By Sam E. Stone
In last week’s lesson Luke introduced Stephen (Acts 6:8-15; 7:1, 2a, 22, 44a, 45b-49). Today’s text follows that passage immediately. After summarizing key parts of the Jews’ history, Stephen confronted his accusers with what they had done to the Messiah. Rather than defending himself against their accusations, he warned them of coming judgment if they continued to oppose God’s servants.
The Jewish leaders still would not listen. By referring to them as stiff-necked, Stephen compared them to an animal that refuses to submit to a yoke or bridle. God used this expression to describe the Israelites (see Exodus 32:9). To call them uncircumcised spoke of their unwillingness to hear and obey the truth.
Stephen then asked, “Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him.” This made the Sanhedrin furious. They “gnashed their teeth at him.” W. R. Walker observed, “The effect of this sermon proves that the work of the Spirit—to convict of sin—is always accomplished when the gospel is preached. Jesus promised the Spirit for that purpose.” Pentecost provides another example of this truth. When Peter preached on that day, those who heard the message were cut to the heart (Acts 2:37). Stephen’s audience reacted quickly too, but not in repentance.
Acts 7:55, 56
His vision of Heaven was remarkable. God allowed him to see his glory, with Jesus himself standing at his right hand. To be at the right hand of God is the highest honor one could have (see Matthew 26:64; Ephesians 1:20, 21). Some suggest the fact that Jesus was standing indicates that he had arisen to “cheer Stephen on” to
Up until now, Stephen had only alluded to Jesus. Now he spoke plainly! He knew the fierce opposition he faced, but that did not stop him. “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this the anger of his accusers reached the boiling point. They covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him. No longer was there any semblance of a fair trial. This was mob rule. The Jewish leaders drug him outside the walls of Jerusalem and began to stone him to death. Those who testified were expected to cast the first stone (see Deuteronomy 17:6; John 8:1-11).
Luke wrote one of the most dramatic lines in Scripture when he simply added, Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. J. W. McGarvey declared, “The young man Saul never forgot it, but long afterward, when bending under the weight of years, he made sad mention of the scene” (Acts 22:19, 20; 1 Timothy 1:12-17). As they were stoning him, Stephen did not rail against his killers. Instead he simply prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he added, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. Both Jesus and Stephen prayed for those who killed them (Luke 23:34). Both put their complete trust in God as this life ended. As Augustine said, “The church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen.”
Whether by casting an official vote or merely by his presence and support, Saul approved of their killing him. No doubt the apostle Paul relived this painful day many times over the years.
The death of Stephen marked the beginning of a great persecution that broke out against the church in Jerusalem. Many believers fled the city at this time. Interestingly the only group specifically mentioned who were not scattered were the apostles. Even this strong opposition by the enemies of Jesus could not halt the progress of the gospel though. In fact, 165 years after Stephen’s death, the writer Tertullian declared, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
W. R. Walker summed it up well: “Stephen’s last words were like Jesus’ own. He was a worthy disciple; a faithful deacon; a courageous preacher; an ideal martyr; an inspiration to every reader of his death.”
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.