“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”’
– Acts 7:51-53, New International Version
A problem arose in the early church concerning the daily distribution of food. The Hellenistic Jews complained that their widows were being overlooked. Acting on the advice of the apostles, the congregation chose seven men to be in charge of this task. Stephen was one of those seven.
The ministry of Stephen emerged with great power. In Acts 6:8 Luke tells us that “Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people.” Then, men from the Synagogue (or Synagogues) of the Freedmen” arose to oppose him. They induced men (Acts 6:11) to claim that they had heard him “speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
The people were stirred up, and they dragged Stephen before the Council. False witnesses then claimed (Acts 6:13-14), “This man incessantly speaks against this holy place [the Temple] and the Law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.” NASU A similar charge concerning the Temple was made against Jesus (Mark 14:58 and John 2:19-22).
After the charges were made, the high priest asked, “Are these things so?” In Acts 7:2-50 Stephen gives his powerful reply. As Horton states (p. 90), “His purpose was to defend the gospel against false charges and to show a parallel between the way Old Testament Jews treated their prophets and the way the Jewish leaders treated Jesus.”
The false witnesses accused Stephen of blaspheming God. Stephen begins his reply Acts 7:2) by referring to “the God of glory.” He would honor God throughout His response. His reply clearly indicates that He is not a blasphemer, but one who exalts God. Indirectly, he answered their charge.
Stephen does not directly defend himself against the allegations with regard to Moses and the Law. However, he does recount from the Old Testament the history of Moses as the great deliverer of Israel. He countered the charges against him by showing how the forefathers of his accusers had repeatedly rejected Moses. Moreover, he declared that his accusers were doing just what their fathers did. They had received the Law but had not kept it. Rather than speaking against Moses, Stephen exalted him as the great prophet and leader that he was.
His accusers charged him with speaking against the Temple and saying that Jesus would destroy it. Jesus had faced (Mark 14:58 and John 2:19-22) a similar charge. Stephen did not say, “Jesus will not destroy the Temple.” Rather, he made the point (Acts 7:48) that the worship of God was not tied to the Temple. He defended this point by citing Isaiah 66:1-2.
Drawing from Deuteronomy 18:15, Stephen reminded his audience that Moses had predicted, “God shall raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren.” Previously, Peter had made it clear (Acts 3:20-22) that the prophecy of Moses referred to Jesus Christ. The point implied by Stephen is that Jesus, the prophet-like-Moses, was the new deliverer of Israel. In his concluding remarks, Stephen called Christ the “Righteous One.” This title (Acts 3:14) is a reference to the Messiah.
Resisting the Holy Spirit
After telling the history of how Israel rejected the prophets, Stephen pronounced (Acts 7:51-53) his indictment. Stephen declared that his opponents were stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart, that they resisted the Holy Spirit just like their fathers, and that they were betrayers and murders of Christ, the Righteous One. Their reaction to Stephen’s speech was swift and harsh. They drove him out of the city and stoned him.
As the Bible makes clear, the Holy Spirit may be resisted. Isaiah declared (63:10) that the children of Israel “rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit.” In Acts 5:3, Peter declared that Satan had filled the heart of Ananias to “lie” to the Holy Spirit. According to Acts 5:9, both Ananias and Sapphira tried to “put the Spirit of the Lord to the test.” Stephen’s accusers (Acts 6:10) were unable to cope with “the wisdom and Spirit with which he was speaking.” Much later, the apostle Paul exhorted us to “not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” And, according to Hebrews 10:29, it is possible to insult the “Spirit of grace.”
The false accusers were not just opposing Stephen; they were resisting the Holy Spirit. Luke was intent on demonstrating that the early church was a work of the Spirit. To oppose this work was to oppose the Spirit Himself. The Greek word used by Stephen is antipiptete. According to Robertson (p. 96), it means “to fall against” or “to rush against.” Lenski (p. 299) says that this word is an idiomatic Greek verb for opposition and resistance.
Bruce, F. F. The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975.
Horton, Stanley M. The Book of Acts. Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1981.
Lenski, R.C.H. The Acts of the Apostles. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. 1-6. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930.
Wood, George O. Acts: A Study Guide. Springfield: ICI Press (Second Edition), 1996.© Copyright 2002. GMF