Right now, I have access to only one thorough, scholarly Bible commentary series: the Word Biblical Commentary, published by Thomas Nelson. I love these commentaries, but unfortunately, several volumes are still in the process of being written – including the volumes on Acts. With these chapters, Acts 6-7, I really missed that kind of commentary. I’ve scoured the internet for the free resources available there – with some success – but I miss the even-handed presentation of multiple points of view that have been presented by different scholars.
The reason I particularly could use a Bible commentary for these chapters is that Stephen’s address, which takes up all of chapter 7, is a little puzzling to me. On reading and re-reading it, I think I’ve started to understand it more; and reading the various free commentaries online has helped a bit; but I want to know what the various theories are on why he goes into the details he does about Israel’s history.
For myself, the best key for unlocking these chapters a bit was to re-read them in light of Stephen’s final denunciation: that the Jewish people had killed Jesus, just as their fathers had killed the prophets, and that in some sense they were fulfilling the sins of their fathers – and that Jesus was fulfilling the role of Prophet, foreshadowed by all the prophets before Him. It calls to mind many of Jesus’s statements, but especially the parable of the wicked vinedressers (Matthew 21:33-46), who killed all the master’s messengers, until finally they killed the master’s own son. There, Jesus is shown to be the fulfillment of the prophecy, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118:22, 23).
Seeing Jesus as the ultimate prophet – as the prophet – helps see some of the purpose in Stephen’s Israel narrative. In Moses, we are to see a type of Christ. Beyond that, even, Stephen suggests (without stating it explicitly here), that Jesus is the true Law and the true tabernacle. And it’s these two areas – the temple and Moses / the law – in which Stephen had been accused of blasphemy; his accusers said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” Stephen’s speech shows that rather than destroying those things, Jesus came to fulfill them.
Stephen emphasizes the fact that Moses was sent to save God’s people, but they would not listen to him. It’s possible that at first his listeners wouldn’t have realized the parallels between Moses and Jesus that Stephen was illustrating in passages like 7:25 (“For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand”) and 7:35 (“This Moses whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ is the one God sent to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the Angel who appeared to him in the bush.”); but he explicitly draws the parallel in Acts 7:37 (“This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear.'”), and his point becomes clearer: the people of Israel have always had a tendency to reject Moses, and those who followed Jesus were actually respecting Moses more than those who rejected him. Those who rejected Jesus were taking the part of their fathers who had killed the prophets, whereas those who followed Jesus were following the true Moses, and the One whom Moses had foretold.
Besides being accused of blasphemy against Moses, Stephen had been accused of speaking against the temple, and about its destruction. Stephen points out that the tabernacle, the original form of God’s dwelling place, was in fact a copy of the pattern that Moses had seen in the mountain – “Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as He appointed, instructing Moses to make it according to the pattern that he had seen” (Acts 7:44). But Stephen goes on to quote Isaiah 66:1,2 to show that “the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands.”
One thing I’m curious about here is whether the audience would have been familiar with the idea of Jesus as the true tabernacle / temple (a connection Jesus Himself made, as in John 2:19). I’d expect some appeal to this, but Stephen’s quote of Isaiah seems ambiguous – it makes it clear that no one but God can build a house for Himself, but it doesn’t explicitly present Jesus as that true home of God, made by Divine hands. Whether or not his opponents understood this, though, Stephen himself and the Lord’s disciples almost certainly did have this idea of Jesus as the true temple.
There’s a suggestion in this that asks for deeper exploration – a deeper exploration that Christians over the years have taken on. If Moses saw the heavenly tabernacle, and Jesus, who is God in human form, is that heavenly tabernacle – then how are all the details of the tabernacle an image of Jesus? The epistle to the Hebrews begins to address this, and confirms that the things of the law – including the plan of the tabernacle – are “the copy and shadow of heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5). That idea of reading the Old Testament as a “copy and shadow” of Christ has always been a part of the Christian tradition (see the Wikipedia article on typology) but to my knowledge, the works of Emanuel Swedenborg take this on with much greater depth, detail, and consistency than any other works. Swedenborg claimed that God revealed the internal sense of the Word to him. I believe he’s telling the truth, and I believe his works were inspired by God, and part of that is that from those works I see heavenly things within the earthly things of the Word, in a way that nothing else has enabled me to see it. Besides that, he rarely rests his case on authority alone, usually backing up every assertion about the spiritual sense with copious quotations from Scripture. In any case, even if there’s dispute about whether Swedenborg was right about what that heavenly meaning in the Old Testament is, passages like the ones quoted above make it clear that there is a heavenly reality there that’s worth looking for.