Stephen’s Irresistible Defence of the Gospel

Stephen was an outstanding brother in the early ecclesia in Jerusalem. He was appointed, not by the apostles, but by “the multitude of the disciples” (Acts 6:2) to lead the group of seven brethren who were charged with the care of those in need, described in the record as “the daily ministration” (v1); a seemingly humble task which included organising and perhaps assisting those who would “serve tables” (v2). His appointment is described in Acts 6:5: “the whole multitude… chose Stephen, a man full of faith, and of the Holy Spirit” – outstanding qualities indeed. That Stephen, who surely carried out his appointed tasks responsibly, nevertheless had wider talents is evident in the record. We find that “Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people” (v8). Moreover, when Stephen’s teaching was challenged by the Jews from a wide range of localities and cities, “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake” (v10).

In frustration, Stephen’s opponents resorted finally to finding false witnesses, seeking to have him condemned by the Council. The false witnesses asserted that Stephen spoke “blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law” (v13) and that he had been heard to say that “Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us” (v14).

Stephen’s Speech in Acts 7 Addresses the Charges Against Him

Perhaps we might first note that the broad purpose of Stephen’s address was to deal with the specific charges made against him. He had to present a defence. And he did this by traversing the record relating to the formation and history of his own people, demonstrating how God dealt with the fathers and the nation quite outside the city of Jerusalem and the temple.

It is in the detail of Stephen’s references to the nation’s history that his account has been questioned and the accuracy of some of his references challenged. Let us examine the details.

The Call of Abram – Ur or Haran?

Reconstruction of ancient Ur

Stephen’s first reference is to the call of Abraham and he is clear that the call was in Ur, “when he was in Mesopotomia, before he dwelt in Charran” (Acts 7:2). This was clearly an angelic visitation: “The God of glory appeared…”. Angels overshadowed the life of Abraham and here is the first record of their specific involvement in his life.

The naysayers challenge Stephen by asserting that the call came first at Haran as recorded in Genesis 12:1-3 and that Stephen is therefore in error. But scripture supports Stephen’s account where he adds to the Genesis record (as we believe by inspiration) but does not contradict it. About nine or ten years after Abraham left Haran, in Genesis 15:7, there is a further angelic visitation to Abraham. Here the angel declares: “I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it”. This verse is clearly telling us that it was divine direction, through the agency of an angel, that brought Abraham out of Ur. A call was made there. Nehemiah adds his testimony to this record: “Thou art the Lord the God, who didst choose Abram, and broughtest him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees…” (Neh9:7). A divine call to Abraham while he was in Ur is the only way we can understand this record. Stephen tells us what was said: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee” (Acts 7:3).

Abraham obeyed the divine call, departed from Ur and with a huge company (possibly as many as 2000 people) made his way, divinely guided, to Haran. There he stayed, possibly some five years. His father Terah was very old, likely in failing health and they stayed until he died. There was no criticism of Abraham. God understands filial responsibilities and Abraham cared for his aged father in Haran until his death. There is no contradiction in the divine record.

Terah – 205 Years Old at Death, or 145 Years?

Again, the hostile critics challenge the record. Terah apparently lived for 60 years after Abraham left Haran, they suggest. They reason this way based on Genesis 11:26: “Terah lived seventy years and begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran.” So, if Terah was 70 years old when Abraham was born and Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran (Gen 12:4), then Terah at that stage was 145 years old and must have lived another 60 years after Abraham left Haran – contradictions! But Stephen is right and so is the Genesis record.

Let’s just accept the record and see where it leads us: “…the days of Terah were two hundred and five years: and Terah died in Haran” (Gen 11:32). Moreover, “Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran” (Gen 12:4). So Terah was 130 years old when Abraham was born! What then of the record of Genesis 11:26? Well it is clear that at age 70 Terah commenced having sons and ended up with three of them. The order in Genesis 11:26 is the order not of birth but importance in the record and in the sight of God. Abraham is mentioned first since he is by far the most important in the divine record. His oldest brother, probably Haran, was some sixty years older than Abraham. The likely birth order is Haran, Nahor, Abram.

In obedience to the divine call, Abraham left Ur, where his father and those before him had been idolaters ( Josh 24:2). His father, despite his advanced age went with him. Indeed as the family patriarch, Terah is presented in the record as leading the expedition: “Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter in law…” (Gen 11:31). The same formula is used in Genesis 12:5 where “Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son…and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan”.

Abraham, having received the divine call in Ur, obeyed and left for Haran. After his father’s death, the call was repeated and he immediately obeyed and departed for Canaan.

Stephen presents this information factually in support of his thesis that Yahweh engaged with the great father of the nation outside the boundaries of the land and far from “this holy place”. In doing so, he treats the Genesis record accurately, adding further information under divine inspiration but never in conflict with the Genesis account. The critics are wrong.

(to be continued)