One of the seven men the church chose to oversee the distribution to the poor now becomes the first martyr of the new movement. Stephen, noted for being filled with the Holy Spirit, stands out from the group and becomes known for his powerful teaching and mighty acts. Unfortunately, his wisdom and might attract the attention of the Sanhedrin. And this time, unlike the threats and the flogging that came the other times the council called believers in front of it, the leaders take the next step in persecuting the church and actually execute Stephen in their fury. Stephen loses his life in defense of the gospel, but in so doing shows what it means to live for Jesus regardless of the cost.
When the apostles instructed the church to choose seven men to oversee the distribution of food to the poor they said the men must be full of the Spirit and of wisdom (3). All seven meet the standard, but one of them, Stephen, stands out even from this group with his Spirit-led life (he is the only one in the list of names (5) who warrants his own description). The first three times his name is mentioned in the text it describes him as full of faith and the Holy Spirit (5), full of grace and power (8), and one who speaks with wisdom and the Spirit. It is as though he is so full of the Spirit that Luke cannot help but add the adjectives each time he mentions him (what a testimony!).
[Note that what makes Stephen great is the Spirit within him. He is powerful and full of grace and wisdom because he is full of the Spirit. This is what God can do with one who is willing to submit to Him. It is the Spirit that makes Stephen extraordinary – it is always the Spirit that distinguishes a servant of God.]
Stephen presumably fulfills his calling to minister to the poor, but in so doing also speaks and performs miracles. He seems to act in all the ways of the apostles as he performs great wonders and signs among the people (8). He was chosen to free up the apostles to pray and teach the word but is so full of grace and power that he becomes well-known as a leader in the church.
His works and speaking attract the attention of a certain synagogue in the city – the Synagogue of the Freedmen (presumably made up of freed slaves) – and its leaders argue with Stephen over what he teaches (the text is somewhat vague as to whether the ethnic groups mentioned are all from the same synagogue or represent four different synagogues – it seems to make sense from the context that they are all from the Synagogue of the Freedmen). Their arguments are no match for the wisdom and the Spirit of Stephen and so they become frustrated and decide to take a different approach to stopping his ministry.
Stephen’s superiority in debate against the Jewish leaders fulfills what Jesus said will happen when His followers are brought up to defend the faith – “…for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute” (Lk 21:15). Stephen speaks in the power of the Spirit while his opponents speak out of their own wisdom (they bring a knife to a gun fight). In the end man is no match for God (just ask Job).
When the Freedmen Jews realize they are overmatched they turn to bribing false witnesses to bring accusations against Stephen. They then stir up the elders and the scribes so they arrest Stephen and bring him before the Sanhedrin.
The Jews first accuse Stephen of speaking blasphemous words against Moses and against God (11). This accusation gets him arrested. At his trial they accuse him of continually speaking against this holy place (the temple) and the Law; for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us (13). The accusations are essentially the same. The temple is where God dwells and so speaking against it is the same as speaking against God. And the Law and Moses are so joined that speaking against either is to speak against both. They accuse Stephen of serious crimes – blaspheming the most sacred pillars of Jewish life and belief.
The accusations against Stephen – while exaggerated – likely come out of his preaching the gospel message of salvation through Jesus alone. By preaching the gospel he proclaims that Jesus supersedes the temple and fulfills the Law. People now will meet God through Jesus rather than through the temple ceremonies and sacrifices (and most notably through the Day of Atonement). And the Law is now shown as having pointed to and being fulfilled in Jesus. Stephen does not preach against the temple and the Law, he just shows that Jesus as Messiah is superior to both. The thought, however, that a man killed on a cross is superior to the Law and the temple is too much for the Jews to accept.
As Stephen stands before the council an amazing thing happens. Those looking at Stephen see that he suddenly has a face like the face of an angel. Apparently his appearance changes and his face develops a supernatural look in some way. In a bit of irony God causes his face to change in seemingly the same way Moses’ face changed after he was in God’s presence. Stephen stands accused of speaking against Moses and yet takes on the same appearance as he did. God shows whose side He is on – His servant Stephen stands before Him just like Moses. [The text does not say if his appearance stays this way throughout his defense, but assuming it does it is a pretty clear indication that he speaks the words of God to the council as God’s intermediary – just like Moses.]
Apparently the council is not bowed by Stephen’s changed appearance – or perhaps they decide to ignore it and continue with the trial (yet another example of how sin blinds its slaves – they have clear evidence in front of them that God is with Stephen and yet do not hesitate at all in proceeding with his sham trial). After hearing the accusations the high priest asks him, “Are these things so?” It is a simple question but one that is extremely dangerous to answer. If Stephen does not have a good explanation to refute his accusers he has blasphemed and is subject to the death penalty under the Law.
The question can be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ but Stephen does not answer in kind. He decides to make his defense by giving a history lesson. He has been accused of speaking against Moses and the Law and against the temple and God. Therefore he will answer his accusers by explaining how God has worked in the history of Israel and how the people have responded to Him.
It is interesting to consider Stephen’s audience as he begins to speak. He is about to tell the history of Israel to men who know it inside and out. There is no way he can tell them any fact they do not already know. These are the most learned men in the country – they do not need someone to instruct them on the origin of the nation or the major events in its history.
What Stephen does in his recounting, however, is to show through history how his accusers and the Sanhedrin are wrong. He sets out to illustrate two primary points (this is one of many ways to summarize his defense):
- God has never been bound by geography or a building. The temple cannot contain God and something greater than the temple has come. To consider it blasphemous to teach that the Messiah is greater than the temple is to limit God and miss history.
- Israel throughout its history has rejected God’s representatives. Even Moses the lawgiver was rejected by the people. It is those who reject God’s prophets and deliverers who are truly lawless.
Remember that he continues to speak in the power of the Spirit (as his face presumably shows). His speech (the longest recounted in Acts) at first seems odd in its length and detail. But God shows through him that the leaders now sitting in judgment of Stephen are in fact just another group in the long line of Jewish leaders who have rejected God and His followers. The Israelites are God’s chosen people, but they have a history of rejecting the God who chose them.
Stephen makes his points as follows:
- God has never been bound by geography or a building. The temple cannot contain God and something greater than the temple has now come. To consider it blasphemous to teach that the Messiah is greater than the temple is to limit God and miss history.
- God called Abraham out of Mesopotamia.
- God was with Abraham in the Promised Land.
- God cared for Joseph and his brothers in Egypt.
- God was with Moses in Midian.
- God described the area around the burning bush on Sinai as holy ground (just like the holy of holies in the temple).
- God was with Moses and the people at the Red Sea and through the Wilderness.
- God resided in the tabernacle which was mobile and temporary.
- God removed the people beyond Babylon.
- God does not live in houses built by human hands – how can man build a structure that can contain Him? (Is 66:1-2)
- Israel throughout its history has rejected God’s representatives. Even Moses the lawgiver was rejected by the people. Thus it is those who reject God’s prophets who are truly lawless.
- Israel rejected Moses as deliverer after he killed the Egyptian (it is instructive that the majority of Stephen’s speech is devoted to Moses – this is likely not by accident as he is accused of blaspheming him).
- Israel rejected Moses again even after he led them out of Egypt and gave them the Law.
- Moses the lawgiver predicted that God would raise up a prophet like him from among the brethren. It is not surprising then, that the prophet would be rejected by His people in the same way Moses was.
Stephen seems to speak with increasing fervency as he makes his case. The members of the Sanhedrin and the false witnesses serve a small God limited to the temple they hold so dear. And their pious observance of the Law is betrayed by their rejection of the One the Lawgiver Himself pointed to. Stephen and his fellow believers are not guilty of the charges leveled against him – it is the hypocritical religious leaders who stand condemned by history.
Stephen now concludes by applying the lessons of history to the council members directly. He goes after the leaders in the harshest of terms and speaks with no fear at all. To this point his monologue has been somewhat subtle in its implications for his accusers. But the gloves come off quickly and he does not mince words in telling them the truth about who and what they are. If one were to counsel Stephen as to how to respond to a capital indictment, this would not be the recommended conclusion to shift the judges to his side.
He uses Old Testament adjectives to describe the council. He says they are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears. These are terms Moses and God used to describe the apostate Israelites in the wilderness (Ex 32:9, 33:3; Lev 26:41; Deut 10:16). It is no coincidence that Stephen uses the same terms here to show they are no different than their forefathers who rejected Moses.
He also says they are always resisting the Holy Spirit. This goes to how they clearly see the Spirit working in the new church and throughout Jerusalem and yet continually try to destroy the movement and persecute the believers. They reject the very One they claim to defend.
Stephen closes his argument by telling them they are just like their fathers in how they persecute God’s followers. The current leaders are actually worse, however. Their fathers killed the prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah but the current generation betrayed and killed the Messiah Himself. They acknowledge the Law as coming from God and claim allegiance to it, but they show their true colors by murdering the One who fulfilled it (just like their fathers rejected the one who brought it to them).
As an aside – how terrifying is it for the council – if it could understand – that Stephen speaks under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? This condemnation is ultimately not from Stephen – it is from God. This is not just some man losing his temper and insulting the leaders in his anger. This is God telling the council that it is made up of stiff-necked murderers who do not belong to Him. These words have horrific eternal implications – even if those hearing them are too blind to realize it.
Stephen does not close like a man worried about the outcome of the trial or about his own safety. He speaks like a man who looks at his life as disposable for the work of the gospel. Stephen has to know how his words will affect the Sanhedrin but he very apparently does not care. He speaks in the power of the Spirit of God and the only thing that matters is obeying and glorifying Him. Jesus laid down His life for him, he now gladly offers his own for the gospel.
Not surprisingly, the council erupts after Stephen speaks. They are cut to the quick and begin gnashing their teeth at him. The picture is one of the leaders being so outraged that they almost cannot contain themselves. They are beyond angry; they want him silenced and begin acting almost as wild animals in their hatred of him and his message.
As the council members erupt Stephen almost seems to ignore them. His attention is elsewhere. The text says that he is full of the Holy Spirit (God is with him throughout this ordeal) and as such he gazes intently into heaven and sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Even as he knows that the council is in an uproar he says, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
It is notable that he sees Jesus standing. Typically the description of Jesus is of Him sitting at the right hand of God. Standing seems to carry with it a sense of welcoming. Jesus is standing to welcome His servant into heaven. As Stephen sees this he knows Jesus approves of what he has said and done. He also realizes what is about to happen (and may have known it from the moment he first started speaking). He is about to go to where Jesus is. He is about to die for the gospel.
A merciful and loving God shows Himself to Stephen just as he is about to die. Stephen is reassured that though death is coming he will soon be in paradise with his Savior. What is death compared to this? What is the pain of stoning compared to the glory that awaits him? The men screaming in anger around him are nothing compared to his Savior standing to greet him. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? (I Cor 15:55)
These last words are too much for the religious leaders. They cry out with a loud voice and cover their ears so they do not have to hear him anymore. They rise up as one and rush at him and drag him out of the city. After dragging him out of the city they stone him to death. Rome does not allow a subject people to execute its own criminals (this is why the Jews delivered Jesus to the Romans) but in this case the council is so overwhelmed by its fury that it ignores the prohibition.
Luke takes this opportunity to quickly introduce a new person into his account. He notes a minor detail that at first seems a strange to include. He says the ones stoning Stephen lay their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. If this were the only mention of Saul in Acts this would indeed be an odd notation. But we know this is the first mention of the man who will dominate the remaining chapters of the book. This gives us a first glimpse into the life of the one God will eventually use so greatly for the spread of His gospel. It is an inauspicious start to a career that is about to change dramatically.
As they stone him Stephen still speaks. He first says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” He knows who he serves and he knows who he is going to (he has seen Him waiting). He then falls to his knees and cries out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” His final pronouncements – still in the power of the Spirit – are similar to Jesus’ words on the cross. Stephen dies as he lived – completely submissive to the Spirit who indwells him.
Observations and Thoughts
- God does not deliver Stephen from the Sanhedrin the way He did Peter and John when they first appeared before the council. Peter and John were harsh (although not quite as direct) in how they accused the members (4:10-11) but the council did not really respond to them at all (4:14). In this case, however, Stephen’s words (which were also Spirit-directed) enrage them enough to kill him. God in His wisdom decides Stephen will be the first martyr instead of Peter and John. And while we might question why one and not the others, Stephen seems to have no qualms about his fate.
- We have no idea if we will ever face persecution in the way Stephen does in this story. Yet it is enormously encouraging that God so clearly keeps His promises (Lk 21:15) to those who do and that He very obviously goes through all of it with them. God does not deliver Stephen from his martyrdom but He gives him the words to speak and strengthens him to obey and to actually face his death with joy. God may call His followers to suffer or die for Him but He never calls them to do it alone.
- This is what a life lived wholly for God looks like. Stephen’s life is actually just a small part of the overall Bible story (just a little over one chapter), yet his impact for the gospel is incredible (his death begins its spread throughout the world). Stephen is so committed to his Savior that he is one of seven men picked out of thousands to be over the distribution to the poor. And even among the seven he stands out because of his faith and the power of the Spirit in his life. Everything about him speaks to boldness and strength. He goes before the highest authority in the land that has the power to execute him and his only goal is to obey and give testimony to his Savior. Even at the end his concerns are for Jesus’ glory and for the forgiveness of his executioners. In death and in life Stephen’s vision is full of Jesus at the right hand of God.
Stephen is the first witness in the church who died for his confession of faith in Jesus, the crucified, risen, and exalted Lord and Savior. An authentic witness of Jesus is a person full of the Holy Spirit willing to serve at tables (6:1-6), active in proclaiming Jesus Christ (6:8-10), unfazed by opposition (6:11-14), capable of explaining the significance and meaning of the gospel (7:2-56), unwilling to compromise his convictions (7:51-53), willing to die for his faith (which he regards as more precious than his own life, 7:57-60), and loving people who have not yet accepted the gospel, including his enemies (7:60). What Luke emphasizes is not Stephen’s courage but the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life (6:10; 7:55). (Eckhard J. Schnabel, “Acts,” Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 397)