This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on May 14, 2017.
The conclusion of Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:1-54) became the tipping point that unleashed persecution against the church inside Jerusalem (Acts 8:1) and the spread of the gospel toward Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The Jewish religious leaders listening to Stephen boiled over with anger. Some biblical scholars have likened that religious group to a pack of ravenous wolves ready to tear limb from limb this one full of the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:55; 6:3, 5, 10) who was standing before them with the face of an angel (Acts 6:15). Just a few years earlier this identical, angry, religious pack felt the same way when Jesus of Nazareth stood before them. They did whatever it took to end Jesus’ life outside the gates of Jerusalem in a bloody mess and were soon to make sure Stephen’s end would come to pass. As Yogi Berra is credited with saying, “It was déjà vu all over again.”
The details described in the Bible leading to the deaths of Jesus and Stephen parallel each other in many regards. There was an underground movement of secrecy that gained momentum toward both men as the angry Jewish leaders went to work on their plan towards removal and execution (John 11:45-53; Acts 6:11). The religious wolves accused both of blasphemy and speaking against the Temple (Matthew 26:59-63; Acts 6:12-14). Jesus responded to the accusations by telling the high priest, “But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:63; cf. Daniel 7:13-14). Stephen responded to the enraged accusers by seeing beyond them and into what awaited him and said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). Jesus mentions the posture of the Son of Man being seated while Stephen describes the Son of Man standing in heaven. Both were located at the ultimate position of ultimate power: the right hand of God.
Jesus is described throughout the New Testament as being seated at the right hand of the God (Matthew 22:44; 24:64; Luke 22:69; Acts 2:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:11-12; 12:2). However, only in Stephen’s case do we see Jesus described as standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56). Psalm 110:1 is the Old Testament passage being alluded to in Stephen’s scene. The juxtaposition of posture from seated to standing has been interpreted by many commentators as Jesus welcoming Stephen, the first martyr, into his presence the moment he approached death because of his faithful and true witness. The word for witness in Greek is martureo which gives us the English word “martyr.” Both Jesus and Stephen were martyred for their witness of the truth about God. Each response sparked the onslaught that led to their respective executions.
As both men were nearing their points of death, Jesus prayed to his Father to receive his spirit (Luke 23:46), while Stephen prayed for Jesus to receive his (Acts 7:59). Jesus and Stephen both prayed for forgiveness for the ones responsible for putting them to death (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60). Saint Augustine comments, “If Stephen had not prayed, the Church would not have Paul.” The macabre scene unfolds for Stephen in such a way that Luke allows his readers to see “a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:59) at whose feet the ones winding up to stone Stephen laid their outer garments. What Saul witnessed would make an indelible impression on him that day as he stood in the front of the mob approving of Stephen’s execution (Acts 8:1).
The word describing Saul as a “young man” in the Greek is neanias. Greek writings of that era indicate the age of a “young man” to fall within the range of 24-40 years old. Some scholars believe Saul was about 30 years old at this point. Regardless of his exact age, Saul was close enough to the stoning of Stephen to hear what was said and see what was done. Saul likely was the source who shared these accounts with Luke years later after his conversion and name change to Paul.
The anger of the religious leaders led to ushering Stephen out of the city and into the line of death by stoning (Acts 7:58-59). Theologians debate whether this was done legally or not. Regardless, their actions of death by stoning for Stephen’s perceived blasphemy were founded upon Mosaic Law. The witnesses of the offense were to cast the first stones (Deuteronomy 13:6-11; 17:7; Leviticus 24:14; cf. John 8:7). As the stones were flying, Stephen had been privileged to see into heaven (Acts 7:55-56) like only a select few in the Bible had been mentioned such as Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-3), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:26-28), Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2-4), and John (Revelation 4:1-11).
After seeing what he saw and praying what he prayed as Jesus stood to honor Stephen’s witness, Luke tells us Stephen “fell asleep.” (Acts 7:60). The writers of the Bible use this expression as a common way to refer to the death of God’s own servants (John 11:11; Acts 13:36; 1 Corinthians 7:39; 11:30; 15:6; 15:51; 2 Peter 3:4; cf. Genesis 47:30; Deuteronomy 31:16). When Stephen stepped into the presence of Jesus, he undoubtedly was wide awake and heard the applause of heaven as his standing Savior proclaimed, “Well done, good and faithful servant…Enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:23).
Dr. David Rogers
Arapaho Road Baptist Church, Garland, TX
Tags: witness, stephen, martyr, stoning, persecution, heaven