Stephen's enemies hired witnesses to testify falsely against him, accusing him of saying that Jesus would destroy the Temple and change the customs based on the law of Moses. The high priest asked Stephen whether the charges were true. Under the Jewish system of justice, he was allowed to speak in his own defense (Deut. 19:15–19; 1:17; John 7:51).1 What he said illustrates why he outmatched his enemies in debate. His speech was eloquent, logical, and compelling.
A casual reader easily misses the point. His speech appears on the surface to be no more than a history lesson irrelevant to the charges. But in fact, he was proving his case by drawing evidence from the experience of Israel long ago. As stated in his summation, his case was, "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye" (v. 51).
Stephen highlighted two examples of the nation’s rebellious tendencies. His purpose was to show that the Jews treated Christ in exactly the same way that their forefathers had in times past treated other deliverers sent by God.
Rejection of Joseph
The first deliverer that Stephen urged the Sanhedrin to remember was Joseph, who succeeded his father, Jacob, in the lineage of Abraham and Isaac. Jacob had twelve sons altogether. In tribute to their role as founders of the twelve tribes of Israel, they were known as "the patriarchs." The ten eldest hated the eleventh, Joseph, because he was their father’s favorite. Out of envy, they sold him to slave traders, who carried him away to Egypt. Yet this brother that they rejected was the one God intended to be their deliverer.
Years later, a severe famine struck Egypt and Palestine. Because Joseph had warned Pharaoh of the coming disaster, Pharaoh raised him to second place in the kingdom and gave him authority to store up grain for the time of shortage. As a result, there was grain available in Egypt all through the famine. But soon in Palestine there was none. Faced with possible starvation, Jacob had no choice but to send his sons into Egypt to buy grain from its storehouses. They came before Joseph himself, because he was supervising trade with outsiders, and bowed before him, not recognizing who he was. But he recognized them. At this moment when a turn of events gave him power of life or death over men who had done him great harm, he declined to take revenge. Instead, after satisfying himself that they now regretted their past wickedness, he not only forgave them; he even invited them and their families, together with his father, to relocate within the safety of Egypt. He delivered all their lives from death, even though his brothers had once thrown away his life as worthless.
Rejection of Moses
In his survey of national history, Stephen now moved ahead several centuries to the time of Moses. God raised up Moses to save Israel after the Egyptians enslaved them. But again, the nation rejected the man that God intended as their deliverer.
In his youth, Moses killed an Egyptian who was oppressing a fellow Israelite. Instead of rallying behind him, his brothers in Israel scorned his leadership and forced him to flee. Years later, when he returned to Egypt and led the nation out of bondage, they gave him obedience for a while, but at first opportunity, they returned to the idolatry of Egypt. A few days after he left them to receive the law of God, they made and worshiped a golden calf (v. 41). They continued to resist him throughout the whole time of their wandering in the wilderness.
Why did Stephen give the greatest portion of his defense to the nation’s shameful treatment of Moses? Because the high priest and the other leading members of the Sanhedrin were now accusing Stephen of siding with those seeking to "change the customs which Moses delivered us" (Acts 6:14). Thus, they were claiming to be Moses’ loyal followers. In reality, they were the official representatives of a nation that had been conspicuously disloyal to Moses.
God's Judgment on Idolatry
After coming into possession of the Promised Land, they did not build the kind of God-fearing nation that God intended when He gave the law to Moses. Instead, throughout most of their history, they preferred the gods of other nations to their own God. They chose to wallow in the wickedness of paganism rather than follow the righteousness of the law. Rather than worship the creator of the heavens, they worshiped the heavenly sun and stars (v. 42). By quoting Amos 5:25–27 (vv. 42–43), Stephen cast shame on the nation for preferring such defiled deities as Molech and Remphan (probably a reference to the god identified with the planet Saturn).8 At last, because of their habitual contempt for the religious and moral principles handed down by Moses, God let them be carried into captivity.
Stephen’s Answer to the First Charge
Stephen concluded his defense by answering the specific charges brought against him. The first charge was that in his public witness for Jesus, he portrayed Him as someday emerging to destroy the Temple. Notice that Stephen did not bother to deny the charge. He opted rather to make the more important point that the Temple was not as valuable as the Jews thought. He reminded them that God did not dwell in a man-made building, but in heaven. They could not make any house for Him that He had not already made, for He made all things.
Stephen’s Answer to the Second Charge
The second charge was that Stephen portrayed his leader, Jesus, as a great force in history who would change the customs handed down by Moses. Stephen’s reply was, in essence, "What hypocrisy!" He confronted them with the grave accusation that the nation had always blocked out the sound of God’s voice within them. Their heart and ears were uncircumcised; that is, their heart was as hard and their ears as closed as any heathen’s. It was they who had treated the laws and customs of Moses with contempt.
Moreover, the people of Israel had persecuted all the prophets that God sent to deliver them from their sinful ways and to announce the future coming of a Just One. Then the nation shamefully mistreated the Just One Himself. When He appeared to them recently, they refused to accept Him as their deliverer from sin, just as they had rejected Joseph and Moses and every other deliverer sent by God. Instead of receiving the Just One’s words that had power to heal and restore their hearts, they betrayed Him and put Him to death. Stephen was, of course, speaking of Jesus.
In summation, he specifically replied to the accusation that he had spoken "blasphemous words against . . . the law" (Acts 6:13). No, it was the nation of Israel who "received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it."
The First Martyr
Stephen’s powerful words had the same effect on the Sanhedrin as on the synagogues where he spoke. They brought conviction of sin, but no repentance. The truth was a sharp knife cutting conscience so deeply that the Sanhedrin "gnashed on him with their teeth," showing that to hear him was sheer torment. Yet he drove the knife still deeper. As he looked up to heaven, he reported to them all that he saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God.
Now the agony of conviction that he had brought to their souls exploded in anger. With one voice they cried out in protest and together they rushed upon him to drag him away. In their own hearts they justified themselves by viewing the man as the worst of blasphemers. They proceeded to execute him in the manner dictated by Mosaic law for a teacher of false religion (Deut. 13:6–11; 17:2–7). They hurried Stephen to a place outside the city, threw him into a pit, and cast stones upon him to deal deadly blows. The law required the first stones to be hurled by witnesses to the crime; then all the rest of the people could throw more stones onto the burial pile. In Stephen’s case, the witnesses were the men who heard his words before the Sanhedrin. Doubtless most if not all were ruling elders. Before these assassins undertook their murderous task, they laid their outer garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.
The Sanhedrin’s care to follow Jewish law when they stoned Stephen was hypocritical. The Romans forbade them to impose capital punishment on anyone without consent of the Roman governor.25 It appears that the Jewish leaders were too enraged to feel bound by legal technicalities—that in their fervor to kill a man they condemned as a lawbreaker, they did not scruple to break Roman law.
In his death Stephen gave the crowning proof to all his enemies that he was a man of God, for he showed neither fear nor hatred. He calmly knelt and asked God to receive his spirit. His last words, projected with a loud voice so that all his executioners could hear him, were a petition to God. He asked, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge."
In the chronology we have accepted for the Book of Acts, Stephen's death falls in late AD 33, about half a year after Pentecost (see Appendix 1). Pilate was still the Roman procurator of Judea, where he remained in office until AD 36.26 The Sanhedrin’s mob action against Stephen and Saul’s subsequent campaign against the church raise the strong possibility that Pilate, probably for the same reasons he acquiesced in the crucifixion of Christ, gave Jewish leaders a free hand in dealing with Christ’s followers. As a result, they considered any formal proceedings in Pilate’s hall to be unnecessary.