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The Stoning of Stephen

Sermon passage: (Acts 7:54-60) Spoken on: May 26, 2013
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Pastor Wilson Tan
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Acts

Tags: Acts, 使徒行传

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About Pastor Wilson Tan: Pastor Tan served as a youth executive at the Presbyterian Synod, and as a pastor in Jubilee Church. He continues to serve in church as a cell leader in zone ministry.

Sermon on Acts 7:54-60

Stephen has been remembered in history as the first martyr of the Christian faith. The first of “seven men of good repute” to be chosen as the first deacons of the early church (Acts 6:5), who were appointed to look into the welfare of widows in daily food distribution. He has been described in Acts 6:5, as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people (Acts 6:8). Many church fathers, like Jerome, praised Stephen as a man of great learning and eloquence. He was truly a remarkable young man. It is assumed that he is a Hellenistic Jew, someone who is born a Jew but is Greek-influenced and Greek speaking. This explains why he would have a Greek name, Stephanos, even though he was a Jew by birth. His name in Greek, meaning "crown". Traditionally, Stephen is invested with a crown of martyrdom; he is often depicted in art with three stones and the martyr's palm.

His speech in Acts 7 is considered to be the lengthiest of all speeches in the book of Acts. Even though he was a Greek-speaking Jew, he knew the history of Israel well. However, many have observed that there are at least five discrepancies in his version of Israel’s history. Some believed that they were done intentionally by Stephen to state a certain theological position. And as he was brought on trial before the Sanhedrin, Luke described his face to be like an angel (Acts 7:1). Glowing and good-looking, I supposed. But again, it was not his looks that we are impressed with, but his faith.

The Temple
Traditionally, the focus in the story of the stoning of Stephen has been about his “martyrdom”. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, who was stoned to death for his faith. His death remains a testimony of hope for Christians who face persecution and even death for their faith. This is, of course, true. But if this is the only thing we remember about Stephen, I feel that we may have missed the main focus of his speech. I believe that the stoning of Stephen is more than just about “martyrdom”. I believe that Stephen’s speech is really about how God is at work in restoring the world through the lives of the three greatest men of faith in the Old Testament: Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. It is not simply a historical account of Israel’s past, but a theological account about God’s reign on the throne. Stephen tells them that God, the Most High, does not dwell in houses made by hands, in reference to the Temple. The Jews associated the Temple with the presence of God. They forget that the Temple is only holy because God who is holy dwells in it. The Temple without God is simply a building made by humans. Nothing more.

This is not to say that the Temple is not important. It is important as far as it remains as a place of worship for the Jews. The temple was never meant to be a permanent dwelling place for God. But now, there is a new Temple, a temple that is not built by humans. It is not made by human hands. We no longer need the old Temple for we have the new Temple. The new Temple is Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, who sits at the right hand of the Father.

Let’s read again vv. 51-53, which contains Stephen’s response and charge against the Jewish leadership:
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Those who heard these things were enraged. Who does he think he is? Where does he find the guts to say such things? How dare him!

Stephen’s Vision
But this was not the straw that broke the camel’s back. Luke tells us that Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, saw a vision of Jesus “standing” at the right hand of God (v. 55). He might have lived if he kept his vision to himself. But he did not. Instead, he told them about his vision. Actually, it was just one sentence about his vision. But it was more than enough for them to hear. All he said was, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
For Stephen to make the same claim about Jesus being the Son of Man in his vision is theologically remarkable. In Luke 22:69, Jesus had spoken similar words: “But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”
Some of you may have noticed that Stephen’s version is slightly different from Jesus’. Can you spot the difference? [pause] Anyone?

In Stephen’s version, the Son of Man was standing, while in Jesus’ version, he was sitting. Why so? Some scholars believe that in Stephen’s vision, the Son of Man was standing in preparation to welcome and receive Stephen in his dying moments. Some do not see a significant difference between standing and sitting, other than a variation of expression (they actually mean the same thing). Some think that the standing position represents the resurrected Christ in heaven. Whichever the case, Stephen’s vision is a vindication of his testimony.

What an honor for Stephen to see the heavens open, and see the glory of God before his eyes! In his vision, Stephen saw Jesus Christ standing next to God but in his speech, but he declares that it was the Son of Man who was standing next to God. It was more than enough for the Jews to bear. It was utter blasphemous for anyone, even the Son of Man, to stand next to God. They covered their ears to stop themselves from hearing anymore of such blasphemy. They were yelling at the top of their voices to drown out Stephen’s words. They remove their garments and laid them at the feet of Saul. Some believe that their garments were removed to give them greater freedom in stoning Stephen.

Stephen’s Last Words
Stephen’s final prayer, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (v. 59) parallels Jesus’ final cry in Luke 23:46.
“46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.”
These words are part of an ancient Jewish prayer based on Ps. 31:5, which children were taught to pray at bedtime. “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.” Following that, Stephen also prayed for forgiveness for his persecutors, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Again, this reminds us of Jesus’ prayer on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Luke tells us that when Stephen had said this, he fell asleep.
The early Christians often used the concept of “sleep” for death. Even at Christian funerals today, some pastors continue to use “sleep” to describe the state of the deceased. And when they wake, they will be welcomed into the arms of our Lord Jesus.

Stoning by verdict or “lynched” by mob?
There is a big debate surrounding this passage. Was Stephen condemned to be stoned by a formal verdict before the Sanhedrin or was he “lynched” by the mob? What do you think? He started with a formal trial before the Sanhedrin, but as his speech went on, emotions were stirred and things got out of hands and the mob could no longer hear his blasphemy anymore and decided to take matters into their own hands. I believe that he was stoned to death by “mob justice”. Even though the Mishnah laws allow for stoning as punishment for blasphemy, formally, the victims were taken outside the city, stripped and pushed over a cliff 10-12 feet high. “They were then rolled over on their chests, and the first witness pushed a boulder from the cliff above. In the unlikely event the victim survived this first smashing; the second witness was to roll a second boulder form above” (Pohill, 209). We cannot be certain how the stoning of Stephen was actually conducted, but if we believe that it was “mob justice” instead of a formal verdict, then; it is likely for Stephen to have died on the spot outside the city from multiple-thrown stones from the witnesses.

Contemporary Significance
So, we ask ourselves, what can we learn from today’s passage? What significance does it have for us? Bearing in mind the difficulties involved in drawing an appropriate application into our lives from a narrative text like this. One of the difficulties in bridging relevance of this passage to us Christians in Singapore is that we do not face a direct persecution for our religion and faith like Stephen did. Last I check, stoning on grounds of blasphemy is not allowed in Singapore. Telling the local authorities that we saw a vision of the Son of Man standing next to God, might at most put us in IMH for awhile. We may experience some level of restraint in terms of evangelism but we do understand the reasons for it. We live in a multi-racial, multi-religious society and we must learn to respect people of different faiths in Singapore. I still believe that we have freedom of religion, freedom of worship and freedom to share our faith in a non-coercive manner. Contextually we cannot identify with the situation that Stephen was in.

BUT, I think we still can learn much from this passage. For one, we can learn to be faithful like Stephen did, in times of persecution. We can learn from Stephen on how to respond when we face persecution or even death. We pray for those who persecute us. We ask God to forgive them. We learn to trust in God even though we are staring at death in the face. We learn to commit our spirit, peacefully and willingly, to God.

This begs the question, what kind of persecution do we experience in Singapore?

I believe that our persecution today cannot be seen with the naked eye. I see persecution as an attack on our faith. Today, we face persecution on our core values as Christians: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5.22-23). Today, our faith is being challenged every day. One of my biggest challenges is how to remain Christian while driving in Singapore. I was told by a foreigner recently that Singaporeans are generally nice people, until you put them behind a driving wheel. It is not the black and the white matters that troubled us. It is the grey lines that is particularly challenging.

Recently, I spent a considerable amount of time at a well-known Christian camera shop at Funan IT Mall. The boss told me how difficult it was to conduct business in an honest and Godly way. He told me about how a prominent high-ranking official in Singapore had bought a camera from him before and came back a year after and asked for a one-for-one exchange for it. The camera shop boss refused him and he never came back. He asked me if he did the right thing. I agreed that he did. How do you respond to a customer who tries to cheat you? Do you give in to their demands and hope to retain them as customers? Or refuse them and lose them forever? Christians today are not labeled by the cross we wear on our bodies. Christians are also not defined by self-declaration. Saying you are Christian does not mean you are one. Christians today MUST not only talk the talk, BUT walk the walk.

Are we prepared to walk the walk of being a Christian? Are we prepared to face death like Stephen for what we truly believe in? I hope that today’s passage will continue to inspire us to be faithful and obedient to our Lord Jesus who sits at the right hand of God, watching over us, as our King.

Let us pray.

• Bock, Darrell L. Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 2007
• Fernando, Ajith. Acts (The NIV Application Commentary), 1998
• Petersen, David G. The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 2009
• Polhill, John B. Acts: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary), 1992
Interestingly, “this is the only instance in the New Testament where the term (Son of Man) is spoken by another than Jesus himself (Pohill, 207).
The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, “Stephen: E. Stoning”: The Acts narrative gives us no details of the manner in which Stephen was stoned (7:59–60). According to Jewish legislation, one dragged the condemned person outside the city to an elevated place where there was a drop-off spot twice the height of a human person. One of the accusatory witnesses then cast him down from this height in such a way that he would fall on his back. If the person died from this fall, the execution came to an end. But if he did not die from the fall, a second witness dropped a stone onto him, over the heart. If the individual survived these two successive attempts, all the onlookers then had to finish off the job with a volley of stones (cf. Deut 17:7). This is the manner of proceeding according to evidence provided in the Mishnah. Was this how it was done in Stephen’s case? We can only conjecture that it was so.