Studies in the Book of Acts
Stephen’s indictment (7:51-53)
Stephen seems to break off suddenly from his cataloguing of Israel’s history. He suddenly begins a blistering attack on his hearers. Commentators speculate that Steven’s blunt criticism of the temple may have created a violent clamor in the audience. The commotion in the Sanhedrin may have caused Stephen to break off from his speech, and strongly censure his listeners.
If Stephen had continued his speech, he may have made his point about the temple more clear, and further clarified just who God’s people are. This would have propelled him forward to the usual appeal: accept the resurrected and glorified Christ as Messiah. But Stephen’s speech took a turn into direct denunciation. There is no more talk about the faithful patriarchs being “our fathers.” Now, Stephen talks about his hearers’ ancestors, the sinning Israelites (7:51).
Stephen insists that the Sanhedrin’s refusal to acknowledge Jesus — and his murder — reflected the council’s negative attitude towards God’s messengers throughout Israel’s history. Though Joseph was to be his brothers’ deliverer, they hated him. Moses, who led the emancipation of Israel, was repudiated by the people. The prophets who announced the coming of the Righteous One — and who urged the nation toward faith in God — had been killed by their ancestors (Matthew 23:29-37). Luke had established this point in his Gospel. Luke Timothy Johnson summarizes:
The Pharisees and Lawyers build tombs to the prophets their ancestors killed, and thereby collude in the killing (Luke 11:47-48); they are liable for the blood of all the prophets shed since the creation of the world (11:50); they will kill “the prophets and apostles” the wisdom of God sends to them (11:49); Jerusalem is the “killer of the prophets and stoner of those sent to her” (13:34). [Johnson, 134.]
Stephen says that his listeners are like their fathers in every way. Sin, rebellion against God, and rejection of his purpose characterizes Israel’s history — and the Sanhedrin’s. The council members are stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! (7:51). The Sanhedrin know exactly what Stephen means by this. Such words were often used by God in characterizing Israel’s attitude toward him. [Exodus 33:3, 5; 34:9; Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 9:6, 13; 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:6.] The speech is a bitter and abrupt denunciation of the leaders’ rebellion. His listeners resist the Holy Spirit. They betrayed and murdered the Righteous One, of whom Moses spoke. They are not keeping the law that came from God through angels.
Paul later notes a similar rejection of God’s calling by the Jews. He described the churches in Judea as suffering from the Jews “who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last” (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16).
Stephen is stoned (7:54-58)
Stephen places the death of Jesus squarely on the shoulders of the Sanhedrin, the spiritual leaders of the nation (Luke 24:20; Acts 4:10; 5:30). (Peter had been more charitable, saying in Acts 3:17 that the people killed their Savior in ignorance.) The Sanhedrin’s response to Stephen’s speech is rage. When they hear Stephen’s condemnation, they are “furious and gnashed their teeth at him” (7:54). Then comes the coup de grace. At the height of the Sanhedrin’s wrath, Stephen, “full of the Holy Spirit” (7:55), has a vision of the glory of God, and Jesus standing at his right hand.
Just a few years earlier, Jesus stood in front of this same group. The high priest asked Jesus if he were the Messiah. Jesus answered: “I am…and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). This image of Jesus at God’s right hand is based on Psalm 110:1, a verse frequently used to support Jesus’ Messiahship, particularly his resurrection and glorification (Luke 20:42; Acts 2:34; 5:31). In Acts 7:55 Jesus is said to be standing rather than sitting. Both were metaphors for being in the presence of God (Zechariah 3:1-8; Isaiah 6:1). But why is he standing? Elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus is sitting (Acts 2:34; Mark 16:19; Hebrews 1:3, 13).
The thought may be that he had risen to receive Stephen into heaven or to plead his case in the heavenly court, as though two trials were in progress: this one, conducted by the Sanhedrin, and another, which alone would determine Stephen’s fate [Luke 12:8]. [Williams, 146.]
This is also the only time that the phrase “the son of Man” appears in the New Testament outside the Gospels, the only time it is spoken by a disciple. It has its roots in Daniel 7:13. The title is probably meant to convey the fact that Stephen saw Jesus in his role as the spurned Messiah. He was to suffer and be rejected by the Sanhedrin — the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law (Luke 9:22).
This probably explains why the Son of man was seen standing, rather than sitting at God’s right hand (2:34). He is standing as an advocate to plead Stephen’s cause before God and to welcome him into God’s presence. [Marshall, 149.]
Stephen’s vision confirms Jesus’ claim, which the Sanhedrin must have remembered. The Jewish council is being condemned for having rejected their Savior, and having him executed. When Jesus originally told the council that they would see him at God’s right hand, it reacted by saying that Jesus had blasphemed and should be put to death (verse 64). Stephen is now making the same claim for Jesus as Jesus had made for himself. This brings the council to a frenzied hatred. Stephen is judged to be blaspheming, and the penalty for blasphemy was stoning to death (Deuteronomy 13:6).
F.F. Bruce wrote, “Unless the judges were prepared to admit that their former decision was tragically mistaken, they had no option but to find Stephen guilty of blasphemy as well.” [Bruce, 155.] Luke’s account indicates that the Sanhedrin is turning into a vicious mob. “Yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (7:57-58). Stephen becomes the first martyr to die for the name of Jesus.
There is no formal trial. A Roman form of execution was not used — Stephen is stoned. Even with a trial and guilty verdict, Rome has not given the Sanhedrin any right to put people to death for this offense, and they are supposed to confer with the Roman authority regarding capital punishment cases (John 18:31). This shows the intense anger of the Sanhedrin — they were so angry that they did not follow proper procedures.
Would the Sanhedrin get into difficulty with the Roman authority for overstepping its legal jurisdiction? Perhaps conditions were such in Judea that Roman power was weak or ineffectual at the time. Josephus describes a similar situation in which the high priest Ananus killed James in A.D. 62, the leader of the Jerusalem church congregation. [Josephus, Antiquities20:200-203; and see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23.16.] This may have occurred after the procurator of Judea, Festus, died and before Albinus arrived to assume his jurisdiction.
In the same way, some commentators conjecture that Stephen’s martyrdom may have occurred in the mid-30s, during the final years of Pilate’s governorship over Judea, when his power was growing weaker. Whatever the situation or reason, it appears that the Sanhedrin stoned Stephen to death, usurping Roman law, and got away with it.
Many Christians once held a belief that all Jews were responsible for killing Christ, and thus were guilty of his death. This is a gross misunderstanding. It could equally be said that the Jews and Romans were representing all humanity, and that all humans are guilty of his death. The martyrdom of Jews in numerous pogroms since Christ — often with the church’s complicity — is a blight on Christianity. While Stephen’s speech is “anti-Jewish” in the sense that it condemns the Jewish leaders who were present, it should not be misconstrued as a polemic against all Jews. That is not what Stephen had in mind, as the next verses show. Almost all the early Christians, including Stephen, were Jews. When they use the term “Jews,” it is obvious that they do not mean all Jews. But when non-Jewish people use the term “Jews,” it is not obvious, and needs to be clarified.
“Lord, please forgive them” (7:59-60)
As he lay dying, Stephen asks that the risen Jesus receive his spirit, and that his killers be forgiven. Stephen is following his Savior, who also asks forgiveness for his executioners (Luke 23:34). Stephen shows the same spirit of faith and forgiveness as characterized Jesus. Stephen accepts Jesus’ bid to come and follow him to the ultimate degree. The way Luke crafts the story of Stephen, he emerges as a type of Christ. Detail after detail in Stephen’s sermon and death remind us of the life and particularly the last days and death of Jesus. Luke Timothy Johnson presents a comparative portrait:
As did Jesus, so does Stephen have grace and power, and works wonders and signs among the people (6:8); he enters into dispute with those who challenge him (6:9; see Luke 20:1-7), including those who are sent as spies (6:11; see Luke 20:20). He is arrested (6:12; see Luke 22:54), and brought to trial before the Sanhedrin (6:12-15; see Luke 22:66-71). Stephen has false witnesses accuse him (6:13), an element left out of Luke’s passion narrative, though found in the Synoptic parallels of Mark 14:56 and Matthew 26:59. Stephen is taken out of the city to be executed (7:58) as was Jesus (23:32). At his death…Stephen prays that his spirit be accepted (7:59) as did Jesus (Luke 23:46). Stephen asks forgiveness of his murderers (7:60) as did Jesus (23:34). Stephen is buried by pious people (8:2) as was Jesus (Luke 23:50-55). [Johnson, 143.]
The same power and prophetic spirit that characterize Jesus is at work in his disciples. As he was dying on the cross, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). But Stephen commits his spirit to Jesus directly. That is a striking difference. Words applied to the Father are now addressed to the Son. For the early church, Jesus was in the role of God, in the sense of being the one who saves us. Even at this early date in its history, the church already had a “high” Christology.
When Luke writes the book of Acts, somewhere between A.D. 62 and 85, it is becoming increasingly evident that the Jews will not be converted en masse. In fact, Jews continue to be the greatest persecutors of the church. If Luke writes after A.D. 70, then the temple no longer exists. Decades had elapsed, but Jesus neither returned to save the Jews (and the world), nor to glorify his church. No doubt there is great disappointment and wonderment in the church over these matters. The example of Stephen provides a ready case to illustrate the point that the Christian’s duty is to serve God and have faith in Christ. Stephen also provides an example of Luke’s main thesis in Acts. The growth of the church and the spread of the gospel is not the work of human beings. Rather, both increase because the Holy Spirit is at work among his people.
The example of Stephen and Philip is Luke’s way of saying that the story is not about the work of super-star favorites, nor of planned programs. The Holy Spirit is leading the way, opening new vistas of spiritual understanding, thrusting the gospel into new geographical areas. At best, God’s human servants are struggling to keep up the pace. We see this almost amusing pattern throughout the book of Acts.The apostles and the Jerusalem church thought that Stephen was a good choice to be a widows’ helper and to take care of daily assistance (i.e., wait on tables). But he ends up doing nothing of the sort, so far as we can tell. Almost by accident and through the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit, Stephen jumps to the fore in understanding the deepest implications of the gospel message. (Meanwhile, another widow’s helper — Philip — does some of the most amazing miracles in Jesus’ name. He, rather than the Twelve, pushes the gospel out beyond Jerusalem to Samaria and the coast of Judea.)
Stephen’s speech breaks new ground in the church’s understanding of the role of Old Testament tradition for the church. Even though Stephen upholds the validity of Jewish law and worship, he marginalizes it by implying that neither land, law nor the temple are the center of worship. Christ is the center. In fact, Stephen says the Jews have never kept the law (in its real intent) and always resist the Holy Spirit. They did not have the right “mind” to be the people of God, since they lack the Holy Spirit. (Only the new congregation of Israel — the church — had been given the Spirit. At this point is it thoroughly Jewish as well, but that will soon change.)
Stephen carries the message of good news to new levels of understanding as far as what makes any people a people of God. His message also contains the seeds for understanding that Israel’s forms of worship were just that — passing forms of worship. In Christ, a radical reinterpretation of worship, of God’s presence, of his purpose with the human family and so on is needed. The Twelve have so far not said anything about the worship of the Jews as needing a radical transformation. They go to the temple and make it their center of worship, implying its institutions are to continue. They assume the Jews as an ethnic group are the people of God. The only problem is that they were guilty of rejecting and killing their Messiah.
Stephen’s speech presages some dramatic changes in the worship of God. The book of Hebrews, a fundamental assessment of these changes, is a fuller statement of what Stephen pointed to. Ironically, Stephen leaped ahead of the apostles in understanding. Perhaps he did not really foresee all that he pointed to, but we have no way of knowing. Just as the resurrection of Jesus vindicated his message and ministry, the martyrdom of Stephen, and his vision of the risen Jesus, vindicates the accuracy of Stephen’s understanding of the law.
The death of Stephen provides Luke with an important literary transition. With Stephen’s death and his re-evaluation of Jewish faith, the story of the Jerusalem church is complete. Luke has shown how the apostles and others were witnesses in Jerusalem. Now it is time for Luke to show the gospel radiating out to “Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8).
Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012