Acts (Part 11) - The Stoning of Stephen
The contrast is made clear as Stephen draws his defense to a close. It is not he, as the false witnesses have sworn, who has spoken against the Moses and God (the Law and the temple), but rather the Jewish rulers—Israel itself—that have broken the Law and denied God. Stephen told them that they “always resist the Holy Spirit” (7:51); but Luke lets us know that Stephen, in contrast, was “full of the Holy Spirit” (7:55).
At just the moment of the Sanhedrin’s response in rage, grinding their teeth, Stephen’s gaze at them is interrupted as heaven’s dimension is revealed to him. Before him he sees Christ standing at the right hand of God. Overcome, he cries out this news (7:56), but the visionless rulers block their ears, shouting blasphemy, and rush at Stephen to drag him out of the city and to his death.
Notice that Stephen sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God. The more common picture is of him sitting at God’s right hand. Ephesians 1:20 tells us that God “raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand.” Sitting on the throne is an image that implies rule and authority and judgment. At that very moment Stephen is standing before the council who are seated before him ready to pronounce judgment. In the Gospels we see the same seated council of 24 rulers as they judge Christ guilty. This is contrasted with the heavenly Sanhedrin in Revelation 4-5—the 24 elders seated on thrones who, as Christ, standing before them, takes the scroll, proclaim their judgment that he is worthy! Standing, then, implies making a defense: making a case, declaring, establishing, and claiming a position.
Of course we understand that in our vernacular. When we take a stand for something, we are doing declaring a position. The Bible echoes that understanding throughout.
Ephesians 6:11-13 “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand. . . . and having done all to stand firm.”
Revelation 6:17 “for the great day of [God’s and the Lamb’s] wrath has come, and who can stand?”
Revelation 10:5 “And the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven and swore…”
Revelation 15:2 “And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass. . . . And they sing the song of Moses . . . and . . . the Lamb.”
Revelation 20:12-15 “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. . . . And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
Note the emphasis placed on standing as in Revelation 10:5, precisely to show firmness of conviction. Note also the imagery in Revelation 20 as those who attempt to stand without righteousness are thrown from their standing position.
Returning to Stephen’s vision, we find Christ, standing before God. Again, it is contrast that defines the picture. Stephen is standing before an earthly Sanhedrin whose members are enraged, judging him guilty. But at that very moment, we see into heaven with Jesus standing as it were by Stephen’s side, in his defense, interceding before God who will judge him by Christ’s righteousness to be innocent.
1. Contrast Stephen’s face “like the face of an angel” (6:15) with the rulers who “were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him” (7:54).
2. Stephen countered the accusations of blasphemer of Moses and God with his own conclusion that the rulers were the law-breakers and God-deniers.
3. The guilty judgment of the angry earthly council is contrasted with the innocent and welcoming judgment of the heavenly vision.
These contrasts that we’ve seen focus our attention in this pivotal event to the transition from old covenant to New Covenant—the very purpose for the Apostolic period.
Throughout this trial we see a remarkable serenity in Stephen’s demeanor. Even at the point of the rabid rage bursting from the council, Stephen appears unmoved. Of course, it is at that point that heaven’s scene is revealed to him. And surely the glory of heaven filling his vision captured his heart’s concern. This too should be our vision as we continue through the challenges of this world. We are to act in accord with God’s will and way rather than react to the world’s malignancy.
As he is stoned, Stephen calls out to his Lord to receive his spirit. He also prays for those stoning him, asking Christ not to hold this sin against them (7:60). Augustine said, “If Stephen had not prayed, the church would not have had Paul.” While Augustine was a gifted Church Father, this statement just can’t be right. God is not dependent on our prayers in order to act. He acts according to his sovereign will. But this does make us pause to think about prayer.
Prayer is a relationship element to demonstrate our understanding of and/or interest in God’s will and way. In other words, as we grow closer to God, we understand him better and we understand his purpose better. Our prayers to him, then, conform more to his will. Often we don’t know the exact path God will take, and we pray as Jesus did in the garden for some particular, but always framing it within “not my will but your will be done.” Jesus taught us in Matthew 6 how to pray. The six major requests in the prayer all relate to God’s purpose, provision, and protection. They are praying his will back to him.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Certainly God does not depend on us praying this for his will to be done. But our praying draws us into that relational understanding and interest in God’s will and way.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Again, these are things already promised to us. But the praying of them demonstrates our dependence on God. It bolsters our understanding of our relationship with God in kingdom living.
Lead us not into temptation.
Deliver us from evil.
God’s will is not to deliver us into evil unless we pray this every day. Rather, our praying helps our awareness of God’s protection and guidance.
But now we turn back to Stephen’s prayer. He said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (7:60). Is this prayer one that conforms to praying God’s will? After all, God is a holy God that cannot ignore sin. The whole reason that Christ came and died was because God couldn’t simply overlook sin. Why then would Stephen seemingly ask God to do this very thing—to overlook sin?
We immediately remember very similar words by Christ on the cross. In Luke 23:34, Jesus prayed, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus gives a reason that goes along with Paul’s arguments in Romans 1 and Romans 5. Without law, without knowledge of the law, the guilt of sin is not imputed. But how did Stephen know that his attackers were ignorant?
Remember the scene. The snarling council had been offended. Stephen had called them law breakers and God deniers. Then Stephen is given the vision of heaven with Christ standing before God. Stephen shouts out what he sees, further enraging the council who now accuse him of blasphemy and surge forward to take him and kill him. Obvious to Stephen is the fact that these rulers did not see the heavenly revelation. Surely if they had, they would have been taken aback. Surely it would have arrested their attention, and their fury at Stephen would have been checked. So Stephen prays that God would not press guilt for this sin—not all their sins—against them because they didn’t see the vision as he did.
But then…why did God not show the council this revelation as well? Perhaps then Stephen would not have been stoned. The reason is that God’s interest is not just proving who he is or even simply helping people escape hell. God created for eternal pure and true love relationship. When Adam and Eve sinned destroying that path, God began his plan to redeem and reconcile—but it was so that he could continue his overall purpose of the eternal pure and true love relationship. Relationship is developed through knowledge and faith. God moves (he reveals truth). We respond in faith. Through that relationship grows. In his infinite knowledge of his creation and all potentiality, God knows what revelation, to whom, and how much, in the interplay of all activities, events, and impacting factors so as to work things out for the absolute best according to his sovereign will. A question then of “why didn’t God do it this other way?” is rendered a silly and ignorant complaint.
In this situation, however, we know a little more. These rulers of Israel did not receive revelation from God, because God’s purpose at this time was to harden Israel. Romans 11:25 tells us, “Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” To understand this well, we have to review the context.
In the first few verses of Romans 11, Paul tells the Gentiles that Israel broke the covenant: they failed in achieving relationship through the covenant. Verse 7 is particularly interesting. Here Paul says, “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened.” What is interesting is that “Israel” is said to have failed, but the “elect” did not. In other words, Paul terms as “Israel” those who had not responded in faith. Continuing through the chapter, verse 11 reveals that again it is “Israel” (more precisely, the unfaithful) who stumbles thereby necessitating New Covenant which would included Gentiles. In verses 17 through 24 we read of the root and branches analogy. The root is true covenant relationship. Israel had branches broken off for failing through lack of faith. Just so, even though the door is now open to Gentiles, their branches will not be a part of the true root unless faith is existent.
Now from this background we reach verse 25. The partial hardening to the Jews (rejecting Jesus) was to open the door to the Gentiles. Notice the verse states that the partial hardening of the Jews is until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in. It is not until the fullness of the Gentiles is completed. The purpose of the Apostolic Age was to transition from old covenant to New Covenant. The fullness of the Gentiles came in during the Apostolic Age.
Thus (Romans 11:26) all Israel would be saved. This is not every individual. Even if every Jew alive during some future time period would be saved it would not satisfy this verse. Those dead and in hell of generations past are still physically and nationally from Israel. All Israel in Romans 11:26 is all the elect of Israel. Notice the progression. Israel is hardened rejecting Jesus. Their hardening brings the gospel to (New Covenant) to Gentiles (11:11a). The gospel to the Gentiles makes Israel jealous (11:11b). The partial hardening of God ends after the gospel is brought to the Gentiles (11:25). Thus, the gospel is opened to all Jews as well. And therefore the elect remnant from before and the New Covenant-changed Jews of this age—in other words, ALL Israel—will be saved (11:26).
So Stephen prays that the sin of those killing him—based on their understanding that he blasphemed by placing Jesus on a level with God—be not imputed to them because they did not have the revelation that he had—that Jesus is the Son of God.