“54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 ”Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.
Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.”
Within the stoning of Stephen there are many significant factors that are explained; including many similarities with the death of Jesus Christ, the symbolism of Jesus’ resurrection, and the significance of how Stephen is described as falling asleep instead of dying.
Luke also displays the similarities between Stephen’s speech and stoning to other passages within the bible. Stephen’s speech before his stoning was harsh and honest with the Jewish leaders. Many people do not appreciate the truth especially when they know that they are in the wrong, and this leads many to persecute those that spread the truth.
Persecution is a major theme of Acts and is displayed within these verses and will be discussed as to hoe to deal with persecution as a Christian.
Many think that the Christian walk is supposed to be easy, but if we are truly living for Christ, then we are going to face trials that will allow others to learn and to help them find or grow in Christ. As Christians in today’s world it is important to study and understand relatable stories as well as know that one will be persecuted but needs to stay strong and the Lord will stand strong along side those who stand up for Him.
The circumstances that lead to Stephen’s stoning was the speech that he gave to the members of the Sanhedrin. He recounted the history of Moses and his descendants and pointed out all of the times that they chose to ignore the Lord and persecute leaders that were chosen by God. The purpose of Stephen’s speech is not obvious during the beginning recounting of Israel’s history. (Sweeney, 2002) Stephen even went as far as to point out the fact that they were so reluctant to follow God that they persecuted and killed the one sent to save them all, Jesus. 51 ”You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One.
And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” Stephen attacks the members of the Sanhedrin without any hesitation and insults how they have conducted themselves in the past, in their dealings with Christians. The way that Luke writes about Stephen being led into the Sanhedrin is parallel to how Jesus was led into the Sanhedrin in Luke 22:66. (Brodie, 1983) There are many similarities throughout Stephen’s speech and stoning that are parallel to the judgment and crucifixion of Jesus. Due to Stephen being the first Christian martyr there has been many texts written looking into his story.
There are three that were written in Greek in order to further look into his persecution, those texts being Passio, Revelatio, and Translatio. Each of these texts explore something different so that we can get the story in full and learn about new things that Luke may have not written about. Passio looks at the martyrdom story, Revelatio is the story of Stephen’s relics to Lucian, a priest in the little town of Caphar Gamala, the story about Stephen’s relics being transported from Jerusalem to Constantinople is told in Translatio. (Bovon, 2005) The most important book to look at is Revelatio, because it is a compliment to Acts 6-8.
Throughout Stephen’s speech and stoning Luke uses many parallelisms to display the similarities between Christ’s persecution and death to the persecution and death of Stephen. Luke is very brief in the description of the stoning of Stephen so the parallelisms stand out and do not get lost within the text. Luke also writes Acts as a narrative, therefore easier to understand, as well as he can choose to add in important information. One crucial piece of information within the text is that, “57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.
Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Saul would later become a Christian, taking the name Paul, however we meet him while he is a persecutor of the first Christian martyr. Luke keeps his writing simple, which makes it easier to understand and apply to circumstances in different times. Revelatio, as mentioned earlier is a compliment to Acts 6-8, discusses the importance of Stephen’s life, death, and funeral because he is a saint from the first generation of Christians. (Bovon, 2005)
Although Luke’s writing is simple so that it is easy to understand and relate to there are many references and similarities he makes within his books that allow for further investigation and understanding of the word. The first verse that is come across when the stoning of Stephen begins is, “54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.” Luke’s wording within this passage does a good job of describing the anger that the Sanhedrin felt towards Stephen. Stephen clearly offended the members of the Sanhedrin when we accused them of breaking the law, when they were trying to enforce their law upon them. (Neil, 1981) It can be assumed that they cut his speech off due to the anger. (Bruce, 1951) Stephen is not bothered by their anger because the Holy Spirit is speaking though him and he knows that he is doing well by God. Luke continues with, “55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
Stephen finds strength through the Holy Spirit when he sees a vision of God enthroned in glory, and Jesus standing by his side. This is an important verse that is describing Jesus as standing at the right hand of God; this is symbolic in many ways. Jesus is standing to welcome Stephen into his presence; it is also setting up the forgiveness prayer that is said by Stephen as he dies, which is also similar to the forgiveness prayer that is said by Jesus as He was crucified. Outside of the Gospels this passage is the only time that Jesus is described as standing. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Luke not only repeats that Jesus is standing in Stephen’s vision, he recounts that Stephen speaks of Jesus standing.
Another symbolism behind Jesus standing is the fact that Jesus will stand for a martyr, such as Stephen, because Stephen is willing to be put to death for Jesus; just as Jesus was crucified for us. Giving up life is the ultimate sacrifice and is rewarded by the Son of Man standing to welcome those into his presence. “57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” It is difficult for us to determine whether Stephen’s death was an instance of lynch law or as an excess of jurisdiction on the part of the Sanhedrin. (Bruce, 1951) Stoning was the punishment for blasphemy, however, after the Sanhedrin pronounced punishment it would then need to be ratified by the head of state, Pilate. There is never a clear description of the ratification, so we do not know if it is justified or it was a result of mob violence.
This is also the first mention of Saul. Saul’s presence is significant because although he was persecuting a Christian at the time, he would end up becoming on of the prominent Christians and would change his name to Paul. (Neil, 1981)”59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.” Stephen speaks out to ask for forgiveness for the people that are stoning him, much like how Jesus prayed to His father while being crucified. Luke parallels Stephen’s death to Jesus’ death on the cross. (Munoa, 2002) Luke 23:34: “Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.”
There are strong inter-textual relationships that exist between the death of Jesus and Stephen. The ability to refrain from retaliating in the face of undeserved violence, it is an ethical superiority of Christianity over Judaism. (Matthews, 2009) Another important part of the closing that Luke uses to describe Stephen’s death is that instead of dying, Luke describes it as he fell asleep. This is indicating that Stephen was at peace with the occurrences and is happy going to spend time with the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Sleeping is a much more peaceful act than dying. Falling asleep could also be used to symbolize the fact that with salvation there is life after death. So it is not in fact dying, it is falling asleep just to wake up with the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit to spend your eternal life with them.
Within the books Mark through Acts this translation of standing, reference number 2705, was used 42 times. Looking at Luke and Acts alone, because Luke was the author of both books, the word stand(ing) appeared 8 times within the gospel of Luke, and 13 times within Acts. Looking at the 21 times the Luke uses a word that is translated as standing, 15 of those have the reference number 2705. This is a display that Luke was meaning the literal term standing that we understand today. That in Stephen’s vision he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. There fore we will understand the translation from histemi to standing to mean, upright on the feet or base: erect. 15 of the 21 references that Luke makes using the word histemi are describing someone standing near someone or in front of people.
It is interesting that Luke makes so many references and displays similarities from so many other passages, because he could be wanting the reader to further study the bible and digest the text so that there is a better understanding for the points that he tries to make. Stephen is the first martyr that we learn of and so although the text is simple there are many references to the death of Jesus. These references are due to the fact that Jesus was the only person before Stephen that is persecuted and killed due to their strong beliefs about Christianity. Jesus and Stephen were also the only ones that would pray for their killer’s forgiveness.
The direct application of Stephen’s story is not applicable in today’s American society, due to the fact that people are not persecuted by death for their religion or beliefs. However, there is a lot that can be learned by the example of forgiveness that is displayed by Stephen, because his actions are directly parallel to Jesus’ act of forgiveness under the same circumstances. Jesus and Stephen both ask for forgiveness for their oppressors during their last moments. Rather than being angry toward those that judged and persecuted him, he chose to ask for their forgiveness. This is one of the hardest lessons that we have to learn as Christians.
The most important thing to do as a Christian is to love. Loving someone the way that is described in 1 Corinthians 13 is that under any circumstances we are to love unconditionally. Part of that unconditional love is that we must be able to forgive those that cause harm, and always wish the best upon them. The best way to help them obtain the best is to pray for them and Stephen and Jesus both are a great example of pure love. They are praying for those that are in the process of killing them because they understand the true meaning of love and wish to help them obtain salvation within their dying moments.