Stephen's Sanhedrin Speech
Stephen's unanswerable challenge
Luke's Divinely inspired and infallible account of Stephen's speech before a hostile Sanhedrin council takes all of chapter 7. It is by far the longest recorded message in the book. It is twice the length of Peter's electrifying sermon at Pentecost, and more than double Paul's convicting message to King Agippa that nearly converted him. The Holy Spirit describes Stephen's opponents as unable 'to resist the wisdom and spirit by which he spake'. After furious accusations by bribed witnesses which were falsified by their own mutual contradictions, he was called to answer the charges. Intense attention was paid to his words.
The result of his message was a response so infuriated and ashamed by his gentle prophetic challenges that his listeners stopped up their ears, gnashed on him with their teeth, as though literally biting him, and run to murder him without justification. One eyewitness of the events who consented to the murder at the time afterwards was so deeply convinced of the testimony he too was converted and changed into a mighty witness for the Lord Jesus, the Apostle Paul.
Some claim Stephen's speech was full of mistakes. Yisroel Blumenthal's site (from which I have now been barred) claims for example he 'made more errors than a catechumen'. If so, it is strange indeed that instead of literally making a glorious martyr of Stephen, the rabbis in their accumulated wisdom didn't calmly fault the reasoning and ridicule the speaker, thus discrediting his testimony and disarming the danger to themselves. The reality is that they didn't because as we shall see they couldn't. The case and the challenge Stephen left before his brethren was watertight and has as searing an edge today as when it was spoken.
The narrative appears as first sight to be simply a reiteration of Israel's history, with a sudden series of challenges and rebukes at the end, starting from v 51. However that is to completely neglect what it was that absolutely enraged his hearers. This took the form of two pillars in Stephen's case. First apostasy has a long and ancient trail in Israel and repeatedly manifests itself and that rejection of the Messiah was but its latest, and most terrible expression. Secondly that his apparently innocuous narration touches the raw nerves of the many disputes in which he engaged with the rejectionists prior to this encounter. These arguments point plainly to the necessity and manifest work of the Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth, in a manner that leaves his detractors culpable of both of idolatry and unbelief.
Abraham's departure first from Ur, then after Terah's death in Haran from there, is an emphatic break from idolatry (Josh.24.2). Yet the land promise which had both drawn and encouraged him (Gen.12.1,7) was never fulfilled in his lifetime, not even a foothold, only land for burial. The promise turned to a prophecy of suffering for 400 years prior to return. Circumcision was given as token of the prophecy's fulfilment upon the first day of the week. The prophecy was activated in a rejected son of Jacob. Sold over to the Gentiles, after many trials, he became their ruler. A famine impoverished Jacob' house, and they are forced to seek Gentile help at the hands of their estranged brother. He wears a Gentile mask and speaks a Gentile tongue. Joseph discovers himself to them and speaks peaceably to them to bring his father too down to refuge, in what would become their snare, as well as the womb of their nation. 75 members of his immediate kindred descend with Jacob, including the living wives of Jacob's sons (66+9, Gen.46.26). Joseph and his brothers are buried in Shechem. That the land was purchased by Abraham, his first named foot print in Canaan (Gen.12.6), and where the first firm promise of possession was revealed, before being conquered by Jacob, is new information to us. Had it been inaccurate, we may be sure Stephen would have been silenced. Though the wariness with which Abraham approached and reasoned with the Hittites over Machpelah (Gen.23.12,16,17-20), does suggest his fingers had been burnt before, may explain why Jacob felt an affinity with and some right in Shechem, and why it was a special donation to Joseph (Gen.48.22).
When the genocide of Israel began under another Pharoah, Moses was raised up. He came from Egypt's bosom to his people. His zeal for justice was unappreciated. The extortioner rejected his leadership and he fled. After 40 years of exile, God appeared to him as an angel in the bush that burned but was not consumed. This Angel who spoke to him, was the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He Who had appeared to him, delivered Israel by his hand, effected signs and wonders, parted the Red Sea and kept Israel in the wilderness for another 40 years. Moses promised One like him to follow, a unique Mediator between God and the people, a Deliverer from the Egypt of the heart. Yet the people turned back to their bondage, persuading Aaron to make them gods they could see and believe in. They trusted more in the work of their own hands than in God's promise and warning. God turned away and gave them over to their disobedience for forty years, this adoration of strange gods was still in the their hearts and hands (Amos 5.26-7) until the exile beyond Damascus and for some even beyond Babylon, the main locus of exile.
David sought but was declined the blessing of building the Temple, being left with the witness of a fragile Tabernacle, whilst Solomon completed it. Stephen cites Isaiah 66.1 to remind his hearers sacrifice becomes an abomination, if not offered in contrition and trembling at conviction by the Law.
Suddenly turning the focus to his hearers, Stephen says, 'Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised'. He sees the whole history of Israel as a continuum of resistance, disobedience and betrayal against the Seed of the woman. Evil springs from within the nation, not just outside it. This hard heartedness against God comes from a state of uncircumcision, an inward pollution of spirit, in spite of the Law. It results in contantly refusing the entreaties and persuasions of mercy and holiness by His Spirit. It culminates in the hatred and murder of His witnesses. No nation has known such privilege, no nation has displayed such wickedness. A delight in receiving the Law has not translated into keeping the Law, on the contrary the Law has exposed the real diagnosis of their condition.
The root of the solution and of the apogee of their evil is in God's Angel. The One Who appeared to Moses at Sinai, the Angel of the Lord speaking as Yahveh from the midst of the Bush, Him Who dwells in the Bush (Deut.33.16), He is their Redeemer (Isaiah 47.4) as He was Jacob's (Gen.48.16). This Angel of the Covenant has come(Mal.3.1), and they have crucified Him by the hands of Gentiles. He is the Joseph they have sold, He is that hope of Moses Whom they have rejected, He is the true Temple and Tabernacle (Lev.26.11), by Whose blood alone we may enter God's presence, The Ark Who alone has kept the Law within, the true Israel and her only hope in apostasy, the true wrestler with Divine Justice and Judgement, and He alone has prevailed. Stephen's final prayer for them as they silenced his reproof with their stones and gnashed on him, shows the character of Yahveh's work by praying their sin not be laid to their charge, but remitted by the Angel Himself.