As we prepare for this coming Sunday, when we will hear about the fate of Stephen, the first martyr in the movement initiated by Jesus (Acts 7:55–60), we continue our considerations of the longest speech in Acts, Stephen’s speech (7:1-53). By means of this speech, Luke matches the divinely-given qualities of Stephen (6:3,5,8,10) with his testimony to the acts of God in the history of Israel.
This Lukan-created speech, attributed to Stephen, makes a critical contribution to the theology of the two-volume work, Luke-Acts. (My analysis is based on what I wrote in my commentary on Acts in the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible (2003).) It is the longest speech of all of the speeches in Acts, and thus deserves our attention, even if the lectionary fails to include it!
The speech begins in typical Lukan fashion by defining the subject as God (7:2; cf. 2:17; 3:13; 5:30); the phrase used here, “the God of glory”, is drawn from scripture (Ps 29:3). The speech which follows rebuts the charges laid against Stephen; it demonstrates that, far from speaking “blasphemous words against God” (6:11), Stephen has a fulsome understanding of God’s place in Israel’s history.
At the end of his speech, Stephen takes up the charge that he spoke “against the holy place” (6:13). Luke has Stephen quote scripture, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’” (Acts 49-50, citing Isa 66:1-2), in order to show that his criticism of the temple (God’s “place of rest”, 7:49) arises from within Jewish tradition itself.
Stephen makes numerous scriptural allusions and quotations in this speech. In general, this seems similar to the earlier speeches by Peter, although the precise function of these scriptural elements is somewhat distinctive in this speech. Here, scripture functions as historical narrative, whereas elsewhere in Acts it provides prophecies to be fulfilled. (The exceptions within the speech are the prophecies of 7:6,7 which are fulfilled at 7:9-16 and 7:36 respectively.)
Luke has Stephen provide a detailed rehearsal of significant parts of Israel’s history, by focussing in turn on Abraham (7:2-8), Joseph (7:9-16) and Moses (7:17-44). Then, after making brief mention of Joshua (7:45a), David (7:45b-46) and Solomon (7:47), Stephen moves to the climactic claim of the speech (7:48-53). This is an ancient Jewish practice; lengthy recitals of key features of Israel’s history are already found in Hebrew Scripture (Deut 26; Josh 24; Neh 9; Pss 78; 105; 106; 135; 136; Ezek 20).
In the present instance, the effect of the long recital of the earlier part of Israel’s history is twofold. First, the historical recital reinforces Stephen’s Jewish credentials. When he begins to speak critically of the temple, and of the Jerusalem authorities, it is clear that he does so from within the Jewish tradition. Stephen is not an outsider, but an insider, offering a prophetic critique.
Second, the historical recital provides insight into a further layer of God’s providential activity. Earlier speeches by Peter have interpreted the events of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as being within the divine providence (see 2:14-41). Various features of the narrative of Acts have revealed the active involvement of God in the events that take place in the Jerusalem community. Now, the undergirding plan of God is revealed within the long history of Israel. The line of continuity is strengthened between each layer; just as God is at work in the Jerusalem community, so God is at work in the life of Jesus, and God is at work in the history of Israel. There is a strong line of continuity being drawn by Luke.
Each of the leaders of Israel is interpreted in typically Lukan style to present them as the vehicles through whom God was working in history. It was to Abraham (7:2-8) that God appeared, speaking to him the promise of a land (“God … said to him”, 7:2-3; cf. Gen 12:1). His move from Haran to Canaan was at the initiative of God (7:4; cf. Gen 11:35–12:5), but the fact that his descendants did not inherit this land was also God’s intention (7:5; cf. Gen 17:8). Subsequently God spoke to Abraham of the promise of the covenant of circumcision (“God spoke thus … and God said”, 7:6-8; cf. Gen 17:9-14).
Of Joseph (7:9-16), Luke has Stephen say that “God was with him” (7:9; cf. Gen 39:1-3,21), the same phrase as is later used of Jesus (10:38). God’s presence enables Joseph to exhibit grace and wisdom (7:10), characteristics with which God had also endowed Stephen (6:3,8,10) and Jesus (Luke 1:40,52). As a result of his wisdom, Joseph is given authority by Pharaoh (7:10; cf. Gen 41:37-45). Joseph is brought through afflictions and is rescued by God (7:10); the same term describes God’s rescue of Israel under Moses (7:34, quoting Exod 3:7-8) and of Paul (26:17).
The events which follow are reported without explicit reference to God, but demonstrate the outworking of Joseph’s wisdom. The ensuing famine (7:11; cf. Gen 41:53-54) leads to the two visits of Joseph’s brothers (7:12-13; cf. Gen 42:1-28; 43:1-44:34). The family settle in Egypt (7:14-15; cf. Gen 45:1-47:12); subsequently Jacob and others are returned to the family grave at Schechem in Canaan (7:16; cf. Gen 49:29-32; 50:13, where the grave is located in Hebron).
After recounting the ancestral sagas of Israel, Stephen moves on to the “time of the promise which God confessed to Abraham”, which comes to fruition under Moses (7:17-43). During the time between Joseph and Moses, the people “increased and multiplied” (7:17), the same phrase used to describe the expanding community in Jerusalem (“the number of disciples increased and multiplied greatly”, 6:7) and elsewhere (12:24; 19:20).
At his birth, Moses is “beautiful before God” (7:20; cf. Exod 2:2). As he grows, he is trained in wisdom in Egypt and becomes “powerful in his words and deeds” (7:22). These qualities evoke the divine enabling seen in Luke’s accounts of Stephen, the apostles, and Jesus, and are in direct contrast with the scriptural description of Moses as “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exod 4:10).
Luke has Stephen demonstrate that Moses shares other similarities with those chosen by God in later ages, especially Jesus. Despite the rejection he experiences from his kinsfolk (7:23-29; cf. Exod 2:11-22), “God through his hand gave salvation” to Israel (7:25), just as God later gives salvation through Jesus (Luke 1:69; 2:11,30; 3:6; Acts 5:31; 13:23,26). When this salvation takes place under Moses it is accompanied by divinely-enabled wonders and signs (7:36; cf. Exod 7:3), as it does through Jesus (2:22). This fulfils the command given to Moses (7:34) when an angel appeared to him in the burning bush (7:30) and God spoke to him (7:32,33-34; cf. Exod 3:1-10).
Stephen omits entirely the series of objections raised by Moses when he is called (Exod 3:11-4:17); his portrayal of Moses is that of a person who is immediately obedient to the divine call. This sequence of call (7:30-34) and obedient response (7:36) repeats the pattern seen with Abraham (call, 7:2-3; obedient response, 7:4). It is replicated in the narrative of Acts, especially with regard to Saul (call, 9:15; obedient response, 9:19b-20).
Stephen tells of Moses being mocked by his kinsfolk, who could not conceive of him as ruler and judge (7:27,35; cf. Exod 2:14). Stephen affirms that he is rightly called ruler, infers that he is correctly regarded as judge, and adds the further title of liberator (7:35). The functions of two of these titles are attributed to Jesus (judgement at 10:42; 17:31; liberation at Luke 1:68; 2:38; 21:28; 24:21). The third function, of leader, is not directly attributed to Jesus by Luke; however, he does use the related term archegos at 3:15; 5:31.
A further title applied to Moses is the scriptural one of prophet (7:37; cf. Deut 18:15), which has also been applied to Jesus (Luke 7:16; 9:8,19; 24:19) as well as to numerous individuals in the narrative of the Gospel (Luke 1:67,76; 2:36; 7:26) and Acts (11:27; 15:32; 21:9). That it is a divinely-bestowed function is already evident from Peter’s Pentecost speech: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (2:17-18).
Stephen’s depiction of Moses thus resonates strongly with the Lukan understanding of Jesus, the prophet, ruler and judge through whom God was at work enabling signs and wonders and bringing liberation and salvation for the people of Israel.
As prophet, Moses is given living oracles by yet another angel (7:38; see 7:53; cf. Exod 19:1-2:21; Deut 5:1-33). The idea that the law was mediated by angels is not found in Hebrew Scripture; it is mentioned at Gal 3:17; Heb 2:2. Moses in turn passes on these oracles to Israel, but they refuse to accept them and commit idolatry by making a golden calf (7:39-43; cf. Exod 32:1-35). The description of the golden calf introduces the theme of idolatry which will undergird Stephen’s critique of the temple in 7:48-51. A prophetic citation (Amos 5:25-27) provides justification for God’s abandonment of Israel (7:42); they had been idolators in the wilderness (7:42-43).
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Stephen is an important figure in the narrative that is offered in the Book of Acts. He is the pivot on which the storyline shifts from “in Jerusalem” (chs. 1–7), beginning to turn “to the Gentiles” (chs. 8–12) and then on into the missionary activities of Paul and his companions (chs. 13 onwards). The early church recognised the significance of Stephen, declaring him to be a saint, and honouring him as the first Christian martyr.