Stephen's Unintentional Intro to Hebrews

Scripture Reading: Acts 6:8-15 through Acts 7:1–29 ESV

Preface: Since the early years of Christianity the authorship of Hebrews has entertained much discussion. Had Stephen lived his name would have certainly been added to the list of candidates for the authorship of Hebrews. His mastery of the Old Testament’s story line and Messiah’s mission need greater consideration and study in our own day. – Moe Bergeron[1]



The Jewish leaders secretly induced men to charge him with blasphemy against Moses and God.

  • They stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes
    To come and seize him
  • To bring him to the (Sanhedrin) council
  • They set up false witnesses who charged Stephen with blasphemy against:
  • The holy place (temple):

“We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place”

  • Against the law (of Moses)

“…and change the customs which Moses delivered to us”

It is here (Acts 6-7) where Stephen lays forth a foundation for the student of the letter to the Hebrews. The writer to the Hebrew Christians speaks of the Old Covenant’s cultic markers and how they defined worship. Now that Messiah has instituted the New Covenant there is no going back to the shadows and types. This is no light matter. Listen carefully. Stephen’s words in Acts 7 and the letter to the Hebrew Christians have much to say to today’s Christian. Professing Christian teachers who encourage the building of a new earthly temple are on their way to apostasy. Let us give attention to the warnings given in the epistle to the Hebrews.
The accusations against Stephen’s doctrine rings familiar.

  • Stephen is charged on two counts: attacking God and his temple and attacking Moses and the law. Both charges amounted to blasphemy.
  • At least one of the two charges is virtually identical to Christ’s in his trial.
  • It was Christ who dared to say, “one greater than the temple is here.” (Matthew 12:6)
  • All of this was heresy in the ears of those who stood to lose the most.

The other charge involved Christ’s relationship to and His teaching of the law

  • Christ said he had come to fulfill the law and the prophets. Again, such teaching was heresy in the ears of those who stood to lose the most in the reality that one greater than Moses has come.
  • Christ not only taught that He himself was all that the temple and the law anticipated, His life, death, resurrection and ascension had accomplished all that that the temple and law had foreshadowed.
  • Christ, the new and better Moses, the new temple, the new torah, has risen and ascended.

Stephen’s brilliant defense
Not only does Stephen defend the new temple, the new Torah (the Word made flesh), and the worship that is in Spirit and in Truth.

John 4: 19–26 ESV
The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he

Stephen proclaims and models Christ and His gospel for the Church.
Beginning with Abraham Stephen responds to the question by giving the Sanhedrin a lesson in redemptive history.

  • In verses Acts 7:2–8 Stephen further states that in calling Abraham, God’s presence was with Abraham long before: there was a temple, there was a nation, before Abraham left Mesopotamia for the Promised Land.
  • We are told in Hebrews 11 Abraham was looking for the city whose builder and maker is God, with no inheritance and no Son.

Even though Abraham had no land and no temple, he was a worshipper, because God is a God whose worship is not tied to a land, nor is not tied to a building made with human hands.
Stephen taught that “God’s promise to Abraham was not primarily territorial”

  • Proof: In verse Acts 7:5 it is said, Abraham “had no inheritance… not even a foot length of soil.”
  • Location is immaterial because God did not need a temple for Abraham and Him to meet outside of the promised land… before he ever set foot in it.

The second figure Stephen appeals to is Joseph. We see this in Acts 7:9–16
Stephen not only continues his defense of the gospel, but he now begins his descent into the valley of the shadow of death.

  • It’s one thing to defend oneself against the charges. It’s quite another to return the indictment back onto the judges and jury in the process.
  • The turn Stephen takes here is more than rash statement made in the heat of the moment. This has clarity. This has comprehension. This has composure. And when he is done, the church and the history of Christianity will never be the same.

Joseph suffered as a result of that rejection.

  • V.9b Joseph was sold into Egypt, as a slave by his brothers, the fathers of the twelve tribes.
  • V.9c Joseph is rescued out of the pit, despite the best efforts of his brothers to thwart God’s purposes.

Here there are hints of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:

“this Jesus God raised up…exalted at the right hand of God, and God has made him both Lord and Christ.”

  • V.9a Stephen points out that Joseph suffered rejection by the fathers of their Jewish nation.
  • He is going to use that common history against the Sanhedrin.

In Acts 7:10 Stephen begins this paragraph in regard to Joseph by noting three acts of God:

  • V.10a God rescued Joseph from his afflictions,
  • V.10b God gave him wisdom and favor with Pharoah,
  • V.10c and God made him governor over Egypt and Pharoah’s household.”

Stephen is drawing his tormentors into the Old Testament story and by way of typological allusion drawing a line to Jesus.
All the while, God was with Joseph!
God’s presence continues to dwell with Joseph in Egypt because communion with God is not tied to a land and it is not tied to a building. And in that regard, Stephen’s mention of Shechem is not a mere historical footnote.

  • V.16 Shechem was the place where Abraham first built an altar in worship to the Lord in what later would be the Promise Land, long before there was a tabernacle or temple.
  • V.16 Shechem was known as a sanctuary of the Lord, even though it had no temple, had no tabernacle, and was not Jerusalem.
  • V.16 In answering his critics, Shechem becomes reinforcement that communion with God is not tied to a building or to a city.

Moses’ call and rejection (Acts 7:17–43).
The third historical figure who Stephen appeals is the one who is most obvious in this trial, as Stephen stands with his shining face: Moses.
The first thing we see about Moses here is that, like Joseph, Moses is rejected by “his brothers, the children of Israel”.

  • Acts 7:23–29 While Stephen does not necessarily condone Moses’ killing of the Egyptian, it is quite clear that he places the “thrusting aside” of Moses the day after his intervention as an example of Israel’s history of rejecting God’s messengers.
  • Hebrews 11:24–26 tells us that Moses renounced the treasures of Egypt and placed himself under the reproach of Christ. Moses knew what Israel should have recognized and acknowledged: he was to be their God appointed deliverer. Yet, Moses’ Hebrew brothers would have none of it and as a result, Moses suffered exile as a result of his rejection, and Israel suffered another 40 years of horrendous slavery.

Stephen continues his lesson in redemptive history.

  • We see in Acts 7:30 that in the same manner as Joseph, Moses is rescued from his suffering to save a suffering people. God delivers his people through a ruler and redeemer who, though rejected by the people, has been exalted and sent by God to be His representative with His congregation.

All the while, God was with Moses.

  • Just as God was with Abraham in Ur and Joseph in Egypt, God speaks to Moses from a burning bush in the wilderness far away from the Promised Land. Once again there was holy ground outside of Jerusalem.
  • The hallowed ground on which Moses stood was not tied to a plot of land or a building.
  • There was no temple in Midian.

And if the Sanhedrin had missed the connection from Moses to Jesus…

  • Stephen, whose face is shining like Moses, draws the connection for them by quoting from Deuteronomy 18:15 where Moses himself spoke of another prophet to come for a people who were no longer interested in hearing God’s voice at Sinai.
  • The interesting thing about Stephen’s quote is that he doesn’t finish the sentence because he doesn’t have to. Deuteronomy says “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers”. The rest of the verse says “it is to him you shall listen. I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.”

In quoting Moses, Stephen gives his immediate audience a jolt…

  • Because in hearing the words “raised up”, these accusers of Stephen are brought face to face with the reality of Christ’s resurrection (which they had attempt to cover up with bribes and false claims).
  • Moses’ implication as he speaks to the people in Deuteronomy 18 is that the people will have to listen to, the One greater, who is coming because they have not listened to him.

Stephen’s next point is in Acts 7:39–43.

  • Despite the authority given to Moses by God through the burning bush, despite God’s redemption of His people from Egypt through Moses, despite the giving of the law through angels, the people rejected Moses again, and by implication in the word “oracles”, they also rejected the law of Moses which had been received on Sinai.
  • Their rejection was so thorough; they wanted to go back to their enslavement and their idolatry in Egypt. Just as they thrust Moses aside 40 years earlier, they did so again at Sinai.
  • To this day they have suffered the curses of Deuteronomy 29:16–29.
  • And to this day a veil remains: 2Cor 3:14; “But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.”

Their heart attitude reveals itself in their longing for a tent when they didn’t have one.

  • Even though God was to be worshipped at Sinai without a temple and without a tabernacle, the idolatrous people insisted on idolizing a location for worship. The indictment continues.
  • And again, Stephen is linking the Sanhedrin to their ancestors in a way that most surely will bring him harm.
  • As Stephen starts in on the heart of the matter in the charge against him of blaspheming God in what they considered a lack of respect for the temple, he points out past idolatry to ground the Sanhedrin’s current idolatry of the Jerusalem temple.

Stephen’s defense gets better.
Even though Moses, God’s spokesman, had a shining face after coming off of Mount Sinai with a law that had been written by God and delivered through angels, and even though God’s shekinah glory-presence was among his people, Moses, the law, and true worship were rejected by the forerunners of the Sanhedrin.

  • Moses himself spoke of One who was coming who would far surpass himself, a Better and Greater Lawgiver, mediating a new law, written on the heart.

Stephen, the one whose face is shining like an Angel, is charged with blasphemy against God and his temple and Moses. Yet he defends Moses!

  • Does this sound like one who has been defacing the name of Moses?
  • Does this sound like one who has dishonored the temple?
  • In giving the examples drawn from the accounts of Joseph and Moses, Stephen is showing that it is his accusers, not he, who have rejected Moses and the temple.

In furthering his point about the nature of true worship and the temple, Stephen appeals to two more figures, David and Solomon, who represent the glory of Israel and its temple at its peak: verse Acts 7:44–50
In the course of the history of redemption, God finally gave Israel a tabernacle which became his sanctuary.

  • Even then, although God’s presence with Israel was symbolized in the tabernacle, it was a movable tent.
  • While David wanted to build a dwelling place for God, he was told that his son would build a house for God.

It was Solomon who built a house for God, but even Solomon, at the dedication of the temple said in 1 Kings 8:27; “will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built”.

  • And it was Solomon’s prayer that from the temple God’s name would be glorified throughout all of the earth. Solomon rightly understood that God could not be contained in a building.
  • Human hands could, not make the ultimate temple.
  • And Stephen, just like Solomon, does not believe that Solomon’s temple was the ultimate fulfillment of that promise or that prayer.

David and Solomon, indeed the entirety of the tabernacle and temple system of the Old Covenant, including all of the Law and the Prophets pointed forward to something better, something ultimate. [2]

  • Israel, in its idolatrous desire to worship something that could be seen, had deluded itself into thinking that Solomon’s temple and even Herod’s temple in Jerusalem was the final product.

In Acts 7:49 Stephen makes his final appeal to the esteemed prophet Isaiah, who asks in Isaiah 66:1

“Thus says the Lord:
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
and what is the place of my rest?”

  • Contrary to the practices of Stephen’s immediate audience, Isaiah and the rest of the Old Testament did not portray a God that could be shackled to a building. In fact, the Old Testament taught just the opposite. Now that the greater Temple of God has come, God’s Christ, any attempt to confine God in a man made building such as Jerusalem’s temple amounts to idolatry.
  • In invoking that text, Stephen drives home his indictment of his accusers because the statement in Isaiah 66 begins a prophecy of judgment that is rendered by the Lord from the temple against those who have desecrated his temple and have cast true worshippers, those who are contrite and tremble at his word, out of the temple.
  • In rejecting Messiah Jesus, the true temple of God, these men were no better than those who had worshipped the golden calf.

Stephen, answers the charges!

  • Stephen, with his face shining like Moses’ face at Sinai (V.15), has shown the Sanhedrin to be anti-law, anti-temple, and anti-Moses, because they, like their forbears, have killed God’s messenger of whom Moses and the law spoke, just like they wanted to do with Moses.
  • The temple is “the primary point of attack for Stephen.”
  • He has shown the Sanhedrin to be anti-temple because they believed the temple to be the end product and have cast out the true temple of God, made without hands, Messiah Jesus, God’s Son.
  • One commentator said: “Christ is the one who began to build the true temple composed of himself and his people.”
  • Yet another has written; “Herod’s temple has become obsolete. Exclusion from the edifice that dominated Zion was no longer exclusion from the courts of the Lord, for Jesus was the new temple as well as the final Deliverer.”

And in rejecting and killing Jesus, the true temple of God, the Sanhedrin’s Jewish temple worship has itself become blasphemy.

  • They have crucified the very Person proclaimed in the structure and practices of the original temple. In chaining themselves to an obsolete paradigm, they have failed to recognize that God cannot be restricted to any one building or land, because the Temple is a Person. His presence cannot be localized.

Stephen’s defense of Christ and his church against the Sanhedrin is a defense that is still impacting the church today.

  • The grand theme coursing through the veins of Stephen’s sermon would serve to energize the church’s proclamation through the rest of the book of Acts and into early church history.

But Stephen is not done.

  • V.51 Having finished his defense, the defendant becomes the prosecutor. What happens next will serve to catapult the church out of Jerusalem and into the world with the gospel.
  • Like the prophet Moses, whose blazing likeness he bears, Stephen emphatically places his audience the Sanhedrin into the Old Testament text and into the gospel story with unmistakable clarity and prophetic accuracy. His words carry the weight of the radical assertions that have him there in the first place: Christ is the New Temple and the New Torah.

Stephen’s apologetic is no longer a defense. It is now an indictment.

  • The charges of his accusers are in tatters. The Sanhedrin has been upstaged. Stephen has used the very Old Testament and its Law that is so idolatrously prized by the Sanhedrin to show that the charges are both true AND without merit.
  • In doing so Stephen has also tied his life to the gospel of the New Covenant. He has sealed his own doom by not only affirming Christ’s claims to be the new temple and the law’s fulfillment, but also by masterfully using the sacred scriptures in proving Christ’s claims.
  • In rejecting the Messiah and the New Covenant he has ushered in, the Sanhedrin and the Jews rejected the very law and the very Old Testament they claimed to honor.
  • In rejecting Christ, the Sanhedrin identifies themselves with the disobedient Israelites that rejected Joseph and Moses and killed the prophets who spoke of Christ.

But Stephen’s indictment, effective as it has been, has not yet reached its climax. Act 7:54
The vindication.

54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.

  • Stephen’s end is inevitable. If his goal was to draw parallels between himself and Christ, then he has accomplished that goal and the Sanhedrin will make sure of it. His effect on his accusers was the same as Christ’s had been: rage with a mob mentality.
  • One must wonder as the crowd seethes under its own indictment: Will no one come to Stephen’s defense? Is there no one who will make a statement on his behalf against these charges? If the Sanhedrin thought Stephen stood alone in their courtroom, what happens next proves them to be dead wrong. Verse 55:

“But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

Stephen’s entire defense serves as an introduction of sorts to the epistle to the Hebrews.
Take for example the following passages.

Hebrews 8:1–2 KJV
Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; 2 A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man.

The same passage from the ESV

Hebrews 8:1–2 ESV
Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2 a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.

And with regards to the eschatology of the Hebrew saints before the Cross the letter to the Hebrews settles once and for all the Spirit filled brilliance of Stephen’s message before his accusers.

Hebrews 11:8–16 ESV
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.
13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
A video presentation of this message is available.

  1. Credit: This outline is derived from a much larger sermon manuscript given at the 2011 John Bunyan Conference by Chad Bresson; “Stephen, A New Covenant Preacher”. We owe Chad a great debt for his labors in Acts 6 and 7.  ↩
  2. See the above quote from Hebrews 11:8–16.  ↩