Stephen’s Speech, Acts 7

Stephen’s speech is often called a defense, or apology, but it is obviously not a speech for the defense in the forensic sense of the term.[1] It is not calculated to receive exoneration before the Sanhedrin. Bruce sees it as “a defense of pure Christianity as God’s appointed way of worship.”[2] The speech uses Old Testament scripture as its base, considered authoritative by both Stephen and his accusers. The author conceptualizes the speech of Stephen, as a way of arguing his point from the perspective of Israeli history.

One of the customs prevalent in the Hellenistic world was that of adorning historical works with imaginative speeches of the actors, and there is some conformity of Acts to this custom.[3] The speeches of Acts are an extensive element in its composition, amounting to roughly one fifth of the whole volume, with Stephen’s speech being the largest. The speeches accomplish what was no doubt one of the original purposes of this cherished custom, an effective dramatic result.[4]

Besides the characteristics Stephen’s speech shares with the vocabulary of Luke and Acts, it shares with other speeches some elements of likeness that go beyond mere style and vocabulary into the subject matter itself. This argues for their common origin in the mind of the editor.[5]

The framework of the speech in Acts 7 does not seem to suggest any immediate written record. Memory may have considerably condensed the actual utterance, and indeed, the speeches in Acts are all relatively brief, succinct, and capable of explanation as summaries of longer address.[6] The easy transition from formal address to dialog in Acts and Luke shows how naturally the author adopted in his own narrative the medium of direct discourse.

The speeches in the ancient world were more readily invented than actually supplied. In fact there is evidence that ancient writers, who freely invent speeches, when by some chance an actual speech is preserved, do not quote it at all. It was simply their rhetorical practice. The standard observed in speech writing differed from our modern striving for original records to quote and verbal accuracy. However, without more knowledge of the source, it is impossible to know just how far the author is writing his speeches out of his own head.[7]

Conzelmann notes that the content of the speech (with the exception of the closing remarks) has no connection with the charges against Stephen. Both style and theme indicate that this is not a martyr’s speech. It has been secondarily inserted into the martyrdom of Stephen; note that it breaks the connection between 7:1 and 54.[8] It fits the situation, as Luke understands it. The speech relates the martyrdom to Luke’s whole view of history and furnishes the theoretical preparation for the transition to the mission to the Gentiles.[9]

Fernando argues for three major themes in Stephen’s speech. Fernando mentions three explicit themes while Bruce implicitly shows agreement in two of these themes. First, the activity of God is not confined to the geographical land of Israel. Second, worship acceptable to God is not confined to the Jerusalem temple.[10] Last, the insistence of the Jewish people’s refusal to acknowledge Jesus, as Messiah was their attitude to God’s messengers from the beginning of their history.[11]

Addressing the Sanhedrin, Stephen first reviews that Abraham first experienced God (7:2). After him, Jacob bore Joseph. However, even in the patriarchal age there were those opposing the way of God (7:9). In all of this there is emphasis on both the way Joseph is sold by his jealous brothers yet was used by God to save their lives and Abraham’s faith when he saw little evidence of its possible fulfillment of the covenant (7:17). These members of the Sanhedrin were refusing to believe God even though He had provided evidence of the fulfillment of His promise in the resurrection of Jesus. The treatment of Joseph by his brothers and the contrast to the way God treated him also parallels the way the Jewish leaders had treated Jesus.[12]

Next Stephen reassesses the way Israel grew in Egypt to fulfill the promise to Abraham. It was during this time that king arose and Moses was born. When Moses was 40 he attempted to deliver an Israelite from an unjust Egyptian (7:25). This is Stephen’s point in this part of the history. Moses did this because he supposed his Israelite brother would understand that God, by his hand, would give them deliverance, but they did not.[13] This portion is recapitulated by Stephens’s further comments about Moses trying to reconcile the two Israelites fighting. Interestingly the Sanhedrin respond much like the Israelites responded, (“Who made you ruler and judge over us?”) in a defiant questioning of authority (7:27).

Then Stephen explains his main point of this historical section. It was this Moses, whom Israel rejected and God sent back with the power present in phenomenon of the burning bush, and who liberated the slaves of Egypt, that said God would raise up a prophet like himself. It was He that they should listen and obey. The Jewish leaders knew that the apostles applied the passage this way. Stephen further extended this by saying that by not listening to Jesus they were disobeying God and treating Moses with contempt.[14]

Then Stephen moves from a rejection of Moses to a rejection of God. While Moses was with God, the people turned their hearts back to Egypt indicated by their inquiry of Aaron to build a golden calf. Because of the rejection of not only Moses but of God, God gave them over to worship of the heavenly bodies. Stephen further confirms this with the use of Amos 5:25-27. The quotation serves to show that the Israelites did not really offer their sacrifices to God during the remainder of their 40 years in the wilderness.[15] They had apparently gone through the forms, but the idolatry began there to tempt Israel, so they went into exile (7:43).

Now Stephen goes on to answer their accusation concerning what he said about the Temple. Essentially, he sets out to prove that the temple is not sufficient. He reminds them the Fathers had the tabernacle because it contained that Ark of the Covenant, a covenant between God and his people. Then the next generation received and brought it in with Joshua. This was until the days of David. David found favor and desired to find a permanent place for God. Because Solomon built it Stephen can say, “the Most High does not live in houses made by men” (7:48). Bruce points out that by communicating this Stephen is implying that “to announce the suppression or destruction of the temple was not to commit blasphemy or sacrilege against God, because God was independent of any temple.”[16] To prove this Stephen quotes Isaiah 66:1-2.

Finally Stephen concludes with their rejection of the Holy Spirit (7:51). He accuses them of a double portion of guilt because they not only resisted the Holy Spirit by rejecting and killing the prophets as their Fathers but they also killed the righteous one (7:52-53). This last section is perhaps the crux of Luke’s pneumatology. Luke gives a hint of this in his birth narrative. He describes the Spirit as hovering over Mary in a manner similar of the Spirit brooding over the waters if creation (Luke 1:35). Luke is showing that the Spirit who brought about the birth of Jesus has always been present and working in the world.[17] The Spirit was at work with Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, and the in the prophets (salvation history) but the fathers of the unbelieving Sanhedrin ignored it. Now, although the Holy Spirit is active in redemption, steering the world toward union with God, the Sanhedrin like their fathers reject the Holy Spirit.

Thus one discovers an edifying meditation on the history of salvation, which finds it’s meaning for the present in the retelling of history for instruction and warning. “The continuity in the history is found in certain constant factors on the one hand (promise, circumcision), and of conduct (of the people) on the other…[T]he consistent focus of Luke’s source is the subject or theme namely, the holy promise, which is dishonored time and again by the disobedience of the people.”[18]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Bruce, F.F. Peter, Stephen, James & John. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979.

 

Bruce, F.F. The Book of Acts, Revised. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988.

 

Carter, Charles W. and Ralph Earle. The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, MI:

Zondervan, 1973.

 

Conzelmann, Hans. Acts of the Apostles. Eng. trans. by James Limburg. Philadelphia,

PA: Fortress Press, 1987.

 

Criswell, W.A. Acts, An Exposition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980.

 

Fernando, Ajith. Acts. NIVAC. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.

 

Horton, Stanley M. The Book of Acts. Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1981.

 

Jackson F.J. Foakes and Kirsopp Lake. The Beginnings of Christianity: The Acts of the

Apostles. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979.

 

Marshall, Howard I. Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary. 3rd ed.

TNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity/Eerdmans, 1989.

 

Morgan, G. Campbell. The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books,

1988.

 

Pinnock, Clark. Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Downers Grove, IL:

Intervarsity Press, 1996.

 

Stronstand, Roger. The Charismatic Theology of St. Luke. Peabody, MA:

Hendrickson, 1984.

 

Williams, David J. Acts. NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1990.

 

 

 

[1] F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 130.

[2] Bruce, The Book of Acts, 130.

[3] F.J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity: The Acts of the

Apostles, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), 402.

[4] G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1988),

149.

[5] Jackson and Lake, The Acts of the Apostles, 406-7.

[6] Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles, (Grand Rapids, MI:

Zondervan, 1973), 95.

[7] Jackson and Lake, The Acts of the Apostles, 406.

[8] Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, Eng. trans. by James Limburg, (Philadelphia,

PA: Fortress Press, 1987) 57.

[9] Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, 57.

[10] Ajith Fernando, Acts, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 246.

[11] Bruce, The Book of Acts, 130.

[12] Stanley M. Horton, The Book of Acts, (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1981), 91.

[13] Howard I. Marshall, Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary. 3rd ed., (Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity/Eerdmans, 1989), 132.

 

[14] Horton, The Book of Acts, 94.

[15] Marshall, Acts of the Apostles, 144.

 

[16] F.F. Bruce, Peter, Stephen, James & John, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 54.

[17] Clark Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit, (Downers Grove, IL:

Intervarsity Press, 1996), 82.

[18] Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, 57.