12 July 2019Acts 7:54-60
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. (v. 59-60).
Psalm: Psalm 2:1-8
This is the account of the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Accused of speaking against the Temple and Jewish traditions he brings his long account of the history he shares with his Jewish accusers to a conclusion. His reading of history suggests a persistent resistance to God’s promptings by appointed leaders, including the frequent killing of God’s messengers who foretold the coming of the Messiah, here called “the Righteous One” (v. 53). Perhaps this is a good choice of words for the forensic context since the accused is choosing to focus not on his own guilt or innocence but on the innocence of the one they had already crucified, thus emphasising their own guilt.
Although Exodus portrays God himself meeting Moses in some way on Mount Sinai and dictating the Law, the Jews had come to believe that angel messengers had acted as go-betweens. The council believes this divine origin of the Jewish law yet they have broken it as far as Stephen is concerned. They are enraged at his plain speaking (v. 54) but it is Stephen’s claim that he sees the Son of Man (ie Jesus) standing at the right hand of God that turns them into a murderous mob that stones him to death. Unless Stephen was speaking the truth his associating a crucified criminal with God in that way was the worst imaginable blasphemy. Stephen’s words reflect Daniel 7:13, which accounts for his choice of the description “Son of Man”, that occurs there, for Jesus, a title generally used only by Jesus himself, often in relation to his passion and subsequent glory.
Stephen makes two further utterances in his dying moments, both of which reflect words Jesus spoke from the cross; see Luke 23:46 and 34.
Although Roman law did not give the priests or anyone else the right of execution, and in any case judicial sentence was not apparently passed here, the biblical law for capital punishment was apparently followed to the extent that it was the witnesses (even if they were false witnesses) to Stephen’s crime who threw the first stones. Luke introduces Saul, whose conversion and ministry will dominate the rest of Acts, as the young (meaning “junior”) man who held their coats for the purpose, thoroughly approving what was taking place (8:1).
- In what ways might people resist the Holy Spirit today?
- You may know and remember what happens next in the story of Acts, but if not what do you imagine might have been the outcome to this first account of someone being put to death for their witness to Jesus Christ?
- Whom do you think you would like to address in your dying words, and what would you like those words to be? Could you perhaps speak them sooner?