Commentary on Acts 7:51-8:1
We continue the story of Stephen, although most of his long discourse to the Sanhedrin on the history of the Jewish people has been omitted in our readings. Today’s reading describes the climax of the story.
He calls those who have arrested him “uncircumcised in heart and ears”. Although they are physically circumcised, their behaviour is more like the uncircumcised pagans around them. They were resisting the spirit of God, who spoke through Moses and the prophets. Paul will speak later on of the ineffectiveness of bodily circumcision if there is not a corresponding circumcision of the heart. It is not circumcision which makes the Jew but his commitment to following God’s will. (And might say that it is not just the pouring of water at Baptism that makes the Christian. To ‘be’ a Christian means a lot more.)
Stephen attacks his judges as doing what their predecessors did to the long line of prophets God sent to his people. Now they have killed Jesus, the greatest prophet of all. It is not Stephen but they, his judges, who are not keeping the Law.
This, not surprisingly, infuriated the council members but Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, now had a vision of God in glory and Jesus standing at his right hand. He told the court: “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This was the title that Jesus had used of himself to emphasise his links with Messianic prophecies and, in the New Testament, it is very unusual for anyone but Jesus himself to use this title. The Sanhedrin knew very well that the one he was speaking about was the one they had had executed for his own blasphemies. To say that this executed blasphemer was now sharing God’s own glory was beyond the beyond. In horror, they cried out, stopped their ears to prevent them hearing any more obscenities.
All thought of a proper trial went out the window. Stephen was driven beyond the walls of the city and stoned there and then, just as Jesus, too, was crucified outside the city on Golgotha. Almost as an aside, Luke tells us that the witnesses put their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul, who looked on with approval. It was the right of the hostile witnesses in a case (here, perjured witnesses) to initiate the execution of a sentence.
Yet we can surmise that it must have been this experience which sowed the seeds of Paul’s future Christian faith. “The blood of martyrs is the seed of faith.” As he saw Stephen dying with such dignity and grace, he must have been deeply moved – and disturbed.
As he dies, Stephen follows the example of his Lord. He surrenders his life into God’s hands: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and he prays for his executioners and all their supporters: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
So many elements in Stephen’s death resonate the experience of his Master:
- His performing wonderful signs among the people
- His uncompromising challenges to the authorities on their integrity (or lack of it)
- The inability of his opponents to best him in debate
- The throwing up of false witnesses to discredit him
- A trial involving these false witnesses
- The vision of God in glory totally accepting Jesus
- The total surrender of his life into God’s hands
- The forgiveness of his executioners.
All in all, Stephen is the paradigm of the perfect follower of Jesus and hence a model for our lives.
So we have here too the ingredients of a true Christian life:
- Total commitment to Jesus as Lord.
- Readiness to speak up for one’s faith in spite of hostility and opposition.
- Readiness to lose one’s physical life, one’s possessions for the sake of the Gospel vision.
- An unconditional love for all, including those who would hurt or destroy us.
- A policy of active non-violence whatever the provocation.