I’ve always only seen two things generally noted about Stephen’s stoning in Acts 7: that Stephen was the first Christian martyr (first in a long line which continues through today) and that those who stoned him laid their coats at the feet of a man named Saul (later Paul). These are definitely important takeaways. After all, martyrdom has been such a massive part of the history of the church that it seems appropriate to commemorate the first martyr; while it also presents a powerful picture of both the destination of the road our faith leads us down as well as the hope that will meet us there. Also, by establishing Paul’s presence from the beginning it lends credence to his zeal both in the persecution of the church and his later work on behalf of it.
But two new thoughts (new to me … maybe you’ve thought of them before) struck me as I was re-reading the passage this morning. First, Stephen was brought to the High Council by the false accusations of people who told the Council, “This man incessantly speaks against this holy place [the temple], and the Law, for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us” (6:13f). I’m pretty certain that Stephen would have said something along those lines, so I don’t think there was any degree of falsity in the root of the accusations themselves. So why does Luke, in writing the book of Acts, call them “false?” I think that it instead rests on the intentions and twist of wording held by the accusers. Jesus Himself indeed said while standing in the temple courts after cleansing them of the moneychangers, “Tear down this temple and I will rebuild it in three days” (Jn. 2:19), so it would be no surprise that Stephen would quote Him in his attempts to proselytize a religious, but unspiritual generation. Nevertheless Jesus wasn’t referring to the actual, physical Temple of Jerusalem, was He? And nor was Stephen. Jesus was referring to His own body in the manner that He would die. He would be broken/killed/murdered … and then in three days He would ‘rebuild’ Himself and rise from the dead! Along the same lines, Stephen wasn’t attempting to “speak against the Law” while presenting his case for Jesus. He was giving discourse about the Law’s completion and perfection through the resurrection of Jesus. But it didn’t matter to the accusers who came and dragged Stephen into a trial for heresy. Because, on balance, don’t false accusations always seem to get more traction when either an element of truth is added to the story or when truth is twisted into something sinister.
You might say that the lesson which I wrenched from this thought is a little removed from the actual story of Stephen’s sermon and stoning. However I couldn’t help but think that, in all our efforts for apologetics and defense of the faith, we sometimes become embroiled in battles on ground that we need not contest. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge supporter of the great apologists through history. They steady my thinking and lay a strong foundation for my faith. But the same principle which says “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs” (Mt 7:6) seems to ring with more clarity when paired with a corollary of my own creation, which says, “As you present your pearls of wisdom and truth, some might incidentally fall amongst the swine. Do not be distracted by combating the swine’s resulting twists and lies.”
True, my corollary lacks the panache and consequence that the Lord’s instruction has, but it’s important nonetheless. In fact, Stephen illustrates this corollary perfectly because he doesn’t directly address the accusations of the liars and twisters. He could have tried to clarify the meaning of the allegory of the Temple and he could have defended his adherence to Jewish Law. However, he instead breaks into a history lesson as a way to build rapport with his hearers and to hit the main, underlying and unaddressed point of contention: that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah!
Which leads perfectly into the second thought I had: for an accused man in a Kangaroo Court, Stephen sure had a long time to speak uninterrupted. It is almost as if the Sanhedrin, ready to pronounce judgment on an apostate from a soon-to-die-out sect, were leaning forward gleefully for his response to the false accusations and then were caught off guard by the route his words took in verses 2 through 50. How could they interrupt a man who was giving a good and full account of their nation’s superiority?
Stephen starts his reminiscence with Abraham’s calling, then mentions Isaac, Jacob and Joseph before dwelling for a few verses on the life and work of Moses (the lawgiver himself). The anxious lean of the Sanhedrin probably relaxed slightly as they sat back and looked at each other in a haughty appreciation. After all, they were the chosen people of God; descendants of the great men of old who had spoken directly with the Almighty and through whom the plagues had been cast and the Sea parted! You can almost imagine the Chief Priest crossing his arms across his chest in pride, “This Grecian Jew at least knows his history.”
Stephen goes on to then mention briefly a prophecy concerning Jesus, given by Moses himself on Sinai, before pointing out that the Israelites, having heard that prophecy, then built tabernacles to, and idols representing, false gods. At which, one would expect the Chief Priest’s cheeks to turn red and his eyes narrow. “Wait a moment! Where is this Greek going with this? We prefer not to talk about that part of the story.”
Finally, Stephen mentions David’s favor in God’s sight and David’s son, Solomon’s, subsequent construction of the temple (one of the centerpieces of the faux trial now taking place). The Chief Priest relaxes once again, “DOES this man really appreciate the importance of the Temple of God, in spite of the accusations? After all, God commissioned its construction and in it is the dwelling place of the Most Holy. He certainly wouldn’t endorse its demolition.”
Stephen then throws any newly-established weight he’s gained from his recitation of history at the Sanhedrin into a quote from Isaiah, (66:1) (which, incidentally was preluded by Solomon is his dedication speech of said temple in 1 Kings 8:27), “’Heaven is My throne, and earth is the footstool of My feet; what kind of house will you build for me?’ says the Lord” (v. 49). The implication to the Council is clear what Stephen thinks about the house made from human hands; but it’s Stephen’s follow-up statement which is even more of a slap in the face for the temporal-minded, arrogant Israelite body: “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it” (vv. 51-53).
You can imagine the snarling viciousness of the Chief Priest, and all of the men present who were self-righteous, self-important, and put their faith in genealogically pure blood. They had been confronted with their hypocrisy by a sermonizing, Hellenistic Jew on trial for apostasy! They screamed and forced him out of the city in order to stone him (ironically something they themselves only a short time before had admitted to Pilate was out of their authority; “We have no power to put a man to death” [Jn. 18:31]).
I certainly think that Stephen had so much time (49 verses of chapter 7!) to present his case because God wanted him to have time. But, just as much, I think that he had that time because the Sanhedrin was exactly what Stephen revealed them to be: a human invention which existed through arrogant adherence to a physical salvation wrought by institutionalization, the power and fear of excommunication, as well as rote mass ritualization. They sat back and held trial for Stephen, firm in their confidence that they held the power of life and death, and firm in the confidence that they were righteous. In other words, their assurance was on their laws, not in their laws’ God.
As Stephen presented his history, he knew what he was doing. With finesse he massaged their rightful feelings of advantage [as Paul said, “What advantage is there in being a Jew? Great in every way!” Rm. 3:1,2] before he used, to devastating effect, their very prophets to reveal their own failures at keeping the laws they so contemptuously espoused.
It’s a lesson in rhetoric, because it is a speech perfectly delivered for maximum impact. It’s a lesson in fearlessness, because Stephen knew exactly the impact his words would have, as well as their repercussions. It’s a lesson in wisdom, because Stephen addressed the underlying problem in spite of superficial accusations. It’s a lesson in history, because the path preferred by the chosen people of God so seldom intersected with the God who chose them. And, most of all, this lesson is a warning to us all to never become complacent and arrogant about our position spiritually. Arrogance and complacency lead to hypocrisy and neglect; hypocrisy in our derision of others’ sins and neglect of the weightier matters of grace and mercy.
The two thoughts I had this morning are linked there in the place where arrogance and complacency lead to hypocrisy and neglect, because it is often the intricacies of theology and philosophy which gather the swine of ignorance. When we spend too much time on the minutiae, we certainly become arrogant about our level of understanding and subsequently neglect grace and mercy, but we also become distracted from doing the good that the grace and mercy of God requires. In other words, we can slop around in mud of the pigpens, debating the minutiae of philosophy with those who are anti-God (and will therefore require a profound, life-changing, kick in the pants to transform), OR we can SHOW the grace and mercy of God to those presented to us as opportunities for evangelism (relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit).
It might seem like a certain level of hypocrisy to write the kind of material I do and then argue for the lesson above … and, believe me, I wrestle with it every day. I admit that I have a much harder time showing grace and mercy than I do in finding either the sins of others or the chinks in their philosophical armor. It is a sin of mine about which I pray regularly … and I fear that my arrogance and haughtiness will not get in the way of its healing. But my trust and hope is that that same fear will lead to the kind of sorrow that brought the church in Corinth to forgiveness in response to Paul’s first letter, “Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it – I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while – yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Cor 7:8-10).
My prayer then is that this Godly sorrow will afflict you too, leading to change … and that in whatever way arrogance and complacency bind you, you will find freedom to see the grace and mercy of God through His Son and our Lord, Jesus Christ. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even see Him in the same way that Stephen did: standing at the right hand of the Almighty in the Holiest of Holies?