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.
23 “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. 26 And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ 27 But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.
Today’s verses are a continuation of Stephen’s address to the temple court.
Stephen was one of the first deacons, whom the Apostles appointed along with five other holy and wise men from the Hellenist (Greek) Jews. Acts 6 gives us the account of how and why the Apostles chose them.
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 before 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: holding his audience’s attention and defending himself against the charge of blaspheming God.
As Stephen related his scriptural knowledge of the early patriarchs, he also indicted his audience for rejecting Jesus. His reason for mentioning Joseph was to get them to realise that Joseph’s brothers treated him the same way the Jews treated Jesus.
Stephen offered the first Christian apologetic: a defence of — reasoned case for — Jesus, in this case, as Messiah.
In last week’s verses, Stephen began his scriptural account of Moses: from the time of his birth through to his early adulthood. Please read that linked post if you haven’t done so, as it will help clarify today’s reading.
By the time Moses was born, several generations had passed since Joseph’s time. A new Pharaoh came to rule. He did not know the history of how the Israelites came to be there. Nor did he know the story of Joseph. Hence, he enslaved the descendants of the twelve patriarchs of Israel.
Despite having been adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and educated in all the best Egyptian traditions, Moses never forgot that he was an Israelite. Aged 40, he decided it was time to meet his family members (verse 23).
Matthew Henry tells us of Moses at this point in time, as described in Acts 7:22: ‘mighty in his words and deeds’. Emphases mine below:
He became a prime minister of state in Egypt. This seems to be meant by his being mighty in words and deeds. Though he had not a ready way of expressing himself, but stammered, yet he spoke admirably good sense, and every thing he said commanded assent, and carried its own evidence and force of reason along with it; and, in business, none went on with such courage, and conduct, and success. Thus was he prepared, by human helps, for those services, which, after all, he could not be thoroughly furnished for without divine illumination. Now, by all this, Stephen will make it appear that, notwithstanding the malicious insinuations of his persecutors, he had as high and honourable thoughts of Moses as they had.
Stephen did not speak of Moses’s stammering, only his greatness. This was to clear himself of the charge of blaspheming Moses.
However, as with his account of Joseph, Stephen was trying to tell the Jewish court that their ancestors rejected leaders such as Joseph and Moses to their detriment. Stephen was using Joseph and Moses as comparative figures for Jesus. The Jews rejected Joseph, Moses and Jesus.
Through his apologetic, Stephen wanted to convince his audience that Jesus is Messiah.
Back now to our reading. Stephen said that Moses saw one of the Egyptians — probably a foreman — oppress one of the Israelite slaves. Moses, in turn, fatally struck the man (verse 24). Moses saw the Egyptian abuse one of his family members and wanted to avenge his kinsman.
that his commission from heaven would bear him out …
However, he also worked on the assumption that his kith and kin would recognise that he was one of them and that he was sent to deliver them from bondage to the Promised Land (verse 25):
… he supposed that his brethren (who could not but have some knowledge of the promise made to Abraham, that the nation that should oppress them God would judge) would have understood that God by his hand would deliver them; for he could not have had either presence of mind or strength of body to do what he did, if he had not been clothed with such a divine power as evinced a divine authority.
But that was not the case.
The incident elicited a lot of talk because, when Moses returned to the slaves the next day, they were quarrelling (verse 26). Some must have been saying, ‘He did a good thing. Could he deliver us? Is he fulfilling the promise made to Abraham?’ Others no doubt took the opposite view, ‘Who does that guy think he is?’
Moses, wanting them to make peace, asked why they were quarrelling. Instead of responding rationally, the Israelite contending with his neighbour pushed Moses aside and asked who made him judge and ruler over them (verse 27). He went further by asking if Moses was going to kill him, too.
Henry warns us about people like this:
Proud and litigious spirits are impatient of check and control.
That response was Israel’s rejection of Moses. That Israelite who spoke to him so aggressively was stubborn and spiritually blind. That is what Stephen was trying to convict the Jewish court of: a similar but infinitely more serious rejection of Jesus.
John MacArthur says of Moses:
He had done the first thing. He had shown that he was going to defend them. But they didn’t get the message. They understood not. So blind, they were blind to their own redeemer, their own deliverer, the one who was going to take them to the Promised Land. It was the time of promise, verse 17 said it, and it was time to go, but they weren’t going to go because they weren’t going to accept the deliverer.
Jesus came and offered a kingdom. They didn’t accept the King. Did they get the kingdom? No, it was postponed. Moses came and said, “I’ll give you the Promised Land.” Did they get the Promised Land? Forty years later they got it. No, 80 years later, because they didn’t believe when the redeemer came the first time. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Verse 26, “And the next day he showed himself to them as they strove.” He came down there and two of them were arguing. He not only came to defend them from their enemies, he came to make peace among them. He was the truest kind of deliverer. His plans were not only political, they were personal. He not only saw the deliverance of Israel as a nation, he saw himself as a peacemaker between individuals. That’s the heart of a real deliverer, isn’t it? Great man.
Thus rejected, Moses exiled himself to Midian, where he fathered two sons (verse 29). MacArthur tells us:
Remember his wife, Zipporah? He married her over there and he fiddled around in the desert for 40 years herding sheep.
Stephen’s point to the court about Moses was that God postponed Israel’s deliverance because they were stubborn, blind, aggressive and disobedient. He punished them with 40 more years of slavery and another 40 in the journey to the Promised Land. Many Israelites died during that time because they rejected Moses in the first place. Had they accepted him, they would have adhered to God’s timetable.
Although Stephen did not know this — he was the first martyr — their rejection of Christ resulted in the destruction of the temple decades later by the Romans in 70 AD: God’s punishment. It was never rebuilt.
Yet, although he was convicting his audience of spiritual blindness and brutal rejection, Stephen wanted to open their eyes, to give them insight into Jesus as Messiah. Stephen was saying, ‘Accept Jesus as I accept Him as the Deliverer, the Promised One, the Messiah’.
Henry says that, with this apologetic, Stephen cleared himself of blaspheming Moses. Furthermore, he indirectly warned the court not to reject his message about Jesus, the way their ancestors rejected Moses. Finally, he warned them, again indirectly, that if they did reject Jesus as Messiah, God would take Him away from them in favour of the Gentiles.
The next reading continues Stephen’s discourse on Moses.
Forbidden Bible Verses continues after Easter.
Next time: Acts 7:30-34