For many of us there have been points in our lives when danger has come very near but we’ve not seen it. In these verses that happens to the group of important men who form the main Jewish council in Jerusalem – the Sanhedrin. And the danger is of their own making.
Stephen addresses the council in his own defence. Others have falsely accused him of being against God, Moses, God’s law and the temple (Ac 6:11-14). But Stephen does not simply defend himself. He also goes on the offensive & shows from history how Israel has regularly let God down and how she is doing so again! In language sure to offend, Stephen accuses the councilmen of disregard for God (v51). Their forefathers attacked His prophets and now they have killed his ‘righteous one’ (v52). Stephen is talking about Jesus who was condemned by them when he was completely innocent. These men talk big about having the heavenly law of God but they don’t keep it (v53)! How does the council react? With anger. Rage fills their hearts and faces (v54). They are the judges of God’s laws and are sat to decide Stephen’s fate: how dare he accuse them! But their anger is unjustified since it flows from pride, temper and a hatred of Jesus. The human heart is easily prone to such wrong anger and we should always be wary of it (Pr 16:32).
The problem is that these men just do not see what is really going on around them. But Stephen does. His eyes, opened by the Holy Spirit, see realities which they cannot (v55) and it’s thrilling. Humanly, Stephen ought to be bowed low under huge stress and anxiety in this room. But by the Spirit the courtroom he now sees is not the earthly one of the chief priest but the heavenly one of God. In some form of vision he sees God upon his royal throne with Jesus at his side, and the sight causes him to cry out (v56). He names Jesus ‘Son of Man’, a title used regularly by Jesus of himself which identifies him as having the supreme authority of God (Ps 80:17; Da 7:13,14). And why should Jesus have such a role? Because he is also the eternal Son of God. Hence Stephen calls him ‘Lord’ (v59) – the ancient name of God (eg Ex 3:15) – which reminds us that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit: three persons, one God. Stephen is experiencing the wonder of the Trinity (v55). And though we may not receive a vision like Stephen’s, every Christian knows God in the same way. We come to the Father through Jesus his Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, and gain the tremendous security of having the eternal Father as our own (Ro 8:14-17).
So though the council are focussed on their right to judge Stephen, he sees it otherwise. A storm of human bitterness may rage around him (v57/8), but Stephen is at peace, knowing that he safe is in his Father’s hands. This comes through clearly in the final verses of the chapter. Even though a chaotic and hate-fuelled mob drag Stephen out of the city to end his life brutally with rocks, God is plainly weaving the events together for his own purposes, as three things show:
(1) This nasty murder will haunt one man present (v58), who will end up travelling the world to spread the very message which, now, he utterly despises Stephen for preaching. Saul of Tarsus may stand nearby approving of Stephen’s agony but soon he will deeply regret it (Ph 3:6,7).
(2) Stephen himself knows his death is simply a transfer to a better place and, echoing his Lord (Lk 23:46), he asks Jesus to receive his spirit (v59). Luke reflects this hope by simply referring to Stephen’s death as him ‘falling asleep’ (v60) awaiting the day of resurrection (cf 1Co 15:51-57).
(3) Stephen knows that he’s not the one in danger here: his enemies are. Jesus normally sits at God’s right hand (Lk 22:69), but here he is standing (v56) as though ready to punish those who are abusing his innocent friend. So the martyr cries out with his final breath for Jesus not strike these men but show them mercy (v60 cf Lk 23:34). He protects his murderers from their greatest problem: their failure to see God. We must pray that we do not fall into the same mistake because it leaves us blind to the greatest danger of all: the loss of our souls (Lk 12:5).