The Situation: Belief in the resurrected Jesus created a tense, confrontational situation in Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders [the Jerusalem Council] resented being held responsible for Jesus' death (Acts 5:28). Even with this tension in Jerusalem, the church grew. Jewish Christians rapidly increased in number there (Acts 4:4; 5:14; 6:1,7).
In those conditions, two occurrences were predictable. First, rapid growth produces internal problems. Acts 6:1-6 verifies internal problems occurred. Second, external confrontations produce hostile actions. Acts 4:1-22 and 5:17-40 verify external confrontations produced hostile actions. Once external hostility began, it escalated.
The Speaker and the Context: Stephen, who presented this sermon, figured importantly in the internal problems and the external confrontations. Internally, he was selected as one of seven men to oversee the distribution of food to widows. Greek-speaking Jewish Christians in Jerusalem complained that their widows were overlooked in daily food distribution. Stephen was one of seven to see that food distribution was handled fairly without favoritism.
In Acts, Luke presents the growing circle of inclusion of the people who could accept the resurrected Jesus as Lord. When it began, the Jerusalem church included (1) Jewish residents of Jerusalem who spoke Aramaic and had family lineage in Palestine; (2) Jewish residents of Jerusalem who spoke Greek and had family lineage outside of Palestine; and (3) proselytes who were not Jewish but had converted to Judaism (2:5,10,14; 6:1). The circle grew bigger with the inclusion of Samaritan believers (Acts 8:5,6,12). It grew bigger still with the inclusion of people in Palestine who were not Jews or converts to Judaism, but believed in the God of the Jews (Acts 10). It grew bigger again to include people outside Palestine who believed in the God of the Jews, but were not Jews or converts to Judaism (Acts 11:19-26). It grew yet bigger to include people who believed in the resurrected Jesus and the God who sent him, but had little or no contact with the Jews (Acts 14:21,22 when examined in contrast to verse 19; Acts 16:33; 17:34). Steven's ministry in the Jerusalem church was involved in the growing circle.
Steven also had a primary role in the external conflict confronting the church. Greek-speaking Jewish Christians complained that their widows were neglected in the food distribution (Acts 6:1). The congregation chose seven Greek-speaking male Jewish Christians to oversee the food distribution (Acts 6:2-5). The actions and convictions of one of these Greek-speaking Christian men [Stephen] produced a bitter reaction in a Greek-speaking Jerusalem synagogue (Acts 6:9). These Jews were offended by Stephen's powerful words. They (1) argued with him, (2) secretly encouraged men to falsely accuse him of inflammatory statements, and (3) used false witnesses against him at a court trial.
The Situation: Cyrenian and Alexandrian Jews who attended the Jerusalem Synagogue of the Freedmen attempted to discredit Stephen. They (and others) falsely accused Stephen of blaspheming the law and God. Their emotionally negative response caused Stephen's arrest and trial. At the trial, false witnesses accused Stephen (1) of speaking against the temple and the law, and (2) of altering ancient Jewish customs. Stephen's sermon is his statement of defense at the trial.
The Audience: The sermon was presented by a Greek-speaking Jew to the leaders of the Jewish nation. The sermons in Acts 2 and 3 were to inquisitive audiences containing receptive individuals. The sermon in Acts 7 was to a hostile audience prejudiced against the speaker. The outcome of the sermons in Acts 2 and 3 focused on the response of receptive listeners. The outcome of the sermon in Acts 7 was an emotional, hostile reaction resulting in the speaker's execution.
The Sermon: Many quickly read through the sermon as if it were (1) a review of Jewish history and (2) an emotional condemnation of the audience. The sermon's theme was simple: our ancestors [the Jewish people of the Old Testament] misunderstood God's purposes in His actions. The conclusion was simple: you make the same mistake our ancestors made.
Most of Stephen's quotations were from the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Many of the Jews did not understand Hebrew.
Stephen's sermon is the longest sermon recorded in Acts. Verses 2-14 focus on the pre-Egyptian existence of their ancestors. It began by focusing on the unquestioned, accepted foundation of Israel: God's promise to and covenant with Abraham. Verses 9-14 state how and why the Jewish people went to Egypt. That was commonly understood. Verses 15-45 focused on commonly understood facts but commonly misunderstood purposes. This section focused on Moses. Note Moses wanted to help his people, but was rejected as a ruler and judge (verses 23-28). Note this rejected ruler and judge became God's appointed, commissioned ruler and judge (verse 35). Even after deliverance, the Jews rejected Moses as ruler and judge (verses 39-43). They misunderstood God's purposes in Moses' leadership, the law, and the tabernacle.
David and Solomon built God a permanent dwelling place. However, Israel misunderstood the purpose of the temple. Their faith was in the temple instead of the God to be honored by the temple. God's presence is too vast to be confined to a building or a geographic location.
Stephen said his audience was like their ancestors. [For "stiff-necked" and "uncircumcised hearts," see Deuteronomy 9:5,6; 10:16.] God sent their ancestors the prophets, and their ancestors rejected and killed them. God sent them the Righteous One [Jesus], and they rejected and killed him. Their ancestors did not understand God's purposes in Moses, and the prophets told them so. They did not understand God's purposes in Jesus, and he told them so.
Stephen did not oppose the law or the temple. He opposed their failure to understand God's purposes in the law and the temple.
Thought questions about people who follow God:
Why do people who hold studied, accepted convictions often resent the person who shares an understanding they need to consider? Why do we tend to exclude people rather than include people?
Link to Teacher's Guide Quarter 2, Lesson 7
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