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The Sanhedrin asks Stephen if he is an enemy against the Temple and Moses. He begins his defense by teaching the history of Israel to the Jewish leaders. God appeared to Abraham and told him to go to a land which He would give him. God told Abraham that before his descendants would inherit the land, they would be enslaved for 400 years. As commanded, Abraham circumcised his son, Isaac, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Stephen teaches how Joseph, the son of Jacob, was sold into slavery by his brothers. Joseph rose to power in Egypt, stored food for a coming famine, and was able to help his family who had rejected him. Jacob and his household moved to Egypt to be with Joseph.
Stephen continues his sermon recounting the history of his people. The time of the Hebrews’ bondage had come. A Pharaoh rose to power and feared these people, so he enslaved them. Moses, a Hebrew raised in the Egyptian court, tried to help the Hebrews when he saw an Egyptian abusing them. He killed the Egyptian in defense of the Hebrews. But the Hebrews rejected Moses, so he fled east to Midian and started a family there. God appeared to Moses in the form of an angel standing in a burning thorn bush. God reveals Himself as the God of the patriarchs of the Hebrews: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The time has come to rescue the Hebrews from their slavery in Egypt.
Moses, who was rejected by his people, returned to Egypt as a deliverer. He performed wonders and signs to show God’s power in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness. He prophesied that God would send a second prophet like him, which was Jesus. Moses received the Law from God on Mt. Sinai, while the Hebrews made a golden calf to worship down in the camp. This was the pattern of Israel. God sent them a savior, they rejected the savior, and worshipped false gods.
Stephen changes subjects to the Temple, because he has been accused of being an enemy of the Temple. He describes the history of the tabernacle, designed by God to reflect Heaven, which eventually became the Temple in Jerusalem. But Stephen points out that God is not contained to the Temple. God is God; His throne is Heaven. He is above all things. He made all things. The man-made Temple is not the point. It’s our hearts He desires.
Stephen concludes his sermon by turning his focus on the Sanhedrin. They are just like the sinful Israelites who kept rejecting their deliverers, rejecting the will of God, and worshipping idols instead. Stephen compares them to the Israelites from the past who killed the prophets for prophesying about the Messiah. And when Jesus the Messiah came, they killed him too. The Sanhedrin proves Stephen’s point and stones him to death. He has a vision of Heaven, and asks God to forgive the men stoning him. A young pharisee named Saul is present for this episode and approves of the execution. This is Luke’s first introduction of the man who will become the Apostle Paul.
Stephen is put on trial before the Sanhedrin, the council of 70 Pharisees and Sadducees, and the High Priest. Leading up to his arrest, Stephen was performing wonders and attesting miracles. Once again, the majority of rulers ignored this, and only thought of their own ambition. Men from a group called the “Synagogue of the Freedmen” started to debate Stephen, and roused a mob to smear him as an enemy of Judaism.
The trumped-up charges against him are that he speaks against the Temple and the Law, and says that Jesus will destroy the Temple and change the customs of Moses. These are false accusations, but the goal of Stephen’s adversaries is not to discover what it is true, but rather to defeat Stephen and diminish his witness.
In his defense, Stephen gives a lengthy sermon which walks his audience through the history of Israel, beginning with Abraham. He describes the covenant God made with Abraham; the exile of Joseph to Egypt; how Joseph saved his family by rising to power and preparing food for harsh times in spite of how they treated him; the 400 years in Egypt and the slavery of the Israelites; how Moses was rejected by them initially, but then led them to freedom by the power of God; how the Israelites made a golden calf idol to worship. Stephen references Moses’s prophecy that God would eventually raise up a second Moses to speak the words of God to the people: Jesus.
After Stephen proves that he is not an enemy of Moses or the Law, he tells the Sanhedrin the story of the tabernacle, which God designed and commanded the people to make; how in spite of this, the Israelites worshipped false gods, yet again breaking their covenant with the LORD; and how ultimately the tabernacle became a Temple built by Solomon. This is the same Temple the crowd claims Stephen opposes.
As for the Temple, Stephen notes that God does not live in the Temple nor does He have need of a house; He is God, He is everywhere all at once, He is above the earth, He is the authority over everything. Throughout his sermon, Stephen quotes scripture and prophecies from the Old Testament. Everything he is explaining should be well known to the Pharisees and Sadducees.
His point in this history lesson is to tell the Sanhedrin that they are just like the sinful Israelites who kept rejecting their deliverers, rejecting the will of God, and worshipping idols instead. Joseph and Moses came to help Israel and were sent into exile, but they ended up saving Israel anyway. It is the same with Jesus. The Jewish leaders have been unfaithful to all of their deliverers. They have rejected them all. They have persecuted and murdered the prophets who foretold the Messiah’s coming, and they have killed the Messiah too.
This enrages the Sanhedrin. Stephen tells them that he sees Heaven open, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. The Jewish leaders carry him out of the city and stone him. Stephen asks God to forgive the murderers, and dies. A young Pharisee named Saul witnesses this execution and approves of it. He will begin a campaign to persecute other believers in Jesus. This Saul will eventually become the Apostle Paul.