a Bible passage

Click a verse to see commentary
Select a resource above

Stephen’s Speech to the Council


Then the high priest asked him, “Are these things so?” 2And Stephen replied:

“Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3and said to him, ‘Leave your country and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you.’ 4Then he left the country of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After his father died, God had him move from there to this country in which you are now living. 5He did not give him any of it as a heritage, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as his possession and to his descendants after him, even though he had no child. 6And God spoke in these terms, that his descendants would be resident aliens in a country belonging to others, who would enslave them and mistreat them during four hundred years. 7‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ”and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ 8Then he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.

9 “The patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him, 10and rescued him from all his afflictions, and enabled him to win favor and to show wisdom when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who appointed him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11Now there came a famine throughout Egypt and Canaan, and great suffering, and our ancestors could find no food. 12But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our ancestors there on their first visit. 13On the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14Then Joseph sent and invited his father Jacob and all his relatives to come to him, seventy-five in all; 15so Jacob went down to Egypt. He himself died there as well as our ancestors, 16and their bodies were brought back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.

17 “But as the time drew near for the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham, our people in Egypt increased and multiplied 18until another king who had not known Joseph ruled over Egypt. 19He dealt craftily with our race and forced our ancestors to abandon their infants so that they would die. 20At this time Moses was born, and he was beautiful before God. For three months he was brought up in his father’s house; 21and when he was abandoned, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22So Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words and deeds.

23 “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his relatives, the Israelites. 24When he saw one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25He supposed that his kinsfolk would understand that God through him was rescuing them, but they did not understand. 26The next day he came to some of them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you wrong each other?’ 27But the man who was wronging his neighbor pushed Moses aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29When he heard this, Moses fled and became a resident alien in the land of Midian. There he became the father of two sons.

30 “Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning bush. 31When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight; and as he approached to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 32‘I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ Moses began to tremble and did not dare to look. 33Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34I have surely seen the mistreatment of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to rescue them. Come now, I will send you to Egypt.’

35 “It was this Moses whom they rejected when they said, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ and whom God now sent as both ruler and liberator through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36He led them out, having performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years. 37This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up a prophet for you from your own people as he raised me up.’ 38He is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living oracles to give to us. 39Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him; instead, they pushed him aside, and in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, 40saying to Aaron, ‘Make gods for us who will lead the way for us; as for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’ 41At that time they made a calf, offered a sacrifice to the idol, and reveled in the works of their hands. 42But God turned away from them and handed them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:

‘Did you offer to me slain victims and sacrifices

forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?


No; you took along the tent of Moloch,

and the star of your god Rephan,

the images that you made to worship;

so I will remove you beyond Babylon.’

44 “Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, 46who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. 47But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says,


‘Heaven is my throne,

and the earth is my footstool.

What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,

or what is the place of my rest?


Did not my hand make all these things?’

51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

The Stoning of Stephen

54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

1. There appeareth as yet some color of equity in the high priest and in the council; and yet, notwithstanding, there is a most unjust prejudice in his words; for he asketh him not what cause he had to teach thus, neither doth he admit him unto the defense of right, (which was, notwithstanding, the chief;) but he demanded precisely whether Stephen uttered these words, whatsoever they were; as the Papists at this day will not demand what doctrine it is, and whether it can be proved out of the Scriptures; but they inquire 364364     “Sed tanum hoc quaerint,” but the only thing they ask is. whether any man durst mutter against their superstitions, that so soon as he is convict, they may forthwith burn 365365     “Vulcano devoveant,” devote him to Vulcan, (to the flames.) him. Furthermore, Stephen’s answer may seem at the first blush absurd and foolish. He beginneth first at the very first beginning; afterwards he maketh a long narration, wherein there is no mention made, in a manner, of the matter in hand; and there can be no greater fault than to utter many words which are nothing appertinent unto the matter; 366366     “Et extra rem vagari,” and wander from the subject. but whosoever shall thoroughly consider this long speech, he shall find nothing therein which is superfluous; and shall full well perceive that Stephen speaketh very ap-pertinently, 367367     “Apposito,” appositely. as the matter requireth. He was accused as an apostate (or revolt,) which did attempt the overthrow of religion and the worship of God; therefore, he beateth in 368368     “Sedulo igitur inculcat,” he therefore strenuously maintains. this diligently, that he retaineth that God which the fathers have always worshipped, so that he turneth away the crime of wicked backsliding; 369369     “Ita impiae defectiones cremen avertit,” he thus repels the charge of impious defection or revolt. and declareth that his enemies were pricked forward with nothing less than with the zeal of the law, for they bear a show that they were wholly determined 370370     “Simulabant enim nihil sibi esse propositum quam,” for they pretended that their only object was. to increase the glory of God; therefore, he wringeth from them this false boasting, and because they had the fathers always in their mouths, because they were puffed up with the glory of their nation, Stephen declareth also that they have no cause to be proud of this, but rather that the corruptions of the fathers were so great and so many, that they ought to be ashamed and humbled.

As concerning the principal state of the cause, because the question was concerning the temple and the ceremonies, he affirmeth plainly that their fathers were elected of God to be a peculiar people before there was any temple, and before Moses was born; and to this end tendeth that exordium or beginning which is so far fet, (fetched.) Secondly, he telleth them that all external rites which God gave by the hand of Moses were fashioned according to the heavenly pattern.

Whereupon it followeth, that the ceremonial law is referred unto another end, and that those deal foolishly and disorderly who omit the truth, and stay only in the signs. If the readers shall refer the whole oration of Stephen unto these points, they shall find nothing therein which agreeth not very well with the cause, as I shall declare again briefly in the end; nevertheless, that scope of the whole oration shall not hinder but that we may discuss all things briefly which are worth the noting.

2. Men, brethren, and fathers. Although Stephen saw that those which sat in the council were, for the most part, the sworn enemies of Christ, yet because the ordinary government of the people did belong to them, and they had the oversight of the Church, which God had not as yet cast off, therefore, he is not afraid, for modesty’s sake, to call them fathers. Neither doth he flatteringly purchase favor hereby; but he giveth this honor to the order and government appointed by God, until such time as the authority should be taken from them, the order being altered. Nevertheless, the reverence of the place which they had doth not hinder him nor stop his mouth; but that he doth freely dissent from them, whereby it appeareth how ridiculous the Papists are who will have us so tied unto bare and vain invented titles, that they may enforce us to subscribe unto their decrees, though they be never so wicked.

The God of glory. By this beginning, he declareth that he doth not disagree or dissent from the fathers in true religion which they followed; for all religion, the worship of God, the doctrine of the law, all prophecies, did depend upon that covenant which God made with Abraham; therefore, when Stephen confessed that God appeared to Abraham, he embraceth the law and the prophets, which flow from that first revelation as from a fountain; moreover, he calleth him the God of glory, that he may distinguish him from the false and reigned gods, who alone is worthy of glory.

When he was in Mesopotamia. It is well known that that is called by this name which lieth between the river Tigris and Euphrates; and he saith before, he dwelt in Charran, because Abraham, being warned by an oracle, fled 371371     “Migravit,” migrated. from Chaldea to Charran, which is a city of Mesopotamia, famous by reason of the slaughter of Crassus and the Roman army; although Pliny saith that it was a city of Arabia; and it is no marvel that Chaldea is in this place comprehended under the name of Mesopotamia, because, although that region, which is enclosed with Tigris and Euphrates, [Mesopotamia,] be properly the country between two rivers, yet those which set down any description of countries 372372     “Geographi,” geographers. do call both Assyria and Chaldea by this name.

The sum is this, that Abraham being commanded by God, did forsake his country, and so he was prevented with the mere goodness of God when as he sought that which was offered him at home of the [its] own accord. Read the last chapter of Joshua; but it seemeth that Moses’ narration doth somewhat disagree with this, for after that, about the end of the 11th chapter of Genesis, he had declared, that Abraham doth [did] go into another country to dwell, having left his house, he addeth, in the beginning of the 12th, that God spake unto Abraham. This is easily answered, for Moses reciteth not in this latter place what happened after the departure of Abraham; but lest any man should think that Abraham wandered into other countries, having unadvisedly forsaken his own house, (as light and indiscreet men 373373     “Leves et inconsiderati homines,” fickle and inconsiderate. used to do sometimes,) he showeth the cause of his departure, to wit, because he was commanded by God to flit into another place. And thus much do the words of the oracle import. For, if he had been a stranger in another country, God could not have commanded him to depart out of his native soil, forsaking his kinsmen and father’s house. Therefore, we see that this place agreeth wondrous well with the words of Moses. For after that Moses hath said that Abraham went to Charran, to the end he may show that this journey was taken in hand, not through any lightness of man, but at the commandment of God, he addeth that afterwards which he had before omitted, which manner of speaking is much used of the Hebrews.

3. Come out of thy country. God useth many words, to the end he may the more wound the mind of Abraham, as if it were not a thing sharp enough of itself to be banished out of his own country. And that served to try his faith; even as that other thing also, that God assigneth him no land wherein he may dwell, but maketh him stand in doubt, and wait for a time. Wherefore the obedience of Abraham was so much the more to be commended, because the sweetness of his native soil keepeth him not back from going willingly, as it were, into exile; and in that he doubteth not to follow God, although there appear no certain resting-place, but is commanded to wander to and fro for a time. Whereas, the showing of the land is deferred, it differeth not much from deceiving of him. 374374     “A frustratione,” from a frustrating of him, from rendering his journey vain.

Furthermore, we learn continually by our own experience how profitable it was for Abraham thus to be exercised, and, as it were, trained by little and little. Many men are carried with a godly affection to attempt great things, but by and by, so soon as their heat is waxen cold, it repenteth them of their purpose, and they would gladly slip their necks out of the collar. 375375     “Ac libentor cursum reflecterent,” and they would willingly retrace their steps. Therefore, lest Abraham should faint when he was in the midst of his course, through the remembrance of those things which he had left behind him, God sifteth and trieth his mind thoroughly, immediately after he had begun, lest he take anything in hand lightly and unadvisedly. To this purpose serveth the parable which Christ setteth before us concerning the building of the tower, (Luke 14:28.) For he teacheth that we must first cast the charges, lest with shame we be enforced to leave off building after we have begun. And though this were a particular thing in Abraham in that he was commanded to go out of his own country, and to go into a far country, in that God carried him from place to place, yet, notwithstanding, there is in these words some figure of the calling of us all. We are not all simply commanded to forsake our country, but we are commanded to deny ourselves; we are not commanded to come out of our father’s house, but to bid adieu to our own will, and to the desires of our own flesh. Again, if father and mother, wife and children, hinder us from following God, we must forsake them all. The commandment is given simply to Abraham to flit; but we are commanded to do the stone upon condition. For if in any place we cannot serve God, we must rather make choice of exile than to stay in our nest, being slothful and sluggish. Therefore, let us have the example of Abraham always before our eyes. He is the father of the faithful, he was tried all manner of ways. Doth he forget his country, his friends, and himself, that he may give over himself unto God? (Romans 4:16,17.) If we will be counted the children of God, we must not degenerate from him.

Which I shall show thee. We must note that which I touched a little before, that Abraham is kept in doubt, to the end his patience may be tried. And this must we also apply to our own use, that we may learn to depend wholly upon God. And surely this is a principal exercise of our faith to put our trust in God, even when we see nothing. God, indeed, will oftentimes show us a land wherein he granteth us an abiding-place; yet, notwithstanding, because we are strangers in the world, we have no certain and continual place of abode anywhere. Again, our life, as Paul saith, is hid, (Colossians 3:3;) and being like unto dead men, we hope for salvation, which is hid in heaven. Therefore, as touching our perpetual habitation, God doth cause us to depend upon his providence alone, when he commandeth us, as it were, to wander in a strange country. Lest such deferring discourage us, we must hold this general rule of faith, that we must go whither God calleth us, howsoever he do not show that which he promiseth.

4. Then going out. The readiness and willingness of faith is commended in these words. For when he is called he maketh no delay, but maketh haste 376376     “Non procrastinat, sed moras omnes rampit,” he does not procrastinate, but breaks off all delay. and subdueth all his affections, that they may obey the holy commandment of God. It is uncertain for what cause he stayed at Charran; yet it may be that the weakness of his father caused him to tarry there, who, as we read, died there shortly after; or else, because he durst go no further, until such time as the Lord had told him whither he should go. It is more like to be true in mine opinion, that he was stayed there a while with the wearisomeness and sickness of his father, because Stephen saith plainly that he was brought thence after the death of his father.

5. We must note three firings in this place; that God exercised the patience of his servant, because, after that he had brought him out of his own country, he dwelt in the land of Canaan as a stranger.

[First,] For Abraham possessed not one foot’s-breadth, save only that which he bought to bury in. And that is counted no possession which serveth not for the uses of this life. Secondly, forasmuch as that field was bought, Stephen doth for good causes say, that God gave Abraham nothing. For that could not be gotten either with money, or by any other means which man could invent, which Abraham did hope for of the promise.

Secondly, we must note, that though God did not show Abraham the thing itself as yet, yet did he uphold him by his word. And this is our stay, when God promiseth that that is laid up for us which as yet we possess not. Therefore, when as the thing, that is, the possession of the land, was wanting, Abraham had for his help and stay the promise of God; and being content with the same alone, he desired nothing in the land of Canaan save only an uncertain resting-place wherein he might sojourn.

For as much as [επαγγελλεσθαι] signifieth simply to promise, I thought there was no cause why, with Erasmus, I should translate it in this place, to promise again. For I resolve it adversatively, although he had promised, that by the way we may note as it were, a show of deceiving, 377377     “Ut oblique species frustrationis,” that a species of frustration may be indirectly noted. unless peradventure some man be disposed to apply it unto the promises which are oftentimes repeated. 378378     “Quod liberum relinquo,” I leave the point open, omitted.

Thirdly, we must note that the promise was such that it did not much differ from a mere mock. God promised the land to the seed of Abraham when he was fourscore years old, and had to wife one that was barren, neither had he any hope to have any issue. This seemeth to be more than frivolous. For why doth he not rather promise that he will give him seed? But this was a notable trial of faith, in that Abraham, without asking any question, or any curious disputation, did obediently and meekly embrace that which he had heard proceed out of the mouth of the Lord. Therefore, let us remember that God doth so lift up and comfort his servant with his word, that he doth not only defer the giving of the thing, 379379     “Exhibitionem,” the exhibition, or manifestation. but also he may seem after a sort to mock him; as he dealeth with us also in some respect. For, although he call us the heirs of the world, (James 2:5,) he suffereth us oftentimes to want even a competent living and necessary helps. And this doth he of set purpose, that he may bring the wisdom of the flesh to nought, seeing that we do not otherwise give due honor to his word.

6. Thy seed shall be a stranger. Stephen putteth the Jews in mind in how miserable and reproachful an estate their fathers were in Egypt; and showeth that this their servitude, wherewith they were oppressed, came not by chance; because it was foretold long before by the oracle of God. This history ought to have been of great force, partly to tame their lofty courages, 380380     “Feroces illorum spiritus,” their fierce tempers. and to teach them modesty; partly to set forth the grace of God, because God had always had a care of that nation. For this is a singular benefit, in that the people are restored wonderfully, as it were, from death to life. In the mean season, the Jews are taught that the Church of God was elsewhere than in the land wherein they dwelt; that the fathers were chosen to be a peculiar people, and that they were kept safe under the tuition of God, before ever the temple was built, or the external ceremonies of the law were instituted.

These things appertain unto the general scope or drift of the sermon. But hence may we gather a profitable admonition. Bondage is of itself hard and bitter; but when cruelty of masters is added thereunto, it seemeth to be intolerable. Wherefore, it must needs be that the mind of the godly man was sore wounded, when he heard that his seed should serve, and be villanously and cruelly entreated, Moreover, this was no small trial; forasmuch as these things were, to look to contrary—the inheritance of the land of Canaan which was now promised, and bondage in a strange country. For who would not have thought that God had, as it were, forgotten his former promise, when as he telleth Abraham that his seed shall endure miserable bondage? He saith, at the first, that he will give his seed the land. But he had as yet no seed; yea, all hope of seed was now cut off. But when doth he promise that he will give it? After his death. By and by he saith, that that seed should be carried away to another place, that it may serve strangers. And how long? Four hundred years. Doth he not seem, by this means, to pull back his hand, that he may not perform that which he had promised?

Let us know that this was done, (not once only,) for God dealeth oftentimes with us thus, so that he may seem contrary to himself; and he speaketh also in such sort as that he may seem to call back 381381     “Retractare,” to retract. that which he had promised. Therefore, it cannot be but that flesh will judge that he is contrary to himself; but faith doth know that his words do agree well together amongst themselves, and with his works. And this is the purpose of God, to the end he may extend the sight of our faith the farther, to show his promises afar off, as it were, a long place [space] being put between. Therefore it is our duty to go forward, and to strive to attain unto that salvation which is set before us through many straits, 382382     “Per innumeros anfractus,” though innumerable wanderings. through divers lets, through long distance, through the midst of deeps, and, finally, through death itself. Furthermore, seeing that we see that the people which God had chosen did serve the Egyptians, and was uncourteously 383383     “Inhumaniter,” inhumanly. afflicted, we must not be discouraged if the like condition be prepared for us at this day. For it is no new thing, neither any unwonted thing, for the Church of God to lie oppressed under tyranny, and to be, as it were, trodden under foot of the wicked.

7. The nation whom they shall serve. This judgment is joined with the deliverance of the people. For, whereas God doth punish the cruelty and tyranny of the wicked Egyptians, he doth that for his people’s sake, whom he took into his tuition, that it may be seen that he is the deliverer of his Church. Therefore, so often as we are unjustly afflicted by the wicked, let us remember that God is the Judge of the world, who will let no injuries be unpunished. Let every man thus think with himself, Seeing that I am under the tuition of God, who is the Judge of the world, and to whom it belongeth to punish all injuries, those shall not escape his hand who trouble me now. There is the like place in Deuteronomy 32:43, where God saith that vengeance is his. Whence Paul gathereth that we must give place to wrath, (Romans 12:19;) as if he should say, that this ought to serve to reform impatience, and to bridle our evil affections, in that God promiseth that he will revenge; for he which revengeth himself doth take God’s office from him. And let us still remember that which I have already said, that God is touched with an especial care to revenge injuries done to his children, as it is in the Psalm, “Hurt not mine anointed, and be not troublesome to my prophets.”

They shall come thence and serve me. Therefore their deliverance went before the temple and the worship of the law; whereupon it followeth, that the grace of God was not tied to ceremonies. Nevertheless, Stephen noteth the end of their deliverance, that God chose both a peculiar people and a peculiar place for the true worship of his name. Whence we gather again, that we must regard what he commandeth and alloweth. Other nations also were determined to worship God; but because their rites were corrupt and bastardly, 384384     “Degeneres,” degenerate. God doth separate the Jews from the rest, and assigneth them a place where he will have them to worship him sincerely and duly as they ought. This place teacheth us, that God’s benefits must be referred to this end, that men might be brought to addict and give over themselves wholly to him. Now, since that God hath dispersed the treasures of his grace throughout the whole world, we must endeavor to sanctify him, by worshipping him purely and holily, in what country soever we dwell.

8. He gave him the covenant. When as he confesseth that circumcision is the covenant of God, he cleareth himself sufficiently of that crime which was laid to his charge; but, in the mean season, he showeth that the Jews deal amiss, if they place the beginning of their salvation in the external sign. For if Abraham was called, and the land and redemption promised to his seed before such time as he was circumcised, it appeareth that the glory of the whole stock cloth not depend upon circumcision. Paul useth the same argument in the 4th chapter to the Romans, (Romans 4:11.) For, seeing that Abraham obtained righteousness, and pleased God before he was circumcised, he gathereth thence that circumcision is not the cause of righteousness. Therefore we see that Stephen frameth no vain and idle narration; because this was very much appertinent unto the cause, that the Jews might remember how God had adopted them with their fathers, and it is to be thought that Stephen did plainly express both things; that although circumcision was given by God, that it might be a sign of grace, yet was the adoption before it both in order and in time. But we have no need to dispute any longer in this place concerning the nature and force of circumcision. Only let us note this, that God doth first promise those things to Abraham which he confirmeth afterward by circumcision, that we may know that the signs are vain and nothing worth, unless the word go before. Let us also note, that there is a profitable doctrine contained in the word covenant, to wit, that God maketh his covenant with us in the sacraments, that he may declare his love toward us; which thing, if it be true, first, they are not only works of external profession amongst men, but they gave great force inwardly before God, to confirm the faith. Secondly, they are no vain figures; because God, who is true figureth nothing there which he doth not perform.

VIEWNAME is study