They also set up false witnesses who said …
‘We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth with …
change the customs which Moses delivered to us’ (Acts 6:13-14).
Last month we saw how New Testament preachers ‘found’ Christ in the Old Testament in Messianic prophecies and types. But they also found Christ in what I called ‘obscure references’ — OT texts which at first sight have nothing to do with him. We now consider this aspect of New Testament practice, using Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 as our example.
From the charges brought against Stephen (see opening text), it is clear enough that he was intent on preaching Christ. But his long sermon in Acts 7:1-53 makes no mention of ‘Jesus’ or ‘the Christ’ — it seems to be a simple history lesson!
To be fair, he does refer briefly to Christ as the ‘prophet like Moses’ (v. 37) and ‘the Just One’ (v. 52). It was the latter statement, in fact, that triggered the wrath of his persecutors. But for the most part he just rehearses Old Testament history with no obvious application to Christ.
Was Stephen really preaching Christ, then? Yes — and he was doing so throughout the sermon, in spite of appearances.
Stephen’s use of history to preach Christ is specially significant, because the historical sections of the OT often seem devoid of Christological content. The Law overflows with types and pictures of Christ. The Psalms are replete with Messianic hope. The prophets also testify plainly of the one who was to come. But where is Christ in the historical narratives of the Old Testament?
A principle of interpretation
At first sight these histories are a featureless desert for the would-be preacher of Christ. But Stephen knew better.
He understood a principle that Paul later spells out. Referring is Israel’s troubled history in the wilderness, Paul writes to the equally troubled church at Corinth: ‘Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition on whom the ends of the ages have come’ (1 Corinthians 10:11).
‘The things that happened’ constitute the history of Israel. Paul is telling us that this arcane and ancient narrative was set down under the Holy Spirit’s guidance for the instruction and benefit of those to whom Christ would one day be proclaimed.
The same truth is taught in Hebrews 3:5: ‘Moses indeed was faithful in all his house as a servant, for a testimony of those things that would be spoken afterwards [that is, in the gospel era]’. See also Romans 15:4.
Let us, then, see this principle at work in Stephen’s message to the Jewish Council.
Christ in the promise
Stephen begins by laying a foundation, namely, the promise God made to Abraham and sealed by the ‘covenant of circumcision’ (vv. 5-8). Stephen is reminding them that the essence of Jewish nationhood lay in their being heirs of this promise.
As we know, God’s promise to Abraham culminates in the ‘seed’ through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed — which seed is Christ (Galatians 3:16). Stephen’s audience were well versed in the Scriptures and should have understood the Messianic implications of the promise.
Whether or not they did so, they were given clear notice that this sermon concerned the fulfilment of the promise in the coming Christ.
At this point Stephen introduces the dominant theme of his sermon — the envy and rejection meted out to God’s chosen ones by their Jewish brethren throughout history.
Christ and Joseph
This emerges first in verse 9, where Stephen relates how Joseph was envied and rejected by his brethren.
However, ‘God was with him and delivered him out of all his troubles’ (vv. 9-10). This is the balancing truth — those whom the Jews reject are nevertheless raised up by God. Jesus of Nazareth is already clearly in view!
Furthermore, not only was Joseph elevated to high office in Egypt, but he was received by his brethren (and former enemies) as one who had returned from the dead. And having been made known to them (v. 13), Joseph became their saviour from famine and death (v. 14).
Again, the Messianic implications may have been lost on Stephen’s audience, but they were clearly present in the preacher’s mind, as we shall see.
Next Stephen reminds them how God’s words to Abraham concerning Israel’s enslavement and deliverance from Egypt were precisely fulfilled (compare vv. 6-7 with vv. 17-19). If that were so, would not his promise concerning the ‘seed’ also be fulfilled?
Christ and Moses
Stephen now launches into the longest section of his sermon — that which features the history of Israel under Moses (vv. 20ff). He begins by emphasising the sad condition of Israel in Egypt. He extols Moses as the child ‘well pleasing to God’ and as one full of wisdom.
Moses was also ‘mighty in words and deed’, a phrase used by the early disciples to describe Jesus — ‘a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people’ (Luke 24:19).
But Stephen’s main point about Moses was that, like Joseph before him, he was rejected by his brethren — ‘he supposed that his brethren would understand that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand’ (v. 25).
The preacher underscores his point. ‘This Moses whom they rejected … is the one God sent to be a ruler and a deliverer’ (v. 35).
I am sure that by this stage the hearers were beginning to ‘get the message’. Stephen was not simply rehearsing history but was demonstrating that the Jews had consistently rejected those whom God sent historically to save them.
Nevertheless, through the sovereign mercy of God, the saviours they rejected were raised up to save them, notwithstanding their sin (v. 36)! So aptly do they prefigure Christ.
Christ and the law
Not only did Israel reject God’s ‘saviours’ — they also rejected his law. Moses ‘received the living oracles to give to us, whom our fathers would not obey, but rejected. And in their hearts they turned back to Egypt…’ (v. 39).
Yet, amazingly, the Lord did not utterly reject them. By grace he brought them into the promised land under Joshua (v. 45) — himself a ‘saviour’ and a notable type of Christ. Furthermore, they were accompanied into the land by the tabernacle, an evident token of the presence of God among them.
But they did not understand the token, nor the symbolism of the temple that succeeded it. They did not understand that ‘the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands’ (v. 48).
They thus again rejected precious truth — the truth that one who had ‘tabernacled’ among them was the true temple — that they had destroyed only to see it raised again in three days (John 2:19).
Christ and the prophets
Stephens’s final denouncement cites the Jews’ rejection of the prophets, ‘who foretold the coming of the Just One’ (v. 52). This culminated in their ultimate crime — the rejection, betrayal and murder of the very deliverer of whom the prophets spoke (v. 52).
We do not know what more Stephen intended to say. It is almost certain that, like Peter, he would have gone on to say that in spite of their wickedness, God had raised Jesus from the dead and made him ‘both Lord and Christ’. In his name they could receive ‘the remission of sins’ and ‘the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:36-38).
That was, after all, the repeated message of his sermon — that God raises up saviours to deliver those who once rejected them. Stephen would have told them so.
But they killed him before he could.
At first sight Stephen’s sermon was nothing but Jewish history. But looking deeper we see how he found in the historical narrative a pattern that prefigured Christ with glorious clarity.
According to that pattern, God’s people were distressed and ready to perish — whether from hunger in Canaan, enslavement in Egypt, or by languishing in the wilderness. Each time God sends to them a saviour, but they reject him and his message. They also reject the law-givers and prophets who proclaim salvation to those with eyes to see it.
Each time, however, God rejects rejection! He raises up the rejected one, exalting him to a place of authority from which he proceeds to save the very people who rebelled against him.
In short, Stephen uses Jewish history to prefigure and proclaim the gospel of Christ — rejected, crucified, resurrected, and ‘exalted to [God’s] right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and the forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 5:31).
If Stephen can preach Christ from Jewish history, so can we — and from every other portion of God’s Word in the Old Testament, even if at first it seems obscure. In doing so we have the full support of New Testament practice.
The next article, in January, will be the last in this series. There we shall consider some outline examples of preaching Christ from the Old Testament.