The lectionary really shortchanges us this coming Sunday. As is the custom during the season of Easter, the First Reading comes from the book of Acts, rather than from Hebrew Scriptures. And this week, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, that reading comes from one of the longest chapters in that book. That chapter records in great detail the speech made by Stephen, when he was brought before the council, charged with “saying things against this holy place and the law” (Acts 6:13).
However, we are really shortchanged, because although this is the longest of all the speeches in Acts, in the passage offered by the lectionary (Acts 7:55–60), we are given only the final comment by Stephen—just one verse (7:56)—before he is stoned, and he dies saying “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (7:59).
So in a series of blogs this week, I will consider the setting as well as the content of this speech, and the consequence that followed from it for Stephen—namely, his death as a martyr. Let’s not undervalue the contribution of this Lukan-created speech, attributed to Stephen, in the theology of the two-volume work, Luke-Acts. (My analysis is based on what I wrote in my commentary on Acts in the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible (2003).)
The setting of the speech. After chapters telling of the gathering of the early community in Jerusalem (1:6-26), events on the day of Pentecost (2:1-47), the activities of Peter and John in the Temple and before the Council (3:1-5:42), and the establishment of a diaconal role to meet the material needs of the community (6:1-6), Luke (the person attributed in tradition as the author of the Book of Acts) provides the sixth in a series of summary descriptions of the community: “the word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (6:7; see earlier at 1:14; 2:42-47; 4:32-35; 5:12; 5:42).
This summary repeats key phrases from the narrative of the scene which has just concluded. “The word of God” (6:2) is now used to describe the community itself, rather than an activity of its leadership; “disciple” (6:1,2) now becomes the standard term for members of the messianic community (6:7; and a further 25 times in chapters 9-21).
The increasing numbers in the community (6:1) forms the basis for the comment that “the number of disciples increased and multiplied greatly” (6:7); the two verbs that are used here recur with the word of God in subsequent summary descriptions (12:24; 19:20; similar ideas are expressed at 9:31; 16:5). The membership of the community now comprises “a great many of the priests”—a surprising comment, in light both of the constant opposition shown by the priests to this point (4:1,6; 5:17,21,24,27) and of the role that the priests will soon play in Stephen’s death (7:1; as members of the council, 6:12).
The fate of Stephen is now told. Out of the seven just appointed, Luke focuses first on Stephen, who is described in familiar terms as a person empowered by God. Stephen is full of grace (6:8), a mark of the community at 2:47, 4:33, and of power, a divine gift (2:22) exhibited by the apostles (4:33); he is able to perform wonders and signs (6:8), a divinely-inspired capacity (2:19) exhibited by Jesus (2:22) and the apostles (2:43; 5:12). Luke notes again that he speaks with wisdom and spirit (6:10), attributes already noted as divine in origin (see 6:3); here they are qualified as being unable to be withstood by humans.
This description introduces the account of the arrest of Stephen (6:8-15). This is a stylised account which draws from familiar Lukan themes. Those in conflict with Stephen are Diaspora Jews who have returned to Jerusalem, where they worship in a synagogue (6:9). However, they do not make the front running against Stephen, but they conscript agitators to stir up the crowd (6:11-12). This is reminiscent of a detail in the trial of Jesus (Mark 15:11; Matt 27:20) which Luke omits, transferring it to Stephen’s trial. Similar agitation of the crowd will later be encountered by Paul (13:50; 14:19; 17:5,13).
Likewise, the “false witnesses” who accuse Stephen of speaking against the temple (6:13) recall the false witnesses who charge Jesus with the claim that he would destroy the temple (Mark 14:55-58; Matt 26:59-61), another detail which Luke transfers to Stephen’s trial. Later, Luke will consciously model Stephen’s death on the death scene of Jesus (7:54-60; cf. Luke 23:34,44-46).
Stephen is charged with uttering “blasphemous words against Moses and God” (6:11) which are manifest in his allegedly speaking against “this holy place and the law” (6:13). Similar charges are later brought against Paul (21:28). The charges against Stephen turn out to be ironic, since in the speech which follows, he will speak at length and with deep conviction about the people of Israel, to whom the law was given, and with penetrating insight about the role of the holy place of Israel.
It is worth remembering that Stephen, venerated as the first Christian martyr, was fervent in his adherence to the Jewish faith into which he was born. How tragic that his strong advocacy for what he saw as the most faithful way to live out his commitment led to his death. How ironic that the first Christian martyr died for being a deeply devout Messianic Jew!
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Stephen is an important figure in the narrative that is offered in the Book of Acts. He is the pivot on which the storyline shifts from “in Jerusalem” (chs. 1–7), beginning to turn “to the Gentiles” (chs. 8–12) and then on into the missionary activities of Paul and his companions (chs. 13 onwards). He is also an important figure in the developing movement that began with Jesus. The early church recognised the significance of Stephen, declaring him to be a saint, and honouring him as the first Christian martyr. See more at