As we prepare for this coming Sunday, when we will hear about the fate of Stephen, the first martyr in the movement initiated by Jesus, we continue our considerations of the longest speech in Acts, which also reveals significant elements of the theological commitments held by the author of Acts—by tradition, named as Luke.
The reading offered by the lectionary (Acts 7:55–60) 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, 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 have been considering the whole of this speech in some detail. 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).)
After recounting the ancestral sagas of Israel, and the story of Moses (7:1–43), Stephen then summarises how God was at work in the conquest of Israel and the early monarchy. The presence of the tent of testimony fulfils what God commanded to Moses (7:44; cf. Exod 25:40); Joshua leads the conquest of the nations “whom God drove out” (7:45; cf. Josh 21:43-45; 23:9; 24:18); the tent remains in the land until the time of David, who “had grace before God” (7:46; on grace, see 2:47).
The speech ends with Solomon’s action of building a house for God (7:47). According to Stephen, this inverts the typical relationship seen in Israel’s history. The Deuteronomic explanation for the building of the temple was that it was done in fulfilment of God’s promise to David (1 Kgs 8:14-21). By contrast, Stephen announces that, by building the temple, Solomon acted in a way that God has not sanctioned. Solomon thus repeats the error made under Moses, when the Israelites made an idol and “revelled in the works of their hands” (7:39-41).
The argument leads us to expect that Solomon would incur the same wrath as exhibited to the people under Moses (7:42-43). Indeed, God’s opposition to Solomon’s building is evident in that it is not in the temple built by human hands (7:48) but in the world which “my [God’s] hand made” (7:50) that God is to be found. Stephen here quotes a prophetic text (Isa 66:1-2), but the message resonates with the way that Cynic philosophers mounted their critiques of idols.
The climactic moment of this speech provides a foundation for understanding the subsequent shift of focus away from the temple, and towards the house-based communities that will be established during the ‘turn to the Gentiles’ in chapters 8–12. The language about God in the latter part of this speech thus establishes a parallel set of antagonisms: between God and Israel under Moses, and between God and Israel under Solomon.
A further parallel can be drawn from the surrounding narrative: there is antagonism between God and the Jewish authorities who have brought Stephen (God’s agent) to trial. This antagonism mirrors both the antagonism which the apostles (God’s agents) have experienced from the same Jewish authorities (chapters 3–5), and the antagonism mounted against Jesus (another of God’s agents) by those authorities (Luke 19:47 onwards; Acts 4:27). Paul (yet another of Gods agents) will subsequently experience similar antagonism in his encounters with Jewish groups in the Diaspora (9:23; chapters 13–18) and in Jerusalem (9:29, 21:27-28).
In concluding the speech, Luke has Stephen turn his focus directly onto his accusers; he levels his own charges against them, depicting them as “resisting the holy spirit” (7:51). At this point Ananias and Sapphira come to mind; for a similar antagonism towards the spirit, they were killed (5:1-11). However, the tables are turned on Stephen, for those listening to his speech interrupt him at this point.
And so we come to the Lukan narrative about the fate of Stephen, the first martyr in the movement initiated by Jesus. After the long account of the story of Israel, Stephen’s martyrdom (7:54-8:1a) is told. There is reinforcement of the validity of his point of view which comes through language about the divine. in what is narrated, in typical Lukan style.
Stephen is once again described as “filled with the spirit” (7:55, evoking 6:3,5). He 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 also aligned with Jesus; in 7:56, his description of the heavens opening evokes the Lukan account of Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:21), and his vision of the Son of Man is similar to the apocalyptic vision which Jesus paints at his trial (Luke 22:69).
Stephen’s two cries “in a great voice” (7:57,60) are reminiscent of the death of Jesus (Luke 23:46), and his dying words, “receive my spirit” (7:59), are patterned on the final words of the Lukan Jesus (Luke 23:46, citing Ps 31:6). 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 (Luke 23:34). As Luke clearly interprets 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, even if they are not explicit.
Later in his narrative, Luke has Paul describe Stephen as God’s “witness” (22:20). As already noted, the task of bearing witness is enabled by the gift of the spirit (1:8). There follows the seventh summary description of the community (8:1b-3), the final one of this first section, in which the opposition experienced by Peter and John, and more dramatically by Stephen, is broadened to include the persecution of everyone in the Jerusalem assembly except the apostles (8:1).
This leads to the scattering of the community (8:1b), an adversity which will come to be the primary means by which the promise of 1:8 is fulfilled—beginning here with Judaea and Samaria. The summary description also notes the role played by Saul in this persecution of the assembly (8:3).
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). The early church recognised the significance of Stephen, declaring him to be a saint, and honouring him as the first Christian martyr.