19 September 2022

Stephen's defense speech

Acts 6:8-7:60 is a special part of the New Testament. We are introduced to Stephen, who, according to Acts 6:8, was a very prominent person among the believers. He stood out for his wonderful works and speech.

This man was attacked by many because of his views. “Views” is perhaps not the most appropriate word here, because the Scriptures clearly attribute Stephen's knowledge to divine wisdom. Since they could not get a grip on him, they tried to prove him guilty of three sins, which Stephen then refutes in chapter 7.

What are these “sins”?
  1. He blasphemed Moses and God.
  2. He constantly spoke against the holy place and the law.
  3. He claimed that Jesus was destroying the holy place and changing the Mosaic customs.
Actually, these three “sins” are very much connected. Stephen refutes in chapter 7 that he was speaking against the Mosaic Law, and points out precisely that his attackers, who – though they may seem to be arguing for Moses – are themselves against Moses.

There is no mention of Moses in chapter 7, verses 2-19. He appears in verse 20, and until verse 44 in all Stephen mentions him 9 times. He points out that Moses was not understood by his contemporaries: we read about him in verses 25 (see verses 27-28, repeated in verse 35) and 39 (further elaborated in verses 40-41). Moses, however, foretells the coming of Jesus (v. 37). In other words, it is precisely that “if you believe Moses, believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:46).

In connection with the holy place, Stephen takes the idea of disobedience to Moses further. God delivers the disobedient Jews to idolatry: they carry the tabernacle of Moloch (v. 43), instead of holding the tabernacle of the testimony (and the One it symbolizes) in true honor. But Stephen goes further here: neither the tabernacle of the testimony nor the dwelling place envisioned by David (which Solomon built) is anything more than a symbol. Thus, it is not only the argument about Moses that Stephen is overturning (vv. 44-50), but also points out that it is entirely wrong to see the holy place (i.e. the temple in Jerusalem) as substantially more than a symbol.

Closely related to the passions about the holy place is the prophesied statement in John 2:19, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it,” which some remember Jesus saying, according to Mark 14:58, “I will destroy the temple made with the hand of man, and in three days I will build another, which was not made with the hand of man.” “But he spoke of the temple of his flesh.” (John 2:21)

If Jesus was speaking of the temple of his flesh, it is obvious that he was intentionally connecting the theme of the temple in Jerusalem with the temple of his own flesh. In doing so, he also draws attention to the fact that the importance of the temple, which took 46 years to build, dwarfs the importance of his person (and his resurrected body). Matthew 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2, Luke 19:42-44, and 21:5-6 all paint the picture that even the disciples attached extraordinary importance to the temple. But Jesus clearly warns that the fate of that stone temple is already sealed. Indeed, in the year 70, the Roman commander Titus surrounded Jerusalem with four legions, laid siege to it and then destroyed it. Of the inhabitants who survived the siege, the armed and elderly were executed and the remaining 97,000 were sold as slaves.

In the last three verses of Stephen's defense, he points to the state of his audience's heart. He calls them “hard-necked, uncircumcised men of heart and ear”, people who resist. What is the physical embodiment of this state of mind of defiance? Prophet-hunting and murder. For it was not only Moses who prophesied the coming of Jesus, but other prophets as well. It is useless to put the name of Moses on your banner if your life and thinking contradict it. In the same way, it is in vain to refer to the prophets if one's thinking is contrary to the prophets. Ultimately, Stephen's contemporaries are stepping into the same shoes as their spiritual predecessors (“fathers“”), “stepping forward” as traitors and murderers of Jesus. Stephen even concludes by pointing out that it is an aggravating circumstance for the Jews that they received the law from angels – and yet did not keep it.

Stephen is a model New Testament theologian

The large number of quotations from the Old Testament in Stephen's defense is exemplary. Stephen (and Luke, who transcribed him) seems to emphasize quoting Moses and the prophets verbatim (even literally) where possible. The following structure diagrams visualize this statement:

(If you click on a structure diagram, you can change the numbers into Greek/Latin texts and back.)

The concern for thoroughness really comes to light when we check that the 11 quotes above are merely coincidental matches or deliberate quotations foreshadowed by some introductory text. Indeed, all of the quotations without exception are introduced by some indication (according to KJV):
This observation is also true in reverse: only such literal quotations are included in Stephen's defense that were previously introduced by a text. This suggests that the speech is a well thought-out, careful work: not just a random collation of Old Testament texts, but a very deliberate editing.

What reward does Stephen get for gathering his thoughts and defending his rightness on a completely biblical basis, using reason? Stephen has worked miracles and signs by grace and power (6:8), and yet his defense is entirely rational: based on the Word. When he is attacked and arrested (6:12), God seems to “let go” of Stephen's hand: he is not trying to convince his audience by force and miracles in this situation, but by reason alone. “His face is like an angel's.” (6:15)

This angelic face did not convince his hearers; on the contrary, “they were filled with wrath in their hearts” (7:54) and finally stoned (7:58). The stoning was presumably because Stephen was “caught” blaspheming, for Jesus claimed to be “from the right hand of God”. However, the Father and Jesus do not intervene. The hard-necked murderers are not stopped. The two meek: the Father and Jesus could do with destroying these recalcitrants, but here they wait. Jesus takes the soul of the third meek one, Stephen, who asks that this sin not be imputed to those who sin against him.

So: what is the reward? Martyrdom? We are stunned by the Scriptures, because they suggest that Stephen communicated with his Lord all along. They remained in contact all the time, and afterwards. Stephen completed his mission by explaining it to the best of his ability, to the best of his knowledge, what it means to follow Moses. Even if his audience – at the time – did not yet grasp the essence of his message, we who read this story 2000 years later can be enlightened. The story of Stephen speaks the same way 2000 years later.

Stephen's example also encourages us not to want to spare the quality communication to those who oppose us. We cannot know how our words will fall on the ground and whether they will bear fruit many times over – which we we ourselves may not be aware of, since the sower is often different from the reaper. Stephen and Luke juxtapose the Old Testament words with natural professionalism, with the utmost respect for the letter of Scripture. The defense speech is a crystal clear explanation of what Moses' legacy is: Jesus himself. If we read the Scriptures, let Stephen's speech be our measuring rod, as we interpret the Word and apply it to our daily lives.

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Zoltán Kovács
Linz School of Education
Johannes Kepler University
Altenberger Strasse 69
A-4040 Linz