The first section of Stephen’s speech deals with Abraham. It is found in verses 1-8. There were many things that Stephen could have said about Abraham, since a very long section of Genesis is given to Abraham’s story. But Stephen is selective. It is important to notice what he emphasizes.
1. God appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia. We find one interesting point right at the beginning. Stephen says, “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran.” This is different from the impression that we have reading the early chapters of Genesis. Genesis seems to suggest that God appeared to Abraham when he was in Haran, but Stephen is saying that God actually appeared to him even before he got to Haran, that is, when he was in Mesopotamia.
Why does that matter? How is that important?
It is important in the context of the address, because what we are going to find, not only here but later on also particularly in the case of Moses, is an emphasis upon the fact that God is God not of one limited geographical place only, such as the land of Israel, but of the whole world. So it is significant for Stephen to have begun by saying that God revealed his glory to Abraham first when Abraham was far away in Mesopotamia.
2. God Himself appeared to Abraham. The fact that Stephen mentions the God of glory appearing to Abraham is also new. In Genesis we are told that God spoke to Abraham, but here Stephen adds that God appeared to him. God appeared to him right there in Mesopotamia in all His glory, and that revelation of the God who is the God of all races, Gentiles as well as Jews, caused Abraham to respond by setting out on his journey.
3. Abraham remained a pilgrim even in Canaan. When Stephen talks about Abraham’s time in Canaan, he emphasizes that Abraham remained a pilgrim even there. Even though this was the land that God was giving him and his descendants, the land in which the people settled and the temple was built, for Abraham Canaan was only a land through which he was passing. He didn’t own even a small bit of the land, says Stephen (v. 5). This must have been meant as a rebuke to these settled leaders of the people. They were in the land God had given. It was a blessing. But they were too much at home in the land. They had forgotten that, as wonderful as the possession of the land of promise was, they were nevertheless only to be pilgrims in it as Abraham had been. Without this orientation, they lacked the spiritual depth that characterized their great ancestor. Abraham, we are told in Hebrews, was not looking for an earthly city, but “to the city with foundations [the heavenly city], whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). These rulers had ceased to look forward. They were looking back, and they had taken the things of the world and the blessings of the world to be permanent. They had allowed God’s temporal blessings to eclipse their sense of God’s presence.
Next Stephen talked about Joseph (vv. 9-16). And his chief point here is that Joseph was mistreated by his brothers. All through their history, the Jewish people persecuted and killed the prophets sent to them, just as Joseph’s brothers persecuted Joseph. And, of course, that is what the leaders had done in the case of Jesus Christ. They had killed Him.