When a dispute arose within the church regarding the daily distribution of food, the twelve realized that they needed help administering the day to day operation of the church. They directed the church to select “seven men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom” for this task (6:3). One of the men chosen was Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5).
The church in Jerusalem continued to grow, and even Jewish priests were becoming Christians (6:7).
“Stephen, full of faith and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). Members of the synagogue of the Freedmen, finding that they could not hold their own in dialogue against Stephen, brought charges against Stephen that he was speaking “blasphemous words against Moses and God” (6:11). Stephen was arrested and brought before the council (the Sanhedrin), where witnesses brought false charges against him (6:13-14).
Asked whether the charges were true, Stephen responded by preaching a sermon that recounted a good deal of Jewish history (7:1-50). He closed his sermon by accusing the assembled group, including the council, of being stiff-necked, opposing the Spirit, killing the Righteous One (Jesus), and failing to keep the law (7:51-53). This enraged the crowd (7:54) and provoked Stephen’s stoning.
ACTS 7:55-56. STEPHEN LOOKED UP INTO HEAVEN
55But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, 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 at the right hand of God!”
“But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up steadfastly into heaven” (v. 55a). Stephen charged his audience of “always resisting the Holy Spirit” (v. 51) but has himself been filled with the Holy Spirit. His being filled with the Spirit is not something that happened during this appearance before the council. Earlier, he was selected to be a deacon because he was full of the Spirit (6:5, 10). Having been filled with the Holy Spirit and having been faithful even unto death, Stephen is granted the privilege of seeing into heaven—seeing God’s glory—seeing Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
“and saw the glory of God” (v. 55b). The word “glory” is used in the Bible to speak of various wonderful things—but it is used especially to speak of God’s glory—an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans. Biblical writers, attempting to describe God’s glory using human words, portrayed it as “devouring fire” (Exodus 24:17). When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God replied, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20)—but God continued, “Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand on the rock. It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back; but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:21-23). The point is that God’s glory is so overwhelming that humans aren’t engineered to be capable of experiencing it. An analogy might be coming into contact with a live high-voltage electrical line. It would be too much for us. We can’t deal with it.
But Stephen, being filled with the Spirit and on the verge of martyrdom, is given the privilege of gazing into heaven and seeing God’s glory.
“and Jesus standing on the right hand of God” (v. 55c). Christ shares God’s glory. The glory of the Lord was revealed at his birth (Luke 2:9; John 1:14). His disciples, Peter, James and John, were privileged to see Christ’s glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (9:28-36). Christ’s cross was necessary so that he might “enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26; see also Philippians 2:5-11). The Gospel of John in particular speaks of the cross as Christ’s glorification (John 12:23; 13:31-32). Jesus spoke of returning “with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).
“and said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’” (v. 56). Scholars ponder why Jesus was standing rather than seated. Earlier, Jesus said,“From now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69).
• Perhaps Jesus, knowing that Stephen was about to be martyred, stood to welcome him into heaven.
• It is also possible that Jesus stood to act as a witness for Stephen. Witnesses in Jewish courts stood to give their testimony. Jesus earlier said, “I tell you, everyone who confesses me before men, him will the Son of Man also confess before the angels of God” (Luke 12:8).
ACTS 7:57-58. THEY PLACED THEIR GARMENTS AT THE FEET OF SAUL
57But they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and rushed at him with one accord. 58They threw him out of the city, and stoned him. The witnesses placed their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.
“But they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears” (v. 57a). The council members covered their ears so that they wouldn’t hear Stephen’s blasphemy—or what they perceived to be blasphemy. But Stephen has called them “uncircumcised in heart and ears” (7:51), meaning, presumably, that they had already stopped their ears from hearing Godly messages that they didn’t want to hear.
In this story, Luke portrays the council negatively, but we must consider what the council members were believing and feeling as Stephen spoke of seeing Jesus in heaven at the right hand of God. The council members were charged with the responsibility for punishing blasphemy, and when they heard Stephen’s words they thought that he was guilty of blasphemy. This is not to say that they acted rightly in punishing Stephen. However, if we paint the council one-dimensionally as purely evil people, we rob this story of its dynamic tension. Yes, the council members were guilty of many things, which Stephen made clear in his speech before the council (7:51-53). However, it is also true that the council had a responsibility to insure that people obeyed Jewish law and acted reverently with regard to God. When they cover their ears and move against Stephen, it is because they believe him to be a blasphemer. As members of the council, they believe that it is their responsibility to punish him.
“and rushed at him with one accord” (v. 57b). Proper procedure in this situation would be a formal trial before the council. The council would hear testimony, render a verdict, and impose judgment. The fact that none of this takes place indicates that the council has degenerated into a mob as it rushes against Stephen.
“They threw him out of the city” (v. 58a). Jewish law specifies that blasphemers are to be taken “out of the camp” before being stoned (Leviticus 24:14). “Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered outside of the gate” (Hebrews 13:12).
“and stoned him” (v. 58b). By what authority does the council stone Stephen? Roman law reserves to Rome the right to impose capital punishment. When Jesus was crucified, the council was careful to bring Jesus before the Roman governor, Pilate, and to accuse Jesus of things that a Roman governor would have to take seriously, such as forbidding people to pay taxes and making himself a king (Luke 23:1-2). When Pilate said, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” (Luke 23:4), the Jewish authorities said, “He stirs up the people” (Luke 23:5)—another charge that the governor had to take seriously. But none of that happens when Stephen is stoned. Why not?
Some scholars speculate that there was a power vacuum in Israel when the emperor recalled Pilate to Rome in 37 A.D. to answer charges of unnecessary violence. According to this theory, there was an interregnum (a period between rulers) when Roman rule would have been lax and it would have been possible for Jewish authorities to ignore Roman law. However, it is difficult to imagine Rome allowing a period during which Israel could ignore Roman law. Rome maintained its world-wide power by being meticulous in matters of authority.
Other scholars say that Rome granted Jews the privilege of imposing capital punishment for offenses against the temple—so, perhaps, the council used this exception to impose capital punishment on Stephen.
But we have no record of the council making any formal judgment against Stephen or imposing punishment. Verses 57-58 show the action moving very quickly in response to Stephen’s comment about seeing the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (v. 56). What we have here is not legal sanction, but mob action. The rule of law broke down and council members (and others, surely) took the law into their own hands.
The procedure for stoning is outlined in the Mishnah, which was codified a century or two after this event. It calls for giving the accused an opportunity to confess—not to spare his life, but to give him the opportunity to gain the spiritual rewards of confession. It then calls for the accused to be stripped naked and dropped face down over a precipice 10-12 feet (3-3.7 meters) high. If that failed to kill the accused, someone would turn him on his back and one of the witnesses would drop a large stone on his heart. If that failed to kill him, the rest of the congregation would join in throwing stones (Bruce, 159-160; Chance, 122; Polhill, 209). The intent was a quick and relatively humane execution, in contrast to the Roman practice of crucifixion, which was intended to be slow and cruel.
However, in the event of a mob action, such as appears to be the case here, it is unlikely that mob members would observe proper procedures. It is likely that members of the mob would arm themselves with stones and attack Stephen.
“The witnesses placed their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul” (v. 58c). Jewish law requires that witnesses against the accused in a capital case shall be “first on him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people ” (Deuteronomy 17:7; see also Deuteronomy 13:9-10). These witnesses lay their coats at Saul’s feet so that they will not be encumbered as the stone Stephen.
Some scholars think that the fact that there were witnesses suggests a formal trial and verdict. However, the context suggests otherwise.
Paul (formerly named Saul) will acknowledge his presence at Stephen’s stoning (22:20). He may have provided Luke (Paul’s traveling companion and the author of this book) with an eyewitness account of Stephen’s stoning (Faw).
ACTS 7:59-60. LORD, DON’T HOLD THIS SIN AGAINST THEM
59They stoned Stephen as he called out, saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60He kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
“They stoned Stephen as he called out, saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit'” (v. 59). This echoes Jesus’ words from the cross,“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
“He kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice” (v. 60a). This echoes Jesus “crying with a loud voice” as he died on the cross (Luke 23:46)
“Lord, don’t hold this sin against them” (v. 60b). This echoes Jesus’ words from the cross,“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
“When he had said this, he fell asleep” (v. 60c). This echoes the account of Jesus’ death, where Luke tells us, “Having said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46).
We can be sure that Luke intended us to notice the similarities between Jesus’ death and Stephen’s death. Both were holy men. Both were unjustly executed.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Acts, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bock, Darrell L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised)(Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Faw, Chalmer E., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Acts, (Scottdale, Pennsyvania: Herald Press, 1993)
Fernando, Ajith, The NIV Application Commentary: Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998)
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
Gunton, Colin E., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Polhill, John B., New American Commentary: Acts, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Walaskay, Paul W., Westminster Bible Companion: Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Wall, Robert W., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Williams, David J., New International Biblical Commentary: Acts (Paternoster Press, 1995)
Willimon, William H., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan