3. The Preaching of Stephen and Philip

3.1 Stephen

Because of its length, the speech of Stephen (Acts 7) will not be reproduced here. The speech is complex and reflects a distinctive theology, elements of which are later developed by Paul and the author of Hebrews. Many have noted the connection between this book and Stephen’s speech. “Stephen is, in fact, the spiritual father of that unknown writer; a comparative study of Stephen’s speech and the Epistle to the Hebrews reveals an impressive series of parallels, suggesting a basic identity of outlook and approach in the two documents.”[34] A full treatment of the speech would require a thesis by itself, but for the present purposes, the main thrust of the message will be determined.

The long historical section which forms the bulk of the speech has caused problems for many people.

Dibelius has argued... “The major part of the speech (7:2-34) shows no purpose whatever, but contains a unique, compressed reproduction of the story of the patriarchs and Moses” ([Studies in Acts,] p.168); and “the most striking feature of this speech is the irrelevance of its main section” (ibid., p.169). Just how wrong Dibelius was, however, will become evident as we proceed.[35]

The speech contains two main interwoven themes, where God’s presence is to be located, and the response of Israel in rejecting God’s messengers, climaxing in the rejection of Christ.[36]

The place of God’s presence

Rejection of God’s messengers

v.2 God appears to Abraham in Mesopotamia  
v.5 God gave him no inheritance in the land ‘not even enough to set his foot on’.  
v.6-7 his descendants would be aliens in another land  
  v.9 The patriarchs rejected Joseph, the one whom God was with, and sold him into slavery
v.9-10 God was with Joseph in Egypt  
v.11-15 Jacob went to Egypt  
v.16 Jacob was buried in Shechem outside Judea  
  v.17-28 rejection of Moses
v.29-30 Moses lived 40 years in Midian  
v.30-34 God appears to Moses in Midian  
  v.35 restatement of rejection of Moses in stronger terms.
v.36 God’s miracle working presence in Egypt and the wilderness  
  v.37 promise of a Prophet like Moses
v.37 presence of God on Mt. Sinai  
  v.39 rejection of Moses (still associated with the Prophet of v.37)
  v.40-41 Idolatry (golden calf) worshipping a work of their own hands
  v.42-43 jump to their later apostasy which led to their exile for idolatry
v.44-45 presence of God in the wilderness tabernacle  
v.46-47 Solomon builds the Temple  
v.48-49 Isaiah declares that God does not dwell in temples made with hands  
  v. 51-52 accusation of rejecting the prophets and of murdering the Just One
  v. 53 accusation of apostasy from the law

The place of God’s presence

Stephen’s accusers were angered by his teaching concerning the temple: “They also set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law’” (6:13). The temple was one of the most sacred elements in their religion, and any attack on it was considered blasphemy. There is a parallel with the same false witness brought against Christ (Matt 26:61).

In his speech, Stephen consistently shows that God’s presence is not to be located in one place, and illustrates the history of the covenant. God’s special presence had been seen in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Midian, Sinai and the wilderness. Interwoven with this is the description of Israel’s apostasy in the wilderness (v.41) when they worshipped the golden calf, which is described as “rejoicing in the work of their own hands” . Then at the climax of the speech he describes the Jerusalem temple as “made with hands” , which “would be a horrifying word to use in this context. Why so? Because that was the word used by Hellenistic Jews to condemn idolatry, just this word summing up the typical dismissive Jewish polemic that Gentile gods were human artifacts, ‘made with hands’.... —the Temple itself an idol![37] So Stephen stands in line with the Old Testament prophets, calling apostate Israel back from idols.

Rejection of God’s messengers

The rejection of Moses is described in detail by Stephen, since it was Moses whom they claimed to follow (6:14), and he answers that they do not really follow Moses. Throughout their history they had consistently rejected the law, from the worship of the calf in the wilderness, to the time of their exile. “Not to be missed is the implication that the whole sweep of Israel’s time within the promised land itself was embraced within these two periods of blatant apostasy.[38]

They not only rejected Moses, but all of the prophets (7:52) up to and including the Messiah. Stephen had been accused of blaspheming the law (6:13), but he turns this argument on its head and accuses them of being the law-breakers (7:53) for betraying and murdering the Just One (7:52).


It can be seen that Stephen’s speech, far from being a rambling survey of Israel’s history, is a penetrating indictment of the nation’s apostasy. At first sight the message of Christ does not appear to be to the fore, but on closer analysis it can be seen that Stephen understands precisely why they have rejected Christ and shapes his message accordingly. The sin that stands between them and Christ is their national pride in being the elect people of God, the guardians of the law and the possessors of the temple. They must repent from this idolatry and turn to Christ.

3.2 Philip

Very little is reported of Philip's message:

Acts 8:35-37 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. 36 Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, "See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?"

The main purpose of the account in Luke is to show the geographical and ethnic spread of the Gospel, and more importantly, to show the fulfilment of Isaiah 56:3: “Do not let the son of the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord speak, saying, ‘The Lord has utterly separated me from his people’; Nor let the eunuch say, ‘Here I am, a dry tree.’”

It seems that the eunuch was a devout man since he had come to Jerusalem to worship (v.27), and as such was well grounded in the Old Testament, so Philip is able to use this as his starting point (helped greatly by the timing of the Holy Spirit!). Luke has not included much information about the message, but it appears to be in line with the preaching of Peter, and to have at its core an eschatological and Christological interpretation of the Old Testament. The challenge in verse 37 to believe the message that Jesus is the Son of God has very poor textual support[39].

[34] Bruce, Commentary, p.143

[35] Longenecker, p.337-338

[36] Dunn, Partings, p.65

[37] Dunn, Partings, p.66,67

[38] Dunn, Partings, p.66

[39] Found only in a few Western MSS.

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