This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, who received living words to give to us. Acts 7:38
Living Words – Stephen’s speech got him killed. In it, he summarizes the entire history of God’s interaction with Israel. He describes the whole range of God’s plan, culminating in the resurrection of the promised Messiah. He proclaims Yeshua as God. And he does all this as a first century Jew. What he says is crucial to our understanding of what was taking place in the early gatherings of believers.
We already know that one word in this verse is intentionally altered in its English translation. That word is ekklesia. Translated “church” in every other use in the New Testament, here it is translated “congregation” in order to avoid the natural conclusion that there is no difference between the “church” and the gathering of Israel. Theological bias that separates the Christian “church” from the congregation of Israel forces this “once only” alteration. It’s unjustified, deliberate and misleading.
But there is another implication in Stephen’s inspired speech that we can’t overlook. Stephen says that the content of the message delivered to Moses at Mount Sinai was “living words” specifically given to the children of Israel. The Greek phrase is logia zonta. The phrase is unusual, in spite of its common usage among Christians today. You will find something close to it in Jeremiah 23:36 and Hebrews 4:12. What does this odd phrase mean? Certainly it must mean that what God gave Moses is considered inspired, sacred and canonical (those are all different things). What it means is that what God told Moses isn’t dead, out-dated, abrogated or set aside. As far as Stephen is concerned, the words given to Moses by the Angel are still active, living and applicable on the day that he spoke before the Sanhedrin. As the first martyr in the Christian faith, Stephen is held in high regard by all believers. What he says should be taken seriously.
The implication is hard to miss unless you close your eyes. Stephen is martyred because he says that the Torah leads directly to Yeshua, that Israel has disobeyed the Torah by not accepting Yeshua as the promised Messiah and that all of the words given to Moses are still active and alive today. Nowhere in his speech does Stephen even hint that somehow the living words are no longer applicable. In fact, if he thought that they had been set aside by the death and resurrection of Yeshua, his entire argument falls apart. The reason that these disobedient Jews are condemned is because the words of Torah still apply. These living words are the proof of their disobedience. If Christianity really has no connection with the “old” law, then who cares if the Jews weren’t faithful to God’s revelation on Sinai?
Stephen’s speech smacks of heresy if “the age of the Torah would be replaced by the age of the Messiah” and “the saving significance of Jesus’ cross . . logically involv[es] the abrogation of the law” (Fung, Galatians, NICNT). We can’t have it both ways. Stephen must either be an inspired man of God, the first martyr of the Messianic believers, or he is just one more confused Jew who doesn’t realize that the Law doesn’t matter anymore.
Maybe we need to hear what the text says rather than read what the theology tells us.
Topical Index: Stephen, Torah, living words, logia zonta, Acts 7:38