Remember that Stephen was accused of blasphemy against Moses (or the Law) and against the Temple (Acts 6:13-14). In the last four blogs I’ve shown how Stephen addressed the first accusation. By and large the fathers had rejected both Moses and Joseph and had no faith in God as their father, Abraham had. Their eyes were always upon the past, traditions, where they had been (e.g. in Egypt etc.) and had no vision for the future (promises to be fulfilled). The five books of Moses are what make up the Law (Torah), so blasphemy against either (Moses/Torah) is blasphemy against the other. Not only did Stephen show a reverence toward Moses, but implied the Prophet who was like him (Acts 7:37) fulfilled Moses’ experiences to the letter, i.e. he fulfilled the Law and was rejected and crucified in doing so.
In this blog-post we come to the worship aspect of Stephen’s defense. Did Stephen commit blasphemy against the Temple (or God)? He began his defense by pointing to the historical fact that Moses received the oracles (Law) of God on Mt. Sinai (Acts 7:38), but the fathers refused to obey God’s word (v.39). Rather, they had Aaron make them gods which they presumed would lead them back into Egypt (v.40), for that is where their hearts were (v.39). Their excuse was they didn’t know what had become of Moses who had gone up to into the cloud to meet with God (v.40).
This whole scene points to the Prophet like Moses (Acts 7:37). The rulers refused to believe Jesus while he ministered upon the earth, and in Stephen’s day they still would not repent and believe the Gospel preached by those faithful to Lord of heaven and earth. Jesus went up into the clouds (Acts 1:9) to receive the Kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14), but the rulers used the excuse “we don’t know” anything about him (John 9:29). They had all sorts of opinions about Jesus—they “knew” his family and place of birth (Matthew 13:55; John 7:27), but they did speculate about other origins (John 8:48), but probably most of all, they were bewildered concerning his learning or teaching (John 7:15). In short, they really knew nothing about his origin or where he went (John 8:14; cp. Acts 7:40).
Nevertheless, Moses told the elders of the people they had Aaron and Hur if they needed to solve any problems (Exodus 24:14). Then he left them to go up into the cloud where he stayed for 40 days (Exodus 24:15-18), an interval of time that tested the people. However, the people’s hearts were still in Egypt (Acts 7:39) and the elders told Aaron to make them gods of gold (Acts 7:40), even though, just before Moses went up into the cloud, God promised that the Angel of the Lord (Jesus in the NT) would go before them to keep them in the way and bring them into the Promised Land (Exodus 23:20). Yet, the elders and the people would not believe. Similarly, Jesus told the Apostles, not long before he went up into the clouds (Acts 1:9) that they need not be overly concerned about his departure, because they knew the Way (John 14:4), in that they knew him (John 14:6).
Stephen presented the problem this way. God gave them over to worship the host (stars) of heaven (Acts 7:42), just as they desired. Before entering the Promised Land Joshua had the whole nation circumcised (Joshua 5:3-9). Whether it was through disobedience or through the design of Moses to not circumcise the young after the rebellion at Kadesh (Number 13:26; 14:1-12) is not said, but Stephen claimed that the unbelieving generation did not worship God during their whole 40 years in the wilderness (Acts 7:42) but rather worshiped the starry host (Acts 7:43). As they carried the Tabernacle of God, in their hearts they didn’t carry the God of heaven and earth but Moloch, whom they desired (Acts 7:43; Amos 5:26).
What does this mean to those listening to Stephen? Didn’t they worship the God of Israel? In what way could they have been worshiping other gods? Does Stephen’s argument make any sense to them? Jesus was accused of casting out evil by the prince of evil, Beelzebub, or the lord of the house. The fact that this doctrine of the Jews pointed to another power other than God, showed they believed in other authorities or gods. Moreover, they presumed to be able to use this power for their own ends, or against the purposes of the local god by using the name of the chief deity. This is shown more clearly later in Acts by two sons (of seven) of the high priest visiting Ephesus (cp. Acts 19:13-16). They tried to use the name of Jesus as an evil power or authority over the resident evil. In the end what ailed the sick man came over the two sons of the high priest.
What is interesting in Luke’s account in Acts 19 is, when this became known (Acts 19:17) many who had placed their trust in the curious arts confessed their sins, and they became believers in Jesus, burning all their pagan objects (Acts 19:18-19). Their repentance over the event shows that this Jewish doctrine, as practiced by them according to the New Testament in the days of Jesus and Stephen, was actually delving into the worship of other gods, and this was Stephen’s point in Acts 7:42-43! If one called out (prayed) in the name of an evil deity (Matthew 12:24; and as was supposed in Acts 19:13), where were their hearts (cp. Acts 7:39)? If one calls out (prays) in the name of an evil deity to heal the sick, in whose name does one call out (pray) and sacrifice in the Temple of God, and how would such prayer (worship) be differentiated? Did the rulers really serve God in the House of God, or were they, in their hearts (Acts 7:39) serving Beelzebub, the lord of the house, just as their fathers did who rejected Moses and all the prophets of God?