I wrote out the following observations that I gathered from reading Stephen’s speech in Acts 7.2-54:
In 6.8-15 the deacon Stephen is arrested for preaching Christ publically. What Luke records in 7.1-53 is Stephen’s final speech before his fellow Jews killed him. Most of the sermon focuses on three major characters: Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. Other figures from Israel’s history play a minor role: Isaac, Jacob, Aaron, David, and Solomon.
Abraham is presented as the father of the nation. Stephen begins by recalling Abraham’s encounter with God “when he was in Mesopotamia (v. 2)” and ending with the “covenant of circumcision” and the birth of Isaac, Jacob, and the “twelve patriarchs (v. 9).” The Abraham story surrounds the promise of a decedent (vv. 5-8).
Joseph is the central figure in the next section (vv. 9-16). This follows the flow of the Book of Genesis, which moves Abraham, to Isaac and Jacob, to Jacob’s sons with Joseph being the main character. As with Abraham this section gives special attention to a geographic transition. Abraham went from Mesopotamia to the land of promise. Jacob and his sons leave that land for Egypt because of the famine mentioned in Genesis. Joseph’s role is the same as the original story: he suffers rejection by his brothers in order for God to place him second in authority to Pharaoh so that when the famine arrives the descendants of Abraham will survive.
In vv. 17-44 Moses becomes the main figure. Again, there is geographic movement. Moses is going to be the figure that helps Abraham’s descendants return to the land of promise now that their time in Israel has resulted in enslavement under a new Pharaoh. Stephen follows the outline of the Book of Exodus (with some expansion) moving from the increase of Israel’s population and their enslavement, to Moses’ training in Egypt, to Moses’ murder of the Egyptian who was abusing his fellow Israelite, through his years in the wilderness, his encounter with God at the burning bush, and so on.
The Joseph story is tied together with the Moses story in vv. 26-29. Earlier in v. 9 Stephen says that the Patriarchs were “jealous of Joseph.” This is why they sold him into slavery. Now Moses is depicted as being a similar outcast. When he seeks to bring reconciliation to two Israelites one asks Moses if he plans to do to him what he did to the Egyptian (i.e., kill him). Moses realizes he has been exposed and he flees for one third of his life to the wilderness before God makes him into a deliverer.
Moses’ story is tied together with Abraham’s in vv. 30-34. Abraham and Moses both experience God choosing them, intervening in history in a unique, revelatory fashion. In some sense Moses’s life is a replay of Abraham’s and Joseph’s. Moses will become the “ruler and liberator” of Israel (v. 35) in a way similar to how Joseph’s dreams about ruling over his brothers and parents (Gen. 37.1-10) were fulfilled when he became second to Pharaoh.
The narrative shifts to Stephen reminding his fellow Jews of the idolatry to the Exodus generation when they made a golden calf idol (vv. 39-43). Then he reminds them that God gave them a tabernacle that lasted from Moses, through Joshua, to the time of David who wanted to build God a temple (vv. 44-46). David does not build the temple, but his son Solomon does (v. 47).
It seems that Stephen has a low-view of the temple. He describes it in the same way that idol making is described in places like Matthew 14.38; Acts 17.24; Ephesians 2.11; Hebrews 9.11, 24: “made with human hands (χειροποιήτοις).” Obviously the most relevant of those references would be Acts 17.24 since it is the same author and he has Paul describing the Athenian idols as χειροποιήτοις. Stephen makes his critique more obvious quoting Isaiah 66.1-2 where God’s temple is the cosmos. Heaven is God’s throne, the earth his footstool, what kind of the building can be created for the Creator?
At this juncture the speech turns polemic. One reason for Stephen’s arrest was that he was speaking against the “holy place” and the “law (6.13).” Luke says that it was “false witnesses” who accused Stephen, but we can see from the remainder of the speech why Stephen’s fellow Jews felt that he was doing this. Stephen calls the people “stubborn” saying that they have “uncircumcised hearts (7.51).” This is an allusion to Deuteronomy 30.6 where Moses says God will circumcise the hearts of the people. Stephen tells his audience that this has not happened to them. It is possible that this echoes Jeremiah 24.7 as well. God promised to give Israel new hearts in the new covenant. Stephen does seem to believe that some Jews have entered this new covenant and they have had their heart circumcised. These Jews would be those who confess Jesus as Messiah. The rest are the target of Stephen’s criticisms.
Stephen says that these Jews resist the Holy Spirit like their ancestors (v. 51). Those ancestors would be the patriarchs who rejected Joseph, the Israelites who rejected Moses and had Aaron created a idol for them, and Solomon’s generation who thought they could contain God in their temple. Now Stephen reminds them that this temple is no different. They persecute the prophets like those older generations (v. 52). Even worse, they killed the ultimate spokesperson of God: “the Righteous One” who is Jesus the Messiah (v. 52). Finally, Stephen reminds them of the tradition that angels mediated the Law of Moses between God and Israel and yet they could not obey this law given by angels (v. 53). It appears that the Jews who killed Stephen interpreted his language regarding God being greater than the temple and angels as mediators of the Law of Moses as speaking against the holy place and the law.
What are the important “points” made in this Lukan history of Israel through the voice of Stephen? First, Israel has been rebellious idolaters from the beginning. Second, Israel rejects their great rulers and prophets. Third, God continues to bring Israel these ruler and prophets and God continues to govern Israel’s destiny even as they fail to cooperate. For Luke Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Messiah is not something new. They have failed to follow the plan of God from the beginning. That they would ignore God’s Messiah in favor of the current temple is similar to ignoring YHWHs appearance on Sinai for a golden calf idol. Likewise, the rejection of Joseph and Moses foreshadows the rejection of Jesus. Like Joseph and Moses Jesus has been vindicated before his Jewish siblings. In 7.56 Stephen sees Jesus as the Daniel 7 Son of Man ruling with God in heaven. This is a far superior rule to that of Joseph and Moses.