What does Acts chapter 7 mean?In Acts 6:12–14, Jews accused a Jesus-follower named Stephen of speaking against the temple, Moses, and the Law. Acts 7 is Stephen's defense. It can be difficult for modern readers to follow because he intermingles truth about the Mosaic law, the prophets of Israel, and the role of the temple in and around Old Testament Jewish history. Ultimately, he explains that God never asked for the temple, and the Israelites didn't need one to follow Him; Moses wasn't always perfect; the Israelites never properly followed Moses or the Law; and in fact, they killed the very prophets who told them how to recognize the Messiah.
First, Stephen sets the stage. He talks about how God called Abraham out of Mesopotamia and eventually sent him to Canaan. There, God promised Abraham that his descendants would own the land, though he himself would not. As a sign of promise, God told Abraham to circumcise the males in his clan. God called Abraham and gave him the rite of circumcision—the identifying mark of God's people—long before He gave the Mosaic law or allowed the temple to be built (Acts 7:1–8).
Next is the description of how the Israelites came to Egypt and were enslaved for four hundred years. They went to Egypt to escape a famine and grew into a nation while in slavery. For four hundred years, the Israelites had no law, no temple, and no freedom to worship God as they should, but they were still God's chosen people (Acts 7:9–19).
Stephen then references Moses. The great prophet who spoke to God as a friend, gave the Israelites their identifying law, and led the people from slavery to the gate of the Promised Land, started as a murderer. And yet, God was still with him and His people (Acts 7:20–29).
The powerful defense of Jesus' role as Messiah then turns to God's call to Moses. As God called Abraham in Mesopotamia and Haran, He called Moses in Midian. God is not limited by geography (Acts 7:30–34).
God empowered Moses to lead His people out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai where God giave the Israelites the Law. Stephen subtly points out that the Israelites didn't revere Moses, they rebelled against him. And, again, God is not bound by place; He gave His people the Law in the middle of the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land (In Acts 7:35–43).
At this point, Stephen somewhat shifts the attention from the Law to the temple. God didn't ask Moses to build a temple, He asked him to build a tabernacle or tent. This tabernacle and its successors served the Israelites into the Promised Land, throughout their campaign, past the time of the judges, and throughout the reigns of King Saul and King David. In fact, the tabernacle didn't even dwell in Jerusalem until David's reign (Acts 7:44–46).
In an important point, Stephen shows proper perspective regarding the temple. God didn't ask for it, David asked to build it. David, Israel's most beloved king, didn't build it, his son Solomon did. And as Solomon dedicated it, he fully acknowledged it could not contain God. The temple is sacred because God allowed and blessed it, not because it is necessary (Acts 7:47–50).
Possibly sensing that the crowd is turning violent and that he's running out of time, Stephen rapidly pulls everything together and relates the main point to his audience. His opponents rejected Jesus, Moses' promised prophet. They killed Jesus, just like their forefathers killed the prophets God sent throughout history. Stephen doesn't want to see the temple destroyed, but anyone who values the temple over the Messiah is an idolater (Acts 7:51–53).
Stephen's opponents respond by dragging him from the temple courtyard and stoning him. As he dies, he sees Jesus standing at God's right hand. In the crowd is a young Pharisee named Saul. Soon, Saul will be the greatest persecutor of Christians in Jerusalem. But not long after, he will be the greatest Christian missionary in history (Acts 7:54–60).