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?

9 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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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).

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    • 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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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