Stephen’s potted history of Israel is the longest speech summary recorded in Acts. Its content may seem surprising to us but Stephen’s words brilliantly question his hearers’ assumptions about God and themselves. Evangelism should have this personal edge to it, pressing on parts in the hearer’s life which will most challenge him or her. Of course, the Lord does the same with his people too, speaking into those areas of our lives we’d prefer him to leave alone. When that happens it is vital we don’t react defensively but humbly listen to see what he’d have us learn.
But Stephen’s words don’t only provoke an unbelieving council, they also prepare the way for the expansion of the church. The underlying question he’s asking is this: where do you find God on earth? His hearers know the answer: Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple! However, in responding to their attempts to silence him (v1; Ac 6:11), Stephen takes them on a journey through Israel’s story which says otherwise. God has been met in the unlikeliest of places and by people whom others would write off. That thought ought to make his enemies think again about the Christians they so fear. But it also prepares his fellow Christians for the coming influx of non-Jewish converts.
Stephen starts with the beloved forefather, Abraham (v2). God met him far from Israel, down in the Chaldean land where his descendants would later be exiled. Now, of course, God then called him away to settle in a new place (v3). But that took time, with him first living in Haran outside of the promised land. So there no rush for him to be in Canaan (v4) and, indeed, even once he got there, he owned nowhere of his own (v5). He certainly had God’s promise to rely on. Yet God seemed a little reticent to fulfil it, instead telling him that it would take another 400 years and, in the meantime, his family would be abused slaves in a foreign land (v6)! Nonetheless, the day would come of their freedom and return, finally to worship God in their long-promised home (v7).
This first section speaks powerfully. Stephen’s hearers have such an attachment to their land and temple, seeing them as central to God’s dealings with them. But how true is that? They were hardly key in the first 400+ years of Israel’s life. God seemed to see his work as going forward in the other ways which treated the land as an important but secondary matter. So what was central in those days? Well Stephen doesn’t say, but other Jewish Christians will later write clearly about the real issue: faith (Ro 4; He 11:8-16). God is known by those who trust Him, no matter what their outward circumstances. Faith comes first and then, to those with faith, God provides a home.
This lesson comes out further as Stephen turns to Abraham’s family. The great patriarch received a covenant of circumcision (v8; Ge 17:9-14) – a gift Stephen’s Jewish hearers value highly. But is it all they think? The covenant came long after God’s promises to Abraham (Ro 4:9-13) and in reaction to Abraham’s siring of a boy with a slave-wife (Ge 16), rather than waiting for God’s promise of a son (Ge 15:4) to be fulfilled in Isaac. The agreement was to control Abraham after his fleshly attempt to make his dreams come true; it certainly wasn’t a sign of godliness. Hence, within 3 generations his snipped family were jealously feuding (v9). Where was God then? In the holy land with the 11 circumcised brothers? No, God was blessing enslaved Joseph in the Egypt (v10) whilst Israel starved (v11) and ended up running to Joseph (v12), who remained wary of them (v13). The whole family then stayed in Egypt until death (v14, 15) and only later did they return to the sole plot of ground Abraham owned in the promised land: a graveyard (v16)!
Stephen teaches us to put things the right way round. Faith must be our priority: a loving and deep trust in the Lord. Without it, we have nothing. Good circumstances do not prove us to be close to God. Blessings do not automatically make us into godly people. A true life with God is only ours when we live by faith in him. And that includes those times he uses another Christian to touch a raw nerve in our life, as Stephen does for his hearers. When the Lord highlights an area of our life we’ve been ignoring, we should face up to it, trust him and seek change with his help.