Acts Devotional Commentary [Acts 7:54-60] Stoning of Saint Stephen

The Stoning of Saint Stephen

Acts 7:54-60

54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.

57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

Comments and Reflections

The stoning of Saint Stephen is the first of many recorded martyrs of the early Christian community. However, Stephen’s death was unique because he was the first known martyr at the hands of the Jews; at least that we know of. The Roman’s we’re not involved in this particular incident, though they will be quite involved in the killing of Christians in the decades to come.

Luke’s telling of Stephen’s stoning has a number of significant features. The first is the vision of the heavens opening up. Luke’s readers should have connected this passage here with the previous passage about Jesus’ baptism.

21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

However, in Stephen’s theophany it was not just God that he saw but Jesus at His right hand. No doubt that the Pharisees would have considered this to be blasphemous. The penalty for blasphemy was death by stoning. This was established in the OT scriptures.

13 Then the Lord said to Moses: 14 “Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him. 15 Say to the Israelites: ‘Anyone who curses their God will be held responsible; 16 anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death. (Leviticus 24:13-16)

As terrible it seems to stone a person to death, we have to remember that the Jews in this passage were abiding to the law that was given to them by the Lord. On the other hand, Stephen’s vision and words may not have fully qualified as blasphemy. The true biblical definition of blasphemy is more complex than just an incorrect understanding of the Lord or the Messiah. Blasphemy was an act of showing contempt for the Lord or cursing Him. It can also be levied against someone mocking God.

In Ezekiel, God describes Israel’s behavior as blasphemous.

“Therefore, son of man, speak to the house of Israel and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Yet in this your fathers have blasphemed Me by acting treacherously against Me. (Ezekiel 20:27)

In exodus, God describes blasphemy as akin to a curse.

“Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people. (Exodus 22:28)

The same is true for the events that precipitated the law given about blasphemy in Leviticus 24 (passage above). The law to stone blasphemers was given after a young man had cursed the name of God.

The son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name with a curse; so they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri the Danite. (Leviticus 24:11)

In numbers, blasphemy is described as defiantly sinning.

“‘But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel. (Numbers 15:30)

In the first century, blasphemy could take the many forms shown in the OT but it could also be defined as merely showing irreverence toward the Lord. This behavior would have landed you in front of the Sanhedrin, like Stephen. Your fate would then be in their hands. They could exact judgment or the blasphemer could recant.

Stephen’s words describing Jesus at the right hand of God may not have been considered blasphemy according to traditional definition but it did anger the Sanhedrin, who we know hated Jesus for supposedly blaspheming. Stephen’s minor offense would have been just as bad as actually blaspheming because of the history that the Sanhedrin had with Jesus and the apostles.

Another interesting note from Luke is that people were laying their cloaks by the feet of Saul. This is meant to introduce Saul to the book of Acts but it raises a number of questions. First, why were they taking their cloaks off? Secondly, why were the witnesses setting them down? Lastly, was Saul participating in the stoning or just a watching, and if he was just a spectator then did he also take his cloak off?

Why were they taking their cloaks off?

Paul mentions in his speech in Acts that he guarded the cloaks at Stephen’s stoning. Thus, both Paul and Luke attest to this event so the mention should be considered significant.

20 And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ (Acts 22:20)

The ancient Greek poet, Hipponax (541-487 BCE), mentions a similar event his story telling where one commands another to hold his cloak so that he can punch someone.

Take my cloak; I am going to punch
Boupalos in the eye. (Hipponax, fr. 70) [1]

Outer cloaks would also be removed for strenuous activities such as a sacrifice or manual labor.

And if he is called to a shrine of Heracles
somewhere, he will throw off his cloak to
raise up the bull in order to twist its neck (Theophrastus, Characters 27.5) [2]

Additionally, Plato make mention of a similar practice in his classic work, The Republic.

And then he, ‘Socrates’, he said, ‘after casting
such a word and statement, you must expect
to be attacked by a great multitude of
our men both many and not slight, who will,
so to speak, throw off their cloaks and strip,
taking the first weapon that comes to hand,
prepared to do dreadful deeds’. (Plato, Republic 5.473–74) [3]

It make sense that the cloak would need to be removed for an activity like stoning. Recall that the Greeks, who frequented the gyms, wouldn’t wear anything at all. And if the witnesses were going to remove their cloaks, surely someone should watch them. That was Paul (Saul) in this instance.

Why were the witnesses setting their cloaks down?

The passage states that the witnesses were the ones taking off the cloaks. This is a deceiving translation. We assume that the witnesses are the ones watching. However, the witnesses are actually the one’s bringing charges against the condemned. It was Jewish practice that those who accused the condemned would be the ones that did the stoning, or they would at least be casting the first stones.

7 The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting that person to death,and then the hands of all the people. (Deuteronomy 17:7)

What role did Paul play in the stoning?

By reading the passage at face value, little information is available to know what Paul’s level of participation was. He was not performing the actual stoning. That we can know because he was clearly watching over the cloaks. But is their a reason why he was watching over the cloaks rather than stoning? I think the easiest answer was that he was not a witness against the accused, thus he was not compelled to assist in the stoning. However, since he was the man watching the cloaks it stands to reason that he was probably a man of significance within the circle of people participating in the stoning. He was not part of the Sanhedrin but he was obviously well known enough that people were comfortable laying their cloaks in front of him for guarding and it would appear that this was his only function at Stephen’s stoning.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

Stephen’s words as he began to lose consciousness were recorded in Luke’s account likely because they were significant in helping the audience understand that Jesus would not be the only one to suffer unjustly at the hands of others. Like Jesus, many Christians would be put to death and also like Jesus, they best represented the spirit of the gospel by using the power of forgiveness, not retribution. In no part of the NT are Christians encouraged to fight back. The church was build on the blood of the martyrs and their commitment to peace and forgiveness at all costs.

Without demonstrating this level of forgiveness we simply cannot come close to demonstrating the gospel message in our lives. Forgiveness will ALWAYS triumph over retribution.

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