< May 14, 2017 >

Commentary on Acts 7:55-60

 

Acts 6-7 functions as a pivot point in Acts.

Before these chapters, the church is centered in Jerusalem. After them, the church moves out of Judea led by the Hellenistic Jews chosen as deacons in Acts 6. Stephen is one of these. This story of Stephen’s martyrdom follows directly after he charges the Council in Jerusalem with opposing the Holy Spirit, murdering the prophets, and breaking Torah (7:51-53). His audience is already seething before his vision (7:54).

Luke tells the story of Stephen’s death in five sentences. Verses 55-56, the first sentence, relates Stephen’s vision twice. Verses 57-58a describe the people’s enraged reaction. Verses 58b-59 introduce Saul of Tarsus for the first time, even as Stephen continues to be stoned. In verse 60a, Stephen advocates on behalf of those who are killing him to Jesus. Finally, in verse 60b, Stephen dies, or as Luke puts it colloquially, falls asleep.

Exegetical notes

Being filled with the Holy Spirit. In describing Stephen this way Luke establishes his voice and perspective as trustworthy, which then skews any reading of the other characters (see also Acts 6:5).

He gazed into heaven. Luke frequently uses atenizo, translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “gazed” to indicate perception beyond typical human sight. With the assistance of the Holy Spirit, Stephen, gazing into the heavens, is given a vision of heavenly matters.

He saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. This is the first and only physical appearance of God in all of Luke-Acts. Jesus only appears two other times in all of Acts of the Apostles: once at the outset, and once to Paul of Tarsus (Acts 1: 9). Thus, such a revelation is of great importance. As with other important revelations in Acts, Luke repeats it. He, the author, narrates it in 7:55; and Stephen, the only character whose voice we hear clearly in this part of the narrative, repeats it in 7:56. Luke, here, is echoing Jesus’s words at his own trial (Luke 22:69), a parallel between Stephen and Jesus that continues throughout these five verses. As part of that parallel, Luke is arguing that Stephen, like Jesus, was unjustly tried, sentenced, and executed, creating an anti-Jewish slant to this narrative that can have negative ramifications.

In saying that Jesus is standing at the right hand of God, Luke is not making a point about Jesus’ physical posture. Rather, Luke’s point is that Jesus’ position is established, that he has standing in a way that no one else does. This verb, histemi, will return in 7:60, as a dying Stephen pleads to Jesus on behalf of his executors.

Stephen’s declaration is one of only three times that Luke veers from using the aorist tense. The aorist tense, a tense that describes overall actions as though they were a single snapshot, is the typical tense of narration in the Greek New Testament. This is the tense Luke uses to describe the vision in 7:55. However, when Stephen speaks, he describes the revelation in the present tense. In so doing, Luke’s audience is drawn into the middle of the action as Stephen insists that he sees the vision, at that very moment.

But they covered their ears. This may be an allusion to Deuteronomy 13:8, where God’s people are instructed not to listen to anyone enticing them to follow other gods. Instead, such a person is to be taken out and stoned (Deuteronomy 13:11). Luke seems to be suggesting here that this is what happens to Stephen. Rather than hearing his words as prophetic, his audience hears him as enticing them to false worship. If this is true, they would be within their rights to stone him.

When they had driven him out of the city. Like Jesus, after a controversial sermon Stephen is driven outside of the city (Luke 4:29; Acts 7:58). Unlike Jesus, Stephen does not escape. Instead, the people begin to stone him. Here Luke switches tense to the more urgent imperfect tense. That the verb lithoboleo is only in the imperfect tense here suggests to the reader ongoing action taking place punctuated by cries from Stephen.

A young man named Saul. This is Luke’s first reference to Saul of Tarsus in all of Acts. He bears witness to the stoning of Stephen. Although it is unclear whether or not he participates in the stoning, he certainly approves of it (Acts 8:1). Only later, in Acts 9, does he become the famous convert and not until Acts 13 does he begin to go by his more familiar name, Paul.

Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit. This is Luke’s third parallel between Stephen and Jesus. Here, Stephen’s dying words echo those of Jesus on the cross in Luke’s passion (Luke 23:46). It is notable here that Stephen commends his spirit not to God but to Jesus. Jesus thus has a level of authority to receive souls that was not previously revealed.

Lord, do not hold this sin against them. There is some dispute whether this is meant to be a parallel verse to Luke 23:34. Early manuscripts of Luke lack that verse, which would make the question moot. Of interest, though, is Jesus’ role here as judge of sin. The verb histemi reappears here. Just as Jesus has standing on God’s right, so also Jesus decides which sins stand at the time of judgment.

Theological considerations

All three persons of the Trinity are present in this narrative, although God mainly functions as a reference point for Jesus. Jesus is shown as having divine standing, the ability to receive souls and forgive sins. The Holy Spirit reveals divine visions to those who are faithful.

Stephen models trust in Jesus and forgiveness, even as he is being martyred. Like Stephen, God’s people might die for their faith. However, Luke challenges the reader to trust the risen Christ and to bear witness to the truth of his resurrection and exaltation, even if it means death.