The narrative of chapter six continues into chapter seven without interruption despite the chapter break: Stephen stands falsely accused before the Sanhedrin, and these false accusations have been made against him, probably at the prompting of his judges. The fateful question is asked in 7:1, “Are these charges true?”
Any lawyer would tell you that the only possible responses to such a question are: yes, no, I can’t recall or I don’t know, for this is not the time for a speech. Stephen, not being a cautious man, made a speech instead…
His speech is recorded in 7:2-33. In it, he recounts the long history of Israel, beginning with Abraham and the Patriarchs, and continuing through the Prophets and ending with charges of his own leveled directly at the very Sanhedrin before whom he stood: They, like their ancestors, had murdered the One whom their God had sent to them, for they did not care to hear God’s message and they went mad with rage.
Scholars, teachers and preachers have told this story in many ways, some focusing on the academic aspects of Stephen’s words and theology, others centering on the presence and work of the Spirit in the story, and many others have taken various other tacts to suit the present needs of their students or congregations, and I would not presume to criticize any of these approaches. Yet it strikes me that there is something at work in this case that deserves mention and which is often overlooked, which is the fact that Stephen, in his speech, that was so unwise by human standards is actually playing a divinely inspired role as a prophet, as he leveled God’s indictment upon the very men who were responsible for the murder of His Son.
As a reminder, the prophets of old were sent to the people to bring God’s message; they were His messengers. Those minor and major prophets of the Old Testament were bringing a message of indictment, playing the role we might say, of a prosecuting attorney, letting the people know just exactly what God saw that was objectionable in their conduct of His Nation; they were not merely there to predict the future, as many today seem to think. Thus, if we look at Stephen’s words in Acts 7, we cannot help but recognize a prophet at work, and just as with the prophets of old, the leaders of the people who were at fault for what was going on, went out of their minds with rage.
There is nothing new under the sun.
We might also note that nobody in this august group of great men even stopped to consider that their Roman overlords might object to their execution of Stephen without Roman approval, for they were so desperate to silence the truth he had spoken to them, and with this, the persecution of the Church began, and along with it, the rising of political tensions between the Jews and the Romans that would ultimately result in the complete destruction not only of the their beloved Temple, but of the ceremonial practices of the Old Covenant that Jesus had already made utterly obsolete. In the process, the preaching of the Gospel would also be forced out of Jerusalem, and it would spread to the far corners of the earth, just as God had planned it, with the eternal irony that the very Jewish leaders, who were acting to silence it, caused its spread.
Make no mistake, dear reader, the excitement is only just getting started, as you will see when we get back together next time.