Acts 7:51–60 . . .
“Stephen’s Summary and Subsequent Stoning”
Last week, we began the first of three episodes highlighting the end of Stephen's life: his sermon (vv. 7:1–53). It included his defense of the first of two charges: That in his public witness for Jesus, he portrayed Jesus as one who'd emerge one day to destroy the Temple. Today we'll focus on the second charge the Sanhedrin priests levied against Stephen: That he portrayed his leader, Jesus, as a great force in history who'd change the customs handed down by Moses. We'll also hear Luke's account of the compelling closing arguments in his summary, presented directly to his accusers. His so-called "trial" will end most abruptly, leading immediately to the second episode: his being forcefully dragged outside the city where'd he'd have to endure his stoning (vv. 7:54–60). Next week, we'll look at Luke's third episode about Martyr Stephen that will reveal the church's scattering (vv. 8:1b–4) having begun the same day he was executed.
Stephen’s Defense of the Sanhedrin’s Second Charge (7:51–53)
The second charge that the Sanhedrin brought against Stephen was that he'd portrayed his leader, Jesus, as a great force in history who'd change the customs handed down by Moses. Stephen’s reply was, in essence, What hypocrisy! Just like your ancestors, you always resist the Holy Spirit. Then he confronted them with the grave accusation that people of the nation of Israel had always blocked out the sound of God’s voice. Their hearts and ears were uncircumcised; that is, their hearts were as hard and their ears had been closed to the same extent as heathens. It was the Israelites themselves, not Defendant Stephen, who'd treated the laws and customs of Moses with contempt.
Moreover, the people of Israel had persecuted all the prophets that God had sent to deliver them from their sinful ways and announce the future coming of a Just One. But, alas, Israel shamefully mistreated the Just One. When he appeared to them most recently, they refused to accept him as their deliverer from sin, just as they'd rejected Joseph, and Moses, and every other prophetic deliverer sent by God. Instead of receiving the Just One’s words as having the power to heal and restore their hearts, they betrayed him and put him to death. Stephen was, of course, speaking of Jesus. In his captivating summation, Stephen specifically replied to the chief priests' accusation that he'd spoken "blasphemous words . . . against this holy place and against the law" (6:13). No, it was the nation of Israel who "received the law by the disposition of angels, but have not kept it."
Stephen certainly wasn't pleading for his life in his closing arguments. He was pressing charges against his accusers, for it was they who'd blasphemed God, and it was they (and their ancestors) who'd rebelled against Moses and the prophets. The Israelites were a stubborn people, just as God had often said of them previously (Deuteronomy 9:6-13; Exodus 32:9; 33:3).
How painful it must have been for those who'd focused much on their circumcision to have heard Stephen accuse them of being "uncircumcised in their hearts and ears" (v. 51). When they heard Stephen’s words, they covered their ears (v. 57). The Spirit of God had been in Israel’s midst in the past, but that same Spirit was even more dramatically present in Jesus, and obviously in his apostles. For the Israelites to have resisted Jesus and his apostles was to resist the Holy Spirit, thus identifying themselves with their rebellious ancestors who'd persecuted the very prophets of old who'd foretold the coming of Jesus, the Righteous One (v. 52).
Once Jesus, the Righteous One, had come, Stephen’s adversaries betrayed and murdered Jesus. Those who talked so proudly about their keeping the Law, which was given to them by angels, had been shown by Stephen to have been disobedient to it. In reality, they murdered the only One who'd ever truly and conclusively met the demands of the Law. It wasn't Stephen who was guilty; it was his self-righteous accusers! The only thing you can say for the Israelites and their religious leaders was that they'd been consistent — consistent in their disobedience to God.
The (So-Called) Trial of Stephen Ends Precipitously (vv. 54–58)
Stephen's message wasn't subtle; it was clear, condemning, and, worse yet, irrefutable (6:10). It was impossible to engage him in debate. His powerful words had the same effect on the Sanhedrin as they had on those inside the synagogues where he spoke. His messages brought conviction of sin, but no repentance. Hearing the truth from Stephen caused all who were present in the court to have desperate feelings similar to those of a sharp knife cutting everyone's conscience so deeply that the Sanhedrin "were furious and gnashed their teeth at him." Hearing his biting accusations brought them sheer torment. Yet he drove that sharp knife of reality even deeper, for as he looked up to heaven, he declared to all that he could see "Jesus standing at the right hand of God."
Seconds later, the agony of conviction that Stephen had brought to their souls exploded in their anger. With one voice they cried out in protest; together they rushed upon him to drag him away. In the Priests' own hearts they justified themselves by viewing the man as the worst of blasphemers. They proceeded to execute him in the manner dictated by Mosaic Law for a teacher of false religion (Deut. 13:6–11; 17:2–7). They hurried him to a place outside the city and threw stones at him with deadly force. The law regarding stonings required that the first stones were to be hurled by "witnesses to the crime." Thereafter, everyone else would throw additional stones onto "the criminal." In Stephen’s case, the "witnesses of his crime" were those men who'd heard false accusations of Sanhedrin members, most of whom, no doubt, were ruling elders.
Hypocrisy Vs. Grace (vv. 59–60)
The Sanhedrin’s compulsion to follow Jewish Law as they proceeded to stone Stephen was hypocritical. The Romans had clearly forbidden the Jews to impose capital punishment on anyone without first receiving Roman permission. But the Jewish leaders were too enraged to consider legal technicalities. Thus, in their fervor to kill a man who they condemned as a breaker of their laws, they didn't hesitate to take the law into their own hands, thereby breaking Roman law.
Stephen had to have known what laid ahead for him as he was concluding his closing argument. Luke tells us what it was that enabled Stephen to continue to stand fast, trying his case and dying in a way that underscored the truth of his faith and his sermon. Being full of the Spirit, he looked into heaven, which had opened for him and presented to him exactly what had been set in place. He beheld the glory of God, with Jesus, standing at God's right hand, full of grace.
In the eyes of all of his executioners, his martyrdom gave crowning proof to every one of his enemies that Stephen was truly a man of God because he'd surrendered his life to his Lord while showing neither fear nor hatred. Instead, he calmly knelt and asked God to receive his spirit. His last words, projected with a loud voice so that all his executioners could hear him, became a graceful petition to God: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."
Stephen’s Legacy of Having Gotten Practical and Spiritual
Stephen was the first person after Christ to die for his faith. Luke's account in Acts devotes a lengthy passage to his powerful sermon and subsequent martyrdom because his conduct was an example for countless others who'd someday follow in his footsteps. We who've enjoyed religious freedom can sometimes forget that numerous Christians suffer great persecution today. There probably hasn't been a year in church history that's lacked a martyr for Christ. But a hearty believer who faces the ultimate test of his faith needn't fear that God will forsake him. Far from it! God will pour out upon him extra grace. Indeed, he'll fill him with the Holy Spirit in the same way that he filled Stephen. Because he'd been buoyed up and carried along by the Holy Spirit, he showed exactly how a believer going through such an ordeal should act.
Jesus taught his disciples that when they went before magistrates, they shouldn't first prepare a defense. Rather, they should allow the Holy Spirit to speak through them (Matt. 10:19–20). Likewise, Stephen, heeding the Lord's instruction, presented his case without relying on his own cleverness but made himself a mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit. Under the Spirit's influence, he said little more than what Scripture itself had to say. His defense was the Word of God.
That was the last straw for the Sanhedrin. They could stand it no more. Covering their ears they rushed at him, and with one heart and mind, their intent was to silence him as quickly as possible. After driving him out of the city, they stoned him. Here, Luke chooses to introduce us to Paul (more precisely, Saul). Before the Israelite assassins undertook their murderous task, they laid their outer garments at the feet of young-man Saul. No doubt he was among those who debated with Stephen (6:9ff.). He might even have led the opposition directly to Stephen, and was probably among those who heard Stephen’s sermon preached to the Sanhedrin. Saul was certainly present at Stephen’s execution, having been responsible for attending to the outer garments of those who laid them aside so they could more effectively stone Stephen (v. 58). Presumably, this stoning scene and Stephen’s sermon permanently became embedded in Saul’s mind, never to have been forgotten.
Soulful concern, not spite Stephen's objective was to bring his accusers and judges under conviction of sin. Not mincing his words, he boldly charged his priestly accusers with great wickedness. But don't miss the fact that his motive was not spite. Instead, it was concern for their souls. Finally realize that he'd documented to his enemies that his pointed accusations against them were spoken out of love, for in the moment of his death, he granted them their forgiveness. Likely his face was glowing when he spoke the words that the Spirit of Jesus had given him: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (v. 60). He died as Christ had died, with genuine words of blessing for his enemies upon his lips. Christ had said as he hung on a cross, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
Comparing both of their final words, it's not difficult to conclude that Stephen’s death was much like that of our Lord: Both people had been executed for things they hadn't done; both had been convicted on the basis of false charges; both committed their spirit to God; and both asked God’s forgiveness of those who'd executed them. Aside from the fact that Jesus alone died as a sinless substitute, bearing the guilt and punishment for our sins, there's one significant difference between the two: Stephen died while looking into heaven, beholding heaven’s approval. But when Jesus died, he was at that moment forsaken by God, having borne all of our sin and guilt.
- Q. 1 Regarding "uncircumcised hearts and ears" (v. 51), what's Stephen saying about the Sanhedrin's regard for Moses and the Law?
- Q. 2 Was Stephen too confrontational in his indictment of his audience? How can we know how confrontational to be when we present the gospel to someone?
- Q. 3 How is Stephen's death an example of God using evil to fulfill His plan?
- Q. 4 Peter's speech led to mass conversion in Acts 2, while Stephen's led to his death. What does that teach us about "success" in one's service to God?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 7.]
† Watch this video clip of Acts 7:23–8:22, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52Was 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 — 53you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”
The Stoning of Stephen
54When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.