As Stephen is preaching his last sermon, he recalls a time in Israel’s history: “Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven” (Acts 7:42, NKJV). The NIV translates Stephen’s words as “But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars.”
Acts 6 records the ministry of Stephen, a disciple who was full of grace and power and who was performing signs and wonders (Acts 6:8). When his opponents became frustrated because they couldn’t successfully argue against him and his teaching, they began a campaign to discredit him, and they had him arrested (Acts 6:11–15). When asked whether the accusations were true, Stephen responded by recounting history from God’s appearing to Abraham to the building of Solomon’s temple (Acts 7:1–48). Stephen’s message culminates with an accusation against his accusers that they were resisting the Holy Spirit just as had their forefathers throughout Israel’s history (Acts 6:51–53). In one particular section of Stephen’s retelling, he recounted how, when Moses was on Mount Sinai, the people of Israel made and worshipped the golden calf (Acts 6:41). Stephen added that God gave them up to worship the host of heaven (Acts 7:42).
While God did judge the people at Sinai as a result of their idolatry (Exodus 32), God also allowed them to continue down the idolatrous path they had chosen. God gave them up to worship the host of heaven (Acts 7:42). In Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Paul explains how God allows people who choose to reject Him to pursue their own path (Romans 1:18–31). First, they suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18), even though they know the truth about God and it is evident to them (Romans 1:19). In fact, they are so familiar with God’s invisible attributes, eternal power, and divine nature that they have no excuse in rejecting Him (Romans 1:20). Their hearts are darkened, and their speculations are foolish (Romans 1:21). Even though they claim to be wise, they show their foolishness by worshipping things that have been created rather than the Creator Himself (Romans 1:22–23). Because they chose that path, God gave them over, allowing them to walk fully down that road (Romans 1:24–25). He gave them up to the pursuit of passions that degraded them and were unnatural (Romans 1:26–27), and they expressed those passions in all kinds of actions consistent with a depraved mind (Romans 1:28–31).
During Stephen’s recounting of Israel’s history, Stephen explains that the people had rejected God similarly to the way Paul would later describe in Romans 1. Not only did the people engage in idol worship when they crafted and worshipped the golden calf, but they did not change their minds about that and seek to obey God. Instead, they turned away from God and His authority. God allowed them to continue down that path, and God gave them up to worship the host of heaven—the sun, moon, and stars became their gods (Acts 7:42). They continually offered sacrifices to the false gods, particularly gods associated with the heavens (Acts 7:42–43) like the nations around them.
By recounting these historical events, Stephen reminds his audience that God isn’t like these false gods—He isn’t bound to living in houses or temples constructed by people (Acts 7:48–50). Instead, He is the Creator of all and worthy of worship. Stephen’s indictment of his audience was that they were making the same mistakes as those who had committed idolatry generations ago. They had rejected God and pursued their own foolish path. Stephen accused his audience of the same error. Sadly, rather than accept their responsibility and humble themselves before God, the people rejected Stephen and his message and immediately took him out and stoned him to death (Acts 7:54–60). This episode reminds us how important it is to acknowledge and worship God as He instructs, rather than to go our own way. Often, our own way ends up in death and destruction, whereas His way results in life and peace.