Stephen's Sermon - Part 2

Acts 7:17-43

Copyright © 2004 Jeremy Myers

C. Moses (7:17-37)

        1. Stephen has not blasphemed Moses (cf. 6:11)

        2. Moses was repeatedly rejected by the Israelites (7:17-37)

D. The Law (7:38-43)

        1. Stephen has not spoken against the law (cf. 6:13)

        2. The Law was repeatedly rejected by the Israelites (7:38-43)

Stephen continues his defense in the trial for his life. He has been accused of four things, blaspheming God, blaspheming Moses, speaking against the Law and speaking against the temple. All four of these things are sacred and holy to Jews, and so the charges brought against Stephen were quite serious.

So Stephen addresses these accusations one at a time. He addressed the accusation of blasphemy against God in verses 1-16. Now, in 17-37, he turns to the accusation that he has blasphemed Moses.

C. Moses (7:17-37)

        1. Stephen has not blasphemed Moses (cf. 6:11)

Very likely, what Stephen had said is something that Jesus and Peter have both taught, and which Paul will teach later. What Stephen probably taught was that in Jesus Christ, a prophet better than Moses had come (cf. Heb. 3). In the Jewish mind, there could be no prophet better than Moses. Not only did he deliver Israel from Egyptian bondage, and the Jews of Stephen's day were looking for deliverance from Roman bondage, but Moses also gave to Israel the Law of God. Moses was the premier prophet, to speak against him is to speak against the founder of Judaism itself. And so when Stephen taught that in Jesus, a better Prophet than Moses had come, and that they need to listen to this Prophet over and above Moses, the average Jew would have become incredibly angry, and would have accused Stephen of teaching blasphemy.

So in verses 17-37, Stephen masterfully defends himself against this accusation. His defense reveals an intimate and thorough knowledge of the Word of God - not just what it says, but also what it means. This is very important to be able to do if we are going to develop correct theology. It is not enough to know what the Bible says - many of the Jewish leaders could recite the entire Pentateuch - we also have to know what it means.

        2. Moses was repeatedly rejected by the Israelites (7:17-37)

Stephen shows them in verses 17-37 that he has not blasphemed Moses by rejecting him for Jesus Christ. Rather, the Jews are the ones who have rejected Moses because he himself said that a better prophet than he would come. Let's see how he develops this.

17"But when the time of the promise drew near which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt 18till another king arose who did not know Joseph.

This is a major understatement. Only 75 people went in to Egypt, and they estimate that about 2 million came out. The rapid growth of the Israelites on Egyptian soil caused the Pharaoh of that time to fear that they would take over the Egyptian empire, and so he enslaved them. But even as slaves, they continued to multiply, and so this Pharaoh took further action to slow down their rapid numerical growth.

19This man dealt treacherously with our people, and oppressed our forefathers, making them expose their babies, so that they might not live.

He made them expose their babies. This means that he made them literally throw them out to die. They had to leave their babies out on the street to die by exposure to the sun, or starvation. Sometimes, the government would employ people to go around and collect these babies and kill them, or in some cultures, collect them and raise them until the babies were old enough to be sold into slavery or prostitution. This was still going on, by the way, all over the Roman Empire in Stephen's day.

We have a letter from a Roman man to his wife which reads this way: "Heartiest greetings. Note that we are still even now in Alexandria. Do not worry, if when all others return, I remain in Alexandria. I beg and beseech you to take care of the little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. If – good luck to you – you have another child, if it is a boy, let it live, if it is a girl, [throw it away.]

A man by the name of Seneca, who lived at the same time as Paul, wrote about they handled unwanted animals. He said this: "We slaughter a fierce ox; we strangle a mad dog; we plunge a knife into a sick cow. Children born weak or deformed we drown."  Barbaric, yes? Horrendous, right? How could they? 

If only they had been able to practice abortion like civilized people.

We haven't progressed as much as we think, have we? People have always found ways to get rid of unwanted babies. The problem though in Egypt was that these babies were wanted by the parents, but unwanted by the government. This sort of thing is happening in China. Parents are only allowed to have one child. If they want a boy, but get a girl, they will abort her, or turn her over to the orphanage when born. If they already have a child, and the wife gets pregnant with a second, they will have to abort it.  As the population of the world continues to grow, we may find this sort of practice become law in more and more countries. This was sort of what was happening in Moses' day. We know from Exodus, however, that it was only the boys who were getting killed, they allowed the girls to live.

20At this time Moses was born, and was well pleasing to God; and he was brought up in his father’s house for three months. 21But when he was set out, Pharaoh’s daughter took him away and brought him up as her own son.

Stephen hints here that although Moses' parents tried to hide him and save him, they were only able to do so for three months. But then it got too risky, and so they had to expose him, they had to set him out just like the other baby boys in the land.  We have always been taught that Moses' parents were trying to save him by putting him in a basket in the river. But according to what Stephen says here, they set him out. We know from Exodus 2 that they placed him in a basket in the river. What were they doing?

Casting the babies into the river was a form of human sacrifice to the Egyptian river God. Other cultures did the same thing by throwing their babies into a fire to worship Moloch. I am told that even in India today, families will sometimes throw their babies into the river Ganges to try to earn favor with the god of the river.  The only difference probably, in what Moses' parents did and what Pharaoh had commanded, was that they put Moses in a little basket, and let it float in the reeds. Pharaoh had commanded they throw the babies into the river. Moses' parents were obeying, but they had certainly heard of Noah and the ark and how the ark was made from gopher wood and covered with pitch, and how it saved eight people through the flood waters which covered the earth and killed everything alive on the earth. So maybe they were building a little ark for Moses (Ex. 2:5) and hoping that although they were placing him in the river, the God that had saved Noah would also save Moses.

And that is exactly what happened, though in an unexpected way. We read there in verse 21 that Pharaohs daughter came to bathe in the river, and she saw Moses floating there in the reeds, and she took him up as her own. Exodus 2:6 reveals that she knew that this was a Hebrew child, yet that because he was crying, she had compassion on it.  Probably because she drew him out of the Nile, she thought that he was a gift to her from the Nile river god. And that is what his name means. According to Exodus 2:10, she named him Moses because she drew him out of the river. After he had been nursed and weaned by his own mother, Pharaoh's daughter raised him as her own son.

22And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds.

He was trained and schooled in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. The Egyptians were an incredibly sophisticated culture. They were the ones who developed mathematics, chemistry, engineering, architecture and astronomy.  They were able to do things that even today we cannot figure out how to do. The pyramids for example. Go to the library, or go online and look up the pyramids, and after a bit of research, you will discover that nobody knows how they were built, or really what they were built for. There is even quite a bit of doubt that we could build them today. Even if we were given all of our engineering and architectural skills, there is a lot of doubt that we could build similar structures that would stay standing for over 4000 years as they have.

Moses was trained in all of this wisdom that the Egyptians had gained. He earned all of the advanced degrees of the Egyptian schools. Why did he get all of this education? Well, there is good evidence that he was being trained to be the next Pharaoh of Egypt.  It is highly likely that Ramses II was the Pharaoh at this time, and we know from history that he did not have a son. He did have a daughter, and if this daughter was the one who we read about here and in Exodus 2, then Moses would be seen as a gift from the river God to provide an heir to Ramses II. Moses was next in line to rule over Egypt.

But even with all of this education and all of this worldly wisdom, and all of this power, Moses was not ready to lead or deliver the people of Israel. According to Exodus 2:11, Moses knew he was an Israelite, and knew that God was going to use him to deliver the Israelites from bondage. And so when he was forty years old, with all of this power and education, he tried to take matters into his own hands by beginning to help his brethren. Verses 23-25 shows that he tried to rescue them.

23"Now when he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the children of Israel. 24And seeing one of them suffer wrong, he defended and avenged him who was oppressed, and struck down the Egyptian. 25For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand.

Moses tries to rescue his brethren from being beaten by killing an Egyptian. But his fellow Israelites did not understand what he was trying to do. To them, killing one slave driver wasn't going to change a thing. There were thousands of such slave drivers. If anything, it would only make things more difficult on the Israelites once it was found out that an Egyptian had been killed.  So when Moses tries to rescue the Israelites, they reject him and what he was trying to do. But not only did he try to rescue his brethren from the Egyptians, but he also tried to reconcile them to one another. We see this in verses 26-28.

26And the next day he appeared to two of them as they were fighting, and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brethren; why do you wrong one another?’ 27But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28Do you want to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday?’

Moses thinks, "Well, if they reject me as their rescuer, maybe I can at least help them get along with one another a little better. Whey should they be hurting and hating one another when they have enough trouble with the Egyptians every day? I will go in and use my skills and knowledge as a diplomat and mediator to make peace between my brethren."  So he goes into two Hebrews who were fighting and tried to make peace between them. Possibly, Moses came across to them as proud and arrogant and the one with all the answers because of his training. But for whatever reasons they refuse to be helped by him, and they reject him again. They say, "Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28Do you want to kill me as you did the Egyptian yesterday?"

Very likely, his own people turned him into Pharoah! He was betrayed by his own brethren. Nobody saw him kill the Egyptian except the Jewish man who was rescued. And so he, or another person he told, must have turned Moses in.  When Moses hears is rejected by his own people a second time, and when he hears that his murder of an Egyptian is public knowledge, he realizes that to save his own life, he must flee.

29Then, at this saying, Moses fled and became a dweller in the land of Midian, where he had two sons.

AT 40 years of age, he flees to Midian and lived there. He became a shepherd there, married a Midianite woman, and had two sons with her. All of Moses' training in the wisdom of the Egyptians had not prepared him to be the leader over Israel. So God took him to Midian to complete his training. J. Vernon McGee says that God took him to Midian to give him his B.D. - the Backside of the Desert degree.  According to verse 30, it was another 40 years before he earned this degree, at the end of which time, God called Moses to the commencement ceremony on Mount Sinai.

30"And when forty years had passed, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire in a bush, in the wilderness of Mount Sinai.

By the way, this shows us that Mt. Sinai is in Midian, not at the traditional site of Mt. Sinai in what is today called the Sinai Peninsula. God appeared to Moses in a flaming bush to give Moses his diploma, and send him out with instructions.

31When Moses saw it, he marveled at the sight; and as he drew near to observe, the voice of the Lord came to him, 32saying, ‘I am the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and dared not look. 33‘Then the Lord said to him, "Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. 34I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt."’

Moses was finally ready. God had not been ignoring the needs of his people Israel, He had preparing to provide for their needs, and now a deliverer was properly trained and humbled. So now God decided to act.  Notice that it is God who will deliver them, and God's chosen instrument for this deliverance is Moses. Moses had tried to take matters into his own hands, but God's deliverance comes in God's timing according to God's ways.  And now we get to Stephen's point in reviewing all of this. He has reviewed the history of Moses up to this point, and now Stephen applies it for the Jewish rulers.

35"This Moses whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ is the one God sent to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the Angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36He brought them out, after he had shown wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years.

Stephen says, "Look, it is not me who has rejected and turned away from Moses. Our Jewish ancestors rejected him from day one. They continually turned away from him. They didn't want him to rescue them from the Egyptians, and they didn’t want him to reconcile them to one another. Though he was God's chosen vessel to bring deliverance, Israel had always rejected him.   And the Jews that Stephen is talking to are thinking, "Yes, but not us. Not us. They may have rejected him, but we don't. We honor him and obey him." So in verse 37, Stephen points the finger at them too.

37"This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear.’

Stephen is telling that Moses taught that prophet would come after him who would be like Moses, and who the Jews should listen to. Who is this prophet? It is Jesus Christ. He is the promises Messiah. Just like Moses, Jesus came to rescue the Jews from their bondage, especially their bondage to sin. Also, just like Moses, Jesus came to bring reconciliation among the Jews, and reconciliation to God.  But the Jews did not want Jesus. They rejected Jesus. They killed Jesus. Stephen is saying that just as the Jews of Moses' day rejected him, so also the Jews of Jesus' day rejected a greater prophet than Moses. And more still, since Moses said that this greater prophet would come, by rejecting Him, the Jews have once again rejected Moses.

It is not Stephen who has rejected or blasphemed Moses, it is the Jewish leaders. Stephen has listened to Moses and looked for a prophet greater than Moses and has found Him in Jesus Christ. He is the One who rescues and reconciles.

D. The Law (7:38-43)

        1. Stephen has not spoken against the law (cf. 6:13)

Now, what Stephen has said up to this point easily transitions into talking about the accusation leveled against him regarding the law. Since God gave the law through Moses, Stephen easily transitions into talking about how he had not spoken against the law, instead, he has fulfilled and obeyed it, while the Jewish leaders have once again rejected it as they always have.

        2. The Law was repeatedly rejected by the Israelites (7:38-43)

First, Stephen reminds them of what they all know, that the Law came to them through Moses.

38"This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us,

The word oracles is logia in Greek, and so is therefore very similar to logos, the word. Stephen calls what the Jews received from God through Moses the living oracles, or the living word.   What he is implying here is that the Word, the Bible, and especially the law, is not static, but is living and active. It is the active word. Not only is it active in our lives as we read and study it, but it is active in it's development. Theologians call this progressive revelation.

You see, when Moses wrote the Law, that was not the complete revelation that God wanted to give. It was only part of what God wanted to reveal. That is why after the Law, we also have the historical books, and the poetical books and then the prophetical books. But the Old Testament was not the end of revelation either.  Jesus Christ came and he was a more complete revelation, and then the apostles revealed God's will and plan still more completely and more fully. Now, I do believe that for the past 2000 years, there has been a lull or a pause in God's revelatory work, people are not receiving or writing Scripture today, but I do believe that God will continue to reveal more to his creation in the future about his plan and purpose. God's oracles are living. They grow and develop and make progress.

This would be a very challenging thought for the average Jew in Stephen's day, because they considered the Law to be the ultimate and final revelation of God. Nothing could surpass the Law or supersede the Law or become more important than the Law.  But Stephen is teaching the same thing Jesus taught before him and that Paul would teach after him, that Jesus is the culmination of the Law because He fulfilled the Law. Jesus is a better revelation from God than the Law is, because Jesus is both God Himself, and the Word of God in the flesh.  The Jews rejected Jesus as the Word of God come in the flesh, but Stephen is going to show them that this is nothing new. Thought they speak so highly of the Law, they have always rejected it. This is exactly what he says in verse 39.

39whom our fathers would not obey, but rejected. And in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, 40saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods to go before us; as for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands.

This event is one of the most embarrassing events for the Jew in all of Jewish history. They have just been delivered by Moses from the Egyptians, and they have been saved from the Egyptian army by crossing through the Red Sea, and they are not at the Mountain of God receiving the very words of God, and what do they do, but completely turn away from Moses and God and return to worshipping false idols.  In fact, this event was so embarrassing, they tried to explain it away by saying that it wasn’t' really the Israelites who wanted to make the golden calf, but the multitude of people that came out of Israel with them, but who were not of Israel.

But the text of Exodus 32 (esp. verse 3) is very clear. These were Israelites saying they didn't care if Moses was dead or not. These were Israelites saying they didn't care about God's new revelation to them. These were Israelites who clamored for a golden calf to worship. And these were Israelites who worshipped this false God even when they were at the very foot of the Mountain of God.

All of this is exactly how the Israelites had handled Jesus. They didn't care if He was God's prophet or not, nor did they care whether He lived or died. They didn't care if God was sending them a new revelation in Jesus. They just wanted to worship their false gods and hold on to the old revelation of the Law. Though God had come down in the flesh, they wanted nothing to do with him, or the new revelation of God. Stephen supports his accusation by quoting from Scripture.

42Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the Prophets:

        ‘Did you offer Me slaughtered animals and sacrifices during forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?

The answer to this question is "Yes, they did." God gave to Moses the instructions for the tabernacle and they built it before leaving Mt. Sinai and heading for the Promised Land. And on the way, they did offer sacrifices to God according to the law. And when they were turned away from the Promised Land and wandered around in the wilderness for 40 years, they continued to offer slaughtered animals and sacrifices to God.  And that is what all Jewish people point to and remember to show that they did obey the law. And Stephen is saying, "Good for you. Good job. Well done. But don't forget what we read in Amos 5. Though you did offer sacrifices to God, you also offered sacrifices to Moloch and Remphan."

43 You also took up the tabernacle of Moloch,

And the star of your god Remphan,

Images which you made to worship;

And I will carry you away beyond Babylon.’

This quote comes mainly out of Amos 5:25-27. I mentioned Moloch before, and here he is mentioned by Stephen. Pharaoh had offered up children to the river god, but Stephen quotes Amos to show that the Israelites had offered up children to Moloch. And Joshua 24:14 says that they had brought these idols with them out of Egypt (cf. Dt. 32:17).

Moloch was the god of prosperity and success. Parents who wanted to become rich and successful would take their firstborn children and throw them into a fire at the feet of Moloch.  Moloch is still worshipped today, isn't he? When parents abort their children because they don't want the financial pressure or the extra burden it will cause in their lives, they are worshipping Moloch. When parents neglect their children for the sake of getting a raise, or getting a promotion, or to pay off the house and the car, they are worshipping Moloch.

Remphan was the Egyptian god of the planet Saturn. In worshipping Remphan, the people would put an eight pointed star up on a pole and then have a parade through the streets of the town to the temple of this star god. (Incidentally, this sound remarkably similar to many Catholic processions and the eight-pointed star which is found everywhere in Catholic symbolism. The Vatican Piazza, the Papal stole, the Papal home, and many shrines to Mary all have the eight-pointed star. The eight pointed star is also the symbol of Baal, Ishtar and Shemash.) When they arrived at the shrine, they would sing and dance and offer sacrifices and perform other cultic rituals.

And so what Amos is saying, and now Stephen is saying is, "Oh, you want to go an a parade with your false gods and foreign idols? Fine. Why don't you go on a real long parade, and carry them into captivity with you? Why don't you take your idols and go the biggest shrine of all - the land which your false idol came from."  Stephen again shows them that he has not spoken against the law, but has shown its fulfillment in Christ. He does not worship the law, nor does he worship false deities. Instead, he worships Christ, who is the fulfillment of the law.  Which is where I want to conclude this lesson. If Christ is the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law, what place should the law have in our lives today? There are multiple ways of answering this question.

The most extreme view is that we still have to obey the entire law. Most don't go this far though, so one popular view is that we still have to obey at least the Ten Commandments. Those who hold this opinion range anywhere from "You have to obey the Ten Commandments in order to get to heaven" or "You have to obey the Ten Commandment to keep your salvation" to "If you are a true Christian, you will prove it by keeping the Ten Commandments."  Then there are those who focus on just the nine commandments repeated in the New Testament, excluding the commandment about keeping the Sabbath.  Then there are those who say that it is not keeping the law that matters, but keeping the Greatest Commandment which is the love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Again, those who hold this view run the gamut from you have to do this to get saved to you have to love God and love others to show you are saved.  Then there are those sometimes referred to as antinomians who love to quote Paul when he says, "We are not under the law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14). They say we don't have to obey the law at all, because it's all covered by grace.

So what are we to say on this matter? What does the Bible teach about our relationship to the law? There are many verses on it. Let me just comment on several of them.

1 Tim. 1:9-11 - It is NOT for believers, but to show unbelievers they are sinners and under the condemnation of God. (cf. Matt. 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-30; Luke 18:18-30).

Matt. 5:17-20 - Jesus is speaking under the Mosaic Covenant. Christ is teaching the inspiration of Scripture, their preservation and their total fulfillment in Christ. He is teaching that obedience to the law determined position in the kingdom, not presence. He says that to be present in the kingdom, you have to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. How? By receiving the righteousness of God by grace through faith.

Rom 6:14 - In the New Covenant, we are under grace, not under the law. This doesn't mean we should sin all we want however (6:15-7:6)

Rom 7:6 - Rather than serve the law, we must walk by the Spirit. This is harder to grasp and comprehend than a list of "do's and don't's" but it is how we live in the New Covenant. The only thing the law produces is the desire to disobey the law more (7:7-25).

Rom 10:4 - Christ is the end of the law for everyone who believes. Do we have to completely obey the law? Yes, and when we believe in Christ for eternal life, we are placed in Christ and have obeyed the law fully in Him.

2 Cor. 3:7-11 - transformation comes from living in the Spirit under the New Covenant, not from living under the law (by the way, don't let charismatics quote 3:17 out of context. It has nothing to do with having liberty in our church services to do "whatever the Spirit leads." It is talking about gaining liberty from the bondage to the law - which many charismatic churches are still under because if you don't obey the law, you lose eternal life.)

Gal. 3:19-4:7 - Very clear statements about the purpose of the law - not to bring us eternal life, but to bring us condemnation, so that we might turn to Christ.

Eph. 2:14-16 - This is talking about this separation between Jews and Gentiles that came because of the law. But Christ has abolished this separation, this law, so that now in Christ, those who once hated each other can fellowship together.

Col. 2:13-14 - When Christ said, "It is finished" he was talking about have finished and completed the requirements of the law. He had obeyed it all.

Heb 7:11-18 - The law was done away with in Jesus Christ, because it was weak and unprofitable. God couldn't just annul it, it had to be fulfilled. And Jesus did fulfill it, bringing in the New Covenant (Heb. 8:7-13)


The Bible clearly teaches that the Mosaic Covenant, the law, ceased at the death of Christ. It was the standard during His life, but his death brought in the New Covenant. The way we live now, is not according to the law, but according to the Spirit, under the law of liberty and love. As we live according to this new covenant, it does not gain us entrance into heaven, but rewards and positions of privilege in heaven.