Summary: Stephen's message and martyrdom. The church's witness.
A BEATIFIC VISION, AND A MARTYR’S DEATH
This chapter contains Stephen’s retelling of Israel’s history, highlighting their resistance against God, and their unfair treatment of His messengers. It began with the members of the council looking steadfastly at him, and seeing his face shining like an angel (cf. Acts 6:15). It culminates in Stephen accusing his accusers of murdering Jesus (Acts 7:51-53). Not a sermon, then, of the ‘politically correct’ variety!
Not surprisingly, the context and the content of this message, and its immediate sequel, only served to demonstrate that this same murderous spirit was still at large. At Pentecost, Peter’s hearers had been faced with a similar accusation (Acts 2:23; Acts 2:36), and were ‘pricked in their heart’ and asked, ‘What shall we do?’ (Acts 2:37). Stephen’s hearers, on the contrary, were ‘cut to the heart’ - but chose rather to ‘gnash their teeth’ at him (Acts 7:54).
It is at this point that Stephen had his ‘beatific vision’ (as it has been called). Stephen had already been marked out by the Apostles as a man ‘full of faith and of the Holy Ghost’ (Acts 6:5). Now we are told again, that Stephen was “being full of the Holy Ghost” when he “looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55).
That Jesus was STANDING is interesting. We are more accustomed to thinking of Jesus as ‘seated’, His work completed, at the right hand of God (cf. Psalm 110:1). There are two possibilities here: standing could be the posture of prayer (cf. Hebrews 7:25); or perhaps Jesus STOOD to receive the first Christian martyr into heaven.
Stephen told his hearers what he saw: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). Now the gnashing mob “cried out, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord” (Acts 7:57).
What followed was illegal - as the Council had been ready enough to remind Pilate when they handed Jesus over to the Romans (cf. John 18:31). Stephen was run out of town, and stoned to death (Acts 7:58). However approximately Jewish law had been followed (cf. Deuteronomy 17:7), the death of Stephen was a lynching by an unreasonable mob.
At this point another character is introduced into Luke’s narrative: a young man named Saul. This is the same Saul who would go on to persecute the church, but who would later be converted on the road to Damascus. Luke would later still become a travelling companion with this man, now known as Paul - the writer of approximately half of the New Testament.
There are similarities and dissimilarities in the words of Jesus and Stephen in their deaths. Whereas Jesus cried from the Cross, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23:46); Stephen called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Both prayed for their persecutors: Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34); whereas Stephen kneeled on the very brink of death, and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 2:60).
“When he had said this,” says Luke, “he fell asleep” (Acts 2:60). No more gnashing of teeth: just Stephen at rest, and at peace.
After this, a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and many of them were scattered throughout Judaea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). However, wherever the Christians went, they gossiped the gospel: thereby playing their part in the great commission (cf. Acts 1:8).
We may not be called to be martyrs like Stephen, but it behoves us at least to follow the example of these witnesses for Christ.