#17 (Acts 7:1-60) A Message to the Stiff Necked

Its time to move on with our studies in Acts. Our last study saw Stephen being dragged before the Sanhedrin Council. The false witnesses give their accusations, then something odd happens. As Stephen stands there calmly, it says, "Fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel." (One ancient translation has, 'like the face of God.')

What Stephen was on the inside, was shining through his face. This is what the Lord wishes the world to see in His people. But the story of Stephen doesn't end with his angelic appearance. What he is about to share is going to cause a fire storm in Jerusalem. Stephen's message will become the catalyst for the first general persecution of the Church. It begins in Jerusalem.

In this study we will see how the Lord calls the leaders in Israel to account for their deeds. Stephen will speak a 'divine' oracle. Keep in view the promise made by Jesus; "But when they hand you over, do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say. For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you." (Cf. Matt10:19,20)

This is Acts Study #17 (Acts 7:1-60) A Message to the Stiff Necked.

I will comment but little on Scripture portions where Stephen is simply laying out parts of the history of the Hebrew peoples. But you may wish to read those portions in your Bible.

Vs1: "The high priest said, "Are these things so?"

The point of the charge is blasphemy. Stephen is being accused of preaching against the temple and the Law of Moses, and that Jesus Himself was going to both destroy the temple, and alter the customs handed down by Moses. Note that 'false witnesses' have been hired to make these accusations. Of course the accusations are intertwined with truth and lies. Not one apostle ever spoke against Moses. They spoke in agreement with Moses and the prophets.

As for the temple, yes, Jesus said that it would be destroyed. This probably came out in Stephen's debate with the Hellenist Jews. But there another point that may not be apparent to the reader. The statement that Jesus was going to 'alter the customs handed down by Moses' is a reference to the oral torah, not to the Law of Moses. The oral torah was also known as 'the traditions of the elders.'

Special note: We will look at the Oral Torah at different points in our studies. What will be seen is that the intense hatred by the traditional Jewish leadership against the Jewish Christians, and against Jesus Himself, did not cease at the destruction of the temple in 70 a.d. That same hatred spills over into some the writings that make up the Talmuds.

Let's continue ....

Vs2: "And he said, 'Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran...'"

.... Stephen addresses the Council with respect, and as a fellow Hebrew. He is establishing rapport with his listeners. This is very important because later in his address, Stephen will bring charges against the leadership of Israel.

Vss3-36: In these verses, Stephen lays out the history of the Hebrew people from Abraham to a particular point in the life of Moses. Since these verses are historical, I won't comment on them. You may wish to read these for yourself.

The Prophet

Vs37: "This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, 'God will raise up for you a prophet like me from our brethren.'"

.... This is where Stephen begins to bring it home. In Jewish tradition a figure known as 'the Prophet' was to be a major player in events concerning Messiah. Some connected the Prophet directly with Messiah. Others thought he would be Elijah or someone else.

As for being a prophet, many of the Jews believed Jesus was a prophet. Some even saw Him as 'the' Prophet. And many others accepted Him fully as Messiah of Israel, in that the Prophet and the Messiah were the same person.

Consider these Scriptures:

"They asked him, 'What then? Are you Elijah?' And he said, 'I am not.' 'Are you the Prophet?' And he answered, 'No.'" (John 1:21)

"And the crowds were saying, 'This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.'" (Matt21:11)

"Therefore when the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, 'This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.'" (John 6:14)

"Some of the people therefore, when they heard these words, were saying, 'This certainly is the Prophet.'" (John 7:40)

Now listen to what the Lord said to Moses; "I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. It shall come about that whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him." (Deu18:18,19)

The point at hand is that as Stephen quotes from Deuteronomy, he is making Jesus both the Messiah, and the Prophet. But Stephen has another emphasis in view. He is expressing that the 'Prophet' was not only to be 'like' Moses, but His authority would exceed the authority of Moses. Stephen plainly is fixing the authority of Jesus.

The Angel of the Presence

Vs38,39: "This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you. Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt..."

.... Where Stephen says, "This is the one", he is referring to Moses. The ancients believed that the covenant of Moses was given through angels. But there was one angel in particular called 'the Angel of the Presence,' that communed with Moses in the giving of the Law. Early Christians viewed this Angel as the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ, that is, God revealed in angelic form.

Consider what the Lord said to Moses: "Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him." (Exo23:20,21)

When Moses blessed Israel before his death, he said, "The LORD came from Sinai, and dawned on them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran, and He came from the midst of ten thousand holy ones [angels]; at His right hand there was flashing lightning for them." (Deu33:2)

.... Stephen continues to build his case; "Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him [that is, Moses and in turn the Lord], but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt..."

It appears that Stephen is making a case in that the Jews were just as much sinners in their hearts as were all peoples of the earth. Of course this would never set well with the self-righteous. But Moses himself called the Israelites a "perverse and crooked generation." (Cf. Deut. 32:5)

Next Stephen goes through a succession of disobedient factors of the Hebrew peoples.

Idolatry, An Issue of the Heart


Vss40-43: "...saying to Aaron, 'Make for us gods who will go before us; for this Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt -- We do not know what happened to Him.' At that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, 'It was not to Me that you offered victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, O house of Israel. You also took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the God Rompha, the  images which you made to worship. I also will remove you beyond Babylon.'"

..... Stephen skips across Israel's history to show just how idolatrous they had been as a people, and how rebellious they were to the God of Abraham. Again keep in mind that Stephen is speaking by divine oracle, therefore, it is the Lord God Himself who is calling the Council into account.

Note: Did you know that when Israel came out of Egypt, they actually brought their idols with them? Stephen is quoting Amos the prophet. God spoke through Amos, saying, "'Did you present Me with sacrifices and grain offerings in the wilderness for forty years, O house of Israel? You also carried along Sikkuth your king and Kiyyun, your images, the star of your gods which you made for yourselves. Therefore, I will make you go into exile beyond Damascus,' says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts.'" (Amos 5:25-26)

..... Something to ponder --- Is it possible for a Christian to hold to a form of idolatry and not be truly conscious of it? Perhaps. How about when a religious institution becomes 'lord' of our life? Remember that it was institutionalized religion that crucified Jesus. It was institutionalized religion that persecuted the early believers. It was institutionalized religion that destroyed so many Jews through the centuries. Institutionalized religion has been responsible for more Christian martyrs than any other single source. Think about it.

..... What do you suppose Jesus meant, when He said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm."? (John 18:36)

More History

Let's continue on ....

Vss44-46: Stephen highlights Israel's history through Joshua on to Solomon.

Vss47-50: "But it was Solomon who built a house for Him. However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says: 'Heaven is My throne, and the earth is the footstool of My feet; what kind of house will you build for Me?' says the Lord, 'Or what place is there for my repose? Was it not my hand which made all these things?'"

.... There is a sense in which the Jews had become temple worshippers. Stephen knew this. His point was that God doesn't dwell in temples made with hands. Do we need to learn this lesson?

.... Actually the holiest of holies had been crucified on the cross. The apostle said, "For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form." (Col2:10)

.... Holiness begins with Jesus and is transmitted to us through His precious blood. This is why believers are called 'holy ones.' (Saints.)

Stiff Necked Resistance

Now comes the charge. I need to press the point that it is the Holy Spirit who is speaking through Stephen. The charge is coming from God Himself.

Vs51-53: "You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it."

.... Who is this group that God calls 'stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart?' Who is this group that God further charges with being betrayers and murderers of the Righteous One, and of having persecuted the prophets, and on top of all, while they claimed to be keepers of the Law, but were actually perverters of the Law. (Oral traditions, etc.)

Keep in mind that already many thousands of Jews have received Jesus Christ.

This is the very same people group that John the Baptist called a 'brood of vipers.' The Lord called them 'a wicked generation,' and instructed the disciples to beware of their teachings. (Cf. Matt3:7; 16:11; Luke 11:29)

This characteristic of being 'stiff necked' was often used in Scripture to describe those in Israel who refused to bend to the will of God. They did not love God, nor did they care for His commandments. When Stephen says that their fathers 'always resisted the Holy Spirit' this was a reference to the prophets of old. Their fathers killed the prophets, and now their hatred was fixed on the apostles.

The prophet Isaiah makes an interesting comment about this group. The Lord said, "In all their affliction He was afflicted, And the angel of His presence saved them; In His love and in His mercy He redeemed them, And He lifted them and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled And grieved His Holy Spirit; Therefore He turned Himself to become their enemy, He fought against them." (Isaiah 63:10,11)

Is it possible for a believer to grieve the Holy Spirit today?

Truth Pierces the Heart

Vs54: " Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him."

.... The Greek language here expresses the strongest of anger, to the extent that the grinding of their teeth could be physically heard. It is likely that Stephen knew his end was near. But the anointing of the Lord was flowing so strongly through him, that He cared for nothing else but that the Lord be glorified.

This is what the Spirit-filled life is really about. The Psalmist said it well enough; "Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to Your name give glory Because of Your lovingkindness, because of Your truth." (Psalm 115:1)

Vs55,56: "But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, 'Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.'"

.... It is interesting to see that Jesus is standing. It is as though Jesus stands to receive the first Christian martyr. It all other places where it describes Jesus and the throne of God, the Lord is seated. But here,  before the stoning ever begins, Stephen is experiencing the throne. It  doesn't say that Stephen heard anything. But perhaps he did. If so,  could it have been, "Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit  the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." (Matt25:34)

.... Everything Stephen says is couched in Hebraic thought form. His Jewish audience would have understood this scene much better than many of us today. Stephen is describing God's Messiah standing in the hakavod (the glory) of God. This is another way of saying 'the right hand of power,' which was a Messianic expression.

Vss57-59: "But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!'"

.... Covering their ears was a way of declaring Stephen guilty of blasphemy. But something else is in view here. The penetrating judgment of God has fallen on them. His Word has afflicted them in the deepest of their hearts. They want it to stop. Their rage becomes uncontrollable.

.... "They rushed at him with one impulse." Can you even imagine such a thing? This is supposed to be a court of justice, with men of integrity and wisdom, whose leanings are supposed to be towards grace and compassion.

.... Stoning was the fate for blasphemy. We may find it interesting that Gamaliel says nothing during these proceedings. Was he there? Perhaps. It may be that Gamaliel saw when everything was out of control, to raise his voice would have been only increased the fury.

A Young Man Standing By

.... Now take special note that there is a certain young man standing by, who, while he doesn't participate in the stoning, was recognized by the stoning group as someone of authority. They lay their robes at his feet. This man Saul is a disciple of Gamaliel, and was well known by the Council, and probably by many in the group itself.

Of course we know who this man was. He was to become the great apostle Paul. And this stoning incident will become a major issue the Lord will use to deal with Saul's heart. Paul would never forget the stoning of Stephen.

Vss58-60: "When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!' Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them!' Having said this, he fell asleep."

.... Notice that Stephen has two final statements to make. He speaks directly to Jesus and asks the Lord to receive his spirit. But in his final breath is a prayer, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" How so  like Jesus is this Stephen.

What can we learn from the man Stephen? For one thing Stephen shows the power of spiritual life that belongs to of a true disciple of Jesus Christ. When Jesus said that the disciples would be His witnesses, Stephen is a wonderful example.

Being a witness isn't simply in our words. It has to do with what we have become. Stephen's life had been transformed through his Messiah. This is the life that God offers us through His Son, Jesus.

Think about the it. The study is open.

Previous: #16 (Acts 6:8-15) The Face of an Angel
#18 (Acts 8:1-24) Persecution, Scattering, and Philip

This study on Acts was originally part of a series on the book of Acts given to members of Hebraic Foundations from July 10, 2002 through January 19, 2003. They were written by Pastor Buddy Martin, Founder and Senior Pastor of Christian Challenge International.

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