38 He is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors. He received living oracles to give to us. 39 Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him, but pushed him away, and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron: Make us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we don’t know what’s happened to him. 41 They even made a calf in those days, offered sacrifice to the idol, and were celebrating what their hands had made. 42 Then God turned away and gave them up to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: House of Israel, did you bring Me offerings and sacrifices 40 years in the wilderness? 43 No, you took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship. So I will deport you beyond Babylon!
44 “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the testimony in the wilderness, just as He who spoke to Moses commanded him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Our ancestors in turn received it and with Joshua brought it in when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers, until the days of David. 46 He found favor in God’s sight and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built Him a house. 48 However, the Most High does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands, as the prophet says: 49 Heaven is My throne, and earth My footstool. What sort of house will you build for Me? says the Lord, or what is My resting place? 50 Did not My hand make all these things?
51 “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit; as your ancestors did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They even killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. 53 You received the law under the direction of angels and yet have not kept it.” 54 When they heard these things, they were enraged in their hearts and gnashed their teeth at him.
55 But Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God’s glory, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, 56 “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 Then they screamed at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and together rushed against him. 58 They threw him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They were stoning Stephen as he called out: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin!” And saying this, he fell asleep.
1 Saul agreed with putting him to death. On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman CSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.
“You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit; as your ancestors did, so do you.”
Here we are, during the great beginning of the church. Stephen, the Lord’s first martyr (or witness) is killed for proclaiming Christ. His response takes up the whole of chapter 7, so we might peek at a few verses before our selected reading to get the meaning of it.
A few years had passed since Pentecost by the time we get to Stephen. In chapter 5, we read, “Many signs and wonders were being done among the people through the hands of the apostles” (verse12).
In our readings, Stephen is arrested. For what? Earlier verses record that “the preaching about God flourished, the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly” and “Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people” (6:7-8).
Well, these two things irritated members of an established synagogue in the area. They were further irritated because “they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking” (6:10). So of course, they instigated a mob and dragged Stephen before the high priest.
Accusing him of stating that Jesus of Nazareth will change the customs that Moses delivered to them and destroy the temple (6:14), Stephen was asked to respond to the charges. And boy did he.
Stephen begins with what seems to be a recounting of Jewish history, but look at what he is saying to these religious leaders. He begins with Abraham being given the promise that God would give the land to his offspring, not to him (7:2).
God was future-minded. He then notes how “our fathers” the Jewish Patriarchs, cruelly treated God’s anointed, Joseph, and how God through Joseph saved them from famine and relocated them to Egypt.
He then goes into the coming of Moses. Track with Stephen, now. He states that Moses on a visit to the Israelites “saw one of them being mistreated."
He came to his rescue and avenged the oppressed man by striking down the Egyptian. He assumed his brothers would understand that God would give them deliverance through him, but they did not understand.
The next day he showed up while they were fighting and tried to reconcile them peacefully, saying, "Men, you are brothers. Why are you mistreating each other?" But the one who was mistreating his neighbor pushed him away, saying: Who appointed you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me, the same way you killed the Egyptian yesterday? (7:24-28, emphasis added).
Stephen is building his case.
Getting to our selected verses, he goes through the call of Moses at the burning bush and the compassion of God on the affliction of His people, ending with “And now come. I will send you to Egypt.” Imagine Stephen’s finger in the air, his voice raised, his eyes set as he continues now:
This Moses—whom they rejected when they said, “Who appointed you a ruler and a judge?”— God sent as a ruler and a redeemer by means of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. This man led them out and performed wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness 40 years.
This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among your brothers. He is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors. He received living oracles to give to us. Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him, but pushed him away, and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. (7:35-39, emphasis added)
See how twice he mentions they pushed Moses away? He states “our fathers” over and over in recording their rebellion against God and God’s anointed and ties these current instigators in with those defiant and rebellious in their history.
He does it again in verses 44 and 45, stating that “our fathers” had the same tent of meeting that Moses had up until David and Solomon about 500 years later. Yet still, with God going with them in the tabernacle, and blessing the temple with His presence, they chose to worship the gods of the nations around them and the “host of heaven.”
In contemporary terms, we might say they went to church every Sunday but lived like the world around them and valued the things of the world above the God who provided for them.
Stephen reminds them that God cast their fathers into exile for it, quoting from Amos. He also quotes from Isaiah (writing around 700 years before!) where God declares that heaven is His throne and not a man-made structure, implying no structure would be suitable for nor could contain the Creator of all things.
Later in verses 51-53 Stephen concludes, “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit; as your ancestors did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They even killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. You received the law under the direction of angels and yet have not kept it.”
Bam! Moses was part of God’s unfolding redemptive plan culminating in the sending of His Son, Jesus Christ to reconcile even the whole world to Himself. They rebelled then, and they rebel now. They “pushed him aside” then and they do it now. Stiff-necked then, stiff-necked now.
Those accusers could not see that Jesus was talking about His own body when mentioning “the temple” and if destroyed He would rebuild it in three days. Driven by fear and white-knuckled protection of their traditions, they missed the Messiah and were blind to God’s work in their time.
Let’s be clear: they killed Stephen for saying this. But they killed Jesus too (though He went willingly to die for them), who said to the people regarding the teachers of the law, “Don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them. But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You lock up the kingdom of heaven from people. For you don’t go in, and you don’t allow those entering to go in” (Matthew 23:2-4,13).
Slavish tradition and accepted hypocrisy are the hallmarks of rebellion against God. Are such things evident in our lives? Call them out! But be assured, action must follow.
Is the gospel being perverted and the kingdom of heaven being locked to people in our churches and institutions? We must call it out in the Spirit of Christ with redemption and reconciliation with God as the goal. It might not be easy, but it is right to defend the truth.
- How do I defend the truth of Christ in how I live my daily life?
- Are there some things in my life that look more like hypocrisy than holiness, man-made tradition than Christ-centered living?
- What if I’m alone in standing for the truth of Christ’s gospel and for the existence of God? Do I know Him well? Will I stand for Him whom I know to be my Savior and God?