The Indictment Continues
Stephen, accused by the Council, continues his indictment to Israel.
7:30-35. “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire in a bush.” The miracle of the bush which burned and was not consumed (cf. Exod 3:2-3), prefigures the history of Israel, especially since her rejection of Christ. Like the bush, Israel suffered burning in the fires of human hatred and persecution, but was never consumed. Three great facets of the miracle are here in view.
First, it involves an amazing sight (“he marveled at the sight”). The miracle of the preservation of Israel may indeed inspire wonder in us, as the bush did in Moses. God’s people cannot be destroyed. Neither can we, for He never leaves nor forsakes us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:38). Trials for God’s people are not to consume, but to purify.
Second, it involves an awesome Person. The secret of the bush’s preservation lay in the Person Who was in it. He has a single title (“I am the God of your fathers”), followed by a triune one (“the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob”). One God revealed in a threefold way. As Abraham was preeminently a father, and Isaac a son, and Jacob’s history suggests the work of the Holy Spirit, the Trinity is suggested by the triple title. The Triune God is in the bush. Moses trembles in awe.
It is the presence of the God of the Jewish fathers, and His preserving power, that accounts for the Jewish race’s failure to be consumed. In like manner also, it is God with us, and in us, Who preserves us through all trials. The presence in us of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is cause for godly fear and trembling (for the Father in us, cf. Eph 4:6).
Third, it involves hallowed ground (“the place where you stand is holy ground”). The bush had its roots in the ground. Moses, attracted by the bush itself, and by the presence of God, might have ignored the ground he was standing on. God does not. He calls Moses’s attention to its holiness.
The fathers (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) are the roots from which the nation has sprung up (cf. Rom 11:18, 28). They are rooted in the land which God promised all three of them. And hence, this land is holy ground.
God has still not forgotten the land, and in His faithfulness to the fathers—for He is the God of these fathers—He will perform His word. In a coming day He will surely see the affliction of Israel and hear their groaning (v 34), and will come down to deliver them (v 34) by sending back to them the One they had rejected (vv 34-35). The Lord Jesus will then become a Ruler and Deliverer (not merely a ruler and judge, v 35) for them. The land will be theirs.
As the faithfulness of God guarantees Israel’s earthly inheritance of the land, so His faithfulness assures us of our heavenly inheritance (cf. 1 Pet 1:4).
7:36-37. Having traced the history of Christ from His birth to His coming again (vv 20-35), the Spirit (through Stephen) now presents a new picture of Him. In vv 20-35 He is seen primarily as the promised Deliverer (cf. vv 25,35), but now He is seen as a Prophet (cf. Heb 1:1-3).
“‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet.’” Note that Deut 18:15 was previously quoted by Peter (Acts 3:22) and applied to Christ (Acts 3:26). Israel has resisted the Spirit in rejecting its Deliverer, but even more in rejecting the greatest of all Prophets.
“After he had shown them wonders and signs.” Moses, as a type of the Prophet like unto him, is now presented as a miracle worker. His miracles are apportioned into three phases: (1) “the land of Egypt”; (2) “in the Red Sea”; and (3) “in the wilderness.”
The Red Sea is the central, and crucial, miracle of the three, for without it the miracles in Egypt would have done no good, and those in the wilderness would never have occurred. The Red Sea was foremost a salvation miracle (cf. Exod 14:13, 30), and points to the Cross and its miracle of sin-bearing, voluntary death, and resurrection.
Thus our Lord’s miracles in the world (e.g., Egypt), and in the midst of a redeemed people (e.g, wilderness), hinge on these “signs and wonders” which were done in accomplishing our salvation at the “Red Sea” of every saved soul, i.e., the Cross (cf. 1 Cor 10:1-2).
Thus the “Prophet like me” is like Moses in His miracles—showing signs and wonders as He delivered His own from this present evil age and “brought them out.” The salvation of the company of which Stephen was a part had as its background these three great phases of the miraculous working of the Lord.
“This [houtos] is that Moses.” Note how the houtos of v 37 ties back with v 36. It is specifically the miracle-working Moses who is a prophet. For miracles in Scripture, when displayed to any great extent, are always linked with prophecy and designed to confirm it. So were our Lord’s miracles (John 5:36 with 5:31; Mark 16:19, 20; Heb 2:1-4).
Today, we do not live in an age of miracles because we do not live in an age of prophecy. But the fact that these miracles have occurred make the salvation which began to be spoken by the Lord (the Prophet) all the more a thing not to be neglected, having received such confirmation. This is the message of Heb 2:1-4, having introduced this Prophet in Hebrews 1. Resistance to the Spirit speaking through such a Prophet, who had performed such confirmatory miracles, was for Israel in Stephen’s day exceedingly serious. And so it is for us.
The Mirage in the Desert
7:38-39. “This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness.” In the wilderness, the children of Israel are afflicted by a kind of mirage. “And in their hearts they turned back to Egypt.” Egypt, the scene of their bondage and misery, now appears attractive and desirable. Thus they refuse obedience to their deliverer, thrust him away, and turn to Egypt in their hearts (v 39).
Likewise, for the believer, the world is a moral and spiritual wilderness where it is hard and trying spiritually to subsist. The soul sometimes sees the “mirage” of a world which he knew in unsaved days which deceitfully appears attractive and enjoyable. Often, as with Israel, this happens soon after salvation. The deluded believer forgets their bondage and misery. Thus the Christian may refuse to obey His Deliverer, thrust Him away from his life, and turn back in heart to the world.
7:40-41. “‘Make us gods to go before us.’” Now Israel wants a “little Egypt” out in the desert. “And they made a calf.” They make a god like Egypt’s, and they revel in the idolatry after the manner of the pleasures and sins of Egypt (vv 40-41, cf. Exod 32:1-6). [Note: the Jewish Rabbis affirm Moloch to have had an ox’s head.]
The calf of gold fitly symbolizes the materialism of Egypt where, anciently, wealth depended upon possession of herds productive in their calving. Gold was gained by this.
So too, the believer, allured by Egypt, may go after the “golden calf” of material well-being, with its attendant degrading descent into pleasures and vice. The soul that thrusts Christ away is not far from idolatry (“but rejected”; “make us gods…”). And, in fact, covetousness is idolatry (Eph 5:5; Col 3:5).
A desert mirage arises when water is not seen for days, and so gives way to an illusion which seems to promise satisfaction. So Israel lusted after their vision of Egypt because they could not now see Moses, who was on Mount Sinai receiving the revelation of the tabernacle (the pattern of heavenly things; cf. Exod 24:18ff).
Note the parallel with Christ in v 38. Like Moses, He is in the Church in this desert world. Yet He is unseen, because He has ascended onto the hill of the Lord, there to become the Prophet of “heavenly things” revealed through His Spirit (cf. John 16:12ff). He, as speaking from heaven, has given us “living oracles” (i.e., a living Word; cf. Heb 12:25; 4:12). He is thus truly a Prophet like unto Moses (cf. Acts 7:37). But because just now we see Him not (cf. Moses was gone 40 days and nights), the soul may be allured by the world. If faith does not cling to Him we may instead be guided by the earthly things we see. Thus our desert mirage comes from not seeing Him! Faith is the only antidote.
Note that in v 40 Israel claims not to know what has become of Moses (“as for this Moses…we do not know what has become of him.”) So an unsaved world scarcely knows what has become of Christ. They might say, “He is up there somewhere, but has been gone a long time.” And Christian people may virtually say this, that if they are blind to His present glory and His heavenly prophetic ministry! A worldly mirage may blind us to heavenly truth.
And, as Moses came down and judgment followed (Exod 32:15-35), so our Lord’s second advent will destroy the “golden calf” of the world and of carnal believers. Divine judgments will sweep the earth. As for Christians, we shall be at the Bema of Christ.
Turned to Idolatry
7:42-43. “Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven.” Rejection of the Word and knowledge of God may result in God’s turning men over to the folly and evil of their own hearts.
Here the idolaters of vv 40-41 are turned over to the idolatrous worship of vv 42-43. This is like God turning men over to their own sin in Romans 1. The paredōken in v 42 finds a parallel in the paredōken of Rom 1:24, 26, 28. There, as here, those who knew God glorified Him not nor were thankful; thus their foolish heart was darkened. The two passages together present a principle of God’s ways with men.
“As it is written in the book of the Prophets.” Stephen affirms the reality of this statement by an appeal to OT Scripture. Taken from Amos 5:25-27, the immediate context (Amos 5:21-27) points to the emptiness of the religious forms of Israel in Amos’ day because of their superficiality. God despises and rejects religion unaccompanied by holiness. Through Amos He says that this is what He had done through 40 years in the wilderness. Though in actuality they did sacrifice to Him in those years, He did not acknowledge it. This proves they had been given up.
It is sobering to see that even though the Tabernacle was graciously established by God shortly after Israel’s disobedience (vv 40-41), nevertheless, Israel’s idolatrous heart never really availed itself of it in a deeply meaningful way. How easily forms are observed without reality!
The idolatry to which the Israelites’ hearts were really inclined (rather than to true sacrifice to God) is now presented. “You also took up the tabernacle of Moloch.” The worship of Moloch involved the sacrifice of children (cf. Lev 20:1-6; Ps 106:37-38). An Ammonite deity, Moloch was—according to the Rabbis—an image of bronze with a man’s body and an ox’s head. Hollow inside, it was heated by a fire below it and into its searing hot arms children were cast as sacrifices. But, in fact, all idolatry demands sacrifice of one’s children. Sadly, children often fall victim to the idols of their parents.
Ancient worship of “the host of heaven” suggests its true origin. Since the angelic world is linked with the stellar heavens, and Satan is represented as casting “the third part of the stars” to earth (Rev 12:3-4), it is natural to conclude that these spirits inspired the worship of heavenly bodies as a thin veil over worship of themselves (cf. 1 Cor 10:20). Moloch seems linked with Saturn. Remphan is obviously a star-god (“And the star of your god Remphan”), perhaps Egyptian for the god Chiun of Amos 5:26, which also is linked with Saturn.
It would seem that the worship of Saturn was widespread over the ancient world. This unity of idolatrous worship implies its single satanic source. Indeed all idolatry, whether literal or spiritual, is promoted by the enemy of souls to turn them from God. The idols of our hearts are satanic, as derived from the world of which he is the prince.
As Stephen speaks about how God turned from Israel of old, He is about to turn from Israel again and give them up to the folly of their own hearts. This likewise will ultimately result in satanically inspired idolatry in the abomination of desolation.
“And I will carry you away beyond Babylon.” The Spirit, through Stephen, substitutes Babylon for Damascus of Amos 5:27. Amos spoke to the northern kingdom of the Assyrian captivity, but the same principle applies to the Babylonian captivity which came later to Judah and Jerusalem. Stephen is speaking in Jerusalem, hence speaks of this latter. The penalty of idolatry is ever bondage and captivity. The soul becomes enslaved to the idols of his heart (whether money, fame, pleasure, sex, etc.). Only where the Spirit of the Lord is, is there liberty (2 Cor 3:17).