In this essay we conclude our study of Acts 2:1-8:1a, which records the disciples’ witness in Jerusalem prior to their witness in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). We also characterized the section as a series of firsts for the Church. We already have dealt with parts I-III of Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin. Those three parts focused on Abraham, Joseph, and Moses respectively. In this fourth part (7:44-50), Stephen focuses on David and Solomon.
In verse 44 Stephen reminds the Sanhedrin that Israel not only had Moses and the law while wondering in the wilderness, they also had the “tent of testimony.” “Tent of testimony is the Septuagint’s Greek translation of the Hebrew “tent of meeting.” The “tent of testimony,” also known as the “tabernacle,” was a powerful symbol of God’s constant presence among the people. And when God directed Israel to move, they carried the tabernacle with them, all the way to the Promised Land (v. 45).
This was important to Stephen’s defense, because it meant that God not only was present with Israel in the wilderness, but they also worshipped him there, which means they worshipped him outside of the Holy Land.
The mention in verse 45 of Joshua as the one who led Israel into the Promised Land is more significant than it looks on the surface. The name Joshua is the Old Testament equivalent of the name Jesus. It seems no accident that the leader who led Israel into the earthly Promised Land had the same name as the Leader (capital L) who leads God’s people into the heavenly Promised Land.
After David had become king and had put down his enemies, he wanted to build a temple that would be a more beautiful and permanent symbol of God’s presence in Israel than the tabernacle. He recognized that his own palace was much more beautiful and well appointed than the tabernacle. And that fact weighed heavily on him. But God would not allow him to build a temple. That was left for David’s son Solomon to do (vv. 46-47).
Next, in verses 48-50, Stephen said, “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands.” Then he quoted Isa. 66:1-2a: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things”?
With this statement and quotation, Stephen was making the important point that God Didn’t live in the temple. He couldn’t be confined there. Solomon in his day was perfectly aware of this truth. In his prayer of dedication, Solomon prayed, “But will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heave and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built” (2 Chron. 6”18).
So Solomon understood the symbolic nature of the temple. He didn’t expect God literally to live in the temple. And neither did Stephen. The apostle Paul also affirms this teaching in Eph. 2:19-22. In that Scripture Paul declares that Jesus is the cornerstone of the temple, and the apostles and prophets are the foundation, and that believers in Christ make up the rest of the holy temple of God, in which God dwells. Thus God does not live in tents or buildings. Rather he lives in his people.
At this point Stephen’s defense ends. To summarize the defense, the God of Israel is not limited to any one place. God appeared to Abraham in idolatrous Mesopotamia (v. 2). God appeared to Moses in the wilderness of Midian and declared the part of it on which Moses was standing to be holy ground (vv. 30, 33). As Israel moved around the wilderness after leaving Egypt, God moved with them. Indeed he led them. Yet the Most High does not live in houses made by men (v. 48). God cannot be localized. He cannot be confined to a temple or any other kind of house. God’s home on earth is with his people who are in Christ. In other words, wherever God’s people were, there you will find God. Thus Stephen did not blaspheme God, the temple, or the law, as charged by the false witnesses. Nor was he teaching that Jesus did any such thing. Stephen was innocent of the charges.
Having made his defense, in verses 51-53 Stephen goes on offense and makes accusations against the Sanhedrin, some of which were similar to those made against him. He begins by calling them “stiff-necked,” that is stubborn. Then he accuses them of having uncircumcised hearts and ears, which means they were hypocritical. They were circumcised outwardly, symbolizing deep spirituality and commitment. But their inward spirituality and commitment did not match up with the outward symbolism.
Next, Stephen presses home his charges against the Sanhedrin in greater detail. There are three charges. First, they always are resisting the Holy Spirit, just as their ancestors did (v. 51). Second, the ancestors persecuted and killed the prophets who had foretold the coming of the Righteous One, meaning the Messiah. And now they had persecuted and killed the Righteous One himself (v. 52). And third, they had the privilege of receiving the law, but had refused to obey it (v. 53). These are very serious charges.
The members of the Sanhedrin were enraged by Stephen’s accusations, which they believed confirmed their accusations against him (v. 54). But while they were getting bent out of shape, Stephen was seeing a vision of God’s glory and Jesus standing at the right hand of God (vv. 55-56).
Notice that Stephen refers to Jesus as the Son of Man (v. 56). This is the only occasion in the New Testament that anyone other than Jesus himself uses this title as a messianic designation. Obviously the Church never picked it up as a popular designation (Cf. Dan. 7:13-14).
The “they” in verse 58, who dragged Stephen outside the city where they could stone him, could have included more than the members of the Sanhedrin. The crowd mentioned in 6:12 likely still was present and could have joined in on the “fun.”
Of course there is a serious question about the legality of Stephen’s execution. The Sanhedrin may have pronounced him guilty, which would account for the official witnesses who laid their coats at the feet of Saul (who later became the apostle Paul). When an execution by stoning took place, the witnesses were required to throw the first stones (Deut. 17:6-7), and they would have laid aside their outer coats to do that. But the Jews had no authority to utilize the death penalty without the Roman procurator’s permission. And there is no indication that they sought that permission.
During the stoning Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (v. 59). This was quite similar to what Jesus had prayed when he died. He said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk. 23:46). The fact that Jesus prayed to the Father and Stephen prayed to Jesus tells us something significant about the theology of the infant Church. Stephen clearly believed in Jesus’ essential deity. For Stephen, Jesus was God.
Stephen had something else to say before he died. As the stones flew, Stephen knelt down and prayed loudly, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (v. 60). The NRSV then reads, “When he had said this, he died.” But the Greek literally says, “he fell asleep,” which in that culture was a common euphemism for death. I mention this because death by stoning was a brutal way to die. And Stephen remained calm and peaceful throughout the whole ordeal in direct contrast to the anger, and turmoil of those killing him. And to say “he fell asleep” rather than “he died,” symbolizes thecalmness and peace of Stephen’s death
There are several obvious parallels between the deaths of Stephen and Jesus. In both cases false witnesses came forward to produce a conviction. In both cases the primary charge was blasphemy. And in both cases each prayed for forgiveness of the executioners and that God would receive his spirit when he died. Thus did Stephen, consciously or unconsciously, reflect his Lord Jesus as he died.
The account ends with Luke’s announcement in 8:1a that Saul, though he evidently did not directly participate in the killing of Stephen, nevertheless approved of the stoning. Thus Stephen became the first martyr of the Christian Church.