The Martyrdom of St. Stephen
[Acts chapter 7, verses 51-60; chapter 8, verses 1-3]
For viewing on smaller screens, or on my website, click here 🙂
Last week when we left off at verse 50 of Acts chapter 7, Stephen was continuing to give his testimony regarding the phony charges against him. Stephen had just finished reminding his accusers that God didn’t need their big, fancy temple at Jerusalem, or any of the smaller ones elsewhere either (see last week’s post here in case you missed it). Today as we close out chapter 7 of the Book of Acts, Steven makes his concluding remarks which would soon cost him his life. But it’s the way Steven went about doing this that made him such a remarkable individual. So let’s take up where we stopped last week beginning at verse 51.
“‘You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the Law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.’ When they heard this, they were furious and they gnashed their teeth at him. But 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. ‘Look’, he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (Acts 7, verses 51-58)
Stephen’s calling out of the Sanhedrin, in response to his being called out first, had now escalated to calling his accusers “stiff-necked people”. This was not merely out-of-date, old-fashioned 1st-century name calling; that phrase actually comes from the same Bible the Sanhedrin claimed as their own. That phrase comes from Exodus 34: 9 in the Old Testament, where Moses called the entire nation of Israel “a stiff-necked people” who could not or would not obey the God who had previously led them out of 400 years of slavery in ancient Egypt. Yet these Pharisees, Sadducee’s and teachers of the law claimed to teach and follow Moses! So Steven is telling the Sanhedrin they had no right to accuse him when the temple leadership was guilty of far worse. And they most certainly were, as we all know by now!
“Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him….” “Him”, of course, meant Jesus Christ, who they had nailed to the cross, together with their Roman accomplices. Steven made them all guilty by association with the deaths of Christ and the prophets of old: from Samson to Jeremiah and Isaiah. “When they heard this, they were furious and they gnashed their teeth at him. But 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. ‘Look’, he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’” This bears some serious consideration on our part. How many of us have ever been so filled with the Risen Spirit of Christ that we could visually see Christ in heaven? I have never had any such experience myself, nor have I ever met anyone who has. This just goes to show all of us how much further we have to go to get our walk with Christ up to the level Stephen was operating on. Yes, that includes myself, as life has long since taught me.
Stephen’s accusation against his own accusers, which was followed by Stephen’s vision of Christ at God’s right hand, made them all completely livid. “‘Look’, he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him….” When Stephen uttered those words, that was the breaking point for the Sanhedrin. Stephen’s stunningly brilliant defense of himself, basically acting as his own attorney, had frustrated the Sanhedrin’s efforts to prove their case against him, a case that had been bogus right from the start. By now you can see many parallels between Stephen being tried before the Sanhedrin and Jesus being tried before Pilate. Both were falsely accused of blasphemy against the temple and against God, and both received the death penalty unjustly. Moreover Stephen, like Christ, went to his death voluntarily and without complaint, even though any such complaints about mistreatment would have been true. And then we see Saul enter into the picture for the first time in verses 59 and 60.
“While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except for the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen, and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 7, verses 59-60; Acts 8, verses 1-3)
Just like Jesus on the cross, who, shortly before taking his last breath, said, “Forgive them Father, they don’t know what they are doing” (see Luke 23: 34), so it was with Stephen when he said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Forgiveness, you see, is one of the basic tenets of genuine Christianity. Christ forgave us first when he died on the cross, and then he erased our sins by rising again on the morning of the third day. As his followers and aspiring disciples, we emulate Christ by forgiving one another (“forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”), with the understanding that our forgiveness towards each other is followed by God’s forgiveness for all our sins past, present and future. Moreover, we cannot expect God to forgive us unless we willingly forgive each other first. This can be extremely difficult in the worst cases. It’s hard to forgive the valet who just burned rubber with your car, for example. But it’s even harder to say, ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing”, while you watch 3 carjackers driving your car, which they just stole right out from under you, down the street at full throttle. Still more than that if they just shot you in the process! What’s the hardest type of forgiveness? Forgiving those who abused us as children, and I’m speaking from experience.
“And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except for the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Stephen’s illegal execution was the catalyst for the tremendous persecution of the early church that followed for many years afterward. People were fleeing every which way they could to get out of the way – and out of reach – of the ever-menacing Roman soldiers and their associates who collaborated with Rome. Saul of Tarsus is mentioned here for the first time, but we will get to his story in Acts chapter 10.
“….all except for the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen, and mourned deeply for him.” Plainly many believers and followers of the Word, while quite sincere, were not as far along in their faith as Steven was. Steven willingly died, but the rest were scattered out of a sense of self-preservation, which is perfectly understandable. I don’t think those who fled the persecution were cowards, nor do I think they sinned when they fled. I strongly suspect that many who fled the persecution of the early Church had families, and they fled for the children’s sake. But those who stayed behind “mourned deeply” for his loss. After the apostles, as the apostles came after Christ, Steven stands tall in the annals of Christendom as well as the chronicles of the early Church as a case study in maintaining one’s faith even to the point of death. It is entirely possible that many Christians will die for their faith here in the 21st century. It’s already happening in the Middle East, Russia, China and North Korea, among other places.
“But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” This is exactly why people were fleeing. It was like a police SWAT team, or like the Storm Troopers in Hitler’s Germany or the KGB in Soviet Russia (owing to the fact that they’re all very similar). Either open the door and let them in, or they will knock down the door and shoot you to death. It was like that, except that swords and spears were substituted for firearms back then. So now you know that the Roman Empire was small potatoes compared to the American Empire of today, and that the threat we face is far greater today than what the early Christians ever faced back then. Next week we will begin a verse-by-verse examination of Acts chapter 8. See you then!