Wanting to follow Luke’s train of thought, we chose to place at the end the Further Insights and the Links that were more demanding, leaving the honour of closing to Stephen, since we believe that his work is generally underestimated.
Further Insight n. 16
THE ACTS AS “PREFACE” TO ROMANS
AND WRITTEN FOR THE ROMANS
It is a thesis matured during the drafting of these notes and that we’ll state reasons for schematically, summarising also something already considered in the Further Insight n. 10 (The binomial Acts-Romans) and elsewhere.
It is well known that a book is first written and then its Presentation is asked to be made. The book also features a note on the author, which highlights his qualifications and academic titles. The Introduction and the note on the author are clearly written after the work, but are conceived to be read before the work.
The matured conviction is that Acts are a kind of Presentation to the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, written later but to be read beforehand. Luke, in short, seems to assume the role of “publisher-sponsor” of Paul, helping the reader understand the content of the Letter to the Romans and the importance of its author. Whilst writing for everyone, however, Luke seems to first have a Roman reader in mind and, therefore, the Acts would be a sort of “Second Letter to the Romans” in a chronological sense and a “First Letter to the Romans” in the logical sense.
Let’s list some of the reasons that led us to these conclusions.
1. Acts is written by Luke while in Rome.
Although Luke’s main purpose was achieved (describe the spread of the Gospel in the world), Acts does not present itself as a “finished history”, lacking a closing formula as the spread was continuing. Being an “interrupted story” (see comment on ch. 28) leads us to think that it is written at the time of the interruption, and so when Paul and Luke are there in Rome, stationary for two years. If Acts was written in Rome, it reinforces the idea that it was written especially for the Romans.
2. Luke remains in Rome for two years almost inactive.
In Rome, Paul cannot lead that usual hectic life in which he was involved, because he is under house arrest awaiting trial (28:30). Luke seems to be the one who keeps himself most faithfully at Paul’s side (2Tim 4:11), so it is reasonable to think that during that time Luke wrote Acts, also with the intention of helping the Romans understand Paul’s value and the divine nature of his mission.
- Paul arrived in Rome as a “criminal”.
When Paul arrived in Rome, he did not have a reputation comparable to that which he has today.Of course, in Rome he already knew several believers (Rom 16) and his letter had made known his doctrinal depth;but for the many unbelieving Jews, as for the Romans in general, Paul was complete stranger, formally arrived as a prisoner, indicted for matters so serious that they must be brought to the emperor’s direct attention. The necessity to write a defence and a praise of Paul, therefore, seems obvious.
4. Presence of non-essential “details” which are however appreciated by the Romans.
In Acts 19:21, it is stated that Paul had for a long time publicly expressed his conviction that it was necessary for him to go to Rome: «I must also see Rome». It seems that he happens there “by misfortune” (as a prisoner), however, Jesus himself affirms a divine plan behind it: «As you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome» (23:11).
Paul appeared as a “Jewish missionary”, and we saw that the Jews had no easy life in Rome, since they had recently been driven out of the city (18:2), let alone if they envisioned to teach something. Luke informs and reaffirms that Paul is also a Roman citizen and «of birth», a particularly significant qualification (16:37;22:28), and which undoubtedly placed him in a position to be better listened to in Rome.
5. Excessive details as to why and how Paul arrived in Rome.
The last seven chapters seem to go too long in recounting Paul’s trial events and the details of his miraculous journey to Rome. Looking at the more concise style used in other parts, Luke could very well summarise it all in one or two chapters; for a Roman, however, those chapters were very significant.
A Roman was, in fact, particularly interested in what relations Paul had with the imperial authorities of his area of origin; Luke, thus, shows the esteem and respect of Paul towards the Roman laws and authorities, with an increasingly marked detachment from his fellow countrymen. Luke also shows the Roman authorities’ respect for Paul, whom they consider innocent (23:29). Paul is therefore introduced not as “a stranger who creates problems”, but as “a Roman citizen to whom Jewish foreigners create problems” (22:25-29; 23:29; 24:23;25:25-27; 26:31-32; 27:3). It was also very important to introduce Paul as one who had saved many Romans from the shipwreck! (27:23-24).
Then it must be considered that, if someone arrives in a miraculous way, there is much interest in knowing the details; Luke, therefore, might have elaborated on the details that brought Paul to Rome precisely to show how the hand of God was perceived in that journey, thus qualifying Paul as “God’s messenger”.
To realise the “extreme” elaboration of the final chapters, it’s enough to consider that the initial phase, which focused on Peter’s work, has only five chapters, falling short by two compared to the final seven.
6. “Roman-ism” is described more positively than “Judaism”.
Acts describes the Roman world as more tolerant and characterised by orderly rules compared to a Jewish world that is seen as spontaneous, without real rules, ready to murder without justified reasons. Paul, therefore, despite being a Jew and preaching a Jewish faith, is portrayed as one who distances himself from that “barbarian” way of doing things, fully adhering to Roman values. To draw a parallel, the majority of Italians would be more willing to listen to a Muslim knowing that he is an Italian citizen by birth, that he is persecuted by Muslim extremists and that he seeks protection by the laws of an Italy, which he feels he belongs to.
Among the Athenian philosophers, Paul had taken on the role of a philosopher and it is natural that in Rome he takes on that of a Roman citizen: it was not, though, fiction, but rather the product of a complex history that God had produced in Paul.
In summary, after reading Acts, a Roman saw in Paul a “fellow citizen” with whom, although being of a different religion, he shared some fundamental values and could, therefore, dialogue.
Link No. 6
QUESTIONS ON THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS
Here we resume with some questions which were arranged for a small conference, held in July 2010 in Manigi of Cascia (Perugia), my native village. These are “rhetorical questions”, and thus, they already hint at the answer.
1.If it is always God who speaks, both before Christ and with Christ, is it possible that there are differences between the two periods? (Hebrews 1:1-2).
2.If through the Son the worlds have been “created” (beginning), if he “sustains all things” (intermediate stage), if all his enemies are reduced to being his “footstool” (end), is it possible that in this unified plan there are contrasts between the various parts? (Hebrews 1:2-13).
3.If through the Son He has “created the worlds,” then does the beginning of the appearance of the Son coincide with the beginning of the Gospels or the beginning of Genesis? (Hebrews 1:2).
4.Is the Letter to the Hebrews one of the first New Testament writings or one of the last? (Hebrews 5:12). If it is among the last, can its revelation be presumed from the beginning of the Gospel?
5.If the Letter is “to the Hebrews,” should we not take for granted our difficulty in understanding it correctly?
6.Jesus is «as much superior» to angels (Heb 1:4), but does superiority imply contrast? Or is superiority within the complexity of the work of a God who sees the end from the beginning? (Isa 46:10).
1.Does God call us to answer the word spoken to us through Christ equally as He called to answer His word before Christ, or does He now act differently? (Hebrews 2:2-3).
2.After Christ, is God more severe or is he less severe? (Heb 2:2-3; 10:26-31; 12:25).
3.If Jesus came to help «the offspring of Abraham» (Heb 2:16), can his work be completed with the destruction of that genetic offspring? According to the Bible, could ” Abraham’s offspring” be only “spiritual” or should it have also been genetic? (Gen 15:1-6).
1.In Hebrews 3:2-6 Is Jesus seen as opposed to or similar to Moses? Working in the same project as God or in a “house of God” different from Moses?
2.The glory of Jesus is “greater” than that of Moses (Heb 3:3): does this entitle us to despise Moses or does it require us to see in him an anticipation of, and a preparation for, Christ?
3.Does the comparison with the people of God at the time of Exodus (Heb 3:7-19) presume a similarity or a contrast between the people of God before Christ and that after Christ?
1.«GOOD NEWS came to us JUST AS to them» (Heb 4:2,6). Since “Gospel” means “good news”, wouldn’t it be more correct to translate “A GOSPEL came to us JUST AS to them”? Was the “Gospel of Moses” not a preparation to the “Gospel of Jesus”?
2.Could believers before Christ (Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Isaiah and others) draw near «with confidence…to the throne of grace»? (Heb 4:16).
1.Is the Levitical priestly system considered to be preparatory or non-educational compared to the priesthood of Christ? Is highlighting the differences a denial of a “common ground”? (Heb 5:1-5).
2.Is the «new priesthood» of Jesus, being «after the order of Melchizedek», more modern or older than that of Aaron? (Heb 5:6-10; 7:1-10).
1.Should our faith be similar to that of Abraham, or has the New Testament lowered its cost? (Heb 6:11-15).
1.The laws of the Italian Republic continuously change to adapt to changing circumstances, but they must all be in accord with the principles of the Constitution: are the differences between the Old and New Testaments (Hebrews 7:12) not united by the same basic principles? (Mt 7:12; 22:36-40; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14).
2.When a commandment is «set aside» (Hebrews 7:18) and it is no longer mandatory to observe it (Hebrews 10:18), does it mean that it is forbidden to continue to observe it or that, instead, it becomes optional? In Acts 15, was it decided to forbid, from that moment on, the observance of the law of Moses or to make it non-compulsory for Christians of pagan origin? (Acts 15:19-21; 21:20). Was not the law of Moses for the Hebrews a precious gift of God to keep? (Deu 4:5-6).
3.Moses’ law «made nothing perfect» (Heb 7:19): have two thousand years of the Gospel made at least the Church perfect (cf. Heb 5:11-12)?
4.«A better hope is introduced», «Jesus […] the guarantor of a better covenant» (Heb 7:19,22). The comparison is non between “good” and “bad”, and neither between “positive” and “negative”, but rather between “good” and “better”. The word better indicates a change, but not a contrast between what was before and what comes afterwards.
1.The «true tent» (or tabernacle) was not that set up by «man», but that present in heaven (Heb 8:1-2). Was it not that «man» Solomon who built the sanctuary? And did he not build it according to God’s instructions? And did God not tangibly dwell in that sanctuary made by the hands of man? (1Chr 28:6; 1Kings 8:10-11). Of course, Jesus is more excellent and better (Heb 8:6), but to despise Jesus’ “standards of comparison (Levitical priests and sanctuary), is it not despising Jesus himself?
3.The Levitical cult was «a copy and shadow of the heavenly things» (Heb 8:5): do the copy and shadow of a reality conflict with that reality or do they begin to reveal it?
4.The “first covenant” (Hebrews 8:7) clearly refers to the one on Sinai at the time of Moses. Is the law of Moses the essential part of the Old Testament? If that is so, then Abraham is not part of the Old Testament because he comes before Moses.
After the destruction of the first Temple, one could certainly not perform the rites prescribed by Moses: does that mean that, at that time, there was only an Old Testament in part? Isn’t the basis of the Old Testament Abraham instead? (Gal 3:15-17). If it is so, then the law of Moses is contingent (cf. Deu 18:15:18) and ultimately Jesus could also be seen as a “return to Abraham” (in other words, a “moving towards the origins”, as we have already noted).
5.Since the New Covenant is the full execution of the “first covenant” (the law of Moses written on the hearts, Heb 8:10), how can there be any conflict between the two covenants? Should there be more emphasis on continuity or discontinuity?
6.Christians are often restating that today we are in that New Covenant so described: «For this…declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts […] they shall not teach, each one his neighbour […] for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest» (Heb 8:10-11). I don’t know churches where there is no longer any need to instruct children and where all have the whole law of God on their heart. Do you know of them?
7.Not even the churches described in the New Testament had fulfilled the New Covenant (we limit ourselves to Hebrews 5:11-12; 10:32-39). Do the exciting conversations on the New Covenant, then, concern the present reality or are they a prophetic hope? Do not certain exaggerations about the New Covenant being in force today risk being a mythology and an illusion?
8.«I will remember their sins no more» (Hebrews 8:12): does that «their» not refer in a special way to Israel (cf. 8:10a)?
9.Two thousand years ago the first covenant was close to vanish away (Heb 8:13): does it mean that it has now vanished? Two thousand years ago Jesus’ return was also near (Gia 5:7-8; Rom 13:11-12; Phil 4:5), a return which in Hebrews is even expected in «a little while» (10:37): does it then mean that Jesus has already returned?
1.The high priest entered the most holy place of the Temple only once a year, to make atonement for the people’s sins (Heb 9:6-7): Did the law of Moses and its ritual system settle especially God’s relationship with the people or with individuals? With individuals, had God not already clarified the way he wanted to relate to Adam, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Job, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Deborah, Anna, Abigail and others?
2.It is said that ritual sacrifices cannot perfect the one who offers them (Heb 9:9; 10:1,4,11): Is it that “they cannot” in themselves or “they can no longer” after Christ’s coming? Was the effectiveness of sacrifices automatic, and so, magical? Or were they effective for what they represented and because the offeror believed in God’s promise which encouraged to present them?
3.«The way into the holy places is not yet opened» (Heb 9:8). Of course, the Temple’s holy place was accessible within the limit (only to priests and with certain rules) and even less so was the “holy place”: to these ritual boundaries and to the people’s generalisation, wasn’t there also a possibility of individual access to God? (1Sam 15:22; Ps 50:12-15). And today, whereby the way of the sanctuary (Jesus) has been manifested, do we think we see God “face to face”? (1Cor 13:12). If our relationship with God is radically different from that of the Old Testament believers, why do we identify ourselves with so many stories described there? Maybe that Joseph, Daniel and the Psalms, for instance, are part of the New Testament?
The Old and New Testaments of which theology talks about, are they the real ones or are they a theoretical frame far from the letter and the Spirit of the Word of God?
4.«Greater and more perfect», «how much more will the blood of Christ», «the copies of the heavenly things», «copies of the true things» (Heb 9:11,14,23,24). The Levitical system was an imperfect way of anticipating, to some extent, the immense reality of God: is it a system to admire and study or is it right to belittle it?
1.David knew that for the forgiveness of God above all the confession of sin and humbling oneself was necessary: only after this did the sacrifices make sense (Psalm 51:4,16-19). God had already warned of a distorted use of the rites (Psalm 50:12-15; Isaiah 1:11-20; Hosea 6:6). Could not the Letter to the Hebrews aim precisely at an undue importance that was given to sacrifices? With this in mind, could the Letter to the Hebrews be an applying of the Old Testament, rather than an opposing to it?
1.Today God asks us above all to have faith, and so, to believe in him (Jn 6:28; Acts 16:30-31). When did this stage begin? If this has always been the case (Heb 11:1-39), then how can there be a contrast between the Old and New Testaments?
2.«Since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect» (Heb 11:40). Does our arrogance and our biases go as far as to hold that today, here and now, any Christian would have a deeper relationship with God than Abraham and Moses did? (Ex 33:11; James 2:23; Isa 41:8; Gen 18:17-33). Have we already come to perfection? (1 Jn 3:2). Or will all believers of all times attain perfection in the city that is to come (Heb 13:14), after Jesus’ resurrection and return? (1Cor 15:22-23).
1.The second part of this chapter (12:18-29) is a sort of concluding summary of the whole discourse presented in the Epistle, and here again there is a comparison between the two covenants: do the differences that emerge nullify the fundamental similarities? We quote some expressions: «You did not come (to the mountain) […] a blazing fire […] But you have come […] to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel […] if they did not escape […] much less will we escape […] “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth” […] let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire». Today we are invited to approach a Jesus who has clothed himself with humility, but does this mean that God has ceased to be a consuming fire? Will not Jesus, on his return, resemble a consuming fire? (Rev 1:12-16; 6:12-17).
2.«Heavenly Jerusalem» (Hebrews 12:22). Previously, the Letter to the Hebrews had talked about a heavenly home better than the earthly one and sought by the witnesses of the faith (11:16). Does “heavenly” mean the place where this homeland is, or its characteristics? To go to the “heavenly home”, must one move in space (i.e., go to Paradise after death), or is it time that separates us from the “heavenly home” and we can enter it only after the resurrection, when the heavenly Jerusalem will come down to earth? (Heb 13:14; Rev 21:2).
1.Bearing in mind that Jesus is closely associated to the Father (Jn 10:30; 14:9), that God «is [always] the same» (Ps 102:27, significantly referring to Jesus in Heb 1:12), that Jesus existed and was pre-ordained before the creation of the world (Jn 17:5,24; 1Pet 1:20), how should we understand Hebrews 13:8, which says that «Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever»? Does yesterday mean that Jesus is the same from the incarnation, or before the foundation of the world? Is it right to separate Jesus from a pre-existing “Logos” (Jn 1:1), which some consider “ontologically different”? If God is always the same, if Jesus is always the same, can there be “incoherence” between Genesis and Revelation?
Link No. 7
STEPHEN’S SPEECH (ACTS 7)
AS COMPASS TO THE WHOLE BIBLE
Stephen’s speech seems a simple summary of the Old Testament, but under the most noticeable meaning there is another, which places Christ in strict continuity with the whole history that precedes him. If Stephen’s speech is well understood, then the supposed contrasts between the Old and New Testaments or within the New Testament tend to fade away.
- Background and strategy of Stephen’s speech.
Among the seven “table servants”, Luke not only opens the list with Stephen, but defines him first as a «man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit», then as «full of grace and power» finally, as gifted with a wisdom and a Spirit which his adversaries could not oppose (6:5,8,10): if Luke introduces Stephen this way, it is clear that he will then attribute a correspondingly high value to his speech. For example, if a great philosopher tells a simple story, it’s obvious that it hides a deeper meaning.
At the end of Luke’s Gospel, it is told how Jesus, to two disciples on the way to Emmaus, «beginning with Moses and all the Prophets…interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself» (Luke 24:27). It’s natural to regret to not have been at that wonderful biblical lesson, but then those two disciples went back to Jerusalem to the apostles and, evidently, shared what Jesus had told them. However, Jesus had, in any case, time and a way to deepen that discourse well during the 40 days, which he spent as Risen with the Twelve and another hundred disciples (Acts 1:3,15). It is likely that Stephen was part of this original nucleus of disciples and the esteem of which he was surrounded, in any case, suggests that he knew Jesus’ teachings better than others. We began from the lesson to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, because even Stephen’s speech focuses on highlighting what in the Old Testament is about Jesus: there is, therefore, to consider that in Stephen’s speech some of the teachings of Jesus after his resurrection are reflected.
The false witnesses, instigated by those who refused to believe in Jesus, obviously brought false accusations to the high priest, however, false accusations are generally half-truths and the dispute is nicely summarised in v. 14: «We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us». Since Stephen was moving in the footsteps of Jesus, it is not difficult to assume what the Jews could not bear. And the Jews considered themselves disciples of Moses and custodians of the Temple, where the presence of God was; Jesus, on the other hand, accused them of having made void the word of God with their tradition, and of having made the temple a den of robbers; to the extent that they no longer had to think themselves as children of Abraham, having become even children of the Devil, an accusation that the Jews themselves then turned on Jesus (Mk 7:13; 11:17; Jn 8:33-48; 9:28). For Jesus, the degeneration of God’s people was similar to that when the first Temple was destroyed, with the related dispersion of the people, things which therefore would soon happen again (Mt 24).
Called to defend himself, Stephen adopts a two-stage strategy: 1) prepare, first, a shared ground with the audience, so as to then make them listen to what they would not want to listen to; 2) introduce Jesus in the end, the Just One, whom they «betrayed and murdered» (7:52). Since Stephen is accused due to being a follower of Jesus, he places at the centre of his defence not himself, but Jesus: thus placing the accusers on the same level as those who had rejected Joseph and Moses (7:52).
- Abraham and Joseph as forerunners of Christ.
The facts cited by Stephen are certainly present in the Old Testament, but selecting certain aspects and framing them in a particular perspective is a subjective operation: since the facts cited by Stephen are known, we tend to not grasp the meaning of that choice and its application.
It seems clear that Stephen, concerning Abraham’s history, is interested in what foresees Christ (7:2-8); it is indeed highlighted that Abraham was made by God to go through the Promised Land, giving him «no inheritance in it», but promising to give it «to his offspring after him». Stephen seems to expect the audience to grasp the application: why be surprised if the Messiah Jesus, Abraham’s son and heir (Mt 1:1), passed through this Promised Land as Abraham did, postponing its possession to when he would return? (Mt 25:31-34).
Even the recalling of Joseph’s story has a similar purpose (7:9-14). Joseph was loved by God, but his brothers hated him and wanted to get rid of him. But then they had to turn to Joseph to be saved from famine. Implicit application: why then be surprised that the patriarchs’ descendants rejected Jesus? Why not understand that Jesus, as Joseph did, wants to respond to hatred with love and is now the only hope of salvation even for his persecutors? Incidentally, on the way to Emmaus it seems that Jesus begins with Moses (Luke 24:27), instead of Abraham as Stephen, but the Jews meant by “Moses” all the first five books of the Bible (including Genesis), so it is plausible that even Jesus, in highlighting what was about him, began from Genesis.
- Jesus AS Moses, not opposed to Moses.
Since, for the Jews, it was Moses who filled the most important place in the Word of God, then it is on Moses that Stephen dwells (7:20-42a), but at this point the similarities with Jesus are increasingly clear.
Moses could stay in the splendour of the most magnificent court of that time, but his love for his oppressed brothers led him to visit them, with the desire to free them. He «supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand»: so Moses had to leave his people as it had happened to Joseph before. God, though, «sent» precisely him, as «ruler and redeemer», giving him the power to perform «wonders and signs» (vv. 35-36). Moses had announced the coming of one LIKE him (v. 37), so one should not be surprised that God now wants to deliver Israel through Jesus, whom God also endorsed with wonders and signs, even though he was rejected by the offspring of those who rejected Moses.
Moses gave to the people «living oracles» (or ‘words of life’, v. 38), however from the beginning the people gave themselves to idolatry and continued to do so until the time of the prophets, forcing God to exile the people to Babylon and to destroy the first Temple (vv. 39-43).
Stephen thus arrives at a first conclusion, accusing them of having insulted the law of Moses. In brief, he wants to show that the Jews are not the descendants of those who have always been faithful to the law of Moses, but of those who have always been unfaithful and who are now reaching the point of compelling God to destroy the second Temple, scattering them among the nations again.
Besides Stephen, even Peter (3:22) and Jesus himself (Jn 5:45) had emphasised a Messiah in continuity with Moses, but on this many have come to think the opposite, describing a Jesus opposed to Moses.
The continuity that Stephen sees between Moses and Jesus is also expressed in the use he makes of the term “church” (ekklesìa), applying it to the people of Israel during the Exodus (v. 38), but in this case, it is the translators that think to avoid similarity, translating here with “congregation”.
- The hidden meaning of Isaiah’s quotation.
Stephen then goes on to consider more closely (vv. 44-50) the question of the Temple and starts from the Exodus, when the dwelling place of God was not a building made of stone, but a tent that moved with the people. Stephen shows how it is not very important for God to have a house made of stone, which he had Solomon build only after many centuries.
He concludes in a way that places his listeners in a corner, to then attack them no longer covertly, but in an explicit and disruptive way: «You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit» (7:51). This accusation seems a “change of tone”, which does not strictly relate to the sentences immediately preceding. Looking more closely, however, one can see a “crescendo” that those listeners perceived, but that for us is not easy to grasp: we will therefore see more closely verses 48-51.
«Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands» (v. 48a). God’s various names do not have the same meaning, although they visibly refer to the same person. While Yahweh indicates the God who relates to his people Israel (more or less as the name which a father relates to his son with), the Most High is the universal name of God, which He relates to all men with. In Daniel, for instance, as the book is set in the pagan court of Babylon, we find no Yahweh, but Most High (in Dan 4:24-34 and elsewhere); significantly, Mary was told by the angel that Jesus would be called the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). Using Most High, then, Stephen reminds his audience that God, even if he has a special relationship with Israel, cannot be “taken prisoner” and reduced to “tribal property” by his people, because His essential and original characteristic is that of being Creator and Lord of Heaven and Earth, that is, He has always been and will always be a universal God, a concept that Jesus has revived and not introduced.
«As the prophet says» (v. 48b). Solomon’s statements come to mind (1 Kings 8:27-30), which, in inaugurating the “house of the universal God”, had grasped its paradoxical aspect: «But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!». Solomon continues: «When they pray toward this place…listen in heaven your dwelling place», realising that God’s earthly dwelling in the Temple was only a reflection of the true dwelling of God in heaven. For the Judaic ruling class, the exaltation of the Temple beyond measure meant exalting those who had control of it, that is, themselves. Instead of Solomon, however, Stephen quotes (vv. 49-50) a passage from Isaiah which contains similar thoughts: why does Stephen choose Isaiah?
When we read the reference of Isaiah that Stephen makes, we only think of the verses that are quoted, all the more so that, for some, only the Old Testament quoted in the New remains fully valid. The listeners, instead, knew the context of that quote and were terrified by how Isaiah continues his speech… which is very much in tune with the continuation of Stephen’s speech! Quite different, then, from the “change of phase” that is perceived, because it is as if Stephen, after quoting the first two verses of Isaiah 66, would proceed by paraphrasing the following verses: precisely the fact that the audience feels accused not by Stephen, but by the indirectly recalled words of Isaiah, forces it to suffer without being able to react («when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him», 7:54).
It is, therefore, appropriate to report not only the verses of Isaiah quoted by Stephen, but also those evoked by him. Through Isaiah, God says: «Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made […] But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. “He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig’s blood; he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol. These have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations; I also will choose harsh treatment for them» (Isa 66:1-4a). The Pharisees regard themselves as heirs to a holy tradition, while Stephen reminds them that they are heirs to a perverse tradition that had already led to the destruction of the Temple and the abolition of sacrifices. The Temple would have been destroyed, not due to those who announced its end (Isaiah, Jesus, Stephen), but because of those who, like them, had essentially defiled it.
Stephen, thus, closes his opponents’ mouths in a masterful way, but when opponents can no longer use their mouths, they then begin to use their hands (as it had been with Jesus and as it’ll be with Paul).
Precisely on similar grounds, and so seeing the imminent catastrophe, Jesus had spared the Samaritan woman from going to Jerusalem, affirming that worship requires an appropriate “inner place” rather than a suitable physical place: «the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth» (Jn 4:23). Faced with these words, Christianity often exults as if this were a revolutionary novelty brought by Christ, forgetting that worship “in any place, and therefore, without a place” begins with Adam, goes through Abraham, includes David and goes beyond Isaiah. And it did not cease even when the Temple was up and running!
- Outline of three applications of Stephen’s speech.
Stephen’s speech has at least three aspects of great significance, which we shall now mention concisely.
1) Stephen shows the Messiahship of Jesus by seeing the prophecies within the story of God’s people, even more so than in the prophetic books, because the story guided and told by God has always a prophetic value (this reinforces the importance we have given to the Acts of the Apostles).
2) Stephen sees in Abraham, Joseph, and Moses “foreshadowings” of Christ, and their history as foreseeing that of Christ. We believe that David can also be added to the three, since Christ is primarily defined as the “Son of David” (Mt 1:1). All this shows how much the mentality of the New Testament Church was anchored to a Kingdom of God understood not in heaven, but of heaven, that is, a Kingdom in which it is not humanity that moves “into heaven”, but it is God who returns permanently to Earth, as it was at the beginning with Adam, as it was during the Exodus and the time of Solomon, as it will be in the new earth (Rev 21:3).
3) That of Stephen may also be seen as an example of evangelism of the Jews, which does not begin with the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity, nor even with those prophecies which are clear especially after one has believed. An evangelism that centres not on the contrast between Christ and the Old Testament, but rather on the fact that Christ continues the work of Abraham, Joseph, Moses and the prophets. Another method is that of Peter, who addresses the Jews by placing the meaning of Jesus’ work at the centre (Acts 2-4), while Paul will focus on his personal testimony (Acts 22). All three methods are important, but Stephen’s is perhaps the least practiced.
- Abraham, Joseph and Moses as the past, present and future of Jesus
Stephen wants to show that Abraham, Joseph and Moses were foreshadowings of Christ; from this stems that Christ brings to completion the works that God made those forerunners of his begin. However, they did not work at the same time, but in stages that followed not only with regard to time, but also according to a “design” logic: in fact, for example, Moses could not give shape to a people before Abraham’s offspring had formed and increased.
From this it follows that Christ could not fulfil what was foreshadowed by Abraham, Joseph and Moses all at the same time. In the Gospel, in the past, we see that Jesus resembles above all Abraham, because as Abraham, he travels the Promised Land without even having where «to lay his head» (Mt 8:20); even though, like Abraham, Jesus becomes the custodian of God’s promises for all humanity.
At the end of the Acts, however, Jesus seems more like Joseph, because being the object of homicidal hatred by his brothers, found some better welcome from us gentiles (Acts 28:26-28), whilst his Jewish brothers no longer recognised him as one of their own.
After the apostolic times, the picture became complicated, because while on the one hand the majority of Jews continued to not recognise Jesus as the Messiah, on the other hand we Gentiles have increasingly changed the Jesus of the Gospels. It seems, however, that we see now re-emerge times similar to when Joseph found his brothers and began a process of alignment that would soon lead to full mutual recognition. For there are more and more Christians who recognise their Jewish roots and the debt they owe to that people; while more and more Jews – regardless of their becoming or not becoming disciples – recognise the Jewishness of Jesus and establish friendly relations with Christians, who show themselves to be friends.
One of the reasons why the similarity between Jesus and Moses is not clear is that it will be manifested above all in the future. Today, in fact, Jesus is comparable to the Moses in the wilderness, from which he shall depart to return unto his people and deliver them from the oppression of Pharaoh; while the Jesus described in Revelation will come down from heaven to destroy idolatry and impose on Earth the holiness of God, performing a work similar to that of Moses. In fact, Jesus will no longer return as he did in his first coming, and therefore, as the Lamb who gives his life, but by manifesting his power with an unequivocal order: «Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood» (Rev 22:15).
One wonders why Stephen excluded David, on whom Peter’s first preaching had centred (Acts 2). Compared to what we have observed, David stands as a combination of Abraham (keeper of great promises), Joseph (hated by his brothers and forced to take refuge with the pagans) and Moses (also political authority). The picture outlined by Stephen is complete, and including David would not have meant improving the whole, but rather adding another picture that would have distracted from noticing the completeness of the one already exposed.
In summary, many “paintings” of Jesus can be obtained from the Old Testament, but that of Stephen is of great linearity and completeness.
- Stephen as a bridge between John the Baptist and Cornelius.
Summing up and concluding in a concise way what we have set out in this Link – and to some extent in the whole book – we can see Stephen’s martyrdom as the closing of one perspective, after which God opened another. In Link n. 2 we saw that Daniel announced that there would be a “fifth universal kingdom of the saints” (Dan 7:13-14), in which dominion over every people would be given to a «Son of Man», identifiable with the “Messiah Son of David” outlined in several so-called “messianic” Psalms (e.g. Ps 72:8-17).
In the time of John the Baptist people were expecting this “fifth kingdom” (Mt 3:10-12; Luke 1:51-56; 67-71). Jesus inserted himself in the footsteps of his forerunner (cf. Mt 3:2 with 4:17 and 10:7), but since much of Israel rejected him (Mt 11:20-24), he began to shift the political fulfilment of God’s kingdom to his second coming (Mt 13:37-43).
This, however, does not take away the fact that in Peter’s preaching there is still the hope of God’s forgiveness that will prevent the destruction of Jerusalem and allow the coming of the Kingdom of God (Acts 3:17-26). The hope of a coming of God’s Kingdom that would prevent Jerusalem’s destruction was only definitively closed with Stephen’s preaching and martyrdom, resulting in the flight of Christ’s disciples from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1).
When that prospect was definitively closed, God began to accomplish in another way his work towards «all the families of the earth» (Gen 12:3). The evangelisation of Samaria (Acts 8:5), the baptism of the first uncircumcised (Cornelius, Acts 10:47) and the formation of the first “church of uncircumcised” (Antioch, Acts 11:19-21) did not happen by chance after the martyrdom of Stephen and are an explicit consequence thereof (8:4-5; 11:19-20).
With Cornelius, thus, God began anew from an individual and collective dimension of the faith, as in the time of Abraham, making it possible for believers to increase and spread «to the ends of the earth» (Acts 1:8), to then bring to effect that “universal salvation” which shall be reflected on the whole of creation: a prospect which Peter and Paul had not forgotten and which will begin at the return of Christ (2Pet 3:13; Rom 8:19-21; 1Cor 15:22-28); a return of Christ which will resemble in part the return of Moses to Egypt, by which the world of that time was judged, and a mass of slaves became a people, in the midst of whom God chose to place His tent (Exodus 33:7; 40:34; cf. Rev 21:3).