Chapter 16: Faithfulness, martyrdom and Saul of Tarsus
54 When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. 55 But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56 and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’
57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; 58 and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
The Council at the crossroads
Stephen has told the corrupt religious leaders clearly of God’s faithfulness and grace to His often wayward and rebellious people, the children of Israel. He has directly and bravely applied to them those lessons from Jewish history. They are now at the crossroads. They have another opportunity to recognise their own sins, to repent, and to turn to the only Saviour of sinners, the Lord Jesus Christ. Will they stop resisting the Holy Spirit as He leads them into the truth about Christ, the truth about themselves, and their need for forgiveness? They have been here before.1 Sadly it is more difficult to admit and turn from sin after each prior refusal to do so.2 That is why the Bible says, ‘Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation and Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts’.3
Acts 7: 55–59
Cut to the heart and the call home
Through the Holy Spirit Stephen’s accusers are ‘cut to the heart’. This phrase is also translated ‘pierced to the heart’ and ‘stung to the heart’.4 God has hit these sinners with conviction where they need to be hit—in their hearts. But with animal-like reactions they grind their teeth at him. As the murderous predators sinfully close in for the kill, the Holy Spirit fills Stephen. He does not look at his attackers. His gaze is elsewhere. He sees Heaven. He sees God’s glory. And he sees ‘Jesus standing at the right hand of God’. The Saviour’s finished work to redeem sinners on the cross meant that He ‘sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’.5 Now Jesus rises to be standing to welcome home personally His first martyr. There will be many more. They are still joining Him even today from all over the world.
Is Stephen overcome by fear? Not at all! The Puritans rightly taught that God does not give dying grace to live with, but to die with.6 Here we see the all-sufficient dying grace which God gives His brave martyr. ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’, he exclaims. As death approaches he cannot stop making much of his eternal Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, with whom he soon will spend eternity. How encouraging to all who trust in Jesus! When their time inevitably comes to be ‘absent from the body’ they will be ‘present with the Lord’ and will ‘be with Christ, which is far better’.7
As Stephen glorifies His risen and ascended Lord, the murderous religious leaders cry out. They stop their ears, which are already blocked spiritually to the voice of God. They run at him ‘with one accord’. They ‘cast him out of the city’ like rubbish. They stone him. What is his ‘crime’? To love, follow, serve, and speak well of Jesus.
Why don’t the Roman authorities stop this illegal killing by the mob? We do not know. Even today in some countries where the gospel is not welcomed, nor tolerated, nor widely known, sometimes police can ignore those breaking the law to persecute Christians. Sometimes current anti-Christian trends in morality and legislation, even in our ‘civilised west’, sadly lead to unjustifiable opposition and bias against law-abiding Christians by some in authority and others with media influence. One day all will answer to God.8
What Saul of Tarsus saw and heard
The crooked witnesses of Stephen’s alleged blasphemy now become his self-appointed executioners.9 Who guards their clothes while they stone him? None other than Saul of Tarsus, at this stage ‘a young man’. Jesus will meet him later on the road to Damascus. There He will reveal that ‘It is hard for you to kick against the goads’.10 Could Stephen’s death by stoning cause the Holy Spirit to continuously pierce the arch-persecutor’s conscience? Could that same conviction of sin bring him to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus? Paul, the former scourge of Christians, will confess his continuing awareness of his part in killing Stephen, ‘Lord, they know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believe on You. And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him’.11
Stephen remains as Christ-centred in his death as he has been in his fruitful life for God. He is still ‘calling on God’. He prays ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’. His assurance that Jesus is God increases with each dying breath. He knows the ‘Lord Jesus’ listens to him in Heaven. He is the ‘Son of Man’, a Biblical title demanding deity. He is also the Son of God and God the Son.12
When dying on the cross for Stephen’s sins, and for our sins, Jesus had ‘cried out with a loud voice … “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Having said that, He breathed His last’.13 Now Stephen prays a similar prayer to his risen and glorified Saviour. He, too, kneels down and cries out his last prayer on earth ‘with a loud voice’. This also echoes Jesus’ prayer from the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do’.14 Stephen’s love for Christ and for the lost—even for his murderers—is unabated. He prays loudly for all to hear, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin’. How many of his killers, like Saul of Tarsus, will benefit later from his prayer, repent and turn to Christ?
‘And when he had said this, he fell asleep’. He wakes up in Heaven where, as we have already seen, he is ‘absent from the body and … present with the Lord’ and he is forever ‘with Christ, which is far better’.15 Christ’s first martyr is home!
With eternity in mind, if you had the choice (which you have not!) would you rather be persecuted Stephen or one of his cruel persecutors? Who wins in the end? Who loses? Where will Stephen be a billion years from now? Where will they be?
Questions on Chapter 16
Acts 7:54–60 Faithfulness, Martyrdom, and Saul of Tarsus
A. Stephen’s frank talk to the Council members about their own sin brings about a strong reaction against him. How does he react to such cruel opposition? Why does he react like this?
Acts 7:51–54, Acts 7:55–56, 2 Timothy 4:1–5, Romans 10:17, Acts 5:29–32, Matthew 10:17–20
B. Why is repentance such an important part of the good news of Jesus Christ? What results from the continuing failure and refusal to repent?
Acts 7:54–59, Acts 2:38–40, Acts 3:19, Acts 5:30–31, Luke 24:46–49, Matthew 3:1–8, Luke 3:1–8, Mark 1:14–15
C. In how many ways do you see God’s grace sustaining Stephen as he faces persecution and then martyrdom?
Acts 7:55–56, 59–60, 2 Corinthians 12:9, Romans 8:37–39, Isaiah 40:31, Philippians 4:13
- They were against Jesus—see Mark 14:43 to Mark 15:15. They are against the apostles—see Acts 4:1–31,Acts 5:17–42 ↩
- Proverbs 29:1 ↩
- 2 Corinthians 6:2, Hebrews 4:7 ↩
- NKJV (cut to the heart), NIV (furious), ESV (enraged), NASB (cut to the quick), The Amplified Bible (stung (cut) to the heart (cut to the heart)). ↩
- Hebrews 12:2 ↩
- They also taught that God does give living grace to live with! ↩
- 2 Corinthians 5:8, Philippians 1:23 ↩
- Romans 14:12, Hebrews 4:13 ↩
- John 8:3–11 highlights the predicament of Jews wishing to stone to death (in that case for adultery: in Stephen’s case for blasphemy) in a land governed by Roman law. See how Jesus escaped the trap laid for him. (John 8:3–11 is best read in NKJV). ↩
- Acts 26:14 ↩
- Acts 22:19–20 ↩
- The Bible teaches there is one Triune God: God the Son, co-equal in the Trinity with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, is also the eternal Son of God. He took flesh to come to earth as the son of Mary who conceived Him by the Holy Spirit. His title Son of Man not only emphasises that Jesus Christ on earth possessed both a divine and a sinless human nature. Son of Man is also a title the Bible gives to indicate Godhead. See, e.g. Luke 21:27, Luke 22:48, Luke 22:69, Luke 24:7, John 1:51, John 3:13–14 ↩
- Luke 23:46 ↩
- Luke 23:34 ↩
- 2 Corinthians 5:8, Philippians 1:23 ↩