17 “As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. 18 Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’[c] 19 He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.
20 “At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child.[d] For three months he was cared for by his family. 21 When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. 22 Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.
23 “When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. 24 He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. 25 Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. 26 The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’
27 “But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? 28 Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’[e] 29 When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.
30 “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. 31 When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’[f] Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.
33 “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’[g]
One of the great games that seem to be played almost annually by politicians is when each party tries to connect themselves in people’s minds with a great political leader of the past. They try to give the impression that they are the ones holding to the beliefs and legacy of that great leader and will be just as great if only given the chance. So every year, one politician tries to paint himself as the next Abraham Lincoln while another likens himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, while still another claims to be the legacy holder of Ronald Reagan. Each politician tries to craft a narrative to show that they are in keeping with the beliefs and character of that great leader and will carry on their legacy to the next generation. It is even more interesting when two politicians who are running against each other both try to claim the legacy of the same politician. Each attempts to connect themselves with history while showing that their opponent is really an imposter and is not holding to the legacy of that great leader in the past. It usually becomes clear that one actually makes a decent case to show that they carry on the ideals of the political leader from the past while the other one is really not close other than their desire to use the name of that person to further their own agenda.
What Stephen is doing by re-telling the story of Israel, and focusing in on Moses in particular in this section, is not nearly as self-serving and crass as most politicians tend to be when they employ such techniques. Stephen isn’t simply talking about Moses to claim that Jesus and his band of followers are just like Moses or picking up with the same sort of legacy that Moses had. He’s certainly not claiming that Jesus’ disciples are truly the ones that were really following the law while all others were diminishing or blaspheming the law (a position that would have been rather common among the Pharisees and other Jewish groups of the day). Stephen’s point was much bigger yet more subtle than that. It wasn’t that they were trying to resurrect the legacy and memories of Moses and identify themselves with the reverence that people had for him and other important Jewish figures from the past simply to legitimize themselves.
Stephen was telling the story of Israel, the common story of both Jews and Christian Jews, as the story of God’s people. But as he was re-telling it, he was making sure that his listeners could follow the very clear signposts along the way. The Jewish leaders would have argued that they were the ones who were continuing on in the story and tradition of being the people of Moses, Joseph, and Abraham. They were the ones that were writing the next chapter of being God’s people. But Stephen was deftly telling the story of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses to demonstrate that that wasn’t the case at all. God had a history of raising up a man to lead his people and the constant pattern of the Jewish people was to reject that man and fight against God’s purposes. That was the story between God and his people. It wasn’t a long and illustrious story of a small band of faithful followers who adhered to God’s laws and will wherever they went, overcoming great obstacles to do so. It was a long story of God’s people being rebellious against God; of fighting against God’s purposes and persecuting the very men that God sent to set them straight. That was the story that Stephen was telling and it was the true story. It was the very same story, that had continued right on through the crucifixion of Jesus and the persecutions that were just beginning for Jesus’ followers, the true people of God.
As Stephen told the story of Israel, he moved very quickly from Abraham to Moses with just brief mention of the fact that the descendants of Abraham and Joseph had found themselves in the foreign land of Egypt. There came a time, as the Israelites continued to increase, that a new king rose up who either did not care about the history of Joseph saving Egypt or he truly did not know. Either way, every Jew listening to Stephen would have known the dilemma for God’s people at that time, without him having to directly state it. They were trapped in slavery in Egypt. God’s people needed to be rescued, so God raised up a deliverer.
That may seem like a small point, but it was not. Moses did not simply rise to prominence by circumstance or mere happenstance. He was no ordinary child but was chosen by God for his purposes from the very beginning. This doesn’t mean that Moses had no free will or choice in the matter, but it does mean that this was the vocation that God had chosen for Moses and as Moses submitted himself to God’s will, it was God who raised him up. It was God who saw that he was not drowned when placed in the Nile but who made his way to Pharaoh’s household and who was educated in all of the wisdom of the Egyptians and who was powerful in speech and action (despite his meager protests to God in Ex. 4:10, claiming that he was not at all those things).
Moses saw that his people were trapped in slavery with no way of escaping. He had been called by God to deliver them and end their mistreatment. He thought, declared Stephen, that the Israelites were waiting for God to act and would embrace him as God’s chosen deliverer. But that’s not how it went at all. Rather than recognizing what God was doing through Moses they were blind to God’s purposes. They claimed to be waiting for God to rescue them but could not discern when he actually had. When Moses rose up to the aid of an Israelite, the other Israelites still could not see that he was their divinely sent path to freedom. They rejected him and, fearing that they would turn him in, Moses fled to Midian.
During his forty years in the area of Midian, God came to Moses once again to call him as the presence of Yahweh himself appeared in a bush. The consuming fire of God’s presence filled the bush but did not consume which affirmed for Moses that this was indeed the Lord. Those feelings from so long ago that God had raised him up to rescue his people were not wrong. God had chosen him to be the one to lead God’s people from slavery.
He would be the deliverer. Although they had been in Egypt for over four hundred years, God had not forgotten his promises to his people. He would bring them out of slavery and he did have great plans for them. The Messiah would come through them one day and God’s promises to Abraham that his descendants would one day bring about the blessed family of all nations would realize its fulfillment. The one thing that God will not do is to leave his people in oppression and separated from him without any hope of being free and reconciling themselves to God.
Let’s be straightforward here. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where Stephen was headed with all of this. He was hardly backing down and trying to show that he was one of them after all and that they were just misunderstanding the teachings of Jesus and his followers. That might have been the easier road to go down, the path to compromise always is. But that’s not where Stephen was headed. He did try to establish common ground but only to show that they truly could still see themselves as Israel, God’s people and arrive precisely where the followers of Jesus had. If they continued going down the road they were on, Stephen was warning them, they would look back very soon and find that they had taken a very dangerous wrong turn and were steaming towards the cliff of God’s wrath. It was the Christians, the people of the Messiah, that had stayed on the path of God’s story, and Jesus was that Messiah.
He was the one who, like Moses, was set apart and chosen for God’s purposes. He wasn’t a self-appointed Messiah-wanna-be. He was the one that had been chosen to free God’s people who were once again caught in slavery. But this time, the slavery that they were tangled in hopelessly was far more damaging and eternal than mere temporal slavery in the land of Egypt. They were caught in the slavery of sin which encapsulates all humans and separates them from God. But God had heard their cries, saw their oppression, and remembered his promises. He had sent one like Moses, but greater than Moses (Deut. 18:15-18), to free his people from their ultimate slavery. As he continues on in the next section, Stephen will make it crystal clear that he was not softening his point to escape persecution from the Jewish leadership. God had raised up a deliverer but the Jewish people had done what they had so often done before and what they had done to Moses. They had rejected him. They were still part of God’s story but the next chapter was up to them. Would they embrace the deliverer or reject him once-and-for-all.
And just when we are tempted to turn away from such a long passage as this in boredom or in thinking that it doesn’t have much in there for us, we must stop and realize that the story Stephen was telling was not just for the ancient Israelites with no meaning for us today. This story is for us as well. We have to make the same decision that they made and choose whether to embrace the deliverer and number ourselves among God’s family for all eternity or reject him and continue down our own path. The choice is ours to make. But we should also never forget that once we have made the decision and embraced our deliverer, the story is then ours to tell to those around us just as boldly and creatively as Stephen did.
Are you prepared to tell the story of God’s people an deliverance in your own so that it will connect with those around, whether they listen or fail to listen, as Stephen was in his day and time? If you’re not, what can you do to get prepared?