Today: [Acts 7:] Stephen Dies before the Sanhedrin: After Stephen’s face shines like an angel, he goes on to preach a powerful message to the council of the Eternal Christ present in the Old Covenant, appearing to Abraham and following the Israelites through the wilderness. In spite of the unction upon him, the Jews are unconvinced and turn upon him with murderous intent as Stephen looks up at Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father.
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[Act 7:1-30 KJV] 1 Then said the high priest, Are these things so? 2 And he said, Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken; The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran, 3 And said unto him, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee. 4 Then came he out of the land of the Chaldaeans, and dwelt in Charran: and from thence, when his father was dead, he removed him into this land, wherein ye now dwell. 5 And he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not [so much as] to set his foot on: yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when [as yet] he had no child. 6 And God spake on this wise, That his seed should sojourn in a strange land; and that they should bring them into bondage, and entreat [them] evil four hundred years. 7 And the nation to whom they shall be in bondage will I judge, said God: and after that shall they come forth, and serve me in this place. 8 And he gave him the covenant of circumcision: and so [Abraham] begat Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac [begat] Jacob; and Jacob [begat] the twelve patriarchs. 9 And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt: but God was with him, 10 And delivered him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favour and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house. 11 Now there came a dearth over all the land of Egypt and Chanaan, and great affliction: and our fathers found no sustenance. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was corn in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first. 13 And at the second [time] Joseph was made known to his brethren; and Joseph’s kindred was made known unto Pharaoh. 14 Then sent Joseph, and called his father Jacob to [him], and all his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls. 15 So Jacob went down into Egypt, and died, he, and our fathers, 16 And were carried over into Sychem, and laid in the sepulchre that Abraham bought for a sum of money of the sons of Emmor [the father] of Sychem. 17 But when the time of the promise drew nigh, which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt, 18 Till another king arose, which knew not Joseph. 19 The same dealt subtilly with our kindred, and evil entreated our fathers, so that they cast out their young children, to the end they might not live. 20 In which time Moses was born, and was exceeding fair, and nourished up in his father’s house three months: 21 And when he was cast out, Pharaoh’s daughter took him up, and nourished him for her own son. 22 And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds. 23 And when he was full forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one [of them] suffer wrong, he defended [him], and avenged him that was oppressed, and smote the Egyptian: 25 For he supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not. 26 And the next day he shewed himself unto them as they strove, and would have set them at one again, saying, Sirs, ye are brethren; why do ye wrong one to another? 27 But he that did his neighbour wrong thrust him away, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Wilt thou kill me, as thou diddest the Egyptian yesterday? 29 Then fled Moses at this saying, and was a stranger in the land of Madian, where he begat two sons. 30 And when forty years were expired, there appeared to him in the wilderness of mount Sinai an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush.
After Stephens arrest, he is taken before the Jewish tribunal with great anger toward him for the signs and wonders worked by his hands. The council members work themselves into a murderous rage while in their midst Stephen’s face shines like an angel with divine composure and supernatural peace in the face of persecution and death. When they finally give Stephen an opportunity to defend himself, he begins to recount for them the history of Israel with the assertion of Jesus as the Messiah whom that crucified.
Stephen begins with Abraham’s departure from Haran into a land promised to him, but nonetheless wherein he would remain as a vagabond. This is equivalent to preaching a sermon on Revelations today and beginning in Genesis. Is Stephen stalling for time? Not on the least. Jesus warned the disciples about these confrontations many times. In Matthew 10 we find direct instruction from the Master regarding what Stephen is now facing:
[Mat 10:16-22 KJV] 16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. 17 But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; 18 And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. 19 But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. 20 For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you. 21 And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against [their] parents, and cause them to be put to death. 22 And ye shall be hated of all [men] for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.
What was Stephen’s background? Was he an orator, or was he educated like Paul, at the feet of Gamaliel? We do not know, but his message to the Jews is succinct, to the point and cuts them to the heart for their rejection of the Messiah and their heartlessness regarding the coming of the kingdom in their midst. Was Stephen among the disciples who followed after Jesus in his earthly lifetime? To be sure he was not among the 12 but was he among the 70, or did he come to faith as a Hellenized Jew visiting Jerusalem during the feast of Pentecost? Some have suggested that Stephen is a literary fiction, an artifice concocted by the writers of the book of Acts to demonstrate the willingness of the early Christians to die for their faith. They suggest this among other reasons because Stephen’s name means “wreath” such as the reward promised the winner of a race and martyrdom was always connected in early church writers with the idea of receiving a victor’s crown.
When does all of this take place that we are reading about? Historians place these events around the year 35 AD, not even two years after Jesus Himself was crucified. Churchmen and scholars title Stephen as the “proto-martyr” which venerates him as the first person to die for the Christian faith. Other than Stephen’s mention in the book of Acts we know nothing of him but to be sure his Christian character as a man full of the Holy Ghost is entirely evident during this time of duress and the eloquence by which he preaches Christ to his persecutors.
In Stephen’s message to the Sanhedrin he speaks of the Glory of God that appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia. This reference to the glory of God is connected with the glory of God believed to be present in the Holy of Holies which of course is now empty, the ark of the Covenant having disappeared from history centuries ago. At the time of Stephen’s martyrdom, the veil is a patchwork curtain having been found rent asunder at the moment that Jesus cries out it is finished. Those who saw the veil torn in this way looked upon a holy chamber vacated by the Spirit of God and Stephen in his message is declaring that the presence of God that has left the temple now resides among men in the indwelling presence of the Holy Ghost in the members of the fledgling church.
Stephen goes on to recount the lives of the patriarchs in somewhat detail and comes to Moses facing the same glory that spoke to Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees. Again Stephen is prodding the conscience of the Sanhedrin with the one thing they don’t want to think about or talk about. The fact of the lost ark and the riven veil was a secret strictly kept from the ordinary people, and Stephen is speaking of these things openly. He is betraying what amounts to a state secret. Stephen doesn’t have a security clearance to know these top secret things, but he speaks of them regardless as the members of the Sanhedrin cringe before him astonished and seeking some measure by which they can shut Stephen up before too many people hear what he has to say.
[Acts 7:31-60 KJV]
31 When Moses saw [it], he wondered at the sight: and as he drew near to behold [it], the voice of the Lord came unto him, 32 [Saying], I [am] the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Then Moses trembled, and durst not behold. 33 Then said the Lord to him, Put off thy shoes from thy feet: for the place where thou standest is holy ground. 34 I have seen, I have seen the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and I have heard their groaning, and am come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send thee into Egypt. 35 This Moses whom they refused, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge? the same did God send [to be] a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the angel which appeared to him in the bush. 36 He brought them out, after that he had shewed wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red sea, and in the wilderness forty years. 37 This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear. 38 This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and [with] our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us: 39 To whom our fathers would not obey, but thrust [him] from them, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt, 40 Saying unto Aaron, Make us gods to go before us: for [as for] this Moses, which brought us out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. 41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice unto the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. 42 Then God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices [by the space of] forty years in the wilderness? 43 Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, figures which ye made to worship them: and I will carry you away beyond Babylon. 44 Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as he had appointed, speaking unto Moses, that he should make it according to the fashion that he had seen. 45 Which also our fathers that came after brought in with Jesus into the possession of the Gentiles, whom God drave out before the face of our fathers, unto the days of David; 46 Who found favour before God, and desired to find a tabernacle for the God of Jacob. 47 But Solomon built him an house. 48 Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, 49 Heaven [is] my throne, and earth [is] my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what [is] the place of my rest? 50 Hath not my hand made all these things? 51 Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers [did], so [do] ye. 52 Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: 53 Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept [it]. 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 stedfastly 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.
Stephen goes on to speak of Moses’ mission to free the Israelites from Egypt’s bondage. He reminds the Sanhedrin that Moses himself (v. 37) declared that one day God would raise up a prophet from among them which is a reference to Jesus as the Messianic deliverer. This same prophet (and in fact more than a prophet), Stephen declares is was with the church (the refugees from Egypt) in the wilderness. He was saying that the same Jesus they crucified was embodied as the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day that was with the ancient Israelites in the wilderness. Stephen is plainly making of Jesus in his preaching an iconic, mythic figure – much more than a man, much more than an itinerant rabbi that the same Jews had mistakenly felt they had dealt with before Pilate’s judgment hall.
Stephen then turns his attention to the rebellious nature of the people in Moses day and their continual return to paganism and idolatry. He speaks not in historical reference but accuses the Sanhedrin of being the very idolators who took up the shrine of Moloch and the star of the god Remphan. He charges the council members of being the reason why the Jews were carried away to Babylon and into hundreds of years of captivity. He rebukes them by bringing the blood of every martyred prophet upon their heads and having recieved the law of God by the disposition of angels yet having not kept it or honored the God who gave it.
The council members can hear no more and leaping up they lose all dignity and rushing upon Stephen, gnash upon him with their teeth. Bleeding and battered, Stephen is struck to the ground by the blows rained down upon him, and looking up toward heaven sees Jesus standing at the right hand of majesty on high. Can you imagine the unfettered and demonic rage that is fueling the unhinged leaders of the synagogue and the temple? They are not waiting to take Stephen before Pilate or to conduct a sham trial. Screaming they stop up their ears and drag Stephen out of the city and stone him. As Stephen dies calling upon God, a young nobleman stands by named Saul of Tarsus, witnessing and approving the act. What must Saul have thought of Stephen whom he held responsible for so inflaming his teachers and leaders to defile themselves so before the people? Saul is aghast and holds Stephen and all Christians, and there is fomented in his heart a murderous rage against all the followers of the new found faith.
As Stephen’s life ebbs from his body under the violence of the crowd, he kneels down and cries out to God that this sin might not be held against them. With these words Luke writes that Stephen falls asleep, a euphemism often deployed in the accounts of martyrdom. As Jesus cried out Father forgive them, so Stephen’s cry is very different than the call of Abel who died under Cain’s hands. Abel cried out for vengeance, but in the spirit of Christ, Stephen cries out to forgive and so dies the first Christian martyr with many thousands, even millions to die after him in like fashion.
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