Acts 7:1-50 Why the history lesson?
Stephen recites the history of Israel to the Sanhedrin-a group already familiar with this history. We might wonder why Stephen took the time to retell the story. To answer this question, we must remember that the charges laid against him by false witnesses are that he spoke 'blasphemous words against Moses, and against God' (Acts 6:11). To answer this charge, Stephen will show that he believes in the same Moses and the same God that they do. Stephen's history lesson demonstrates his belief in the same religious tradition as the council with one exception-he believes in Jesus. He is not some religious lunatic whose fanatical ideas are founded in extremism. With his own legitimacy established, he is prepared to accuse the Sanhedrin of religious illegitimacy.
Furthermore, all great teachers establish the background and historical significance of crucial events. Just as there is no need to preach about the Restoration until the doctrine of Apostasy has been set forth, Stephen wanted to establish Israel's history before he accused them of killing Israel's Holy One. His main message is that the Messiah about which Moses prophesied has already come and been crucified. His history lesson concludes with the most shocking of conclusions-that the Sanhedrin was guilty of murdering the Messiah! (v. 52)
James E. Talmage
"In answer to the charge, [Stephen] delivered an address, which on critical analysis appears to have been extemporaneous, nevertheless it is strikingly logical and impressive in argument. The delivery was abruptly terminated, however, by a murderous assault. In effective epitome Stephen traced the history of the covenant people from the time of Abraham down, showing that the patriarchs, and in turn Moses and the prophets, had lived and ministered in progressive preparation for the development of which those present were witnesses...It is plain to be seen that Stephen's speech was not one of vindication, and far from a plea in his own defense; it was a proclamation of the word and purposes of God by a devoted servant who had no thought for personal consequences." (Jesus the Christ, 660.)
Acts 7:5 he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on
Parley P. Pratt
"Abraham would tell you, you should have read the promise of God to him, Gen. 17:8, where God not only promised the land of Canaan to his seed for an everlasting possession, but also to him. Then you should have read the testimony of Stephen, Acts 7:5, by which you would have ascertained that Abraham never had inherited the things promised, but was still expecting to rise from the dead and be brought into the land of Canaan, to inherit them. Yes, says Ezekiel, if you had read the 37th chapter of my prophecies, you would have found a positive promise, that God would open the graves of the whole house of Israel who were dead, and gather up their dry bones, and put them together, each to its proper place, and even clothe them again with flesh, sinews, and skin, and put his Spirit in them, and they should live; and then, instead of being caught up to heaven, they should be brought into the land of Canaan, which the Lord gave them, and they should inherit it...And, last of all, to set the matter forever at rest, the voice of the Savior would mildly fall upon your ears, in his sermon on the mount, declaring emphatically 'Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.'" (A Voice of Warning [New York City: Eastern States Mission [189-?], 44 - 45.)
Joseph Fielding Smith
"The promise of Israel's inheritance reaches into eternity when the earth is to be cleansed and made fit for the habitation of the righteous, otherwise the promise to Abraham and Israel would have failed, for, as pointed out by the martyr, Stephen, the Lord gave this land of Palestine to Abraham for him and his posterity forever, and yet in his lifetime Abraham received 'not so much as to set his foot on: yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and his seed after him, when as yet he had no child.'-Acts 7:5." (The Restoration of All Things [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1945], 138 - 139.)
Acts 7:20-30 What does Stephen know about Moses that is not recorded in Exodus?
In recounting Jewish history, Stephen gives us bits of information about Moses which are not contained in the Exodus account. Like Josephus, the ancient historian, Stephen was privy to more complete records. His record tells us about: a) Moses' natural good looks (v. 20), b) his education among the Egyptians (v. 22), c) his mighty deeds and words while amongst the Egyptians (v. 22), d) his age of 40 at the time he left Egypt (v. 23), e) his understanding of his mission to deliver Israel long before his epiphany on Sinai (v. 25), and f) his age of 80 when the Lord appeared to him on Sinai (v. 30). Josephus is a good source for some of this complimentary information.
"Thermuthis was [Pharaoh's] daughter. She was now diverting herself by the banks of the river; and seeing a cradle borne along by the current, she sent some that could swim, and bid them bring the cradle to her. When those that were sent on this errand came to her with the cradle, and she saw the little child, she was greatly in love with it, on account of its largeness and beauty; for God had taken such great care in the formation of Moses, that he caused him to be thought worthy of bringing up, and providing for..."
"...God did also give him that tallness, when he was but three years old, as was wonderful. And as for his beauty...it happened frequently, that those that met him as he was carried along the road, were obliged to turn again upon seeing the child; that they left what they were about, and stood still a great while to look on him; for the beauty of the child was so remarkable and natural to him on many accounts, that it detained the spectators, and made them stay longer to look upon him." (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book II, 9:5-6)
"Now Moses's understanding became superior to his age, nay, far beyond that standard; and when he was taught, he discovered greater quickness of apprehension than was usual at his age...
"He was, therefore, educated with great care. So the Hebrews depended on him, and were of good hopes that great things would be done by him; but the Egyptians were suspicious of what would follow such his education." (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book II, 9:6-7)
Mighty in Deeds
Moses was a mighty man long before he went to Pharaoh to deliver the Israelites. The following story is most illustrative. While Moses was relatively young, an Ethiopian army invaded Egypt. They proceeded northward on a rampage all the way to Memphis (see Map 2). Pharaoh's priests suggested placing Moses in charge of an army to repel the invasion. (They had hoped that he would be killed in the venture.)
As general, Moses faced a daunting task. The Ethiopian army had used the usual routes of travel for their attack. Along the Nile, travel was easy and safe and they expected an attack along these same routes. In the deserts, no one dared to pass because of thousands of poisonous snakes. To attempt an attack by land was suicide. But Moses planned a daring surprise attack through snake country. His plan was to carry with him several baskets of snake-eating birds, known as "ibes." The birds cleared a path in the desert which allowed Moses to make a sneak attack on the Ethiopians.
"As soon, therefore, as Moses was come to the land which was the breeder of these serpents, he let loose the ibes, and by their means repelled the serpentine kind, and used them for his assistants before the army came upon that ground. When he had therefore proceeded thus on his journey, he came upon the Ethiopians before they expected him; and, joining battle with them, he beat them, and deprived them of the hopes they had of success against the Egyptians, and went on in overthrowing their cities, and indeed made a great slaughter of these Ethiopians." (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book II, 10:2)
Mission to Deliver Israel
"As the New Testament clearly demonstrates, both Paul and Stephen knew things about Moses beyond what is in our current book of Exodus. They must have had a better Exodus account, had other sources, or had both. Consider this excerpt from Stephen's address to the Sanhedrin, as recorded in the book of Acts: (quotes Acts 7:17-25)
"We can see from this passage that Moses did know of his own identity and of his mission, and that he was also learned and active in things Egyptian.
"Paul, as recorded in the book of Hebrews, says more about Moses. Note that Moses, according to Paul, made a conscious and deliberate choice to serve the Lord:
By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months of his parents, because they saw he was a proper child; and they were not afraid of the king's commandment.
By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter;
Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season;
Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward.
By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible. (Heb. 11:23-27, italics added.)
"Clearly, Stephen and Paul had more information about Moses than we have in our present Old Testament. From them we learn, among other things, that Moses, years before being called at the burning bush, knew of his own identity and of his mission." (Robert J. Matthews, A Bible! A Bible! [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1990], 58 - 59.)
Acts 7:22 Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians
Neal A. Maxwell
"Meekness of mind is essential...Such meekness is a friend to, not a foe of, true education. It is noteworthy that Luke made these comments about Moses: 'And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds.' (Acts 7:22.) Moses was a learned man, but, very significantly, he was also 'very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.' (Numbers 12:3.)" (Meek and Lowly [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987], 34.)
Acts 7:35 Who made thee a ruler and a judge?
"In his great defense of the faith, Stephen rehearsed Bible history to the council of the Jews, showing that as their fathers had rejected the prophets sent to them, they in like manner had rejected the promised Messiah. He told how Joseph, called of the Lord, was rejected by his brothers, who sold him into bondage, and how they came to him years later seeking corn and still did not recognize him. Stephen's point was that it was 'the second time' before they recognized him (Acts 7:13). As it was with Joseph, so it was with Moses. According to Stephen's telling of the story, Moses sought to be the deliverer of Israel while he lived in Pharaoh's court. Yet the children of Israel rejected him, saying, 'Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?' He was not accepted as such until he came the second time. (Acts 7:25-35.) Both Old Testament stories were declared by Stephen to be prophetic types of the rejection of Christ and the fact that his nation would not accept him until the time of his Second Coming." (Joseph Fielding McConkie, Gospel Symbolism [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1999], 45.)
Acts 7:37 A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me
Bruce R. McConkie
"When God said to Moses, 'Thou art in the similitude of mine Only Begotten' (Moses 1:6), he singled Israel's greatest prophet out as the one prophet, above all others, whose words, life, and ministry would bear record of the Messiah. Indeed, Moses and Christ are companion prophets, with the life and ministry of Moses prefiguring that of the Messiah. Moses was the mediator of the old covenant, Christ of the new. Moses gave Israel manna from heaven, Christ was the bread of life. Moses controlled the waters of the Red Sea, Jesus those of the Sea of Galilee. Moses as lawgiver to Israel revealed the preparatory gospel, our Lord as Lawgiver to the world restored the fulness of the gospel. And so on through the major matters of their ministries, Moses' work prefigured that of the Master, making that ancient prophet a prototype of the Messiah himself." (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-1973], 2: 72.)
Acts 7:45 our fathers...brought in with Jesus
The New Testament is translated from Greek not Hebrew. Since "Jesus" is the Greek form of the Hebrew name of "Joshua," the Jesus spoken of here refers to Joshua of the Old Testament.
Acts 7:51 Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears
"In the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible...we learn that circumcision was instituted as a token of the covenant...Other scriptures provide additional clarification that it was not circumcision itself but what it stood for that gave it its greatest significance. In many places the Lord speaks of true circumcision as being circumcision of the heart or, in other words, loving God and being obedient to the Spirit. The 'uncircumcised of heart' are the wicked, proud, and rebellious. (See Deut. 10:16; Deut. 30:63; Jer. 4:4;Ezek. 44:7; Acts 7:51; Rom. 2:25-29; Col. 2:11.) Though a person may be circumcised in the flesh, unless he is righteous the covenant is invalidated, and the circumcision becomes profitless. Thus, circumcision was only a sign or token of what needed to happen to the inward man. If the inward change had not taken place, then circumcision was virtually meaningless." (Jesus Christ, Key to the Plan of Salvation [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1991], 58.)
Acts 7:51 as your fathers did, so do ye
During Stephen's recitation of Israelite history, he used the term our fathers nine times. "Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness... Which also our fathers that came after brought in with Jesus into the possession of the Gentiles, whom God drave out before the face of our fathers." (v. 44-45, italics added)
Having given the history, Stephen shifts focus. His tone is accusatory. His change in pronouns is entirely intentional. No longer does he speak of our fathers. He says, "as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers. (italics added)" He accuses them of murder and of being the children of prophet-killers. Those are harsh words. Of them, the Savior said the same, "ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers." (Matt 23:31-32, italics added) They more than filled up the measure of their fathers by consenting to the crucifixion of Christ. Which is worse, to be a prophet-killer or to be a Messiah-killer?
Acts 7:54 they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth
"...we are told that the multitude 'were cut to the heart' when Stephen accused them of rejecting what had been brought 'by the disposition of angels' (Acts 7:53-54). But the last straw was when he had the effrontery to say, 'Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him' (Acts 7:56-58). If Stephen had spent his life, as innumerable philosophers have, denouncing the vices and follies of the age, he might have died peacefully in bed. But those fatal words, 'I see,' were his death warrant. And what did Paul say to make the Jews cry out in utter horror: 'Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live,' as 'they . . . cast off their clothes, and threw dust into the air?' (Acts 22:22-23.) What indeed? These were the unforgivable words that made him unfit to live: 'Suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest' (Acts 22:6-8). Paul could have won his audience over by speaking as a scholar, but when he bore witness to what he had seen and heard, he was asking for trouble." (The World and the Prophets, 3rd ed. [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987], 14 - 15.)
Acts 7:55 he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked stedfastly into heaven
James E. Faust
"Some time ago we were in one of the oldest cities on earth. Some of the greatest wonders of the world are there; so are crime, squalor, poverty, and filth. Our kind hosts observed as we were making our way through the teeming masses-past the overloaded donkeys, the filth, the smells-that everything was beautiful in that city if you raised your sights and only looked a foot or more above the ground.
"In recent times the prices of oil, gold, and other precious minerals have greatly increased. These treasures are all obtained by looking down. They are useful and necessary, but they are tangible riches. What of the treasures that are to be found by raising our vision? What of the intangible riches that come from the pursuit of holiness? Stephen looked upward. 'He, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.' (Acts 7:55.)
"My heart and understanding go out to our young people. They have to cope with a darkness and moral fog as dense as many of us can ever remember. We live in a world where success seems largely measured by possessions. How the possessions may have been acquired often seems immaterial. Honesty, decency, chastity, and holiness are frequently downgraded as being of lesser worth than possessions. Are our young people enticed to look up or down?" (Reach Up for the Light [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1990], 2.)
Acts 7:56 Behold, I see the heavens opened
As the righteous approach death, the veil often thins until it is transparent and visions of eternal splendor are common. We should not be so surprised that Stephen's vision came right before his death. Visions of the spiritual realm are often had by those close to the end. Elder Russell M. Nelson noted,
"The gateway of death may not be governed by a door as heavy and shut as it seems. It may be softly veiled by a billowy curtain or a delicate drape. The Prophet Joseph Smith referred to the 'veil of death.' Certainly communication through the gateway between this world and the next is not closed. Prophets and apostles treat such transfer of intelligence as a very sacred matter, and rarely speak openly about it." (The Gateway We Call Death [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1995], 94.)
Upon his deathbed, Brigham Young called for Joseph, presumably because the Prophet had come to usher him into the spirit world. While Joseph Smith Sr. lay on his deathbed, "the veil was so thin that he saw into the spirit world, seeing his deceased son, Alvin. Such experiences come not but to those whom the Lord trusts and who are honest before him in all things." (Mark L. McConkie, The Father of the Prophet: Stories and Insights from the Life of Joseph Smith, Sr. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1993], 155.)
George Q. Cannon
"If we could understand the glory we once had with our Father in heaven, we would be discontented in dwelling in this condition of existence. We would pine for the home we left behind us. Its glory and its beauty, its heavenly graces and delights were of such a character that we would pine for it with that homesickness that men have some partial knowledge of here on the earth. . . .
"Wisely, in the providence of God, this knowledge is withdrawn from us. We can have a glimpse occasionally, through the revelations of the Spirit to us, of the glory there is awaiting us, and sometimes when men and women are approaching death-when they are ready to step out of this existence into the other-the veil becomes so thin that they behold the glories of the eternal world, and when they come back again-as some have . . . they come back to this mortal existence with a feeling of regret. They have had a foretaste of the glory that awaited them; they have had a glimpse of that glory that is behind the veil; and the love of life is so completely lost, the love of earthly home and friends is so completely taken from them, that they desire with all their hearts to take their exit from this life into that glorious life which they knew was on the other side of the veil. (Sept. 28, 1884, JD 26:192-93)" (Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, selected, arranged, and edited by Jerreld L. Newquist [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987], 8)
Acts 7:56 I see...the Son of man standing on the right hand of God
The single most galling doctrinal error in all of Christianity revolves around the true nature of God. The Trinity doctrine is not supported by scripture, and Stephen's testimony is one of the most obvious evidences that the Father and Son are not the same personage. Nevertheless, Christian scholars have done their best to explain away this universal truth:
"Clement of Rome wrote about A.D. 96 and said that God formed man in the 'likeness of his own image.' In the opening of Hebrews Christ is clearly distinct from God, standing 'on the right hand of the Majesty on high' (Heb. 1:3). Commentators too smugly say that 'no literal location is intended.' Yet the mother of James and John had a location in mind when she wanted them to sit at Christ's right and left hand in eternity (Matt. 20:21-23). But Christian scholars believe that 'God has no physical right hand or material throne where the ascended Christ sits beside Him.' They interpret the 'right hand' as merely descriptive of status or power, but how do they draw the line between explaining and explaining away? Stephen saw Christ at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56), as did Joseph Smith in 1820 in the First Vision. A half dozen times Paul speaks of Christ at the right hand of the Father and never hints at less than literalism." (Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983], 202.)
J. Reuben Clark, Jr.
"The New Testament again and again asserts that Christ sits in heaven on the right hand of God. Mark records that 'after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.' (Mark 16:19.) Paul so affirmed to the Romans (Rom. 8:34), to the Ephesians (Eph. 1:20), to the Colossians (Col. 3:1), and to the Hebrews (Heb. 10:12). Peter likewise declared it in the first of his Epistles (1 Pet. 3:22) and again at Pentecost (Acts 2:33).
"But of all the testimony to this point, none reaches so far and explains so clearly as that of Stephen, the first martyr, who, having arraigned Israel for its unbelief, and the council maddened, having 'gnashed on him with their teeth,' cried out, when he 'looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.' (Acts 7:55-56). Surely Stephen, his body racked with the agony of a barbarous death, did not falsify a record concerning his Maker whom he was about to meet." (Behold the Lamb of God [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1991], 189 - 190.)
"Peter and Stephen testify that they saw the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God. Any person that had seen the heavens opened knows that there are three personages in the heavens who hold the keys of power, and one presides over all" (TPJS, p. 312).
"I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods" (TPJS, p. 370).
Acts 7:58 the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet
"At Stephen's martyrdom Saul (Paul) is spoken of as a 'young man' (Acts 7:58). The Greek word in the manuscript requires this be a man less than forty years old. Stephen's death was probably sometime around A.D. 35, give or take a year or two. While imprisoned at Rome sometime around A.D. 61-65, Paul characterizes himself as 'Paul the aged' (Philem. 1:9)...I believe a commonsense conclusion would be that Saul was born sometime around A.D. 5, making him in his early thirties at Stephen's martyrdom and in his sixties while imprisoned at Rome." (Robert J. Matthews, Behold the Messiah [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1994], 346.)
Acts 7:59 And they stoned Stephen
"Stephen was stoned, not for his preaching, nor even for his scolding of the people, but for saying he had had a vision of the Father and the Son. He was stoned for proclaiming that he had received revelation. Stephen foreshadowed the work of Paul and is the earliest person mentioned in the New Testament to imply that the law of Moses was fulfilled and that its rites and customs should come to an end." (Robert J. Matthews, Studies in Scripture, Vol. 6: Acts to Revelation, ed. by Robert L. Millet [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987], 30.)
Spencer W. Kimball
Acts 7:60 Lord, lay not this sin to their charge
N. Eldon Tanner
"Our Lord gave us an example of the true spirit of forgiveness when he said from the cross, '... Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.' (Luke 23:34.) We read also of that faithful disciple, Stephen, who was persecuted and stoned, 'And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.' (Acts 7:60.)
"How important it is for us to apply in our lives those great principles of repentance and forgiveness. Let us always remember that the one who carries a grudge or ill feelings toward a neighbor and does not forgive is the one who is uncomfortable and unhappy and ill at ease, and continuing in this course will canker his soul, and in him will remain the greater sin. There are numerous stories with beautiful endings where persons who have carried grudges or harbored ill feelings toward others have had the courage and strength to, later on, go and apologize, showing love and making reconciliation, resulting in a beautiful new relationship where both are greatly relieved and happy together." ("The Importance of Prayer," Ensign, May 1974, 53)