Bible ancient-futurenetThe 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.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 7:35-43

35 “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. 37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ 38 This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. 39 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:

“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices,
    during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
43 You took up the tent of Moloch
    and the star of your god Rephan,
    the images that you made to worship;
and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’


Stephen, one of the first deacons who was also divinely given the gift of ‘doing great wonders and signs among the people’ (Acts 6:8). He also spoke openly about Jesus in Solomon’s Portico (Porch) at the temple. For this, he was arrested on charges of blasphemy: blaspheming God, Moses, the law and the temple. Acts 7 contains his address and the council’s action against him.

Stephen first got the council’s attention by saying he had revered the same traditions as they and respected the history of the people of Israel. He related the story of Abraham, then of Joseph.

At that 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 went on to discuss Moses scripturally, to show that he had not blasphemed him. He began with Moses’s childhood, then his early adulthood, which included self-exile to Midian. After 40 years, an angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told him he would be going to Egypt to deliver the Israelites.

Today’s verses are a continuation of the discourse. What Stephen did throughout his entire apologetic — case for, defence of religious doctrine — was to demonstrate that God’s chosen people had rejected those He sent to them. Similarly, they had rejected Jesus. Stephen exhorted them to consider those rejections very carefully.

The angel led Moses — the man the Israelites had rejected — back to Egypt to free them from bondage (verse 45). Note that Stephen quotes the Israelites. They said the same things to Moses that the Jews of Jesus’s time said to Him. Matthew Henry explains:

Now, by this example, Stephen would intimate to the council that this Jesus whom they now refused, as their fathers did Moses, saying, Who made thee a prophet and a king? Who gave thee this authority? even this same has God advanced to be a prince and a Saviour, a ruler and a deliverer; as the apostles had told them awhile ago (Acts 5:30), that the stone which the builders refused was become the head-stone in the corner, Acts 4:11.

Stephen gave full praise to Moses throughout his discourse, thereby proving that he was not blaspheming him at all.

He pointed out that Moses performed ‘wonders and signs’ in Egypt, at the Red Sea and in the wilderness (verse 36).

Stephen then reminded the temple court that Moses told the Israelites that one day a prophet would come from their midst (verse 37). That was a clear reference to Jesus.

John MacArthur says (emphases mine):

You say, “Well, how does that present Christ?” Listen, they knew everything about Christ, and if they looked at the facts they’d see that Christ paralleled Moses in every way. You see? That’s the point. They knew all the facts. For example, Moses was a deliverer from among his own people, a Jew. So was Jesus Christ. Moses came down from a palace to release men in bondage. He condescended. So did Jesus Christ. Moses offered himself to Israel and was rejected and then went and raised up seed among the Gentiles …

Moses was rejected the first time but accepted the second time, and so will be Jesus Christ. Moses was a great redeemer. So was Jesus Christ. Moses leads people out of bondage. So does Jesus Christ. You can talk about Moses as a type of Christ over and over and over. Moses is even a shepherd. So is Jesus Christ. So Moses said, “You look, and when you see one like me, you listen to him. He’s your Messiah.” And they had looked, and they had not seen. And Jesus said of them, “You are blind leaders of the blind.” They couldn’t see anything. Blind. So the history of Moses is the foreshadowing of the history of Christ.

Stephen continued, saying that Moses was the one appointed to be with the Israelites in the wilderness. It was Moses who received the oracles — the Ten Commandments — which he then gave to God’s people (verse 38).

Note that Stephen said ‘living oracles’, thereby demonstrating that he knew the Commandments are still to be obeyed. Therefore, Stephen defended himself successfully against the accusation that he blasphemed the law.

With regard to verse 38, in some translations, ‘church’ is used instead of ‘congregation’. John MacArthur explains that the Greek word used was ‘ekklesia’, meaning ‘called-out ones’, or God’s chosen people who were called out of Egypt.

MacArthur says that we mustn’t confuse ‘church’ with the Christian church. It’s more of a congregation:

The New Testament church doesn’t start until the Day of Pentecost. There was no church in the wilderness as we know it … The reason he calls the group of Israelites the called-out ones is because they were called out of Egypt, not because they were the body of Christ, the church. So let’s call them a called-out congregation.

Stephen then pointedly related to the temple court audience that the Israelites rejected Moses a second time, turning to Egyptian pagan ways (verse 39):

 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside …

This happened when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive God’s law. He stayed there a long time, long enough for the Israelites in their disobedience to ask Aaron for idols (verse 40). They were so impatient for Moses’s return, saying they didn’t know what had happened to him, that they wanted false gods instead.

Stephen mentioned this as a clear indictment that the Jews had not changed.

MacArthur explains:

This is a shot. “Whom our fathers would not obey.” He says, “You want to talk about disobedience to God’s laws, then check your own history. You’re always going back to the sanctity and sacredness of your forefathers. They were the ones that were disobedient. “Whom our fathers would not obey, but thrust him from them, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt.” They said “Nuts” to Moses. “We want to do what we did in Egypt.”

Remember what they did? Moses was up there getting the law, and what are they doing? Making false gods that they learned about in Egypt and worshipping them at the foot of the mount where Moses is getting the law. Israel’s not so sacred. Their fathers weren’t so to be esteemed. They sure couldn’t boast of the fathers’ loyalty to Moses or the law. They weren’t loyal to Moses or the law. They rejected Moses even at Sinai. They rejected God’s law even while it was being given. They didn’t even wait to hear it. They rejected it before they even knew what it was.

MacArthur tells us that the Israelites knew what they were doing. Oral tradition about their forefathers had been passed down through the generations, from earliest times. Consider Abel:

Listen, they knew enough of the law to know you don’t worship the gods of the Egyptians. Abel knew that. Abel knew to make a sacrifice to the true God, didn’t he? … He knew it, and if he knew it, he did it by faith, and if he did it by faith, faith is based on revelation. “Faith cometh by,” what? “Hearing.” Therefore, he had to hear something. He operated on faith. They knew to worship the true God, and they knew to sacrifice only to Him.

Stephen went on to describe the Israelites’ heinous disobedience while Moses was receiving the law from God. They constructed a golden idol then celebrated their handicraft (verse 41).

MacArthur tells us that Aaron tried to dissuade them from constructing this calf, or young bull:

He said, “If you’re going to do this, then you’ll have to bring all your earrings, your gold earrings and your gold ornaments.” And it may have been that he wanted to stop them from doing it by putting the price so high they wouldn’t want to give up those things. But they did. Maybe he figured that if I’ll get them to do that, they won’t be willing to. But they did. They brought it all, melted it all down and made a golden calf, a golden bull.

MacArthur explains the significance of the golden calf:

the young bull would be the fact that the Egyptians worshipped Apis and Mnevis, two bulls. One was supposed to be Osiris reincarnated. The other was the sun god reincarnated. And so they worshipped these two bulls, and this is Egyptian worship. They had learned this in Egypt.

This ‘rejoicing’ that Stephen spoke of was more of an orgy. MacArthur says:

the Book of Exodus tells us that they took their clothes off and they were in naked shame, carrying on a sexual orgy in the worship of this young bull. All the time, Moses is up there communing with God. Boy, you talk about contrast, friends. You’ll never see a more stark one than that.

Stephen is just absolutely indicting the land of Israel and the nation of Israel for rejecting God all the way through.

Upon his return, Moses was furious to see all that had gone on while he was receiving divine law. God was even angrier. God wanted to destroy His people, but Moses prayed, asking for His mercy instead. So, God ‘turned away’ and left them to their own devices (verse 42). The ‘host of heaven’ refers to the stars and planets.

MacArthur reminds us:

God said, “I’ll only slay 3,000, and let the rest live.” But none of them ever entered the Promised Land. All they did was live 40 years wandering all over the place. And Moses was so mad he slammed down the tablets of stone and broke them all over everywhere and had to go back up and get another set.

Matthew Henry points out that when God left the Israelites to their own devices:

they walked in their own counsels, and were so scandalously mad upon their idols as never any people were

Stephen, in relating this history lesson, went on to quote Amos 5:25-27 (verses 42, 43):

25 “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26 You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves, 27 and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.

‘Damascus’ in Amos 5:27 is ‘Babylon’ in Stephen’s context, by the way. It is thought Stephen said ‘Babylon’ to emphasise the captivity of Israel.

Henry offers a detailed analysis of these last two verses — Acts 7:42-43. God asked if His people had offered Him sacrifices during their time in the wilderness. Notice how He addressed them as ‘O house of Israel’, implying He had chosen them and they, in turn, rejected His law for them:

No; during all that time sacrifices to God were intermitted; they did not so much as keep the passover after the second year. It was God’s condescension to them that he did not insist upon it during their unsettled state; but then let them consider how ill they requited him in offering sacrifices to idols, when God dispensed with their offering them to him.

As for Stephen’s audience:

This is also a check to their zeal for the customs that Moses delivered to them, and their fear of having them changed by this Jesus, that immediately after they were delivered these customs were for forty years together disused as needless things.

Henry then explains the horrors of the Israelites’ gods and idols, which they worshipped from that point until their much later captivity in Babylon ended. This lasted for generations:

Moloch was the idol of the children of Ammon, to which they barbarously offered their own children in sacrifice, which they could not do without great terror and grief to themselves and their families; yet this unnatural idolatry they arrived at, when God gave them up to worship the host of heaven. See 2 Chronicles 28:3. It was surely the strongest delusion that ever people were given up to, and the greatest instance of the power of Satan in the children of disobedience, and therefore it is here spoken of emphatically: Yea, you took up the tabernacle of Moloch …

Then there is the matter of the universe:

Some think Remphan signifies the moon, as Moloch does the sun; others take it for Saturn, for that planet is called Remphan in the Syriac and Persian languages. The Septuagint puts it for Chiun, as being a name more commonly known. They had images representing the star, like the silver shrines for Diana, here called the figures which they made to worship. Dr. Lightfoot [a Bible scholar of Henry’s era] thinks they had figures representing the whole starry firmament, with all the constellations, and the planets, and these are called Remphan–“the high representation,” like the celestial globe: a poor thing to make an idol of, and yet better than a golden calf!

God’s ultimate punishment was to send the Israelites to captivity in Babylon. After that, their idol worship ended.

MacArthur sums this up for us:

So in a short little statement, Stephen recites the history of idolatry in Israel, from Sinai to Babylon. And you know they had the law all that time? They had the law. All those years they had the law. They had teachers of the law, scribes and everybody. They just kept rejecting, rejecting, rejecting, rejecting. So Stephen says, “Don’t accuse me of blaspheming the law. Check your own history.”

MacArthur says that nothing has changed, even today:

If Jesus had been our Messiah, all of those great Jewish leaders would’ve known He was our Messiah. We wouldn’t have missed it.” That’s one of the things that Jews even argue about today. “Why, with all of the great rabbis and teachers of the past, they would know if the Messiah came. They wouldn’t have missed him.”

That is why Stephen framed his apologetic the way he did:

And Stephen says, “Guess what? You missed Moses. Guess what? You missed Joseph. You never picked up on Joseph until the second time around, and you never picked up on Moses until the second time around.” And when is it they’re going to pick up on Jesus? The second time around. That’s no argument at all. “We would’ve known.” Your history proves you didn’t know. “You do always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers have done, so do you.” “You’re right on schedule. It always takes two times to get through to you.”

Scripture says that the second time around will be too late.

Let us pray for those who reject Christ, whoever they might be. Let us pray for them to be delivered from spiritual blindness and carnal captivity.

Stephen’s discourse continues in next week’s instalment.

Next time: Acts 7:44-50