The Stoning of Stephan

Acts 7:54-60 + 8:1

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears, and they rushed upon him with one impulse. And when they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him, and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they went on stoning Stephen as he called upon the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” And having said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death.

Stephan has been called, “the first martyr,” but that is actually not at all true; especially given that we have hijacked the word, martyr–more on this later. All the prophets were martyrs according to Stephan, himself, in his supremely superb, super-summary of the Scriptures. This is exactly what we saw last time, Stephan disassociated the people present from the prophets but links them thoroughly to their fathers, who killed the prophets. We now see the Lord, aligning Stephan with the likes of Abel, on down to John the Baptist and Zechariah. Stephan is in the hall of fame. Not only because he was killed for his faith, but because he proclaimed the truth, being a man full of “faith, wisdom, Spirit and power.” Not to mention that he was a table waiter.

We typically don’t name our children “Jesus,” in the west, with the exception of some Catholic and charismatic communities. This is due, mostly, to reverence. We don’t want to water-down the name of Jesus, even though it was as common a name as David is today. Nevertheless, most of those who choose to name their children “Jesus,” also do it out of reverence. I know many Stevens, even more Stephens but only know one, Stephan. I know a couple Noahs, several Samuels and Jonahs, more than enough Joels, too many Daniels, I don’t know any Haggais or Habbakuks, but do know an Obadiah and a Malachi. My own son’s name is Amos and I have lost count of the Jeremiahs and Michahs. What’s my point? If Stephan were truly the first person in history to die for Christ, wouldn’t we all name our first-born, boys after him? Hear me out because I am not taking anything away from the sacrifice of Stephan. He is the first martyr we see after the resurrection of Christ, after a superior speech of Scripture Summation. Nevertheless, many have paved the way for Stephan, which was what his stabbing sermon was all about. True Israel, confronting apostate Israel. Nevertheless, what an honor it was for Stephan to follow in the footsteps of not only the prophets, but of Christ Jesus. But do we truly believe that?

Before we go off the rails in an attempt to make martyrs out of ourselves, remember that literally, martyr means witness. We don’t have to die for the cause to be effectual change agents. Also, there is quite a bit of irony contained in the text for us in the anglicized West. The Greek word translated “martyrs” is actually used in this text, however it is applied to the witnesses to the stoners of Stephan and not Stephan–the ones who laid their coats at the feet of Saul. Here, we make the contextual connections because we seek to unlock the caged Scripture, which has been caged by our preconceived notions and presuppositions that have come from years of watching Christmas pageants and listening to mega-church pastors. Therefore we use the CAGED method of Biblical hermeneutics, where; context is king, author’s aspirations to his audience are apex, genre is the general, expository exegesis of examples enlightens and dividing rightly the word of truth either confirms or cancels our preconceived notions and presuppositions.

Therefore we must consider the context. Stephan has given the people present, made up of scribes, some from a synagogue and even the high priest, a superb summary of Scripture, in a stabbing sermon. The context is proof.

“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him.” We have discussed previously this phrase, “cut to the quick.” It’s where I derived the phrase, “stabbing sermon.” It’s meant to show pain and anguish as when one gets cut underneath the fingernail or some other extremely sensitive part of the body which would be extremely painful, resulting in angst, anguish, anxiety and anger. But Luke takes it a giant step further by writing that “they began gnashing their teeth at him.” This is where the CAGED method truly enlightens us to the state of mind of the people present.

We know the context and ask ourselves of the aspiration of the author while taking our vitamin E, searching the Scripture for examples. We remember what Jesus said about the afterlife of apostate Israel–“in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And if you believe that I am taking the words of Luke too far, continue to consider the context. Notice the juxtaposition between the Godless people present and Stephan; the people who are severed from the Lord, were cut to the quick, because the gospel either saves or condemns, and they gnashed their teeth and rushed Stephan with one impulse. We must not forget that Stephan was full of the Spirit of God. And that he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. There is a clear and biting contrast between Stephan and the people present, represented by the contrast of heaven and hell, good and evil, truth and lies. Remember that this all began with a lie; “And they put forward false witnesses who said, ‘This man incessantly speaks against this holy place, and the Law.'”

But their lie was found to be false as Stephan spoke his stabbing sermon, where he spoke about Moses and the Law, which, he pointed out to them, “you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.” We are also reminded how Stephan’s face, was like that of an angel; “And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel.” The Holy Spirit really puts the people present to the test, and they failed miserably, even though he lobbed a proverbial softball at them. Let’s boil this down to the lowest, common denominator. If I accused you of being a murderer and the son of a murderer, but you don’t want to be called a murderer, would you then murder me? Would that not prove my point?

No matter which way, which angle or with which lens we look at this scene, they all show the same story. Those who thought that they were Israel are not Israel. Blasphemy is punishable by stoning in the Mosaic Law but where’s the blasphemy on the part of Stephan? How does Stephan deserve this death sentence? He spoke nothing but truth in his stabbing sermon of scriptural summary. Yet, it was the synagogue that broke the Mosaic Law by bearing false witness against Stephan and now they murder him in cold blood. Sound familiar?

Stephan was absolutely right, they didn’t keep the Law, no one does. What happens to the Hebrews who don’t keep the Law? Better yet, what eventually happened when the Hebrews didn’t keep the Law?  It’s a one word answer that speaks volumes; exile. And not only from the land and temple but from the presence of God. Stephan saw the Lord sitting at the right hand of the God, the people present didn’t. Stephan forgave the people present for stoning him, the people present didn’t forgive Stephan for telling the truth. Stephan was full of the Spirit, the people present were filled with angst and rage. Stephan looked up, the people present covered their ears. The contrasts are obvious, we won’t dwell on them but remember them as we continue in the context.

“And when they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him.” Who else have we seen killed outside of the city? This is actually quite common in the Biblical era. Like most traditions, it probably develops from an overreaching of levitical laws. “Outside the camp,” is a common phrase found in the Law of Moses. In Deuteronomy 23, we see that the people were to go outside the camp, to, well, go. This makes sense, we certainly wouldn’t expect people to defecate in the middle of the camp, that’s disgusting. Nevertheless, it, and all the other levitical laws concerning, “outside the camp” were applied to Jerusalem by the dogmatic because Jerusalem was a holy city. We remember that the sacrifices were taken outside the city, as they were also a shadow and prophecy to Jesus. But there was a significant difference between Jesus and Stephan–more than the obvious.

Jesus was convicted in court, albeit an unlawful court. Jesus had due process, which was criminally contrived. Jesus was handed over to the Romans, though the Jews insisted on his crucifixion (generally speaking). Only after an incredible betrayal, an illegitimate, illegal, night court, and questioning from the Roman governor, who sought  to release Jesus, was Jesus crucified outside the city. This is all to say, Jesus’ death was premeditated.

Stephan, mid stabbing-sermon, was rushed with one impulse by those cut to the quick, gnashing their teeth at him, and driven out of the city. Yet I am reminded of a story from my cousin, when we were both young carpenters. We had worked together but during the time of this story, I had (temporarily) left my calling of carpenter to pursue youth ministry studies. He recalled an incident that happened during this time: he nailed his foot to the deck of a house he was helping to build. So well in fact, that he had to have his foot pried off the floor with a crowbar. Now I know what you are thinking; “how did he manage to do that?” This was my question as well and that is exactly what I asked him. His nonchalant reply left my beyond baffled; “I set the nail gun down on my foot and it shot a nail through my foot into the floor.” Problem; for those of you unfamiliar with how a pneumatic nailer works, it’s double redundant. Meaning that one doesn’t simply rest a nailer on their foot and have it shoot a nail, the safety must be depressed and the trigger must be pulled simultaneously for a nail to shoot. But it even goes beyond this, as I  replied to my cousin. First, the air compressor had to have been plugged into electricity to fill it with air. Also, an air hose has to be plugged into not only the compressor but also the pneumatic nailer. Then, and only then, could he have depressed not only the safety switch but also the trigger, while on his foot, thus shooting a nail through his foot into the deck. There is a long chain between not having a nail in one’s foot, to having a nail in one’s foot. That is, it didn’t “just happen,” as my cousin would have me to believe. In the same way, the stoning of Stephan, didn’t “just happen,” as I have led you to believe. Though it is not exactly like what they did to Jesus, there is a chain of events and a stream of conciousness. It may not have been premeditated but the context is clear, they were not acting in diminished capacity, an act of rage, or in temporary insanity/mob mentality.

Yes, they gnashed their teeth and were cut to the quick. They even rushed Stephan with one impulse, with the appearance of mob mentality. I myself wrote that they were in anguish and anger, filled with rage over the stabbing sermon of Stephan. All of this is true but it does not mean that the people present didn’t know what they were doing. Remember the chain of events.

“And when they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him, and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they went on stoning Stephen.” Like the nailing of the foot to the floor, where the pneumatic nailer had to be set on the foot, the safety depressed, the trigger pulled, the nailer coupled to the hose, the hose to the air compressor and the air compressor to electricity, the people present also had to have a chain of events to shoot themselves in the foot.

Filled with rage, the still had their senses. Otherwise they would have rushed him with one impulse and killed him on the spot with their bare hands. But they didn’t, notice the context. First they “drove him out of the city.” We consider the complete context and remember; “And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and dragged him away, and brought him before the Council.” We can not say for certain how far the seat of the Council was from the city limits, but we can take some vitamin E and use a pragmatic approach to make an educated guess. Yet, it doesn’t really matter how far they had to drive Stephan out of the city, but that they did drive Stephan out of the city. Nevertheless, we see from the story of the crucifixion and elsewhere, that the Council was quartered near the temple. A conservative estimation would be that the city limits were around a Sabbath’s day journey away. That is to that they had at least several minutes to change their minds.

But wait, it gets worse. After they drove Stephan out of the city, they began to stone him. Apparently though, they were not stoning him well enough because Luke writes, “they began stoning him, and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they went on stoning Stephen.” Their broadened phylacteries and lengthened tassels got in the way of a good stoning. They had to remove their outer garments, their religious garb in order to stone Stephan properly. Make no mistake, this is Luke’s aspiration to his audience. Why else would he have written this tidbit of trivia? Yes, we are about to transition from Stephan to Saul in the context and Luke does a brilliant crossover, literarily speaking. Nevertheless the inclusion of Saul didn’t need the fact that he was the keeper of the coats. Luke could have simply stated, and a young man named Saul was in hearty approval to the stoning of Stephan. But he doesn’t, he gives us the disturbing details.

As Luke is about to transition from Stephan to Saul, we will transition from Stephan to Saul, briefly, remembering that Saul was an eyewitness (martyr) to the stoning of Stephan. I think Saul, aka, Paul, can give us some insight into this text. People often forget that Romans 9, 10 and 11 have context, they follow Romans 8. As always, I am getting way ahead of myself.

We must consider all the context thus far in the book of Acts. We must remember the apostles being placed in prison and the great number of Jews who form the church. We have to remember where we are, in not only redemptive history, but history as a whole. Jesus has very recently been crucified, risen and ascended to heaven, set his Spirit and birthed his church. With every beginning some other’s beginning ends. Which came first, man or sin, falling away or the flood, belief or circumcision? Exodus or Law? Law or land? Disobedience or exile, prophecy or fulfillment, Death or resurrection? We are beginning to see the very beginning of birth pangs, in the book of Acts, as Jesus has promised. Stephan has summed up redemptive history as the apostle Paul, who was witness to this, explains in Romans 9-11, yet it begins in Romans 8, and Paul, like Stephan, takes us back to our Old Testament tutor.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.’ But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In our current cultural climate of Christmas pageants and mega-church pastors, we forget that Romans 8 leads us into Romans 9-11. All of Romans leads us to Romans 9-11. Paul doesn’t stop or break the flow but explains the deep dealings of the Lord that began at the fall, and again after another fall. He applies Psalm 44, to those who are in the Spirit, such as Stephan.

Notice, after Paul writes that we are dead to the Law but alive in Christ, he writes; “So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.” 

Then Paul inserts the phrase from Psalm 44, some of the greater context reads: “You do make us a byword among the nations, A laughingstock among the peoples. All day long my dishonor is before me, And my humiliation has overwhelmed me, Because of the voice of him who reproaches and reviles, Because of the presence of the enemy and the avenger. All this has come upon us, but we have not forgotten You, And we have not dealt falsely with Your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, And our steps have not deviated from Your way, Yet You have crushed us in a place of jackals, And covered us with the shadow of death. If we had forgotten the name of our God, Or extended our hands to a strange god; Would not God find this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart. But for Your sake we are killed all day long; We are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

Does this apply to believing Israel, such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or Moses, Joshua and the prophets, or Stephan? Or does it apply to apostate Israel; the fathers of the people present or the actual people present at the stoning of Stephan? Context is king and we see that which Paul saw. We also see that which Stephan saw. “Hold my coat, so that I can stone him better.”

I don’t want to sound irreverent–the opposite is true: I actually do wonder why we don’t name more of our children, Stephan. I hope to, once again, highlight the hypocrisy of the people present. You can call them Israel if you want but it’s clear to me that they are only blood descendants of Jacob. Clearly they were not the sons of God. Nevertheless, Stephan’s dying words were; “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Do you ever wonder if Jesus answered this prayer by sending Saul to the gentiles?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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