Title: Stephen, martyred for the faith
Aim: To evaluate the importance of being both courageous and gracious in letting others know about Jesus.
The religious leaders’ formal accusations against Stephen, Acts 7:51–53
Acts 6:9–15 narrates an episode involving a group of emancipated Jewish slaves who told the Sanhedrin (the highest court of justice in ancient Jerusalem) that Stephen was preaching against the Mosaic Law and the supremacy of the temple. Stephen’s opponents decided to use the same sorts of accusations that previously had been successful in getting rid of Jesus.
In offering a critique of the religious leadership in Stephen’s day, it is important to avoid the specter of antisemitism that has plagued the church (including Lutheranism) at times during its history. The focus here is not on the general population of Judah, many of whom were on the receiving end of a corrupt civil and religious ruling class.
The allegations the antagonists leveled against Stephen were inflammatory remarks they knew would upset the religious leaders. Indeed, this is what happened, and it led to the Council authorizing Stephen’s arrest and formal interrogation before the entire assembly. Caiaphas, who was the high priest at that time, asked Stephen whether he thought the charges being brought against him were correct and valid (7:1).
One of the ways to more fully appreciate Stephen’s witness is the Greek adjective rendered “full” (6:8). In other words, he was brimming with the “grace and power” of God.
Such a Spirit-emboldened believer can do great things for the Lord. This was certainly true of Jesus and Stephen.
Like the Messiah, Stephen found himself at the center of controversy over theological matters. Also, like Jesus, Stephen confounded his detractors with a logic and disposition they could not deny. Indeed, verse 15 reveals that as Stephen spoke, his face beamed like that a heaven-sent angel.
In Stephen’s formal response (the longest speech recorded in Acts), he followed Hebrew custom by surveying the history of Israel and reiterating the obligations of God’s chosen people to the covenant (Deut 1–3; Ps 78; Dan 9; Neh 9). He did so to emphasize that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s promised Messiah and Redeemer.
Stephen’s address sets forth a refutation of the three points of reference on which some of his peers placed an idolatrous emphasis: the promised land, the Mosaic Law, and the Jerusalem temple. Concerning those who venerated their homeland, Stephen argued that while Judah remained important, God’s activities in Israel’s history often took place outside of Palestine. Also, wherever God is present, that locale is considered holy (7:2–36).
Moreover, some of Stephen’s peers revered the law and, in turn, the one who gave them the legal code—Moses. Yet, Stephen reminded his listeners that this legendary figure clearly pointed to a coming Prophet who was greater than Moses and the law. Likewise, some in Moses’ day rejected him and embraced idol worship, just as a later generation spurned Jesus (vv. 37–43).
Finally, some of Stephen’s peers fixated on the Jerusalem temple as a symbol of God’s past workings with the nation of Israel and the source of their future hope—so much so that they ended up worshiping the shrine rather than their Creator-King. Tragically, the religionists also confined God’s work to the sanctuary alone, instead of recognizing that He transcended any edifice made by people (Isa. 66:1–2; Acts 17:24).
Stephen declared his accusers to be as “stiff-necked” (Acts 7:51), or stubborn, as an unyielding ox or donkey. Moreover, the members of the Council were “uncircumcised” in their thoughts, emotions, and will. By this declaration, Stephen meant that the Sanhedrin, though physically circumcised, were no different in their attitude and actions from the uncircumcised pagans they detested.
Because the religious leaders refused to listen to God and rebelled against His Word, they were spiritually stubborn and unregenerate (Exod. 32:9; 33:3, 5; Deut. 9:6; 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4). Furthermore, instead of being genuinely devoted to the Lord, the Council was guilty of always fighting against the Holy Spirit. Stephen noted that this was the same offense their predecessors had committed.
Stephen rhetorically asked whether there ever was a spokesperson for God whom the forbearers of the Sanhedrin did not mistreat. Stephen declared that the Council’s predecessors were even guilty of murdering the prophets, who foretold the advent of the “Righteous One” (Acts 7:52), which is a reference to Jesus of Nazareth.
Of course, the religious leaders rejected Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. Also, rather than heed Him as their Redeemer and Lord, they schemed with the civil authorities to have Him crucified (v. 53).
The irony is that the Mosaic Law the Council members so highly prized contained prophecies about the coming of the Savior (John 5:45–47). Put differently, it was the members of the Sanhedrin, not Stephen, who were guilty of violating the law and desecrating all that affirmed.
Here we learn that the Mosaic Law was ordained or decreed by angels. Though angels are not mentioned as being instrumental in God’s issuance of the law to Moses in Exodus 20, their presence at Mount Sinai is noted in several other New Testament passages (Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2).
Mention is also made in the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 33:2, as well as in the Antiquitiesof the first-century A.D. Jewish historian, Josephus. Apparently, the involvement of angels in the mediation of the law was widely accepted by the second century B.C.
Stephen was convinced that the gospel was true, and this must have given him the courage to proclaim the good news to others. His gratitude for what God had done in his life also may have given Stephen the boldness to expose himself to danger, especially as he told people about the Lord Jesus.
Most importantly, the Savior enabled Stephen to be courageous in his witness to others. Even when he stood before such an imposing and authoritative group as the Sanhedrin, the Spirit empowered Stephen to be forceful in his witness.
The stoning of Stephen, Acts 7:54–8:1
The natural reaction of the religious leaders was to become “furious” (Acts 7:54). The latter renders a Greek verb that literally means to be “cut to the quick.”
The members of the Council also began to grind their teeth. This is an idiomatic expression to point to the presence of extreme rage (Ps 35:16).
Stephen’s speech was upsetting to the religious leaders because it was a stinging indictment of a history of unbelief for the nation and its chosen people. Yet, more specifically, in the minds of the religious leaders, Stephen’s claim of divinity for Jesus of Nazareth, the person whom they had schemed to be crucified, was a clear case of blasphemy.
According to the Mosaic Law, the preceding offense was punishable by death (Lev. 24:13–16). Despite the rage of the Sanhedrin, Stephen remained under the complete control of the Holy Spirit.
At Jesus’ trial, He had declared to the Council that they would see the “Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One” (the place of divine honor and power; Mark 14:62). As Stephen fixed his gaze heavenward, he experienced a vision of the Father’s heavenly throne room and glory, as well as the Son standing at the Father’s right hand (Acts 7:55).
The preceding observations recall Daniel 7:13–14 and its reference to a heavenly “son of man.” While the “Son of Man” (Acts 7:56) is customarily pictured as seated at the Father’s right hand (Ps 110:1; Heb 1:3), some have suggested that the Messiah had risen on this occasion to welcome the first recorded martyr of the early church. Others think the Son was testifying on behalf of Stephen to the Father (1 Tim 2:5; 1 John 2:1–2).
In any case, Stephen’s words were so blasphemous to the religious leaders that they put their hands over their ears and drowned out his voice with their shouts (Acts 7:57). Also, with the fury of an uncontrollable mob, the Council rushed at Stephen, hauled him out of Jerusalem, and began to throw stones at him.
Though Stephen faced imminent death, he demonstrated before his antagonists what it truly meant to honor the Lord. Stephen’s desire was not to perpetuate a dead religious institution and its lifeless traditions. Rather, he sought to please God, regardless of the circumstances or the cost to himself.
While the above episode unfolded, the official witnesses took off their outer garments (to make it easier for them to move their arms) and laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named “Saul” (v. 58) of Tarsus. He is later called Paul in 13:9.
When Stephen was stoned, Saul was around 30 years of age. He was a Pharisee and associated with the Sanhedrin (Phil. 3:5). Saul likely was an instigator of Stephen’s trial (Acts 8:3; 9:1-2).
Amazingly, while Stephen was being stoned, he made two dying requests. First, he prayed that the Messiah would receive His bondservant’s spirit (7:59). The comparison to our Lord’s dying prayer is too striking to be overlooked (Luke 23:46).
Just as the Son had committed Himself to the Father, so Stephen cast himself upon Jesus. So, to Stephen’s dying breath, he affirmed the deity of the Messiah.
Second, while Stephen knelt on the ground, he prayed for his enemies. He asked the Lord not to hold the executioners guilty for what they had done (Acts 7:60).
Stephen’s petition echoed Jesus’ cry at His crucifixion (Luke 23:34). Stephen, like his Master, surrendered his life by returning forgiveness for vengeance, along with love for hatred.
Despite the terrifying prospect of death, Stephen remained calm and hopeful. Unlike his detractors, he had the assurance that God the Son—Stephen’s Savior and Lord—would receive His bondservant into His glorious presence.
The Greek words translated “he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60) were a common euphemism in Scripture for death (Luke 8:52; John 11:11; Acts 13:36; 1 Cor 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thess 4:13–15; 5:10). Acts 7:60 points to the peaceful mental state in which Stephen died.
Stephen’s triumph was grounded in the risen Messiah. He, having conquered death, promised a future resurrection awakening for His disciples (Rev 7:11).
Earlier it was noted that a young Pharisee named Saul was standing with the clothing of the executioners (Acts 7:58). By doing so, Saul did not show mere passive approval of the stoning. Some have suggested that this act meant Saul oversaw the proceedings.
In any case, 8:1 shows Saul actively and wholeheartedly condoning the grizzly death of Stephen. Saul’s statement about himself in 22:20 agrees with 8:1.
The intense hatred Saul had of all believers before his conversion was manifested in his attitude toward Stephen. God would soon use Saul’s disdain for Jesus to lead the Pharisee to eternal life.
Acts 7:58 and 8:1 are the first mention of Saul in Luke’s historical treatise. Saul may have attended the synagogue where Stephen carried on his debate.
Like Stephen, the relentless Pharisee realized that Christianity was incompatible with the old religious order. Although Saul approved of Stephen’s execution, Saul later was unable to forget his role in the martyr’s death (22:20).
For thought and application
Luke explained how Stephen rose to a leadership position within the church. In the process, Luke revealed that the most important qualification for Christian service is being controlled by the Holy Spirit.
Stephen was a man who possessed the preceding quality in a remarkable way. Through God’s grace and power, this wise bondservant (Acts 6:3) became a great miracle worker (v. 8), evangelist (v. 10), and the first believer recorded in the New Testament to give his life for the cause of the Messiah.
For many of us, the thought of telling others about our faith brings on sweaty palms and a suddenly vacant mind. We fear embarrassment, ridicule, and rejection. We also fear violating the rules of etiquette that religion should never be discussed in polite society.
Perhaps we are ultimately afraid of failing, and the possibility of losing face as well as a soul for the kingdom of God. Stephen’s testimony before the people and religious leaders of the Jews provides us with an excellent example of how to courageously witness about God’s grace. Stephen spoke his mind straightforwardly and authoritatively, even when he encountered opposition.
Maintaining a courageous witness does not mean we are disrespectful, obnoxious, or overly aggressive. We are not trying to pick a fight with others or alienate them from the Lord Jesus and His gospel.
Instead, our desire is to be persistent and make the truth known in a way that is biblically accurate and culturally relevant. Doing this is not always easy, and without God’s help, we will fail. That is why we should continue to trust Him to give us the wisdom we need to remain focused and godly as we maintain a courageous testimony.
We should also look to God for inner strength and clarity of mind to say the right words at the proper time in a winsome manner. God can and does empower His people to courageously present the truth of His grace in ways they never imagined. The key, of course, is to completely rely on Him.