Here Stephen is nearing the central point of what he is saying to the council although if you believe the Story this is not Stephen speaking. This is the Spirit of God speaking through him:
7:37 “This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear.’
38 “This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us, 39 whom our fathers would not obey, but rejected. And in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods to go before us; as for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands."
Why bring up something so far in the past? Does it have any relevance? Unless the Spirit of God is irrelevant it must have huge significance. To understand what possible application that dusty old story could have we first have to understand what happened back then.
Moses was the visible human leader of the Israelites as they left Egypt and headed for the long ago promised land flowing with milk and honey. It was an almost mythical place that had been promised to Abraham's descendants and the promise had been passed on for generations. It was the subject of bed time stories and the thing of dreams. Finally this generation was about to realize the dream. Miracles had freed them from slavery and Pharaoh. Life was good, sort of. As they left Egypt they went the wrong way. There was a direct well-traveled route to Canaan and the Promised Land but instead they headed out across the wilderness. Already the grumbling started. Now in defense of Moses there was a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night that was actually leading them. Stephen and other Bible writers say Jesus was inside that could. He was the true Leader.
After taking the "wrong" way they came to the Red Sea with the Egyptian army in pursuit and believed very logically that they were going to die. However God delivered them again. Then a few days later they ran out of water. Again God provided. Then they ran out of food... Long story short their journey has been a series of crises followed by miraculous solutions. However the people were tired of the up and downs. They missed the food of Egypt and the safe predictability of their life there even though they had cried out to God to deliver them.
When God called Moses up into a mountain covered in fire and smoke and he did not return for weeks the people saw their chance. Finally they could be free to go where they wanted when they wanted. They wanted to be in charge. They wanted to run their own show. So what did they do? They reasoned with Aaron who was left in charge while Moses was gone that he was dead. That he was never coming back. They proposed a solution. They could build a golden calf to take the place of Moses and be their new god, their new leader.
Stephen tells us they turned back to Egypt in their hearts. They built an idol and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. Frank Sinatra sang it like this: "I did it my way."
Today in civilized supposedly science-based North America we don't build idols. That would be so unsophisticated. Instead our idols are our own ideas. Like they tried to throw away Moses and ignore the ever present cloud and fire, we reject leaders who tell the truth and we ignore the ever present Scriptures that stand as an accurate gauge of human nature and track exactly how this Story will end. We claim to be scientific but we ignore any science that conflicts with our new story that we came from nowhere and are accountable to no one. We need that story so we can do as we please and hope the voice of our conscience which is really the voice of God's Spirit will just give up and go away.
Stephen isn't speaking to men who don't see the "cloud" and don't hear the Voice. They know, they just don't want to hear. Their idol is themselves and the little kingdom they have built.
The message from God through Stephen is simple: "You are just like your ancestors. They rejected Me and you are doing the same."
"Today if you hear His Voice do not harden your heart..."