Stephen Amongst the Faithful Prophets in his Death.Acts 7:54-60
What is more they stone Stephen with a hypocritical display of being interested in the purity of the temple and the city of Jerusalem. Even though no formal verdict has been rendered, and no refutation of Stephen’s “apology” is offered to show from the Scriptures that he is a heretic, a false prophet who will turn the heart of Israel from the Lord God who delivered Israel out of Egypt, he is summarily stoned outside of the city gate! He is stoned with a vengeance!
Here one is reminded of the words of the Savior uttered in the upper room to His disciples “They shall put you out of the synagogues; yea, the hour cometh, that whosoever killeth you shall think that he offereth service unto God. And these things will they do, because they have not known the Father, nor me” (John 16:2, 3.) Literally this was the case with Saul of Tarsus, who stands here, no doubt, as one of the leaders of the Sanhedrin. Later he will write “For ye have heard of my manner of life in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and made havoc of it, and I advanced the Jews’ religion beyond many of mine own age, among my countrymen, being more exceedingly zealous for the tradition of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:12, 13) That here was a zeal of God but not according to knowledge is evident. (Romans 10:1, 2) Wherefore Paul can write many years later to Timothy at Ephesus “. . . though I was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: however, I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” (I Timothy 1:13) Saul thought that he was doing God a service, bringing Him a sacrifice upon the altar of consecration, keeping the holy place clean!
It is for this reason that Stephen is brought outside of the city. Stephen is treated and adjudged as one who had added to or taken away from the words of Moses and the prophets, and, therefore, as one whose part is taken by God from the book of life, and out of the holy city! (Deuteronomy 4:2, 13:10 and Revelation 22:19) He must be removed from the very presence of God as one who loveth and maketh a lie!
But what a travesty and caricature of the just judgment of God!
It was an awful thing to stone a man with stones!
It meant that it was a fearful thing to fall into the hand of the living God and his judgments as they are to be executed in Israel against certain terrible sins. The principle sins for which men were stoned in Israel were those against the first and great commandment. Those who were false prophets and would cause Israel to depart from the Lord and from His word must be stoned. (Deuteronomy 13:10) Stoning was also the lot of those who blasphemed the “NAME” of God (Leviticus 24:14, 16, 23) and of those who caused their sons to pass through the fire in the service of Moloch. (Leviticus 20:27) Then the witnesses must cast the first stone and then all the congregation must also throw stones. It must become the “judgment” of God executed by the entire congregation of God. Perhaps stoning was chosen by God for this very purpose, namely, that the entire congregation would need to execute it. It is not to be brought about by one man, but by all the people! All the people must say “. . . Who shall not fear, O Lord God, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy; for all nations shall come and worship before thee, for thy righteous judgments have been made manifest” (Revelation 15:4)
How horrible does this all become when Israel would stone Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, because they in unbelief would not enter into the promised land! And, again, how wicked does such stoning become when the Jews would take up stones repeatedly to stone Jesus, who is far greater than Moses! And what horrible iniquity does this become in the church when a Paul is later stoned in Lystra by Jewish zealots! (Exodus 8:26, 17:4; Numbers 14:10; John 10:31; Acts 14:19) For all such “stoning” is not the execution of the righteous judgment of God, but simply the act of a frenzied mob, who take the law into their own hands as would a modern lynching party in our day!
The majesty of God is out of all such casting of stones!
Thus it was here in the case of Stephen!
And, now, behold the true sacrifice brought to God in this very hour. Stephen, who is accused of causing Israel to depart from the ways of God, but who had shown this accusation to be entirely contrary to fact and to all the Scriptures, brings the real sacrifice to God.
Look at Stephen there outside of the city, made an outcast from the synagogue and from the holy place! He kneels down and prays. He kneels down before the throne of God in heaven, where Jesus is seen by him to stand on the right hand of God. He sees him as the Son of Man! He sees him, who in the deep way of his suffering and humiliation, in the way of bringing the great Sacrifice for all the sins of all his people was exalted, and passed through the heavens. He sees him as the High Priest who became us: holy, harmless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heavens! Before him he bows the knees. Presently every knee shall bow before him and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. What an “Amen” this was to Stephen’s apology. He seals his own faith in blood upon his knees. Here we see the blood of the saints upon the altar, for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Only the true church has her martyrs! And the blood of the saints is the seed of the church!
But heaven is seen “opened”. The way into the most holy place is approachable. Stephen boldly draws nigh upon his knees and is heard in the hour of need. And the Lord delivers him out of all his sorrows. His work is finished. He has kept the faith and there is laid away a crown of life for him!
He prays for those who stone him. He dwells on higher ground. His prayer to God is that Israel might be saved. Hear him pray “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Somehow he must have felt that here was a hardening “in part” of Israel. The Lord would not forsake his own people whom he foreknew. There is a Saul, a son of the Benjamites, before whom the clothing was put while Stephen is stoned. And the Lord heard this prayer of Stephen. Here is the longsuffering of God manifested in Israel against a hard and stiff-necked people. He has mercy on whom he has mercy. It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth! (Romans 9:15) This Saul will be known as Paul, and what Stephen preached here before the ears of Paul will bear fruit in his heart. Many years later he will write “But when it was the good pleasure of God, who separated me, even from my mother’s womb, and called me through his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the Gentiles . . . .” (Galatians 1:15, 16) Oh, what an autobiography, to write “but they only heard say, He that once persecuted us now preaches (as glad tidings) the faith of which he once made havoc; and they glorified God in me.” (Galatians 1:23)
Prophets receive a prophet’s reward.
Jesus speaks explicitly of this reward for all those who suffer for righteousness’ sake. It is blessed to be in the company of the prophets. Their very death is precious in the sight of the Lord. So it was with Stephen. “He fell asleep” we read. But what a rewarding sleep. Stephen did not lose his reward. A generation later the temple in Jerusalem is destroyed—never to be rebuilt. All the “Crusades” of the Middle Ages could not restore it. The house was left desolate. The reward of a prophet is that his word which he spake stands forever. Stephen’s “apology” is not hay or stubble which shall be burned. It is taken up in the annals of the Scriptures not only, but God made the chief of the persecutors the greatest writer of the New Testament Scriptures!
Our reflections upon and analysis of this “Apology” of Stephen has become a bit longer than we anticipated. Perhaps it is not presumptuous to write a brief resume here of the chief facets which we have attempted to set forth. More than one reader, who has followed this series of contributions and essays, suggested that these would be read with more profit if a bird’s-eye view were given of the subject matter treated.
We will therefore try to meet that expressed need.
We have called attention to the following:
1. The General Situation of the Church at the time of Stephen.
2. The Cruel Fact of Stephen’s Being Brought to Trial.
3. The Shining Face of Stephen.
4. The Question: Are These Things So?
5. The Chief Points of Stephen’s Apology:
a. The Starting-Point in Stephen’s Address: the God of Glory.
b. The Argument from the Abrahamic Promises.
c. The Argument from God’s Word Concerning and to Moses.
d. The Argument from the Divine Purpose in the Tent of the Testimony.
e. The Argument that Idol-Worshippers Seek Temples made with Hands.
6. The Judges of Stephen Indicted by the Scriptures.
7. Stephen Amongst the Faithful Prophets in his Death.
Our prayer is that the King of his church Himself may bless the readers in reading these articles with a deep desire to more fully appreciate the meaning of the Old Testament Scriptures!
May the words of Paul be ours when he says: O the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counselor? or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.