February 3, 2014

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe                                          

 

 

Lesson II.E.3: Stephen’s Death (7.54-60)

 

 Acts 7.54-60 (KJV)

 

54 When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.

55 But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,

56 And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,

58 And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul.

59 And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.

60 And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

 

Commentary

54 When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.

They cut Stephen’s speech short; they had heard more than enough when Stephen accused them of murdering Jesus. They were filled with uncontrollable rage and gnashed their teeth at him. 

55 But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,

At the very moment they were venting their rage against him, God granted him a vision of the open heavens with Jesus standing at God’s right hand.

The question arises, “How could Stephen, in the council-chamber, see heaven at all?” I suppose this question never occurred to anyone other than the critics of Scripture and the religion of Christ. They suggest that he saw it through a window that looked out on a scene in one of the courts in the temple.

The standing position may imply that the Lord Jesus was standing to welcome Stephen.

56 And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

Stephens’s words were, in effect, an assertion that the claim Jesus made before this same council, that He was the heavenly Son of man, was not blasphemous, as the Sanhedrin had claimed, but was the very truth of God. Many of the members of the Sanhedrin must have been reminded of those words of Jesus, which drew from them the verdict of blasphemy.

And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. (Mark 14:62)

Stephen claimed without a doubt that Jesus had now become the Son of man at the right hand of God. Jesus is usually pictured as seated at God’s right hand, as He is in Hebrews 1:13:

To which of the angels did God ever say, "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? (Heb. 1:13)

It is possible He is represented as rising from His throne to greet this martyr. The name the Son of man does not designate Jesus’ humanity; it is a Messianic title based upon Daniel 7:13-14, and designates the Messiah as a heavenly supernatural being:

I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14)

This is the only place outside the Gospels where the title is applied to Jesus.

57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,

The response of the Sanhedrin was immediate and violent. They quickly saw the theological implications of Stephens’s doctrine—Israel was guilty; the Law was temporary; the temple must be done away with—so they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.

58 And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul.

It is not entirely clear whether Stephens’s martyrdom was the result of a formal execution or of a lynching. A legal execution would require the approval of the Roman governor, and since this wasn’t acquired Stephens death looks like an execution. However, the mention of formal witnesses as required by law (Lev. 24:14; Deut. 17:7) suggests a legal execution. It is possible that the Sanhedrin executed Stephen without securing the official approval of Pilate. Stephen was led out of the city to the place of execution and stoned. Stoning was the punishment prescribed in the law for blasphemy:

And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the LORD, shall be put to death. (Leviticus 24:16)

However, this was not a formal execution, but an act of violence. Though stoning was the customary method of execution employed by the Jews, they had three other kinds of execution for the death penalty, two of which you may think were more horrible than stoning or crucifixion, the Roman mode of execution. These were burning, strangling and beheading.

Saul is introduced into the narrative without explanation. He was already a leader of the Pharisaic wing of Judaism, and he is revealed in Acts 9:1-2 to be a zealous persecutor of Christians. He entered the houses of Christians, arrested them, and placed them in jail. Perhaps Saul was the only Pharisee who was a actively engaged in suppressing the Christian movement.

And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2; also see 8:1; 22:5; 26:10; Gal. 1:14)

Had there not been a persecution to drive the Christians from Jerusalem and eventually to the gentile world, the likelihood remains that the Christian movement would have been little more than a Jewish sect. Whether Saul was opposed to all Christians or just to those who shared the opinion of Stephen, we are not able to ascertain. Since the apostles remained in Jerusalem, we may suppose they had nothing to fear because they had not made liberal statements like those of Stephen. Or we could assume they stayed with rare courage and faith.

Stephen may have been a member of the Sanhedrin, as he cast his vote for death, despite his relative youth of around thirty years of age. Those who stoned Stephen took off their outer garments so that they could throw stones with more velocity, and laid them at the feet of Saul. This indicates that Saul was giving his approval by guarding their clothes.

59 And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.

Pilate was probably in Caesarea and faced with so many problems that Caiaphas and his associates in the Sanhedrin felt it was safe to take matters into their own hands, and put Stephen to death without having Roman approval. Death by stoning was a dreadful proceeding but less shameful than crucifixion.

When he said, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit, he was presenting to Jesus the identical prayer which he Himself had on the cross offered to his Father. Stephen renders to his glorified Lord absolute divine worship, in the most sublime form, and at the most solemn moment of his life.

60 And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

In words reminiscent of the Lord’s, Stephen commotted his spirit to the Lord and prayed for his enemies (Luke 23:34, 46). Luke recorded the fact of his death by simply writing he fell asleep. For a Christian, his body (not his soul) sleeps in death:

These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus seemeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. (John 11:11)

But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. . .For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. (1 Thess. 4:13, 15)

 

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