Acts 7: 30 – 43 Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin – Part 3
‘After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.
‘Then the Lord said to him, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.”
This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, “Who made you ruler and judge?” He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.
‘This is the Moses who told the Israelites, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.” He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.
‘But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. They told Aaron, “Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt – we don’t know what has happened to him!” That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and revelled in what their own hands had made. But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:
‘ “Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings for forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel? You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.”
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Stephen had been seized and taken before the Sanhedrin, charged with preaching that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple and change the customs established by Moses. In the first part of his defence, he summarised the story of Abraham and his descendants as far as the patriarchs, to show he was preaching an orthodox faith. In the second part of his speech, he spoke about Moses’ early life. Again, he’s orthodox in what he says. However, he slants his account to emphasise that although Moses was sent by God, the Israelites rejected him.
In today’s passage, the emphasis of Stephen’s speech changes; the focus moves from showing the orthodoxy of his preaching to an indictment of the Israelites. At present, he confines the indictment to the Israelites of Moses’ day, but the direction in which he is moving is clear.
He starts by telling how God used a burning bush to attract Moses’ attention before commissioning him to return from Midian to Egypt to deliver the Israelites from slavery. “He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush.”
This is orthodox. In Exodus, one of the books of the Jewish scriptures, it says this:
“And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3: 9 – 10)
Stephen then very concisely covers the successful departure of the Israelites from Egypt. He notes particularly that Moses performed wonders and signs in Egypt, in the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness. God validated his anointing of Moses by working miracles through him. The parallel with Jesus is only implicit at this point, so Stephen moves to make it explicit.
‘This is the Moses who told the Israelites, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.”
In Deuteronomy, another of the books of the Jewish scriptures, it says this:
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.” (Deuteronomy 18: 15)
The early church viewed this prophecy made by Moses as referring to Jesus. Jesus was the ‘prophet like Moses’, and his ministry had also been validated by God with signs and wonders.
Stephen now speaks of a shameful episode in the life of Israel.
God had anointed Moses as leader of the Israelites, and he had saved them from slavery in Egypt. Once, when he was absent for a period, the Israelites used gold from their jewellery and ornaments to make an idol in the form of a calf. Stephen says, “They brought sacrifices to it and revelled in what their own hands had made. But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars.”
Despite Moses’ anointing by God, despite the signs and wonders, the Israelites returned to idol worship.
This must have made uncomfortable listening for the Sanhedrin. They couldn’t argue with Stephen about the actions of the Israelites – it’s all there in their scriptures (Exodus 32: 1 – 35). Neither was Stephen a member of their elite; how dare he stand there lecturing them as though they were schoolboys!
And yet, if they had listened with hearts that were open to the truth, they could have heard the message that God was calling them to a higher service than that of Moses. What a missed opportunity!
Thank you for your gift of the Holy Spirit, who speaks to us about the truth. Please help me to listen with a mind open to understand and a heart open to obey.
In Jesus’ name, Amen