In chapter seven, Luke gives us a detailed account of Stephen's speech to the Sanhedrin. Stephen quickly gets his audience offside, but when he speaks of seeing the enthronement of the coming Son of Man, they grab him and stone him to death.
v54. Under Roman law, an affront to the Temple was one crime the Jews could settle themselves by summary execution, by stoning, although properly by due process at law. It was the very charge they used against Jesus, but failed because the witnesses gave contradictory evidence. Stephen has just questioned the spiritual value of this building of stone, and so, as far as the crowd is concerned, he is showing contempt for the Shekinah glory of God (God's very presence). Stephen adds insult to injury when he accuses the crowd of being a stiff-necked people; a people opposed to God's will.
v55-56. As far as Luke is concerned, Stephen does actually see a vision. It is the fulfillment of Jesus' words in Mark 14:62, where he says "you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of the Almighty, and coming with the clouds of heaven." The "one like unto the Son of Man" is prophesied by Daniel, Dan.7:13f. He comes to the Ancient of Days and receives an everlasting kingdom. He is also spoken of in the Psalms, Ps.110. Here, the Son of Man approaches the throne of God and is invited to sit at his right hand - a position of rule and authority. This then is Stephen's vision. Jesus has entered the throne-room of the living God and received eternal rule and authority. Therefore, the new age of eternity has begun and "all peoples, nations and languages should serve him." By implication, the exclusive Temple-worship of the Jews is now redundant. Note how Luke has Jesus standing at God's right hand, rather than sitting. Is Jesus standing to welcome Stephen the martyr, or is he standing as advocate before God on Stephen's behalf? In the end, we don't know, but the image is an interesting one.
v57. "The blasphemer is not culpable unless he pronounces the Name itself", Joseph Klousner. Stephen certainly did not declare the Name, and anyhow, the Sanhedrin did not have the authority to pronounce the death penalty for blasphemy. The best they could do with Jesus was pronounce him guilty and look to Pilate to pass judgement. Yet, the Sanhedrin could pronounce death on anyone who desecrated the Temple, and Stephen had certainly made a few negative comments in that direction, but in all likelihood, his crime did not warrant the death penalty.
v58. The stoning-place was a pit some four meters deep. The criminal is pushed from behind by one of the witnesses against him and falls into the pit face down. If he dies at this point, the execution is completed. If not, the second witness goes into the pit and drops a stone on his heart. If he still lives, the crowd sets too and stones him. In Stephen's stoning, Saul (later Paul) seems to function as a prosecutor monitoring correct procedure.
v59. Like Jesus ("Father, into your hands I commend my spirit"), Stephen hands his psyche into the gentle arms of Jesus.
v60. Again, in very similar words to Jesus on the cross, Stephen prays for mercy toward his executioners. Luke then describes his death in beautiful and peaceful terms.
Jesus mentions the death of the godly prophet Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, who was put to death in the temple court, "between the altar and the sanctuary", Lk.11:51. On his death he prayed, "May the Lord see this and call you to account", 2Chron.24:22.
Stephen dies the death of the true martyr. In his dying he displays two essential qualities that should be evident in the Christian life:
In his minds eye Stephen places Jesus at the right hand of the living God, ruling with power and authority. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is therefore well able to save. Yet of greater importance, Stephen sees Jesus standing, welcoming him, or possibly even pleading for him. He is therefore, able to say "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Stephen sees himself as a beneficiary of God's mercy.
The "obedience that consists of faith", which obedience saves us, entails a reliance on the mercy of God for salvation. We rest secure in Jesus who loves us.
Christ's cry to the Father from the cross for the forgiveness of his persecutors, seems well beyond the capacity of mere humanity, but Stephen utters the same prayer. He is a man bathed in the mercy of God, which mercy makes him merciful. Of course, his prayer doesn't save his persecutors, but it does serve to remind them that their crime will not be held against them if they repent.
Christ's law for disciples transcends the nature of law. Moral law exposes sin, making sin more sinful. Christ's law of love, of forgiveness and mercy, shapes within us the very character of God. His mercy compels us to be merciful.
1. Stephen's vision reveals Jesus' true nature. Explore the substance of the vision.
2. Examine the idea of mercy, received and offered, found in this passage. altar