning bush, led Israel out of Egypt, and was given the Law (Acts 7:35–38). Moses suffered before and after delivering Israel and was exalted in his role as deliverer.
Third, we see that Joseph and Moses bring us to Jesus. In the climactic conclusion to Stephen’s speech and the description that followed, we see the suffering and exaltation of Jesus. “As your fathers did,” Stephen stated (i.e., as they persecuted Joseph and Moses, not to mention the prophets – cf. Acts 7:52), “so do you” (Acts 7:51). Specifically, these Israelites had “betrayed and murdered” Jesus, “the Righteous One” who was prophesied by Moses to come (cf. Acts 7:37; cf. Deut 18:15). Despite His sufferings at the hand of Israel, however, God exalted Jesus. As these Israelites rushed to end Stephen’s life, Stephen testified that Jesus was “standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55–56). And though Joseph and Moses were used to deliver Israel from famine and Egypt, Jesus could bring these Israelites no deliverance at this time—they murdered Him, would murder Stephen, and would continue to persecute Christians thereafter (cf. Acts 8:1–3).
Perhaps we could add Stephen as a fourth in this text as one who experienced suffering and glory. He was obviously not meant to eclipse Jesus in the text, but he does seem to function as an example for Christians in general—like him, they also would be persecuted (cf. Acts 8:1–3). Though he sought to deliver his fellow man by giving them the gospel, his listeners made him suffer instead of receiving this salvation. His exaltation was seen as Jesus gave him a standing ovation, so to speak, to welcome him to glory for faithfully giving the gospel, even to the point of death.
May we all as Christians be like Stephen in that we are willing to suffer as messengers of the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. And whether the Lord lets us die a martyr’s death or rescues us at His return, our glorification is waiting, which is to “be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).1
- All biblical quotations are from the ESV.