Acts 7 records a significant development in the theology of who are the true people of God. Stephen was brought to trial on two serious charges as indicated in Acts 6:13: 1) He speaks against the Temple; and 2) he speaks against the Law. The basis for these charges as reported by the “false witnesses” is that Stephen said that Jesus will destroy “this place” (i.e., the Temple) and that he will also “change the customs handed down to us by Moses.” In response to these accusations, Stephen pleads his defense through a review of biblical history/biblical theology.
Exhibit A: Abraham
God appeared to him in Mesopotamia and told him to go a new land. God promised Abraham, “he and his descendants after him would possess the land,” although his descendants will be enslaved for a period of time. Abraham sealed his covenant with God by means of circumcision. Abraham had Isaac–Jacob–the twelve patriarchs.
Exhibit B: Joseph
The patriarchs envied Joseph and sold him as a slave. This is a key part of Stephen’s argument because he makes the point that Joseph, the favored son and servant of God, was rejected by his brothers (the patriarchs). God truly favored Joseph because he vindicated him and exalted him in Egypt.
Exhibit C: Moses
God faithfully preserved his people while they were enslaved in Egypt, just as he promised Abraham. Along came Moses, the promised deliver, but when he tried to rescue an Israelite by killing an Egyptian, the rest of the Israelites rejected him. They said to him, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?” After forty years in Midian, God sent Moses back to Egypt to deliver the Israelites. What is Stephen’s point? He makes it explicit when he says, “This is the same Moses whom they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush” (Acts 7:35).
More importantly, Moses spoke of a coming prophet who would be like him, that is, a prophet who would pass on “the living words.” But notice that the Israelites did not obey the Law; instead they rejected Moses and wanted to return to Egypt. Stephen further recounts that “our fathers” made idols, worshipped the works of their hands, and even gave themselves to the worship of the stars. He cites Amos 5:25-27 as an indictment against the Israelites for breaking the Law of Moses.
Exhibit D: Tabernacle/Temple
Moses directed the building of the Tabernacle according to the pattern he received and Joshua carried it into the Promised Land. David wanted to build a permanent Temple, which was built by Solomon. However, God made it very clear that he does not dwell in man made buildings (Isa 66:1-2).
Stephen’s Indictment of the Sanhedrin: By rejecting Jesus as Messiah you are just like your ancestors who rejected God’s chosen servants (Joseph/Moses/prophets) and thus you are outside of the true covenant people of God.
Stephen had retold their story in such a way as to show that they are like the ones who rebelled against God and rejected his servants. In doing so, they are like their ancestors who violated the Law of Moses and mistakenly thought that their sins could be atoned by simply following the temple rituals. God has sent the promised prophet who has fulfilled the Law, but they (just like their fathers), killed the Righteous One.
In this speech, Stephen intimates that if you reject Jesus then you are no longer true Israelites. The members of the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus to death are outside of the New Covenant and are no longer God’s chosen people. Thus, inclusion into the people of God is not based on ethnicity or obedience to traditions but solely based on faith in Jesus. Stephen effectively turned the tables on his accusers and accused them of something far worse than the charges against him. This explains their angst against him and why they murdered him.