Stephen is remembered by Christians as a bold preacher of the gospel of Christ, and one of the earliest martyrs of the faith. His blistering message to the Jewish Sanhedrin, delivered on the last day of his life, sums up the history of Israel with an emphasis on her pattern of stubborn rejection of God.
The account is found in the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts. With a face like an angel, and filled with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, Stephen lambasted Judea’s seat of power concerning the truth of Jesus – a message they wholesale rejected. However, he did not begin with a word about Christ. He started off by asserting what happened at the very outset of their chosen race. He detailed their flagrant disobedience and contrary attitude beginning with the patriarch, Abraham.
In the first kingdom rejection, Abraham was told, “Go out from your land and your kindred and go into the land that I will show you” (v. 3; cf. Gen. 12:1). Though he did leave his homeland and move upriver, Abraham, in fact, disobeyed God’s command. He never left his father’s household and he did not go to the promised land of Canaan. Instead, he settled in the land of Haran with his father, Terah.
He did not finally travel to Canaan, as instructed, until his father’s death. By taking Terah from him, God moved the heart of Abraham to eventually conform to his will. However, God would not give him any inheritance in the land during his lifetime – not even “a foot’s length” (v. 5). By his stubborn slowness to obey, Abraham forfeited this promised blessing until the fulness of God’s plan would be established on earth. Initial failure would delay the blessing of inheritance, but it would not rob him of its ultimate implementation (Rom. 4:13). This pattern is re-lived throughout Israel’s history: Stubbornness at first, but obedience at last.
The second kingdom rejection entailed the patriarch, Joseph, being sold by his brothers into slavery. In spite of this reprehensible act, Stephen highlighted how God used their sinfulness to establish his own purpose for Israel’s preservation. It was not until their second visit to Egypt that the brothers finally recognized who Joseph was, and they could hardly believe it was him even after he revealed himself to them! (v. 13). Hard-heartedness and spiritual blindness are, again, demonstrated by this historic failure of early Israelites. Though dense to their own failures, God brought about deliverance through Joseph.
In the third kingdom rejection, even “as the promise drew near”, Israel failed to understand God’s plan to save her through a godly servant chosen by him (v. 17). Moses was “beautiful in God’s sight”, and “mighty in his words and deeds” (v. 20, cf. Exo. 2:2; Heb. 11:23). However, the Israelites took no interest in him, nor did they appreciate his courage to slay an Egyptian oppressing them. Instead, one of them retorted, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?” (V. 28). The Israelite’s reaction to Moses’ bravery was ingratitude and pride.
In spite of their initial rejection, Moses was sent by God to rescue the people of Israel from the oppression of Pharaoh (v. 34). Finally, they came around, accepting his leadership as he led them into the wilderness through the Red Sea (v. 35; cf. 1 Cor. 10:1, 2).
The fourth kingdom rejection took place near Mount Sinai. After Moses left to receive God’s “living oracles” upon the holy mountain, the Israelites “thrust him aside” and set their hearts on Egyptian ways (v. 39). They fashioned a golden calf and made abominable sacrifices to it (vv. 40, 41; cf. 1 Cor. 10:5 – 10). Through the intercessory work of Moses, the people were pardoned and restored to the Lord at Sinai (cf. Num. 14:11 – 20). Subsequently, Moses obediently constructed a tabernacle in the wilderness “according to the pattern” he received from the Lord (v. 44).
The fifth kingdom rejection took place in the wilderness, just before Israel entered the land to conquer it. They did not trust in Jehovah to defeat their enemies, and they were forced to wander the wilderness for another forty years until that generation of unbelieving Israelites died off.
During their wandering, the people refused to worship God as he desired (v. 42). Therefore, he judicially gave them over to depravity, including star and demon worship (vv. 42, 43). This defiance against God lasted from the wilderness wandering period into the Babylonian captivity (e.g. Deut. 17:2, 3; 2 Kings 17:16; 21:3 – 5; 2 Chron. 33:3; Jer. 8:2, 19:13; Hos. 4:17; Zeph. 1:5). Finally, with Joshua’s leadership, they entered the land and brought with them the tabernacle Moses had constructed, dispossessing the nations God drove out before them (v. 45).
David found favor in God’s eyes and sought a dwelling place for him among the people (v. 46). Yet, it was his son, Solomon, who would construct the temple, even though “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (vv. 47 – 50). In punishment for their perpetual disregard for God’s holy place, the people of Israel would be exiled beyond Babylon (and also beyond Damascus; comp. Amos 5:27). This was their sixth and last national rejection before the advent of Messiah.
Stephen’s final words of rebuke summarize the message of his sermon: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your father’s did, so do you” (v. 51). By rejecting the Righteous One foretold in the law, they continued the Jewish tradition of obstinacy. Moses prophesied the coming of a prophet like him, but they did not look for him (v. 37; cf. Acts 3:22 – 24). Sadly, they did not see him for who he was!
From the very beginning, they “betrayed and murdered” all the prophets God sent to them (v. 52). They were spiritually ignorant of his ways, rejecting his word in favor of selfishness and unbelief. He would hold them responsible for every righteous martyr, from Abel to Zechariah, because they did not know the time of their visitation (Matt. 23:35; Lk. 19:41 – 44).
Jesus foretold Jerusalem’s destruction and the diaspora; discipline for their unwillingness to receive Messiah (Matt. 23:37 – 39). He said, “See, your house is left to you desolate”, and, “You will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’”.
Stephen was echoing the words of Christ! He was talking about their seventh and final rejection of God’s kingdom! However, before he could finish his sermon, describing how God would give them a second chance, he was brutally murdered in cold blood. What a familiar turn of events!
Had they not interrupted him, they would have heard about final salvation and deliverance. They would have learned about their coming restoration, when Jesus comes in glory. Of course, we have much Scripture to tell us about that! (e.g. Zeph. 2:6 – 11; 3:14 – 20; Zech. 9:14 – 17; 12:10 – 14; 13:1 – 3).
Prophecy clearly teaches Israel will finally acknowledge her Savior and King. Paul would later write, “all Israel will be saved”, and it will happen, “when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25 – 27; Lk. 21:24). This will be after the close of the church age.
Stephen’s scathing sermon shows us that, seven times, Israel has defied God in unbelief, postponing the kingdom he had in store for them. Many claim, in spite of their rejection, the kingdom came anyway (“spiritually”), but this does not fit the pattern of Bible prophecy! (cf. Acts 3:19 – 21). The kingdom will not arrive until Israel repents! – MAH