The passage from Acts that is set for this coming Sunday (the fifth Sunday in the season of Easter) tells of Stephen, who is remembered as the first Christian martyr. The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word martus, meaning “witness”. Yet it also signifies a person willing to die for their faith. This passage recounts how that death took place, and reinforces the witness offered by Stephen.
Stephen had been introduced earlier in Acts as one of the Seven who were selected by the apostles as being “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (6:3). He was additionally noted as being a person “filled with the spirit” (6:5); that description recurs here (7:55). Stephen experiences an epiphany in which he sees “the glory of God” (7:55), which aligns him with Abraham (7:2), as well as “Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (7:55-56). Stephen is one of many witnesses to the nature of God.
Stephen is also, and more strikingly, aligned with Jesus. When Stephen describes seeing the heavens opening, he evokes the scene of Jesus’ baptism (“the heaven was opened”, Luke 3:21). Like Jesus, Stephen was given a perspective that took him, metaphorically, right into the heart of God. Unlike Jesus, however, whose deeper insight came at the start of his public activities, Stephen gains that insight after his speech, and immediately before the moment of his death.
This claim by Stephen, that he saw heaven opened, evokes not only the baptism of Jesus, but also the moment at the death of Jesus when the curtain of the Temple is ripped in two (Luke 23:45). It evokes the “open door” in heaven seen at the start of the apocalyptic visions by the ageing, exiled John (Rev 4:1), and directly repeats the phrase found much later in those visions (Rev 19:11, when the white horse appears).
Furthermore, Luke reports that Stephen dies in a way that strongly evokes his particular account of how Jesus died on the cross. Stephen’s words about the heavenly Son of Man “standing at the right hand of God” are strikingly reminiscent of the apocalyptic vision which Jesus paints at his trial (“the Son of Man … at the right hand of the power of God”; Luke 22:69). Stephen’s prayer, “receive my spirit”, recalls the last words of Jesus (“into your hands I commend my spirit”; Luke 23:46).
As Stephen cries “in a loud voice” (7:60) he reminds us of the same cry by Jesus as he dies (Luke 23:46, which itself is a quotation of Psalm 31:46). Stephen’s last cry, a petition that the Lord overlook this sin (7:60), is similarly evocative of the Lukan Jesus’ forgiveness of those who crucified him (“Father, forgive them”, Luke 23:34).
This first martyr follows the pathway already established by Jesus. He bears witness to his faith, even as he dies. And as Luke has clearly interpreted the death of Jesus as God’s predetermined action (2:23, 4:28), this similar description of Stephen’s death has at least overtones of divine authorisation. Stephen dies, as faithful witness to God, in accord with the will of God.
The lectionary provides us with just this short section of text, focussed on the death of Stephen. It might be worth your while, this week, to look back to what is reported in the narrative, immediately before this death. Stephen had been arrested—the manner of this arrest, by means of a plot by the authorities (6:11-12) who set up false witnesses (6:13-14) as he was questioned by the high priest (7:11), also mirrors the pattern of events recounted in relation to Jesus.
In response to the question of the high priest, Stephen delivers a long speech (7:1-53). It is by far the longest speech of all those included in the book of Acts. By means of this speech, Luke matches the divinely-given qualities of Stephen (6:3,5,8,10) with his testimony to the acts of God in the history of Israel.
Like every speech in Acts, this was written by Luke, the compiler of the orderly account of things being fulfilled. So the speech begins in typical Lukan fashion by defining the subject as God (7:2; cf. 2:17; 3:13; 5:30); the phrase used here, “the God of glory”, is drawn from scripture (Ps 29:3). The speech which follows rebuts the charges laid against Stephen; it demonstrates that, far from speaking “blasphemous words against God” (6:11), Stephen has a fulsome understanding of God’s place in Israel’s history.
At the end of his speech, Stephen takes up the charge of the false witnesses, that he spoke “against the holy place” (6:13). Luke has Stephen quote scripture (7:49-50, citing Isa 66:1-2) in order to show that his criticism of the temple (God’s “place of rest”, 7:49) arises from within Jewish tradition itself.
There are numerous scriptural allusions and quotations in this speech by Stephen. In general, this seems similar to the earlier speeches by Peter, although the precise function of these scriptural elements is somewhat distinctive in this speech. Here, scripture functions as historical narrative, whereas elsewhere in Acts it provides prophecies to be fulfilled. (The exceptions within the speech are the prophecies of 7:6,7 which are fulfilled at 7:9-16,36 respectively.)
Luke has Stephen provide a detailed rehearsal of significant parts of Israel’s history, by focussing in turn on Abraham (7:2-8), Joseph (7:9-16) and Moses (7:17-44). Then, after making brief mention of Joshua (7:45a), David (7:45b-46) and Solomon (7:47), Stephen moves to the climactic claim of the speech (7:48-53).
Lengthy recitals of key features of Israel’s history are already found in Hebrew Scripture (Deut 26; Josh 24; Neh 9; Psalms 78; 105; 106; 135; 136; Ezek 20). In the present instance, the effect of the long recital of the earlier part of Israel’s history is twofold. First, the historical recital reinforces Stephen’s Jewish credentials. When he begins to speak critically of the temple, and of the Jerusalem authorities, it is clear that he does so from within the Jewish tradition. Stephen is not an outsider, but an insider, offering a prophetic critique.
Second, the historical recital provides insight into a further layer of God’s providential activity. Earlier speeches by Peter have interpreted the events of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as being within the divine providence (we saw this in previous weeks, in 2:14-41).
Various features of the narrative have revealed the active involvement of God in the events that take place in the Jerusalem community. Now, the undergirding plan of God is revealed within the long history of Israel. The line of continuity is strengthened between each layer; God is at work in the Jerusalem community, as in the life of Jesus, as in the history of Israel. Such is the testimony that Stephen offers.
There is one final feature of the section of Acts set for this Sunday. As the crowd prepares to stone Stephen, dragged him out of the city and laying down their coats, we are told that the coast fall “at the feet of a young man named Saul” (7:58). And this young man, Saul, we then learn, “approved of their killing him” (8:1a). Who is this man? He comes back into the story as persecutor (8:3; 9:4), then convert (9:17-19a), then preacher (9:19b-22), travelling evangelist (13:1-3); he was subsequently known as Paul (13:9), and acknowledged as an apostle (14:4, 14).
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003).
See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/26/stephen-deacon-and-prophet-martyr-and-disciple/