Acts 7:1-60 Covenantal Transition And The Reign Of The Son.
Stephen preached that Jesus would destroy the temple and change the customs associated with it. This is what he was charged with, and the high priest asked Stephen if this was true (v. 1a). If we lose sight of this key point, then we will lose the significance of the context and substance of Stephen’s defence before the council. It is also important to note that at this point Stephen still wants to regard them as fellow members of the one covenant, for he calls them “brethren and fathers” (v. 1b). It is also important to note how Stephen starts his address-referring to God as “the God of Glory” (v. 1c). Even as he stood in the presence of the human council, he recognized a much more important council-that of the Glory-Presence. His hearers would well remember how God had appeared to their forefathers in the Glory-Presence of both the tabernacle and the temple, and this was fitting for his message concerning the end of the physical temple and the change of customs associated with it. God had come down to earth in His Glory-Presence now in the Son.
Stephen starts his account of salvation history by reminding his hearers that God appeared to Abraham when he was a foreigner both to God and to the land he would later promise to him (v. 2). God then called him to leave his relatives and journey to the place which He had chosen (v. 3). From Mesopotamia he journeyed to Haran, and when his fathered had died he then moved on to the land of promise, in which Stephen and his audience then lived (v. 4). At that time Abraham had no inheritance, but as Stephen pointed out, everything came to Abraham by way of promise, including a seed and a land (v. 5). However, before his seed could inherit the land that was promised, they would be in bondage to foreigners for 400 years (v. 6). However, after these years had passed, God would deliver them into the land which he had promised to Abraham and his descendants (v. 7). It was then, only after appearing to Abraham and speaking of the promise of a seed and to that seed a land, that God then made a covenant with him, so that the covenant in effect sealed the promise made, and the sign and seal of this covenant was circumcision (v. 8).
The covenant with Abraham sealed the promise of a seed. Stephen could have gone back to Genesis for this very same truth, for the covenant with Abraham was an echo of that first administration of the covenant of grace which the Lord had given. After the fall there was given the promise of a seed who would crush the evil one, and enable redeemed man to fulfill the dominion mandate which God had given to be His image bearer in the earth (Gen. 2:4-3). Moving on through Noah and coming then to Abraham, these covenants of promise would find increasing levels of development. However, one thing is clear, from the Adamic covenant on through the Noahic, both the godly seed and their fulfilling of the creation and cultural mandate were both equally in view. God had a promised seed for the very same reason that He created man in the first place-to have a God-fearing humanity to be His image bearers subduing the whole earth to Himself. The godly seed and the whole earth together are conceived in the covenant relationship. Stephen then moved on to the patriarchs through whom the LORD would eventually begin to fulfill the promise of a specific plot of land.
It is no coincidence that he looks to Joseph and how he was abandoned by his brothers because they were envious of God’s favour upon him, and how in that favour God delivered him and made him a ruler in Egypt (vv. 9-10). It was then through the intervention of Joseph that the fathers experienced a foretaste of deliverance, but at the same time a beginning to their years of bondage. However, Joseph and the patriarchs would one day have their bones rest with Abraham’s in Shechem, thereby proclaiming their faith in the promise (v. 16). Stephen then continues to follow the promise, to the time when Egypt would oppress the people and they would cry out for deliverance. Then God would raise up Moses, who like Joseph would gain some entrance and position among the Egyptians (vv. 17-22). God spoke to Moses and called him to lead his people, but Moses had to learn to do so in God’s way and timing, otherwise the people would not recognize his leadership (vv. 23-29). It was another 40 years before the Angel of the Lord would appear to Moses at the burning bush, in the wilderness of Mt. Sinai. Moses marvelled at the sight, as anyone would, since the bush was not consumed.
Essentially Moses would find himself standing in the Glory-Presence of the LORD Himself who would command him to take off his sandels, since the place where he was standing was holy ground. In this context the Lord would recount the history He had with His covenant people, and how he would use Moses to lead His people on further in this salvation history (vv. 30-34). Nevertheless, the people would initially continue to reject Moses until God performed His signs and wonders through Him, for their deliverance (vv. 35-36). It was then Moses who predicted that the Seed promised would be a Prophet like him, whom God would raise up, whom they would hear (v. 37 Cf. Dt. 18:15, 18-19). Thus it was the very one that his audience also looked to, and accused Jesus, the apostles, and Stephen of contradicting, who himself predicted the coming of Jesus as the Christ. Furthermore, as Stephen also notes, the people also rejected Moses and the word that came through him, even after the deliverance from Egypt (vv. 38-39). They asked Aaron for a idol, and so they made and worshiped and idol (vv. 40-41).
Stephen’s audience no doubt forgot the idol worshipping history of the ancestors they so quickly referred to, as though there was one continuous line of innocence. The people had in fact abandoned the worship which the Lord had prescribed during their 40 years in the wilderness, the very worship which the current rebels wanted to preserve. Instead they engaged in the idol worship of the pagans who surrounded them (vv. 42-43). They committed idolatry despite the fact that they did not need the temple to worship as the Lord had prescribed, because they had the tabernacle which the Lord had appointed, instructing Moses to fashion everything according to the pattern he was given when in His Glory-Presence, a way of worship which followed on with Joshua into the land of promise “until the days of David” (vv. 44-45). It was then not until David, that the temple was built, and as the Lord made clear to David, it would be his son, the promised Seed, who would actually build God’s house, but a temple and place of rest not made by man (vv. 46-50).
Stephen’s conclusion to all this history was clearly not one which his audience wanted to hear. Stephen in fact drew a straight line from those who rejected God’s word and mode of worship under the old covenant, and those who claimed to want to adhere to that worship, even though God Himself promised a change through the promised Seed who had come. The fathers who they appealed to were in fact guilty of persecuting the prophets who preceded the Prophet whom Moses spoke about. What is more, these same prophets followed Moses in predicting the coming of the very One they were guilty of having crucified. They claimed to be true covenant children, when they were in fact descendants of those who had the outward externals of membership, but who by their actions proved to be enemies of the Lord of the covenant which He had given, and of the true members of it. In short, they were among those who were gifted by the reception of God’s law, but in reality they never kept it (vv. 51-53).
The contrast could not be more stark. Even as they seethed with anger at Stephen’s words, he was filled with the Holy Spirit even as he stood in the Glory-Presence of the Lord. As he stood in the human council, he stood within the far more important council of the Holy One (vv. 54-55). In the council of the Glory-Presence Stephen sees the Lord Jesus, the Son of Man ruling at the Father’s right hand, even as He and the scriptures had predicted (v. 56). So consumed were they in their anger that they drove him out of the city and stoned him (vv. 57-58). Of significance historical note, is Luke’s mention of Saul, later Paul, standing by as they stoned Stephen. Nevertheless, as they continued to stone him to death, he would ask the Lord, whom he could see, to receive his spirit (v. 59). What is more, he would also pray that the Lord might not charge them with this sin (v. 60). Two things stand out above everything else in this account of Stephen. He made clear that this was a time of transition, and the Lord Jesus was the centre of this transition from old to new. Secondly, Jesus had already begun His reign in the Glory-Presence at the Father’s right hand.