"But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 'Look,' he said, 'I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.' At this the covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him." (Acts 7:55-57)
This is where we left off yesterday. The breaking point was Stephen making reference to the fact that he saw the Son of man standing at the right hand of God. The Son of Man, of course, was Jesus. The Sadducees did not believe in the physical resurrection. To accept the vision would mean they accepted the resurrection. This they refuse to do. They killed Stephen.
"While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' Then he fell on his knees and cried out, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' When he had said this, he fell asleep." (Acts 7:59-60)
I'll return to verse fifty-eight in just a moment. The prayer of Stephen is almost identical to another prayer in the Bible. Perhaps you remember Jesus praying from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34) It is interesting that Luke wrote both of these passages. Stephen, the first martyr, is portrayed as having the same forgiving spirit as Jesus. Then, we are told that Stephen "fell asleep." Did he die? Yes, he did. But, it would seem that Luke wants us to believe that Stephen did not feel the pain of death. This is different from the agonizing death suffered by Jesus. Of course, what Luke may also want us to believe is that Stephen had his eyes fixed upon the resurrected Jesus. As long as we have our eyes upon him, death will not harm us.
How important is the martyrdom of Stephen? Is he that important of a character? I believe that he is a very important character and his death is crucial in understanding the importance of another character. Who is that person? "Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul." (Acts 7:58) Yes, we are introduced to Saul. Now, you may know Saul best by another name. Later, Saul becomes known as Paul. Now, we are told that Saul was a young man. How young? We are not told. Was he too young to hurl stones, therefore he had to guard the coats? I don't think this is the case at all. I think Saul played a much larger role. We are told, "Saul was there, giving approval to his death." (Acts 8:1) What role did Saul really play in the death of Stephen? Well, let me throw out an idea. I can almost picture Saul in the role of Charles Manson. You may recall the horrible crimes committed by the "Manson Family" many years ago in California. Several members of the "Manson Family" carried out atrocious acts of violence including the brutal murder of actress Sharon Tate. Charles Manson orchestrated the whole event and recently died in prison. However, he did not take part in the committing of the crimes. Was this the role of Saul? Was he the orchestrator?
From here on out Saul/Paul will become our primary focus. At least until we get through his letters and epistles. There will be a few exceptions, such as tomorrow's look at Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. After the death of Stephen "a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all expect the apostles were scattered, throughout Judea and Samaria." (Acts 8:1b) Now, if you recall I told you to remember Acts 1:8 when Jesus told the disciples: "you will be my witnesses in Jeruselem, and in all Judea and Samaria.." What was meant to stop the new movement in its tracks, actually helped its cause.
"Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison." (Acts 8:3b) Saul is nothing but a terrorist. Why is there such violence being waged against the church? Why did it not stop with the death of Stephen? Within Judaism there existed several parties/sects. Over the course of many years and various events in Jewish history the Jewish religion took on various identities. I guess you can say its like the church today. Several parties emerged within Judaism. These parties included the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and many others. All of these parties had those things which they held in common, such as; belief in one God and an eschatological hope. (the day would come when God would intervene in order to restore Israel) For many Jews, what we know of as Christianity was not a new religion, it was simply another party within Judaism. But, to many Jews the Christians (as they would be known) were heretics and were trying to persuade other Jews to become heretics. Also, many Jews were convinced that the reason they lost their independence was because the people had not been faithful to God and to the traditions of their ancestors. Therefore, they feared that these new heretics could lead to the wrath of God upon Israel. So, there were those who vowed to stop this from spreading.
Well, this is only the beginning of an in-depth look at what was taking place in the life of Saul and his quest to stop this new movement. Tomorrow, however, you will not want to miss our look at Philip and the eunuch. Have a great day.