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Justin Martyr, beheaded for the faith in A.D. 165 said, "The more we are persecuted, the more do others in ever increasing numbers embrace the faith and become worshippers of God through the name of Jesus" (Dialogue with Trypho 110). Contrast the impact of modern-day martyrs for other causes. Who remembers what Che Guevara stood for? Luke's account of Stephen's death helps us understand the effect dying for the gospel has, and in so doing challenges us to accept its truth claims.
Stephen's stoning climaxes his witness and introduces an important turning point in the witness of the Hellenistic Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. The intensity and scope of persecution and the extent of witness both take quantum leaps.
Stephen's indictment (7:51-53) so penetrates "uncircumcised hearts" that the Sanhedrin is furious (literally "sawn through in their hearts"; compare 5:33). They are "torn up" not with repentant sorrow for their sins but with seething anger against the preacher of repentance. They grind their teeth with such a hissing sound, such a hateful screwing of the mouth, that Stephen knows they have but one aim: to do away with him (compare Ps 34:16 LXX; 36:12 LXX). As we have seen before, when faced with the truth those in error will either accept the message or seek to silence the messenger, even permanently (Acts 4:18; 5:28, 40).
One man full of the Holy Spirit faces a gallery of men full of hate. Luke is not describing a special momentary gifting in Stephen (as Haenchen 1971:292; Bruce 1990:240), but the fitting climax of a life in the Spirit (6:5, 8, 15; Williams 1985:132). The gallery concentrates on him; Stephen gazes into heaven (atenizo is stronger than the NIV looked up to; compare 1:10; 3:4, 12; 6:15). God grants that Stephen may peer into heaven itself with his mind's eye and see the glory of God (either a circumlocution for God the Father or the shekinah glory that both conceals and reveals the divine presence and nature; compare 7:2; 22:11).
This vision positively culminates the climactic thesis of Stephen's sermon: God dwells in heaven, not in temples made with hands (7:48-50). The Son of Man standing at the right hand of God is at the center of Stephen's attention and the heart of his confession. Son of Man, a phrase otherwise present primarily on the lips of Jesus during his earthly ministry, points at once to Jesus' incarnation, saving death and resurrection, and heavenly exaltation, universal dominion, and glorious future reign (Mt 8:20; Lk 9:22, 44; 18:31; 19:10; 21:27, 36; 22:69/Dan 7:13; Ps 110:1). When we think of the title against its background (Dan 7), the divine nature of this figure comes to the fore.
By this confession Stephen and Luke invite us to see Jesus for who he really is, and in that vision to recognize him as worthy of worship, of complete devotion and obedience even to death.
The Sanhedrin will have none of this "Jesus worship." To them it is a blasphemy (Mk 14:61-64) that their loud yells must drown out and their hands must prevent from entering their ears (Strack and Billerbeck [1978:2:684] relate the rabbinic teaching on such a pious duty). And what a perfect picture of their spiritual deafness, these who are "uncircumcised in ear" and refuse to take that essential first step to salvation--having ears to hear God's message (7:51; Lk 4:21; 8:8; 9:44; 14:35; Acts 28:27/Is 6:10).
Like a herd of stampeding animals (compare Lk 8:33), yet intent on one purpose (NIV all), they rush together against Stephen, drag him out of the city and begin to stone him. Throwing him down from a high place, they gather and heave paving stones on top of him until death comes. These are the appropriate punishment, place and executioners (the witnesses) for the sin of blasphemy (Lev 24:14; Deut 17:7; m. Sanhedrin 6:1, 4; 7:4).
In an extraneous note indicating the custodian of the witness-executioners' cloaks Luke introduces us to a young man named Saul. He will figure prominently in the advance of the church in the near and long term (Acts 8:3; chaps. 9, 13--28).
When we reflect on how quickly a dignified high court was transformed into a lynch mob, we see how thin can be the veneer of civility and judicial order in society. This is especially true when those opposing God's truth see themselves as guardians of his message. There is nothing to stop their violence, as Stephen and many martyrs in his train have learned.
Jewish custom prescribed that the condemned be given opportunity to confess his sins on his way to execution so that he might have "a share in the world to come" (m. Sanhedrin 6:2). Stephen's declarations reveal his innocence and his Christian grace to those who have wronged him. In prayer he calls on Jesus to take him into his presence at death (compare Acts 2:21). He echoes his Lord's words of confident trust on the cross and again confesses Jesus' divinity (compare Lk 23:46/Ps 31:5). Having used Lord very sparingly in his sermon (Acts 7:31, 33, 49), now without hesitation he addresses Lord Jesus with the most important petition any human can bring to God. He is answered, and so can we be, for the Lord Jesus stands at God's right hand, ever ready to receive us to be with him in glory at the time his sovereign will has ordained (Lk 23:43).
Whether falling under the weight of a paving stone hurled from above or deliberately kneeling in prayer, Stephen cries out with a loud voice (contrast Acts 7:57), asking that Jesus not "establish the sins" of his executioners (Rom 10:3; compare Lk 23:34). How will this happen? If they will hear and receive the good news (24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 10:43), then their sins will be forgiven, and they will not have to face the final punishment for a sin standing against them.
Is Stephen's prayer answered? Augustine said, "The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen" (quoted in Barclay 1976:62). In fact, Saul is the one adversary named in the incident. Luke is laying the groundwork for the great victory God will win through Saul's conversion and subsequent missionary service.
Like his Lord, Stephen dies at peace with God, himself and the world--even his enemies. He fell asleep. By showing us how to die, he also shows us how to live and models the secret of staying power of Christian witness even to death. If he can die for his Lord like that, confidently, forgiving his enemies, there must be something to this Jesus who he says reigns at God's right hand.
In what may be a reverse parallelism, Luke concludes Stephen's martyrdom with the twin themes of persecution and the church's further advance. The hinge phrase on which they turn is except the apostles. Whether because Hellenistic, not Hebraic, Jewish Christians are targeted in the persecution or because the apostles feel a duty to hold things together at Jerusalem, they stay there. Their continued presence in Jerusalem certainly does provide stability and continuity for the young church's life and mission. There is no hint from Luke that their lack of initiative at this point is disobedience to Acts 1:8.
From this apostolic center the centrifugal forces of persecution and ever-expanding witness push out. The main impetus is a great persecution against the church at Jerusalem. It is closely connected with Stephen's death, for it happens on that day. Persecution--"harassing somebody in order to persuade or force him to give up his religion, or simply to attack somebody for religious reasons"--encompassed a wide range of activities from ridicule to social ostracism to occasional beatings to confiscation of property to imprisonment to execution (Marshall 1980:151; Krodel 1986:158). Saul "tried" (attempted, not incipient, action as NIV; E. F. Harrison 1986:140; Gal 1:13, 23) to destroy the church, as a wild animal mangles its prey (Lake and Cadbury 1979:88; compare Acts 20:28; Is 65:25). He goes from house to house and drags both men and women off to prison. This imagery and these actions give us a sense of the severity of the persecution.
But the dispersion through persecution creates a band of missionaries, not refugees. All are scattered, as seed is sown, and go about evangelizing (Acts 8:4; compare Lk 8:5, 11). Judea and Samaria, the second two theaters for the Great Commission's fulfillment, have now been entered. A Christian witness is raised in Jerusalem even after Stephen's death. Devout men, whether non-Christian Jews (E. F. Harrison 1986:139; compare 2:7) or Hebraic Christian (Williams 1985:136), bury Stephen and publicly mourn him (NIV does not point out the public aspect with its wording mourned deeply). This is a courageous witness to Stephen's innocence, for Jewish custom forbade public mourning of one executed for blasphemy (m. Sanhedrin 6:5-6).
Indeed, "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church." And today the same dynamic is at work, whether in China since the coming of communism or in Uganda and East Africa with their political turmoil or in the previously predominant religious hostility of Latin America. The fruit of witness under persecution, even martyrdom, is now being harvested. The gospel born by Spirit-filled Christians is life. Death cannot stop it!