The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
17 “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt 18 until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. 19 He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. 20 At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, 21 and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22 And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.
Acts 7 is about one of the first deacons of the Church, Stephen, who became the first martyr.
Acts 6 tells us how the Apostles chose Stephen and six other men to serve as deacons: ensuring charity was dispensed and handling any donations.
All of these deacons were beyond reproach and were Hellenistic — Greek — Jews.
As the Church at this time was centred at the temple in Solomon’s Portico, the Jews, including the religious leaders, could see and hear thousands of converts every day. They knew that the Apostles were teaching and doing miraculous healing, the way Jesus did. The threat to the Jewish authorities was expanding. It was bad enough that Jews from Jerusalem were becoming followers of Jesus, but now Jews from other nations were, too.
Stephen was brought to the temple council to defend himself against four charges of blasphemy: blaspheming God, Moses, the law and the temple. Acts 7 contains his address and the council’s action against him.
At this point, he accomplished two objectives: held his audience’s attention and defended himself against the charge of blaspheming God.
As Stephen relates his scriptural knowledge of the early patriarchs, he is also indicting his audience for rejection of Jesus as Messiah. His reason for mentioning Joseph was to get them to realise that Joseph was treated by his brothers the same way the Jews treated Jesus.
Stephen offered the first apologetic — defence of, reasoned case for — that Jesus is Messiah.
In today’s verses, Stephen begins his talk about Moses. Recall that Joseph was Pharaoh’s right hand man when a famine hit Israel and Egypt. Joseph’s brothers and his father Jacob were in Israel. The brothers went to Egypt for grain, the supply of which Joseph managed. Pharaoh invited the brothers to bring their families and Jacob to live in Egypt.
The historical setting for today’s verses is many generations later. The leaders of the twelve tribes have long since died. So has the kind Pharaoh. The people of Israel are still in Egypt, but greatly multiplied, so that they are now the size of a small nation. God was ready to return them to their own land, as He had promised Abraham (verse 17).
There was a problem. A new Pharaoh came to rule, one who did not know the great things that Joseph had done (verse 18). Consequently, he cared nothing for the Israelites. This new king made slaves out of the people of Israel and made them kill their children (verse 19) probably as a means of genocide.
Stephen mentions this because he is indicting the Jewish leaders of trying to kill the infant Church.
Matthew Henry offers this analysis (emphases mine):
Now Stephen seems to observe this to them, not only that they might further see how mean their beginnings were, fitly represented (perhaps with an eye to the exposing of the young children in Egypt) by the forlorn state of a helpless, out-cast infant (Ezekiel 16:4), and how much they were indebted to God for his care of them, which they had forfeited, and made themselves unworthy of: but also that they might consider that what they were now doing against the Christian church in its infancy was as impious and unjust, and would be in the issue as fruitless and ineffectual, as that was which the Egyptians did against the Jewish church in its infancy. “You think you deal subtly in your ill treatment of us, and, in persecuting young converts, you do as they did in casting out the young children; but you will find it is to no purpose, in spite of your malice Christ’s disciples will increase and multiply.”
This period in Israel’s history was the time when Moses was born (Exodus 2). Stephen described him as ‘beautiful in God’s sight’ (verse 20). Moses’s parents brought him up for three months hidden away at home. Then his mother placed him in a basket, which she made waterproof, and set him in the reeds by the river bank.
Pharaoh’s daughter found the basket and a servant opened it to find a crying baby. Moses’s sister was on the sidelines watching. She approached Pharaoh’s daughter, who was quite taken by this beautiful infant, and offered to find ‘a nurse from the Hebrew women’ to feed the baby (Exodus 2:7). This canny girl fetched her mother — Moses’s mother — and took her to Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses’s mother was paid to nurse her own son and when he was old enough, she took him to live in Pharaoh’s opulent palace. Pharaoh’s daughter took Moses as her own son and gave him that name because it sounds like the Hebrew for ‘draw out’, i.e. she drew him out of the water.
Now back to Acts, where Stephen said that Moses grew up to be well educated in Egyptian ways and very accomplished as an adult (verse 22).
John MacArthur describes Moses, saying that the ancient Jewish historian:
Josephus says that the history tells him that when Moses walked down the street, everybody stopped doing what they were doing just to look at him, because he was so striking and so handsome. So he was quite a man. But even as a baby he was exceedingly fair, handsome child.
So Moses was adopted as the son of Pharaoh, with all the benefits. You can imagine what kind of benefits went with being the son of Pharaoh. So he lived in the palace …
He was an amazing person. Not only exceedingly fair and handsome, not only with all of the ability that was his just by virtue of his birth and his inheritance physically, heredity, but what was his by the education that he got in Egypt. I mean, the Egyptians, they tell us, knew geometry and medicine and astronomy, and they were very advanced, and Moses was a remarkable man, with all of that natural ability coupled with the finest and most comprehensive education available in the ancient world. And he was going to be God’s deliverer, to lead Israel to the land of promise. He was mighty.
With this introductory discourse on Moses, Stephen cleared himself of the charge of blaspheming him. He paints a highly positive picture of the man. Of course, Moses was far from perfect as a leader of the twelve tribes, and there were times when he disobeyed God in memorable ways. However, MacArthur says:
But, you see, Stephen stays away from all that. He’s defending himself against blaspheming Moses, so he just praises him.
So far, so good. Stephen had more to say about Moses, which I’ll cover in future posts.
Next time: Acts 7:23-29