Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
Then said the high priest, Are these things so?
Ac 7:1-60. Defense and Martyrdom of Stephen.
In this long defense Stephen takes a much wider range, and goes less directly into the point raised by his accusers, than we should have expected. His object seems to have been to show (1) that so far from disparaging, he deeply reverenced, and was intimately conversant with, the whole history of the ancient economy; and (2) that in resisting the erection of the Gospel kingdom they were but treading in their fathers' footsteps, the whole history of their nation being little else than one continued misapprehension of God's high designs towards fallen man and rebellion against them.
And he said, Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken; The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran,
2-5. The God of glory—A magnificent appellation, fitted at the very outset to rivet the devout attention of his audience; denoting not that visible glory which attended many of the divine manifestations, but the glory of those manifestations themselves, of which this was regarded by every Jew as the fundamental one. It is the glory of absolutely free grace.
appeared unto our father Abraham before he dwelt in Charran, and said, &c.—Though this first call is not expressly recorded in Genesis, it is clearly implied in Ge 15:7 and Ne 9:7; and the Jewish writers speak the same language.
And said unto him, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee.
Then came he out of the land of the Chaldaeans, and dwelt in Charran: and from thence, when his father was dead, he removed him into this land, wherein ye now dwell.
4. when his father was dead, he removed into this land—Though Abraham was in Canaan before Terah's death, his settlement in it as the land of promise is here said to be after it, as being in no way dependent on the family movement, but a transaction purely between Jehovah and Abraham himself.
And he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child.
And God spake on this wise, That his seed should sojourn in a strange land; and that they should bring them into bondage, and entreat them evil four hundred years.
6-8. four hundred years—using round numbers, as in Ge 15:13, 16 (see on Ga 3:17).
And the nation to whom they shall be in bondage will I judge, said God: and after that shall they come forth, and serve me in this place.
7. after that shall they come forth, and serve me in this place—Here the promise to Abraham (Ge 15:16), and that to Moses (Ex 3:12), are combined; Stephen's object being merely to give a rapid summary of the leading facts.
And he gave him the covenant of circumcision: and so Abraham begat Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat the twelve patriarchs.
8. the covenant of circumcision—that is, the covenant of which circumcision was the token.
and so—that is, according to the terms of this covenant, on which Paul reasons (Ga 3:1-26).
the twelve patriarchs—so called as the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel.
And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt: but God was with him,
9-16. the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt, but God was with him—Here Stephen gives his first example of Israel's opposition to God's purposes, in spite of which and by means of which those purposes were accomplished.
And delivered him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favour and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house.
Now there came a dearth over all the land of Egypt and Chanaan, and great affliction: and our fathers found no sustenance.
But when Jacob heard that there was corn in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first.
And at the second time Joseph was made known to his brethren; and Joseph's kindred was made known unto Pharaoh.
Then sent Joseph, and called his father Jacob to him, and all his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls.
14. threescore and fifteen souls—according to the Septuagint version of Ge 46:27, which Stephen follows, including the five children and grandchildren of Joseph's two sons.
So Jacob went down into Egypt, and died, he, and our fathers,
And were carried over into Sychem, and laid in the sepulchre that Abraham bought for a sum of money of the sons of Emmor the father of Sychem.
But when the time of the promise drew nigh, which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt,
17. But when—rather, "as."
the time of the promise—that is, for its fulfilment.
the people grew and multiplied in Egypt—For more than two hundred years they amounted to no more than seventy-five souls; how prodigious, then, must have been their multiplication during the latter two centuries, when six hundred thousand men, fit for war, besides women and children, left Egypt!
Till another king arose, which knew not Joseph.
The same dealt subtilly with our kindred, and evil entreated our fathers, so that they cast out their young children, to the end they might not live.
In which time Moses was born, and was exceeding fair, and nourished up in his father's house three months:
20-22. In which time—of deepest depression.
Moses was born—the destined deliverer.
exceeding fair—literally, "fair to God" (Margin), or, perhaps, divinely "fair" (see on Heb 11:23).
And when he was cast out, Pharaoh's daughter took him up, and nourished him for her own son.
And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds.
22. mighty in words—Though defective in utterance (Ex 4:10); his recorded speeches fully bear out what is here said.
and deeds—referring probably to unrecorded circumstances in his early life. If we are to believe Josephus, his ability was acknowledged ere he left Egypt.
And when he was full forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel.
23-27. In Ac 7:23, 30, 36, the life of Moses is represented as embracing three periods, of forty years each; the Jewish writers say the same; and though this is not expressly stated in the Old Testament, his age at death, one hundred twenty years (De 34:7), agrees with it.
it came into his heart to visit his brethren—his heart yearning with love to them as God's chosen people, and heaving with the consciousness of a divine vocation to set them free.
And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended him, and avenged him that was oppressed, and smote the Egyptian:
24. avenged him that was oppressed, and smote the Egyptian—going farther in the heat of his indignation than he probably intended.
For he supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not.
25. For he supposed his brethren would have understood, &c.—and perhaps imagined this a suitable occasion for rousing and rallying them under him as their leader; thus anticipating his work, and so running unsent.
but they understood not—Reckoning on a spirit in them congenial with his own, he had the mortification to find it far otherwise. This furnishes to Stephen another example of Israel's slowness to apprehend and fall in with the divine purposes of love.
And the next day he shewed himself unto them as they strove, and would have set them at one again, saying, Sirs, ye are brethren; why do ye wrong one to another?
26. next day he showed himself unto them as they strove—Here, not an Israelite and an Egyptian, but two parties in Israel itself, are in collision with each other; Moses, grieved at the spectacle, interposes as a mediator; but his interference, as unauthorized, is resented by the party in the wrong, whom Stephen identifies with the mass of the nation (Ac 7:35), just as Messiah's own interposition had been spurned.
But he that did his neighbour wrong thrust him away, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?
Wilt thou kill me, as thou diddest the Egyptian yesterday?
28, 29. Wilt thou kill me, as thou didst the Egyptian yesterday?—Moses had thought the deed unseen (Ex 2:12), but it now appeared he was mistaken.
Then fled Moses at this saying, and was a stranger in the land of Madian, where he begat two sons.
29. Then fled Moses, &c.—for "when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses" (Ex 2:15).
And when forty years were expired, there appeared to him in the wilderness of mount Sina an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush.
30-34. an angel of the Lord—rather, "the Angel of the Covenant," who immediately calls Himself Jehovah (Compare Ac 7:38).
When Moses saw it, he wondered at the sight: and as he drew near to behold it, the voice of the Lord came unto him,
Saying, I am the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Then Moses trembled, and durst not behold.
Then said the Lord to him, Put off thy shoes from thy feet: for the place where thou standest is holy ground.
I have seen, I have seen the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and I have heard their groaning, and am come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send thee into Egypt.
This Moses whom they refused, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge? the same did God send to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the angel which appeared to him in the bush.
35-41. This Moses whom they refused, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge, &c.—Here, again, "the stone which the builders refused is made the head of the corner" (Ps 118:22).
He brought them out, after that he had shewed wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red sea, and in the wilderness forty years.
This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear.
37. This is that Moses which said … A prophet … him shall ye hear—This is quoted to remind his Moses-worshipping audience of the grand testimony of their faithful lawgiver, that he himself was not the last and proper object of the Church's faith, but only a humble precursor and small model of Him to whom their absolute submission was due.
This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us:
38. in the church—the collective body of God's chosen people; hence used to denote the whole body of the faithful under the Gospel, or particular sections of them.
This is he that was in the church in the wilderness, with the angel … and with our fathers—alike near to the Angel of the Covenant, from whom he received all the institutions of the ancient economy, and to the people, to whom he faithfully reported the living oracles and among whom he set up the prescribed institutions. By this high testimony to Moses, Stephen rebuts the main charge for which he was on trial.
To whom our fathers would not obey, but thrust him from them, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt,
39. To whom our fathers would not obey, &c.—Here he shows that the deepest dishonor done to Moses came from the nation that now professed the greatest jealousy for his honor.
in their hearts turned back … into Egypt—"In this Stephen would have his hearers read the downward career on which they were themselves entering."
Saying unto Aaron, Make us gods to go before us: for as for this Moses, which brought us out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.
And they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice unto the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands.
Then God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices by the space of forty years in the wilderness?
42-50. gave them up—judicially.
as … written in the book of the prophets—the twelve minor prophets, reckoned as one: the passage is from Am 5:25.
have ye offered to me … sacrifices?—The answer is, Yes, but as if ye did it not; for "neither did ye offer to Me only, nor always, nor with a perfect and willing heart" [Bengel].
Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, figures which ye made to worship them: and I will carry you away beyond Babylon.
43. Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Molech, &c.—Two kinds of idolatry are charged upon the Israelites: that of the golden calf and that of the heavenly bodies; Molech and Remphan being deities, representing apparently the divine powers ascribed to nature, under different aspects.
carry you beyond Babylon—the well-known region of the captivity of Judah; while "Damascus" is used by the prophet (Am 5:27), whither the ten tribes were carried.
Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as he had appointed, speaking unto Moses, that he should make it according to the fashion that he had seen.
44. Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness—which aggravated the guilt of that idolatry in which they indulged, with the tokens of the divine presence constantly in the midst of them.
Which also our fathers that came after brought in with Jesus into the possession of the Gentiles, whom God drave out before the face of our fathers, unto the days of David;
45. which … our fathers that came after—rather, "having received it by succession" (Margin), that is, the custody of the tabernacle from their ancestors.
brought in with Jesus—or Joshua.
into the possession—rather, "at the taking possession of [the territory of] the Gentiles."
unto the days of David—for till then Jerusalem continued in the hands of the Jebusites. But Stephen's object in mentioning David is to hasten from the tabernacle which he set up, to the temple which his son built, in Jerusalem; and this only to show, from their own Scripture (Isa 66:1, 2), that even that temple, magnificent though it was, was not the proper resting-place of Jehovah upon earth; as his audience and the nations had all along been prone to imagine. (What that resting-place was, even "the contrite heart, that trembleth at God's word," he leaves to be gathered from the prophet referred to).
Who found favour before God, and desired to find a tabernacle for the God of Jacob.
But Solomon built him an house.
Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet,
Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest?
Hath not my hand made all these things?
Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.
51-53. Ye stiffnecked … ye do always resist the Holy Ghost, &c.—It has been thought that symptoms of impatience and irritation in the audience induced Stephen to cut short his historical sketch. But as little farther light could have been thrown upon Israel's obstinacy from subsequent periods of the national history on the testimony of their own Scriptures, we should view this as the summing up, the brief import of the whole Israelitish history—grossness of heart, spiritual deafness, continuous resistance of the Holy Ghost, down to the very council before whom Stephen was pleading.
Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers:
52. Which of, &c.—Deadly hostility to the messengers of God, whose high office it was to tell of "the Righteous One," that well-known prophetic title of Messiah (Isa 53:11; Jer 23:6, &c.), and this consummated by the betrayal and murder of Messiah Himself, on the part of those now sitting in judgment on the speaker, are the still darker features of the national character depicted in these withering words.
Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.
53. Who have received the law by the disposition—"at the appointment" or "ordination," that is, by the ministry.
of angels, and have not kept it—This closing word is designed to shut up those idolizers of the law under the guilt of high disobedience to it, aggravated by the august manner in which they had received it.
When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.
54-56. When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, &c.—If they could have answered him, how different would have been their temper of mind!
But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,
55. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God—You who can transfer to canvas such scenes as these, in which the rage of hell grins horribly from men, as they sit condemned by a frail prisoner of their own, and see heaven beaming from his countenance and opening full upon his view—I envy you, for I find no words to paint what, in the majesty of the divine text, is here so simply told. "But how could Stephen, in the council-chamber, see heaven at all? I suppose this question never occurred but to critics of narrow soul, one of whom [Meyer] conjectures that he saw it through the window! and another, of better mould, that the scene lay in one of the courts of the temple" [Alford]. As the sight was witnessed by Stephen alone, the opened heavens are to be viewed as revealed to his bright beaming spirit.
and Jesus standing on the right hand of God—Why "standing," and not sitting, the posture in which the glorified Saviour is elsewhere represented? Clearly, to express the eager interest with which He watched from the skies the scene in that council chamber, and the full tide of His Spirit which He was at that moment engaged in pouring into the heart of His heroical witness, till it beamed in radiance from his very countenance.
And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
56. I see … the Son of man standing, &c.—This is the only time that our Lord is by human lips called THE Son of Man after His ascension (Re 1:13; 14:14 are not instances). And why here? Stephen, full of the Holy Ghost, speaking now not of himself at all (Ac 7:55), but entirely by the Spirit, is led to repeat the very words in which Jesus Himself, before this same council, had foretold His glorification (Mt 26:64), assuring them that that exaltation of the Son of Man which they should hereafter witness to their dismay, was already begun and actual [Alford].
Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,
57, 58. Then they cried out … and ran upon him with one accord—To men of their mould and in their temper, Stephen's last seraphic words could but bring matters to extremities, though that only revealed the diabolical spirit which they breathed.
And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul.
58. cast him out of the city—according to Le 24:14; Nu 15:35; 1Ki 21:13; and see Heb 13:12.
and stoned—"proceeded to stone" him. The actual stoning is recorded in Ac 7:59.
and the witnesses—whose hands were to be first upon the criminal (De 17:7).
laid down their clothes—their loose outer garments, to have them taken charge of.
at a young man's feet whose name was Saul—How thrilling is this our first introduction to one to whom Christianity—whether as developed in the New Testament or as established in the world—owes more perhaps than to all the other apostles together! Here he is, having perhaps already a seat in the Sanhedrim, some thirty years of age, in the thick of this tumultuous murder of a distinguished witness for Christ, not only "consenting unto his death" (Ac 8:1), but doing his own part of the dark deed.
And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
59, 60. calling upon God and saying, Lord Jesus, &c.—An unhappy supplement of our translators is the word "God" here; as if, while addressing the Son, he was really calling upon the Father. The sense is perfectly clear without any supplement at all—"calling upon [invoking] and saying, Lord Jesus"; Christ being the Person directly invoked and addressed by name (compare Ac 9:14). Even Grotius, De Wette, Meyer, &c., admit this, adding several other examples of direct prayer to Christ; and Pliny, in his well-known letter to the Emperor Trajan (A.D. 110 or 111), says it was part of the regular Christian service to sing, in alternate strains, a hymn to Christ as God.
Lord Jesus, receive my spirit—In presenting to Jesus the identical prayer which He Himself had on the cross offered to His Father, Stephen renders to his glorified Lord absolute divine worship, in the most sublime form, and at the most solemn moment of his life. In this commitment of his spirit to Jesus, Paul afterwards followed his footsteps with a calm, exultant confidence that with Him it was safe for eternity (2Ti 1:12).
And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
60. cried with a loud voice—with something of the gathered energy of his dying Lord (see on Joh 19:16-30).
Lord—that is, Jesus, beyond doubt, whom he had just before addressed as Lord.
lay not this sin to their charge—Comparing this with nearly the same prayer of his dying Lord, it will be seen how very richly this martyr of Jesus had drunk into his Master's spirit, in its divinest form.
he fell asleep—never said of the death of Christ. (See on 1Th 4:14). How bright the record of this first martyrdom for Christ, amidst all the darkness of its perpetrators; and how many have been cheered by it to like faithfulness even unto death!