A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 7:54-60. Stephen is stoned.
Stephen was ready to be the first true *martyrs*, who sealed his testimony with his blood. His death was full of Christ. Luke records three further sentences which he spoke, the first of which referred to Christ, while the remaining two were addressed to
First, when the Sanhedrin, infuriated by his accusations, ground their teeth at him (54), snarling like wild animals, Stephen, filled with the Spirit, had a vision of the glory of God (55), and cried out: ‘*look…I see the heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God*’ (56). Several guesses have been made why Jesus was *standing* (repeated in verses 55 and 56), instead of sitting (Ps.110:1; cf.Lk.22:69; Acts 2:34-35), at God’s right hand. It may have been that the son of man, who in Daniel’s vision (Dn.7:13-14) was led into the presence of God, stood before him to receive authority and power. But it seems likely that Christ’s standing related more directly to Stephen, and that he stood up either as his heavenly advocate or to welcome his first martyr. As F.F.Bruce has put it, ‘Stephen has been confessing Christ before men, and now he sees Christ confessing his servant before God.’
Unwilling to listen to Stephen’s testimony to the exaltation of Jesus, the Council both *covered their ears* and sought to drown his voice by their yelling. Worse, they were determined to silence him. So they *rushed at him (57), dragged him out of the city and began to stone him* (58a). Since the Romans had taken away the Jew’s right of capital punishment (Jn.18:31), it seems that Stephen’s stoning was more a mob lynching than an official execution. Yet it had a small semblance of justice, since according to the law (Dt.17:7), the first to begin stoning the condemned person must be ‘the witnesses’, which means his accusers, whether in Stephen’s case these were the false witnesses of 6:13 or Sanhedrin members. At all events, they *laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul* (58b), an experience he never forgot (22:20). Thus discreetly does Luke introduce into his narrative the man who is soon to dominate it.
It was during his actual stoning that Stephen uttered his second sentence: ‘*Lord Jesus, receive my spirit*’ (59). His prayer was similar to that which Luke recorded Jesus as praying just before he died. ‘Father into your hands I commit my spirit’ (Lk.23:46). Yet this was not to be Stephen’s last word. He spoke a third sentence when *he fell on his knees*. He *cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’* (60a). It was reminiscent of the first word from the cross which Luke has recorded, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ (Lk.23:34). Whether it was Stephen who deliberately imitated his Master, or whether, it was Luke who observed and highlighted the fact, there are several parallels between the death of Jesus and the death of Stephen. In both cases false witnesses were produced and the charge was one of blasphemy. In both cases too the execution was accompanied by two prayers, as each prayed for forgiveness of his executioners and for the reception of his spirit as he died. Thus did the disciple – whether consciously or unconsciously – reflect his Master. The only difference was that Jesus addressed his prayers to the Father, while Stephen addressed them to Jesus, calling him ‘Lord’ and putting him on a level with God.
Luke concludes his story with a dramatic contrast between Stephen and Saul. Stephen *fell asleep* (60b), which Bengel called ‘a mournful but sweet word’ and F.F.Bruce ‘an unexpectedly beautiful and peaceful description of so brutal a death’. By contrast, *Saul was there, giving approval to his death* (8:1a). We shall return later to Stephen’s influence on Saul. At this stage it is enough to note how brightly Stephen’s tranquil faith shines against the dark background of Saul’s murderous anger (8:1,3).
What interests many people most about Stephen is that he was the first Christian martyr. Luke’s main concern lies elsewhere, however. He emphasises the vital role Stephen played in the development of the world-wide Christian mission through both his teaching and his death.
Stephen’s teaching, misunderstood as ‘blasphemy’ against the temple and the law, was that Jesus (as he himself had claimed) was the fulfilment of both. Already in the Old Testament God was tied to his people, wherever they were, not to buildings. So now Jesus is ready to accompany his people wherever they go. When soon Paul and Barnabas set out into the unknown on their first missionary journey, they will find (as Abraham, Joseph and Moses had found before them) that God is with them. That is exactly what they reported on their return (14:27; 15:12). Indeed, this assurance is indispensable to mission. Change is painful to us all, especially when it affects our cherished buildings and customs, and we should not seek change merely for the sake of change. Yet true Christian radicalism is open to change. It knows that God has bound himself to his church (promising that he will never leave it) and to his word (promising that it will never pass away). But God’s church means people not buildings, and God’s word means Scripture not traditions. So long as these essentials are preserved, the buildings and the traditions can if necessary go. We must not allow them to imprison the living God or to impede his mission in the world.
Stephen’s martyrdom supplemented the influence of his teaching. Not only did it deeply impress Saul of Tarsus, and contribute to his conversion which led to his becoming the apostle to the Gentiles, but it also occasioned ‘a great persecution’ which led to the scattering of the disciples ‘throughout Judea and Samaria’ (8:1b).
The church was shocked, even stunned, by the martyrdom of Stephen and by the violent opposition which followed. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see how God’s providence used Stephen’s testimony, in word and deed, through life and death, to promote the church’s mission.
Tomorrow: Acts 8:1-40. Philip the evangelist.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.