Stephen Indicts Israel's Religious Leaders
Richard Baxter said, “I preach as a dying man to dying men and women as if never to preach again.”
Did Stephen know what would happen to him?
We wonder about the approach Stephen took when he was given the opportunity to speak.
1. This was a great crisis in Israel’s national history.
A. There had come such a crisis during the ministry of Jesus when He said:
4. Now the second crisis had come in the history of people.
The force of the Greek is that the members of the Sanhedrin wailed in erratic, wild, jeering shouts of anger and hostility. The descriptive phrase “cut to the heart” means that they were convicted. The raw nerve had not only been touched, it had been cut to the core. The shift of pronouns to the prophetic “you!” and the attack on the temple were more than they were willing to take. “Gnashed at him with their teeth” means that they ground their teeth at Stephen with a hissing sound, exposing them in a hateful screwing up of their mouths. Not a pretty picture. And in comparison, for Saul to observe, was the radiant face of Stephen. Peace, rectitude, resoluteness, joy.
Stephen’s face was not set against the grim faces of the Sanhedrin but up toward the face of the Lord. And Stephen’s face was magnificently shining because he never took his eyes off the face of His Lord.
Then the rage of the Sanhedrin, pent up so long in repeated trials and confrontations with the followers of Jesus, could be contained no longer. It was as if someone had given a prearranged signal and they all rushed in on Stephen. Mob violence instigated and manipulated by an expert: Saul.
It was no easy feat to arrange a death sentence and assure an execution and not become directly involved. But Saul was no ordinary man. His brilliance, fired by his hatred, worked it all out. Later, near the end of his life, he clearly stated that he added his vote to the Sanhedrin’s death sentence. His task, however, was to assure Stephen’s death while getting no blood on his own hands. After Stephen was beaten, the Jews were in a frenzy. They had to finish what they had started. Since no blood could be spilled in the temple precincts, they dragged the dazed and beaten Stephen outside the city wall for one of the most painful and prolonged methods of execution imaginable. He was pushed over the wall into the pit from which there was no escape from the hurling stones. A blow to the head with death-giving concussion would have been merciful. The crowd that day was not as accurate or precise in aim as an execution squad. Probably the vital death blow was a long time in coming.
And Saul stood by to make sure that everything measured up to the Deuteronomic code for stoning a blasphemer. The witnesses were the first ones to throw the stones. Luke tells us they stripped their outer garments for the task and laid their garments at Saul’s feet. He watched as the first stones plummeted down on Stephen’s body and then his face. How could it be that that face was still radiant? Who was this man anyhow? What was it that gave him that kind of courage?
Stephen’s prayer as the death blow hit revealed to Saul Whom the martyr believed was his sustaining power. A chill must have run through the Pharisee’s heart as he heard the name he had grown to hate so passionately: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (7:59). And as Stephen was dying, he prayed for his executioners. Saul looked at his face one more time. It held the same peace in death as in living. That face was to haunt him until the day he met the One whose love and power it reflected. But in the meantime his hatred was mingled with one more emotion—fear. And that made him more determined and dangerous than ever!
Before we close this phase of Luke’s unfolding drama, we need to pause and reflect on what Stephen’s death did to the church.
First of all, it raised profound questions. What was the Lord doing? How could He allow this to happen to one so faithful as Stephen? Why didn’t He stop it? Stephen was at the height of his power as a witness. Why snuff out so bright a flame? We’ve all asked these questions about tragedies and unexplainable reversals.
The questions about Stephen, however, can be answered only by the reflection of history. The Lord was not finished. Through Stephen’s death the sect of Judaism was forced to flee Jerusalem. The Christians were scattered, and their faith with them. They were to be part of the worldwide movement. They would never have left Jerusalem without the persecution and punishment inflicted on them. The death of Stephen ignited the fire of the pent-up hatred for the followers of Jesus. It exploded with fury. They had to leave. And their deployment in a dispersion throughout the cities of the Mediterranean basin planted the seed which would germinate until it was ready to sprout in indigenous churches.
The saying is true: the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. This is never more true than with the blood of the first martyr. Stephen, whose natural crown of human ability was crowned with gifts of the Lord’s Spirit, then His crown of thorns, and finally the crown of glory, had lived a relatively short life. But he accomplished his purpose. Stephen was the turning point, and eventually the cause of the gnawing questions of Saul of Tarsus that only the Lord could answer.