Sunday, August 05, 2018

Acts 7 Explanatory Notes

Here are my explanatory notes on Acts 7. You can also follow my daily podcast commentary on Patreon, as well as YouTube videos on the Greek (see the bottom for links).

Acts 1
Acts 2
Acts 3
Acts 4
Acts 5
Acts 6

c. Stephen's Sermon (7:1-53)
  • 7:1. The lead off to the chapter is the simple question by the high priest as to whether the charges against Stephen are correct (the phrasing of the question seems Lukan). The charges are that he speaks against Moses and God, as well as that Jesus will tear down the temple and change the customs of Moses.
  • 7:2-53. This is Stephen's response.
  • 7:2-8. These verses reach back into the story of the people of God to Abraham. Abraham takes the story back to the very beginning, since Abraham is the beginning of the people of God. Hereby Stephen shows that the Jesus movement is not some new sect or idea but is in direct continuity with the people of God.
  • 7:4. Abraham's roots were not in Jerusalem or Palestine. God called him in Mesopotamia. God called him in Harran. 
  • This is the beginning of a subtext of the entire sermon. God is not in any way tied down to Jerusalem. In the story that follows, God does not really engage Jerusalem until 7:47. In Stephen's context, this fact had the effect of decentralizing the Jerusalem leadership. They may have thought themselves central in God's mapping of the world, but God has always been moving everywhere.
  • In Luke's context, this dynamic would have brought hope and encouragement to a Jewish and Gentile Christian audience, for Acts was almost certainly written after the temple had been destroyed. The message is that God is not limited by Jerusalem or its temple.
  • 7:5. God promised Abraham the land of Israel, even though he did not have a child or own the land at that time.
  • This is yet another subtext of the sermon. God's people are often displaced. God's people often live as strangers in the land that ultimately belongs to them. Here is another encouragement to an audience who knows Jerusalem has been destroyed.
  • 7:6-7. The promise is in fact 400 years in the future, after a time of enslavement and mistreatment. Again, they will be sojourners for a long time, displaced from the place of promise. They will be mistreated.
  • Stephen aligns with Israel in the story. The Jerusalem leaders line up with the persecutors.
  • But God will punish Israel's enemies, just as he would eventually punish the Romans. To the audience of Acts Luke says, "You will worship me again in this place."
  • 7:8. Isaac and Jacob are also in continuity with the Jesus movement. It should be noted that Acts does not have anything negative to say about circumcision for Jews. It remains normative for the author of Acts for Jews. Only Gentiles are not required to be circumcised. In that sense, Stephen gives no cause for the charge that he is predicting that the customs of Moses would change.
  • 7:9-16. This part of the sermon relates to Joseph.
  • 7:9-10. The patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, just as the leaders of Israel were jealous of Jesus. But God was with Jesus just as God was with Joseph. He became prominent in Egypt, another example of God blessing his people outside of Jerusalem.
  • 7:11-14. A famine drove the fathers out of Palestine, once again the salvation of God was not to be found in the land of promise but in Egypt. In the end, even Jacob and all the people of God--seventy-five souls--go down to Egypt, away from the Promised Land.
  • 7:15-16. When Jacob died, he was not taken back to the area of Jerusalem or Judea but to Shechem, which was later the region of Samaria. 
  • There is a difference here from Genesis, since Abraham bought a burial cave in Hebron from Ephron the Hittite (Gen. 23:13). It was Jacob who bought some land from Hamor in Shechem (Gen. 33:19), and Joseph's bones are what were buried there (Josh. 24:32; cf. Gen. 49:29). Perhaps Luke intentionally blurs the two together, highlighting Shechem as a place of blessing outside of Jerusalem and Judea. 
  • 7:17-43. The bulk of the sermon relates to Moses. One of the key charges against Stephen was that he was speaking against Moses and God. But Stephen has only positive things to say about Moses.
  • 7:17-19. Opposition arose to Israel in Egypt, a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. The Romans were the parallel in Stephen's day. They dealt "craftily" with Israel, a back-handed compliment. Luke's audience might think of the fairly recent destruction of Jerusalem. 
  • This Pharaoh commands the exposure of male Israelite infants.
  • 7:20-22. Moses is beautiful, but his parents do expose him after three months. There is a sense in which they obey the king. Pharaoh's daughter adopts him, which is crafty on God's part--to trick the king's house to raise the one who will undo the king.
  • Moses learns the wisdom of the Egyptians, which Luke does not despise but treats positively.
  • 7:23-29. This is the story of Moses and the man striking another Israelite.
  • 7:23. Although Moses does not live with the Israelites, he thinks of them as his brothers.
  • 7:25. Moses is rejected by his own people, a parallel to Jesus who was rejected by his own people, including the Sanhedrin. "He thought his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand. But they did not understand." Stephen himself is speaking salvation to them, but they do not understand.
  • Of course Moses does not yet know he will play this role when this event happened in Exodus 2.
  • 7:27. God is of course the one who made Moses a ruler and a judge over Israel, just as God had made Jesus both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36).
  • 7:29. So Moses lives in exile, just as the audience of Acts is in exile given that Jerusalem was now destroyed. The theme continues that God's people are not located just in Jerusalem.  
  • 7:30-34. God appears to Moses at the burning bush.
  • 7:30. The mediation of the Law through angels appears three times in the New Testament: here in Acts 7 (cf. also 7:53), Galatians 3:19, and Hebrews 2:2.
  • The appearance of angels as flames of fire also occurs in Hebrews 1:7.
  • 7:32. There is continuity between the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the God who appears to Moses, and it is the same God who sent Jesus and Stephen and Luke.
  • 7:33. Holy ground is not just in Jerusalem but anywhere that God appears.
  • 7:34. Moses goes to Egypt on God's command, not Palestine. God is the God of the displaced, not just the located in Jerusalem like the Sanhedrin. At the time of Acts, Israel was being mistreated by the Romans.
  • 7:35-43. God used Moses to do great things for his people, but they largely rejected him.
  • 7:35. God sent Moses as a ruler and a judge even though Israel did not want him. It was the same with Jesus. In a way, it was the same with Stephen.
  • 7:37. This is the second time in Acts that Deuteronomy 18:18 (cf. Acts 3:22) is mentioned as a prophecy of Jesus. 
  • 7:38. An angel is again mentioned at Mt. Sinai (see 7:30 and 53). 
  • The Law consisted of "living words," possibly indicating that the messages of God through the Law are not merely the past meanings but the meanings God continues to give. Cf. Hebrews 4:12.
  • 7:39-41. Just as the Sanhedrin had rejected Jesus, so the Israelites had rejected Moses. Their hearts turned to Egypt like the high priest's heart was turned toward Rome.
  • 7:41. They rejoiced in the "works of their hands." Soon Stephen will accuse the Sanhedrin of idolatry as well in relation to the temple.
  • 7:42-43. Idolatry became a way of life for Israel. They worshiped the host of heaven and Moloch, and Rephan, so God sent them to Babylon in captivity. So for Luke's audience, God had now allowed the Romans to destroy Jerusalem. There is an implicit sense that the Sanhedrin's rejection of Jesus was to blame.  
  • 7:44-50. These verses reach the climax of the story of Israel, the tent of meeting. Like Hebrews, Stephen focuses on the wilderness tabernacle than the temple. In fact, the mention of the temple is the turning point of the sermon, where he turns to more direct critique.
  • 7:44. Like Hebrews, Stephen's sermon focuses more on the wilderness tent than the temple. The tent was mobile, a sign of a people who were not located in one place. As Hebrews says, Moses made it after a pattern God showed him (Heb. 8:5).
  • 7:45. The tent came into Israel with Joshua, which is "Jesus" in Greek. Perhaps the author expects the audience to think of Jesus as bringing Israel into their true land (cf. Heb. 4:8).
  • 7:46-47. David asked to create a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. There is perhaps the subtext that God has no fixed dwelling place. 
  • Solomon does build God a house but Stephen does not seem enthused. Indeed, it is at this point that the tone of the sermon changes. It seems doubtful that Stephen rejects the temple that Solomon built, but it is clear that Stephen believes the Sanhedrin has made it into an idol.
  • 7:48-50. "The Most High does not dwell in things made by hand." The mention of "things made by hand" suggests the temple has become an idol to the Jewish leaders. 
  • The subtext of the whole sermon now becomes explicit. God cannot be pinned down to a location like the Jerusalem temple. He inhabits the universe. God made everything, so it is ridiculous to think something humans make with their hands could become the full dwelling of God.
  • 7:49-50. Stephen quotes Isaiah 66:1-2. We are reminded of Hebrews 9:24, where Jesus enters into the heavenly Holies, namely, heaven itself. 
  • An audience knowing that the temple was eventually destroyed might find comfort in these words of Stephen. So the Romans have destroyed the temple. No worries. God never was contained within that building made by hands.
  • William Manson suggested in 1949 that the author of Hebrews stood in the Hellenist tradition of Stephen. Certainly the author of Hebrews was a Hellenist. However, it is also possible that Acts has portrayed Stephen in the light of later believers like the author of Hebrews.
  • 7:51-53. Now Stephen gets to the punch and speaks directly to indict the Sanhedrin. This is the climax of the sermon. They are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart. In other words, they are not the true Israelites. 
  • 7:51-52. If they have accused Stephen of speaking against God. They are the ones speaking against God. They are resisting the Holy Spirit just as their fathers did. They have persecuted Jesus and are persecuting Stephen just as their fathers persecuted the prophets. 
  • Jesus is the Righteous One that the prophets foretold, and they have rejected him. Peter used this title for Jesus already in 3:14. Richard Hays might see the background to this title in an interpretation of Habakkuk 2:4.
  • 7:53. Once again we find the idea that angels mediated the Law to Moses (see notes above on 7:30 and 38; cf. Gal. 3:19 and Heb. 2:2).
d. The Aftermath (7:54-8:3)
  • 7:54. It is not surprising that Stephen's sermon is not well received at this point. We might think of him being interrupted, since he does not get to the point of saying that God raised Jesus from the dead and enthroned him as Lord.
  • 7:55-56. Meanwhile, Stephen is being blessed. He has a vision of Jesus in heaven. 
  • This is the only place in the New Testament where Jesus stands at the right hand of God. In keeping with Psalm 110:1, the early Christians regularly mention Jesus sitting at God's right hand, enthroned as Lord, Son of God, and Messiah. Standing may indicate that Jesus is witnessing to the truth of Stephen's sermon. He is testifying for Stephen.
  • This is the only place in the New Testament where someone other than Jesus himself calls Jesus the "Son of Man." The phrase "Son of Man" has multiple overtones as Jesus' self-reference in the Gospels. The two of chief interest here are 1) as someone who suffers (e.g., Mark 14:45) and 2) as the one who will come to judge the nations in Matthew 25:31-32. This latter use finds its origins in Daniel 7:13.
  • 7:57-58. They cannot bear to hear the truth and drag him outside the city, where they stone him. We should probably think of this stoning as the actions of a mob rather than an official action of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin not to exercise capital punishment.
  • We are introduced to Saul. He is probably not a member of the Sanhedrin (taking Acts 26:10 is probably figurative) but perhaps a steward of sorts who works for the Sanhedrin. As someone from Tarsus in Cilicia, he would likely have connections with the synagogue in which Stephen had problems.
  • 7:59-60. Stephen echos the words of Jesus on the cross when he asks God to forgive his killers and for God to receive his spirit. He even kneels as he dies.
  • Language of a detachable spirit at death is used, possibly giving a window into Luke's paradigm of the human person. Stephen "sleeps," a metaphor for death.

Patrons only (not yet public)
Podcasts on English of Acts 7
Acts 7:1-8 Podcast
Acts 7:9-16 Podcast
Acts 7:17-22 Podcast
Acts 7:23-29 Podcast
Acts 7:30-36 Podcast
Acts 7:37-43 Podcast
Acts 7:44-50 Podcast
Acts 7:51-8:1 Podcast

Videos on the Greek of Acts 7
Acts 7:1-8 Greek
Acts 7:9-16 Greek
Acts 7:17-22 Greek
Acts 7:23-29 Greek
Acts 7:30-36 Greek
Acts 7:37-43 Greek
Acts 7:44-50 Greek
Acts 7:51-8:1 Greek

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