1. Then the high priest said, “Are these things so?”
We take up our story where we left off in the previous chapter. Stephen is standing before the Sanhedrin, the very same body that had put the Lord Jesus Christ to death, and that had up until this time rejected the message of the twelve. Now, they are accusing him falsely of blasphemy against the temple and against the law. As we left off the chapter, the Sanhedrin looked upon Stephen and saw his face as the face of an angel, which I believe means that his face was shining, just as Moses’ face had done when he came down from the mount. This was the most positive evidence from God that He was with Stephen, and that he not only was not blaspheming Moses, but that he was in fact speaking the very truth of God to them just as Moses had done.
Now it is hard for us to imagine that, upon seeing such a sight as Stephen’s face lit up like that of an angel, that the Sanhedrin would go right on with their trial as if nothing had happened. It seems almost mad to us for anyone to ignore such clear and obvious evidence. Yet remember that this was not the first miracle that these men had decided to ignore. There were many great and powerful works that the Lord Jesus had done, and the Sanhedrin had already discounted these in condemning Him to death. Now, for them to ignore this sign giving testimony to Stephen was just one more step in a long history of rejection and unbelief. Having started down this road of disbelieving God’s truth, they were now committed to it, and it seems that no miracle, no matter how stunning it might be, could shake them from their stubborn course. They simply refused to believe no matter what, and this sign was just another bump in the road that they would pass over and continue on with this unbelief.
2. And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran,
Stephen starts to speak, yet what he has to say could hardly be called a defense. In fact, it was not a defense that God inspired Him to speak, but instead a condemnation. God had a very different view of the proceedings here. In His sight, it was not Stephen, His faithful servant, but rather the Sanhedrin who were on trial here. They had already rejected the Lord Jesus Christ and had Him put to death, but the Lord had forgiven them that. Then, they had rejected the words of the twelve as they spoke to them by the inspiration of God both in Acts chapters 4 and 5. Now, the issue for them would at last be brought to a head. God would bring His charges before them of rejecting Him and the One He had sent. They were on trial, and the outcome of this trial would determine what their fate will be in the life to come. This was far more important than Stephen’s trial, which had to do with his continuing in this life only. Stephen may have been in danger of losing his life in the here and now, but it was the Sanhedrin who were in far greater danger, since they were in danger of losing their lives in the kingdom to come.
Now Stephen must surely have been aware of the great danger he was in. These men before him had killed his Lord, and they would clearly hesitate at nothing to bring a stop to His word. Moreover, Stephen must have known the persecution that the Lord promised to His disciples when He told them, “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.” John 15:20. Since these wicked men had persecuted the Lord, Stephen could be assured that he, too, would be persecuted by them. If they had executed the Lord, they would certainly be willing to execute him as well. Yet Stephen shows no fear here. His is the boldness of those who are assured not only that they are right, but also that they have a Savior Who has conquered death and guaranteed His people a life in the kingdom to come. Stephen did not hesitate to spend his life in this world in view of the life to come.
Now Stephen immediately starts out by going far back into the past and speaking of the father of all the Israelites, the man Abraham. He reviews how God had appeared to Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, and before he ever left there at God’s command and went to Haran. He calls God “the God of glory,” which indeed He was and is, as all true honor and glory and majesty belong to Him. All he is doing here is repeating historical facts which all of his hearers already knew and believed. There is nothing new here, but all that Stephen is saying is leading up to the point he is making, so we will be patient and follow him throughout his oration.
3. and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.’
This was the command that God had given to Abraham that caused him to leave the land where he dwelt and to enter into a foreign land. Abraham was to leave his home country and his relatives, which was a very hard thing to do in that day. There were no stores in which you could buy all the goods you needed. Most things were made within a family, and the various members took care of each other. When you had to buy and sell, you typically did this by trading with your own countrymen. Most people at that time were suspicious of outsiders, and would be reluctant to do business with them. Thus for Abraham to leave his home and to go to a foreign land was a scary move, and a difficult one. Yet Abraham was willing to do this at God’s command. And he did, in spite of the fact that God never even promised him a new land, but only told him that He wanted to show him a certain land! This spirit of submission on Abraham’s part was an attitude that the Sanhedrin could have learned from and sought to emulate.
4. Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell.
Abraham responded with faith to God’s command, and left the land of the Chaldeans. However, he did not come to the land of Israel, then the land of Canaan, until after his father was dead, for his father joined him on his journey and, it seems, took charge of it, and stopped the family at Haran. He had received no call from God, and so for him, Haran was far enough to move. Once his father was dead, however, Abraham continued the mission God had given him, and moved to the land of Israel.
5. And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abraham had no child, He promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his descendants after him.
In spite of the fact that God had commanded him to leave his land and come to this land, God still gave him no inheritance, no portion, in this new land. He did not even give him enough to set his foot on. This is an important figure of speech, for we are well aware that it is not literal. Abraham dwelt in the land, and his feet walked all over it. Yet the fact is that God gave him none of the land to own and control. That which is under your foot is under your control. Yet Abraham was ever a wanderer, and none of the places where he sojourned could he put his foot down on any piece of land and say, “This is mine from the Lord.” The Greek word for “place” here is bema, and indicates a raised platform. It is the phrase used of the place where Pilate set his judgment seat from which he passed sentence upon the Lord (John 19:13.) Here, we read of Abraham having no bema for his foot. He had no place which he could call his own, and from which he could exercise any control over any part of the land.
Now it is important to distinguish exactly what this is saying, for if we examine the record of Abraham carefully, we will find that he purchased a field with a cave in it in the land of Canaan in which to bury his wife Sarah, as we read in much detail in Genesis 23. This land became Abraham’s, and it was his possession in the land of Canaan. Yet the truth of this story is that Abraham bought this field. The Lord did not give it to him as a possession. The promise that the Lord made is that He would give Abraham the land. Abraham would not have to pay for any of it or buy it off of anyone. The Lord was going to give it to him. So, though Abraham did buy a field in the land, this in no way negates Stephen’s statement. This land did not fall under Abraham’s control because God gave it to him. He purchased it for himself, and only as a cemetery, not as a place from which to exercise control over any part of the land. As for God, He did not give Abraham any land in Canaan over which he could say, “This is mine.” Yet He had promised to give the entire land to him and to his descendants. He promised this even when Abraham had no child!
6. But God spoke in this way: that his descendants would dwell in a foreign land, and that they would bring them into bondage and oppress them four hundred years.
God also explained to Abraham some of the things that would happen to his descendants after his death. He told him that they would dwell in a foreign land, and that those in that land would bring them into bondage and oppress them four hundred years. This did happen when they journeyed into Egypt. Notice that they dwelt there four hundred years, yet the oppression only lasted for part of that time. During the first part of this period, they were treated quite well. Yet the severe bondage largely erased from memory the good treatment they had gotten when they first came to Egypt.
7. ‘And the nation to whom they will be in bondage I will judge,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and serve Me in this place.’
God promised Abraham that He would eventually set in order the nation that had put them into bondage, which would mean punishment for their sin of oppressing His people. Then Abraham’s descendants would come out of that land to serve God in the land of Israel. Notice that this would not fulfill God’s promise, however. God had promised to give the land to Abraham AND to his descendants. Therefore, the promise was not complete with just his descendants receiving the land. Abraham himself would have to be there and receive it before this promise could ever be said to have been fulfilled to the letter. How then could it ever be fulfilled, since Abraham died without receiving the land? There can be only one answer: it will be fulfilled by resurrection. Abraham will once again live as a man upon this earth in the future kingdom of God, and the land of Israel will be given to him at that time, along with his descendants.
If this seems a strange or unbelievable idea to some, consider how God proved His ability to do this in the life of Abraham. When Abraham’s body was as good as dead and he could no longer have children, the Lord resurrected that ability in him and not only made it possible for him to have Isaac, but also for him to get married again after Sarah’s death and to have other children. If God could do this to the worn-out body of an old man, He can also raise Abraham in his entirety to live on the earth in the future. This is what God promised to do. This is what God is going to do.
8. Then He gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham begot Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot the twelve patriarchs.
Stephen lists more facts here, taking us through Abraham’s covenant of circumcision, and Abraham’s descendants, Isaac, Jacob, and the twelve patriarchs. These facts might not seem very relevant to us considering the situation in which Stephen was speaking them. Yet I believe that Stephen was a man who knew the power of God’s Word. Many preachers there are today who seem to think that the Bible is of limited value in convincing men to live a Godly life. For them, the Bible is only a reference book to use in giving a few quotations to back up the largely inspirational messages they give based on their own ideas. What they preach is actually more a big, long counseling session based on their own ideas for fixing problems than anything else, and the Bible is relegated to a place in the background.
Yet let me say that I too, like Stephen, believe in the power of God’s Word. I believe that, when people do need help, the best place to go is to the Word of God to help them. The Bible may not seem like much to some compared to the favorite counseling methods of the day, yet the power of God is behind it, and I believe that it is actually what men need the most. So I believe that what Stephen was doing here was the very best thing he could do. He was leading the discussion to God’s Word. Not that what he was saying was totally irrelevant to the point. As we will see in the upcoming verses, he uses these stories to make some very strong points.
Remember that these men considered themselves the builders of Israel. They believed that anything God would do to restore Israel to its former glory would come through them. For a time, they had considered the Lord Jesus Christ to determine whether or not He might be the promised Messiah Who would come and free them from Roman rule and restore their government to them. However, they found Him to be a gracious Man, preaching submission to God and the forgiveness of sins and healing the sick rather than proving Himself to be a strong military or political leader. They did not believe that such a Man could possibly be the One God would send to deliver them. Yet, however unlikely this might have seemed to them, how much more unlikely was it that a nation would be born from one who had no child and who had advanced in age to the place where he could no longer be a father? Yet God had proven that even such an unlikely man could through His power be used to create such a mighty nation as Israel. If this was the case, could not the religious leaders be wrong in their assessment of the Lord Jesus Christ?
9. “And the patriarchs, becoming envious, sold Joseph into Egypt. But God was with him
Now comes a point which was definitely applicable to what was going on then. For Stephen repeats the story of Joseph, and how the patriarchs out of envy sold him into Egypt. Now we have seen in the gospels that it was out of envy that the Sanhedrin had turned the Lord Jesus over to death in the first place, as is stated clearly in Matthew 27:18 and Mark 15:10. They never had the power or the following that the Lord did, and they couldn’t stand to lose any of their power or influence. Thus, what they had done to the Lord was much like what the patriarchs had done to Joseph. Yet God was with Joseph, just as He was with the Lord.
10. and delivered him out of all his troubles, and gave him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house.
The Lord delivered Joseph out of his troubles, and made him the governor over all of Egypt, a Gentile country, and over Pharaoh and his house. In the same way, we know our Lord was delivered from death, and now sits as God, ruling over all nations, as we read in Matthew 28:18.
11. Now a famine and great trouble came over all the land of Egypt and Canaan, and our fathers found no sustenance.
Stephen reviews more of the story, relating how a great famine came over all Egypt and Canaan, and that the fathers of Israel found no sustenance because of it. They were in trouble, and there was only one who could deliver them. In the same way, Israel in Stephen’s time was in a sad condition indeed, and the Lord Jesus was the only One Who could rescue them at that point.
12. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first.
Stephen continues the story, reminding them that Jacob heard about grain in Egypt, and sent the patriarchs, the fathers of ten of the twelve tribes, first to get food from there. Notice that he identifies these ten as their fathers. Some have tried to argue that ten of the twelve tribes were “lost” after the Assyrian captivity. The Scriptures know of no such idea, however. These men were descendants of these ten men, not just of two of them.
13. And the second time Joseph was made known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to the Pharaoh.
Stephen continues the story, leaving out many details, but reminding us that the second time the patriarchs went up, Joseph was made known to them, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family.
14. Then Joseph sent and called his father Jacob and all his relatives to him, seventy-five people.
Stephen continues with the facts of history. Joseph sent and called his father and all his relatives to him. Therefore, through him, the one they had at first rejected, they all were saved from the famine and brought into great blessing. In the same way, through Christ, the One the leaders had rejected, Israel will someday be saved and blessed. Stephen’s hearers, with the Holy Spirit applying this to their hearts, could not help but make this application, even though all that Stephen was doing was repeating simple, historical facts.
When Joseph sent and called his relatives, he sent an official entourage of Egypt to invite them to come. Thus, the word for “sent” here is the Greek apostello, which means to send or to commission with authority. Joseph’s authority as the second ruler over Egypt was behind this invitation to all his relatives to come and live with him in Egypt.
The word translated “people” in the New King James here is the Greek word for “souls,” psuche. Here, souls are used as a figure for people, just as we use bodies this way when we say, “Is anybody home?”
15. So Jacob went down to Egypt; and he died, he and our fathers.
So Jacob and all their fathers came to their end in the land of Egypt. They too did not receive the final promises that they were to receive from the Lord, but await the day in resurrection when they will inherit the land of Israel and all that goes with it in the kingdom of God.
16. And they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem.
Though we only read of Jacob and Joseph being carried back to the land of Canaan, Stephen reveals that all the patriarchs were carried back to be laid in the tomb that Abraham bought from the sons of Hamor. Here Stephen references this directly, showing that he had not forgotten that Abraham had bought and owned this field. As I explained above, this did not count as some land that the Lord had given Abraham as a possession, for it was something Abraham had to purchase, and was not a gift.
So the Holy Spirit through Stephen has given a brilliant condensation of many of the events in the book of Genesis from Abraham to Egypt. He has made an application from this book to the hearts of His hearers regarding the parallel between Joseph and the Lord Jesus. Now, he will continue throughout Exodus and beyond in the Old Testament to bring these truths home to the Sanhedrin. Remember, they are the ones truly on trial before God, not Stephen.