We now come to the saddest part of the story of Stephen. And why is this the saddest part of Stephen’s story. Very simply because Stephen was murdered for daring to speak the truth that the Holy Spirit had put on his heart to speak. And as we will see this murder occurred with some semblance of proper procedure, but it was still murder.
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”—7:54-56
The hearers interrupt Stephen. Given the context, it is possible that Stephen was about to charge them with making the temple an idol. The contrast with Stephen could not be sharper. The crowd was enraged to the point of gnashing their teeth, yet Stephen was filled with the Spirit and saw the heavenly throne room. In the book of Acts, Luke uses the title “Son of Man” only here to refer to Jesus.
As Stephen is being stoned, he sees a vision of Christ, the Son of Man, standing by the right hand of God. The New Testament usually references Christ’s position in heaven based Psalm 110:1, which uses the verb “sit.” Here in Acts 1:55-56, Christ is standing. Perhaps Jesus stands to welcome Stephen as a vindicated martyr, like a king who is pleased with his subject. Or maybe Jesus stands to intercede for Stephen in a posture of prayer. Most likely, Jesus stands as a witness against the mob. Jesus promises to acknowledge the one who acknowledges him. Therefore, Jesus stands as a witness in the heavenly court for Stephen, even as the earthly Sanhedrin condemns him. Jesus may also stand as a judge to deliver a verdict; God is often depicted as rising to judge his own. For example, in Isaiah 3:13-15 God rises to judge the elders of his people. Stephen claims to see Jesus standing at God’s right hand, and the Jewish leadership views this as a claim of Jesus’ deity. From their perspective, Stephen is committing blasphemy.
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.—7:57-58
The scene is composed of the Synagogue of the Freedmen, the elders, the scribes, the false witnesses and the Sanhedrin itself. While stoning was typically done by the witnesses in a proceeding, all four groups may have participated here. The animosity of the Sanhedrin has been consistent so far in Acts. With the stoning of Stephen a significant turning point has been reached. Previously, authorities had jailed, beaten, heartened and tried to intimidate believers to stop proclaiming the gospel. In Stephen’s case, the people turned to murder. The murder itself as done with a semblance of proper procedure. Stephen was taken out of the city, and the witnesses began stoning him. But taking off their cloaks was not part of the formal procedure; it was more likely a practical issue. Laying them at the feet of Saul suggests some sort of authority on his part (he was too young at this point to be a member of the Sanhedrin).
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul approved of their killing him.—7:59-8:1a
Stephen’s words are similar to Jesus’ words in Luke 23:46 except that Stephen directly addresses Jesus here rather than the Father. Stephen’s words to Jesus support the early belief in Jesus as divine. Stephen’s last words also reflect Jesus’ words on the cross requesting mercy for his assailants. Saul’s consent takes away any doubt as to his opinion in the matter. As Saul would say later (Acts 26:10), he voted against Christians. And that is where we will pick tomorrow as we the persecution of the early church begin in earnest.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
1 Chronicles 26:12-27:34, Romans 4:13-5:5, Psalm 14:1-7 and Proverbs 19:17
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