Acts 7 – Stephen’s Speech

Stephen is arrested for speaking out against the temple and the Law of Moses. While Luke is clear that these are false charges, it is possible that Stephen has preached something which could have been taken as “against the temple and the Law.” There is no indication in Acts that the anyone “spoke out against the Law” among the apostolic community, they continued to worship in the Temple and most likely keep all of the Works of the Law which were expected of them as Jews. Sometimes scholars have speculated that Stephen, as a Hellenistic Jew, was already starting to give up elements of the Law, as if he were a forerunner of Paul’s theology in Galatians. There is nothing here that would give that impression, except the false witnesses.

St Stephen Fra AngelicoTo speak out against the Temple was not an offense worthy of death. There were in fact many critics of the Temple in the first century, including the Qumran community which separated itself entirely from Temple worship on the grounds that the Temple used the wrong calendar and was therefore celebrating Passover on the wrong day! If Stephen did speak out against the Temple, he is no different than Jeremiah, who condemned the Temple, the priesthood, and the worshipers of not doing true worship (Jer 7, for example), and Jesus himself who called the Temple a “den of thieves”! In addition, there are a number of Second Temple period books which also condemn the priesthood as corrupt.

If the audience could agree with most of Stephen’s sermon, it is his conclusion that angers them so greatly. This generation is just as stiff-necked, therefore they are under the same judgment! (7:51-53) The conclusion to this sermon draws on themes found throughout the Hebrew Bible.

Resistance to the apostolic message represents resisting the Holy Spirit. The people are called stiff-necked. The word appears only here in the New Testament and it appears 8 times in the LXX, usually in the context of covenant unfaithfulness (Ex 33:3, 34:9 and Deut 9:6). To be “stiff-necked” means to be stubborn, obstinate, or rigid” (HALOT). They are also described as having “uncircumcised hearts.” This phrase is also associated with covenant unfaithfulness, see Jer 9:25, Lev 26:41, Jer 6:10, Ezek 44:7, 9. Stephen says that this generation has always resisted the Holy Spirit. “Resistance” is a rare word in both the New Testament and the LXX, appearing only here and Num 27:14, where it describes the rebellion of the people in the Wilderness of Zin.

Stephen accuses the present generation of the same hard-headed resistance to the word of God which was demonstrated by the worst of Israel’s kings. Those who persecuted the prophets would include Ahab and Jezebel in the northern kingdom, Manasseh in the south (who was reputed to have killed Isaiah and any other true prophet who challenged him), but also the temple authorities who persecuted Jeremiah. Jeremiah spoke against the Temple and was nearly killed, Jesus also challenged the Temple and was killed.

The most stinging part of this critique is that these prophets predicted the coming of the messiah and were silenced by the appointed authorities of the nation. Most likely the Sanhedrin would have agreed with Stephen on this point, the prior generations were corrupt – but not so the current administration. This generation has done the same to the Righteous One himself!

What other elements of Stephen’s speech resonate with the prophets of the Hebrew Bible?  Obviously he alludes to the Hebrew Bible extensively in the speech, but us he intentionally connecting his audience with the “wilderness generation”?  If so, what was the point of this allusion?

17 thoughts on “Acts 7 – Stephen’s Speech

  1. Stephen uses some amazing imagery in this passage as he goes through the story of Abraham and Moses. The people had to have know this story very well as it was a huge part of their history, so this sermon didn’t seem like anything new to them at first. The surprise comes at the end when Stephen equates them with the rebellious freshly liberated Israelites coming out of Egypt. This was a shock, because the people listening to this sermon believed that they had “arrived” spiritually. That they had overcome all the idols and sins of the past and were following God’s plan. But somewhere along the line, they actually started to worship the law itself, instead of God and his will. This was why they were so adamant about keeping the law so perfectly; because they unknowingly worshiped that instead of God. Stephen is then comparing them to a generation of people who would not listen to the will of God, a generation who did whatever they thought was right. The point of this was to say that they needed to give up this idol of the law that they have created and turn to God. i do not think that Stephen hates or even disagrees with the law. I think that he sees that the law is actually hindering their faith in God, and is becoming a stumbling block in their lives. This imagery put into place by Stephen is brilliant, and yet his analogy to the rebellious generation and calling out of this group was the leading cause to his death.

  2. As I wrote a few days ago, I am not sure that the story about Stephen is true as I believe that the Romans would not have allowed that execution. And if they found out about it, someone would have paid a severe price for an illegal execution. You said that you would explain all of that later. And also, Paul said that his FIRST visit to Jerusalem was three years after he experienced his calling from Jesus. Also, is there any other record of an execution by Jews after the Roman occupation? I haven’t heard or read of any. I do like Luke, but I think that he is a good historic-relgious-novel writer who loved to intrigue his audience (whom ever that was in the 1st or 2nd century) with some flights of fanciful story telling to prove a point he was trying to make. As a former priest once said on his radio show – “there is a lot of truth in the Bible but the Bible is not always truthful.” I am a Christian who is learning Hebrew and Greek in order to read all of these stories in their original languages.

  3. The stoning of Stephen was a turning point for the Jews during this time. Stephen was accused of speaking out against the temple and as so clearly stated by Professor Long this was not a large enough scale to be killed over. The idea that maybe he as a Hellenistic Jew was a forerunner of what Paul would preach later on after Acts 9 is a very interesting fact. I think it is interesting to note that Jesus called the Temple a den of thieves and was not immediately stoned after. I think Stephens speech was critical to help the Jews to become more bold and to have to go to all different parts of the country and spread out proclaiming Jesus. He becomes a Martyr for the people to get up and start sacrificing for Jesus. I would like to point out how when they are stoning Stephen he is filled with the Holy Spirit and the following happens: “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55-56) The fact that he sees the Son of Man standing next to God is something very interesting to make note of. I believe that Jesus is standing and not sitting next to His Father because He is so upset and appalled at the stiff-necked people who refuse to accept the Holy Spirit. The stoning of Stephen is a good place to see how the Holy Spirit has power and how we should be willing to do all for our Savior and Lord.

  4. Speaking out against the temple is something that is discouraged but nothing something to make a great deal about. When he spoke out, he not only was a strong and courageous man but he also made all his followers and fellow individuals to become strong in who God is and speak more courageously on what they want to speak up on. Stephen encouraged others to be the light and to hide the light of Christ. Yes, pain will come and there will be people who reject you because they reject Christ. Jesus has told us that there will be people who do not know us or hate us because they did not know us and they hated him. “The one who accepts Pau’s teaching must thereby confess that the resurrected Messiah in heaven is the one who defines sacred space” (Jipp 120).

    • Miranda, Good post. I agree, that speaking out against the temple is highly discouraged. To take it farther, it is near blasphemy because the temple is such a highly and holy reguarded place, it would be upsetting to anyone close to whoever speaks out against it. For those that don’t know whoever spoke against it, it would cause a riot and anger. Stephen was strong and didn’t hid the light of Jesus. It is said that many live in darkness and they will want to stay in the darkness (John 3:20). I think that is perfect example and Stephen is attempting to persuade the hearts of many toward the lifht.

  5. Stephen’s speech angered the temple workers, specifically the Sanhedrin, because he struck a nerve while speaking truth. He spends a lot of His time speaking about Moses and his life. The listeners seem to have no problem with this, but at the end of his speech they are aggravated. The problem arises when He calls them out for their rejection of the Holy Spirit. “Hi speech is operating typologically, or drawing patterns between Israel’s rejection of the prophet Moses and the current rejection of Jesus and the apostles” (Jipp 62). He shares how their ancestors rejected Moses, which the Sanhedrin know, but then tells them that they are the same. Acts 7:51 says, “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit.” He calls them out for being as blocked off to God’s moving as their ancestors were in the wilderness. As if that is not enough of a reason for them to feel offended, “Stephen accuses the present generation of the same hard-headed resistance to the word of God which was demonstrated by the worst of Israel’s kings” (Long). These temple leaders were men of pride, they held themselves in high regard. Hearing their own actions laid before them was enough to trigger them into rage. They killed Stephen because of his bold proclamations and that mirrors the events of both Jesus and Jeremiah who were also killed because of their testifying against the temple and its works (Long). Stephen was bold and fearless and spoke for the growth of the Kingdom despite the consequences. The Sanhedrin did not appreciate the truth because they were called stiff necked and compared to those who they were taught to despise throughout history. They considered themselves godly men, but clearly missed the opportunity to experience and accept the Spirit. This is the message that they so obviously missed within Stephen’s speech.

  6. The speech that Stephen gave angered many people including the Sanhedrin. I believe that this is because he was specifically calling them and others out for what they were doing and failing to do. He called them out for their rejection of the Holy Spirit. He compared them to their ancestors. Jipp states that, “His speech is operating typologically, or drawing patterns between Israel’s rejection of the prophet Moses and the current rejection of Jesus and the apostles” (Jipp, 62). He compared their actions to those of their ancestors that rejected the prophet Moses. This is seen in Acts 7:51. This is an especially hard thing for the temple workers to hear because they were proud people and they felt that they were right and following God. These proud people killed Stephen for what he was teaching and it reflected what happened to Jesus for his teachings (Long). Stephen did not let the possibility of upsetting people stop him from preaching the truth that God was leaving on his heart. He chose to be bold and follow God rather than fit in the ‘cool’ or normal crowd. He stood up for what he believed in even if it meant death.

  7. I think that Stephen absolutely takes shots at the Sanhedrin through referring to them as being of the same stiff-necked, hard-headedness as the Hebrews of the wilderness generation. Stephen reminds the Sanhedrin that those who were supposed to be following Moses continually were defying God and him and were constantly resisting the Spirit. Resistance is not used much in Scripture, but that is exactly what the Sanhedrin are doing here as they lie about and to Stephen simply because he is preaching about Jesus as Christ, and they disagree and cannot defeat the Spirit in an argument. Stephen explains that this generation he is speaking to are no different from those lost in the wilderness because they constantly went against God and were stubborn. Stephen says, “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— (7:51-52), and he wants the Sanhedrin to realize that they are simply just repeating history, in how they killed or pushed away many of God’s prophets who spoke of the coming Messiah, and then when Jesus finally did come they killed him too! It is a similar parallel to Peter’s speech in Acts 2, “and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” Both take direct shots at the Sanhedrin who turned over and murdered Jesus, and Stephen, being the setting and topic of his sermon, was stoned as a result of his direct condemnation and convictions that he was targeting the Sanhedrin with.

  8. It is very noticeable when reading through Acts 7 that Stephen is indeed relating the people of his time to the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness. Stephen goes through the genealogy of Moses in chapter 7 and one interesting aspect that he points out is that the life of Moses loosely mirrors the role of Jesus. In verse 25, he speaks of how the Israelites did not understand that he was trying to rescue them through killing the Egyptian (Exudos 2:11-15) and he was rejected by his people just as Jesus had been. Verse 30 speaks of a 40-year period where stayed in the wilderness resembling Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness. He even mentions in verse 37 that there will be another prophet to come that would be like him. Polhill mentions that the role of Moses as God’s unexpected source of salvation for his people is also parallel to the unexpected salvation through Jesus (2094). Stephen’s emphasis on Moses as the one who had delivered Israel is important because, as keepers of the law, the High Priest and Sadducees only studied the Pentateuch. It would not matter if Stephen had mentioned the other prophets because the leaders would have not paid any attention to the mention of someone outside of the scriptures that they studied. Thus, the allusion that Stephen creates around the wilderness is for the purpose of the leaders both acknowledging and comprehending what he was actually trying to say about Jesus. If Moses was the only true prophet to them, then he had to speak his message in their territory.

  9. It is interesting to read about this viewpoint of Stephen’s speech. In some ways it makes sense, from their point of view, that Stephen could be seen as a heretic and sharing false teachings in the synagogue. For instance, if someone today were to come into my church and say that everyone was “stiff-necked”, unfaithful, and resisting the Spirit, they may be asked or told to leave. Often times individuals feel embarrassed when they are called out on what they are doing incorrectly, and it was most likely no different for Stephen’s audience. Stephen does allow is speech to have an incredible about of credibility as he alludes to the Old Testament and “people of God” time and time again. In considering what other Old Testament references Stephen could have made to defend himself and his point of the allusions made, and prophesies fulfilled by Christ, there are many individuals that Stephen could have used as examples. For example, God used the judges such as Gideon, Deborah, and Samson to guide and teach His people to return back to Him and be faithful (Judges 4-7, 13-16). There is entire book of the Bible, along with other Old Testament books, that tell over and over again about the Israelite people not trusting God and being faithful to His commands and God needing to save them from destruction and captivity. God uses His prophet Hosea, to show quite literally how unfaithful the people are to him through the metaphor of Hosea’s unfaithful wife(Hosea 9).

  10. Stephen speaks towards the audience as “stiff-necked,” and it is true that throughout the Hebrew Bible, there are multiple generations that turn crooked and wicked. Whether it is acting in ignorance, or knowingly bowing to idols, humanity is consumed with a wilderness generation. Stephen highlights people like Moses, David, Joshua, and Abraham as examples of being fully devoted to the Lord. Each of these people in the Bible led people who were fully committed to the Lord and encountered great pushback as well.
    Stephen mainly emphasizes Moses, and how Israel did reject him, but yet God did miracles and signs through him (Polhill, p. 2094). Polhill makes the point that in the wilderness God gave the directions for the tabernacle (Polhill, p. 2095). Despite a wilderness generation then, and a wilderness generation today, God uses the wilderness to shed light to His desire to use His people, no matter what.
    It is interesting how each prophet or major leader in the Bible experienced pushback and a rebellious group, yet this is when the Lord moved greatly. There is always a remnant that He rises up on behalf of those falling astray. We see this today, even within the church, of hearts that are cold towards God, and how they must be softened and turned to repentance. Though Stephen’s speech was for the people in Acts, it is definitely relevant to culture today!

  11. There is a lot to unpack from Stephen’s speech in Acts 7. I agree that the people probably agreed with Stephen on a lot of what he said during his speech, since he talked about things that have already happened for a majority of the time. At the end of his speech in Acts 7:51-53, when he calls the people “stiff-necked”, I think he started to get the people angry with him. I understand why the people would be angry since they do not want to think of themselves or have other people think of them like that. I think that it was smart of Stephen to base his speech around Scripture for a variety of reasons. First off, I think that it shows his knowledge of the Bible and proves to people that he is credible. The high priest may have believed him, but did not like what he said, or maybe he did not believe what Stephen was saying about the people. Regardless, the readers of the Bible today are able to see that Stephen knew what he was talking about. Stephen also mentions that the people have “uncircumcised hearts and ears” in Acts 7:51. I can see why this comment would cause anger because of the covenant that God gives in Genesis 17:9-14. If these people tried to follow the Law, then this may have been something that they did not want to be accused of. Stephen did many amazing things for the people even though some were against his what he said.

  12. Looking at Stephen’s speech, his chronology seems to describe events in more detail leading up to the crafting of the tabernacle, then it suddenly connects quickly to the Temple, and judging the Sanhedrin as stiff-necked people. Perhaps, this is indeed an indication of Stephen focusing more on Israel’s early history. By making this connection, Stephen straight out affirms that throughout Israel’s history, Israel remained just as bad in their stubborn, unfaithful ways up to the present generation Stephen was preaching to. They expressed more zeal to their image by following the letter of the law and to things like the physical Temple. Stephen simply shows that they are missing the point. They have become a numerous nation, they have possessed the land, but they barely ever fulfilled their mission of blessing the whole Earth as a priestly nation (Exodus 19:6). Stephen also highlights that they “always resist the Holy Spirit” (v. 51) and it is possible to assert that Israel reject a trinitarian intervention from God. They rejected God as king (1 Samuel 8:7) and killed His prophets, Jesus as Messiah and killed Him (Acts 7:52), and rejected the apostles’ witness and the manifestations of the Holy Spirit. God, in His three persons, reaches out to Israel and is rejected. Ultimately, Stephen proclaims what every other prophet proclaims over Israel after their stubbornness, that Jesus is standing in judgment at the right hand of God.

  13. Looking into Stephens speech, I put myself in the people who he calls “stiff-necked”. I also think about people nowadays how they say, as Christians, when we speak it needs to be out of love. First being the people who he calls stiffed necked I feel like that is an insult. Maybe that will cuts to peoples heart and maybe it is the reason people started to turn hostile. After his speech they were outraged. it says in Verse 54 that they ground their teeth at him. Myself as a Christian I think about some kid trying to tell me that i am uncircumcised and stiff-necked … I would be pretty outraged too. We see that God opens up heaven for Stephen to see him and Jesus welcoming him in. I believe that Stephen’s heart was in the right place and his words were caring even though they came across as offensive and hurtful. He wants them to turn from their evil ways of their past and turn to Jesus. People today do not want to offend people or hurt them with their words but when it is done out of love from your heart God wants that. We are not perfect and the words we say can never be perfect. But showing that we care is all that God wants.

  14. Stephen’s speech is one of the most profound speeches in all of scripture. Up until this point in scripture, we have had many people post the life of Jesus proclaiming his name and assisting in bringing people to salvation. But it really was not until Stephen that we saw someone brutally suffer for following Christ. As we know, he became the first martyr for Christ’s cause. Sometimes I wonder, how could be killed for telling the truth? But once you quickly observe the context of the world he lived in, the odds were stacked against him. The Sanhedrin and other religious people of the time thought they could do no wrong, and when Stephen called them out on their wrongdoings and sin patterns they couldn’t stand to listen to him, even though what Stephen was saying was the truth- even going as far to compare them to the previous wandering Hebrew generation. He reminds me so much of Peter when he reminds the Israelites that the blood of Jesus is on their hands and that they as a people group are responsible for his death. Perhaps a central theme throughout these seven chapters of Acts is the true followers of Jesus continually reminding the Israelites of their responsibility in the death of Christ.

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