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If the preaching of the resurrection and the moral earnestness of the Christians had called forth at first the hatred of the worldly-minded Sadducees, so also, in the process of time, must Christianity show its opposition to the stiff and cold formality and the hypocritical self-righteousness of the Pharisees. Through Stephen, one of the seven special ministers of the church in Jerusalem, this was distinguished for his wisdom and miraculous powers. He was probably a Hellenist, i.e., of Graeco-Jewish descent. This may be inferred partly from the occasion of appointing these special ministers—the complaint of the foreign Jewish Christians respecting the neglect of their widows,—partly from his Greek name, and partly from his liberal, evangelical views. As to his place in history, he was the man, who first clearly brought out the opposition of Christianity to hardened Judaism, and he thus became a forerunner of the Apostle Paul, who sprang from the blood of his martyrdom. His views seem to have been especially influenced by the discourses of Jesus against the Pharisees (Matt. 23), and his threatenings respecting the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Stephen had many disputations with foreign Jews of Grecian education (Acts 6:9), and probably even with Saul of Tarsus; and no one was able to resist “the wisdom and the spirit, by which he spake.” Without doubt his object was to convince them from the Old Testament itself that Jesus was the Messiah and the founder of a new spiritual worship and that the Jewish nation had sealed its doom by rejecting the Salvation, which had appeared. This drew upon him the charge of blaspheming Moses, which was the same as blaspheming God. False witnesses accused him before the high council of having said that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple and change the laws of Moses. The truth at the bottom of this charge was probably Stephen’s opposition to the Pharisees’ over-valuation of the ceremonial law and the temple and his reference to the overthrow of the old economy of salvation. He might have derived his views on these points from our Lord’s prophecy respecting the destruction and rebuilding of the temple (John 2:19) and the cessation of all national worship confined to a particular place, be it Gerizim or Jerusalem (John 4:21–24). But it was a calumny when his enemies accused him, on this account, of blaspheming Moses and God. For the whole Old Testament, itself points beyond itself to Christianity, as the fulfilling of the law and the prophets.
The defense, which this bold witness delivered before the Sanhedrin, (7:2–53), on the inspiration of the moment, and with a heavenly serenity, which reflected itself in his angelic countenance (Acts 6:15), was not a direct, but a remarkable indirect refutation of the charge brought against him. In the genuine spirit of the Christian, he regarded not his own person; in holy zeal, for the cause of God, he forgot all effort to propitiate his judges. From his general vindication of the divine plan of salvation, every reflecting hearer involuntarily drew the application to this particular case. By far the greater part of his discourse, (v. 2–50), is a review of the history of Israel from the calling of Abraham to the giving of the Mosaic law, and thence to the building of Solomon’s temple, closing with a quotation from Isaiah, (66:1), against the carnal, superstitious notion of the Jews, that the Most High was confined to a building made by human hands. By this reference to the sacred history Stephen wished, in the first place, to testify his own faith in the Old Testament revelation, and, by unfolding the true office and relations of Moses and the temple, to refute the charge of blaspheming them; and secondly, to show, that the conduct of the Jews was always grossly unworthy of their relations to God; that, the greater his favors to them, the greater was their ingratitude and contumacy towards him and his servants, and especially towards Moses. He held before his accusers the past, as a faithful mirror, in which they might see their own conduct towards the Messiah and his followers. At the same time, he presents the dealings of God with his people as proceeding upon a fixed, theocratic plan; continually pointing to something beyond and reaching their end in the Messiah. Even Moses spoke of a prophet, who should come after him, and accordingly, the law itself looks away to something higher. The temple of Solomon was built merely with human hands—the type of another temple, of the worship of God in spirit and in truth. Probably he intended to enlarge more upon the third period, the Messianic predictions of the prophets, and their strivings against the carnal disposition, the scrupulous but empty formality, the ingratitude and obstinacy of the Jews. But he was interrupted by the rage of the excited hearers, who keenly felt the polemical sting of this history of their conduct. Exchanging, therefore, the calm tone of the narrator for the pathos of the earnest preacher of repentance, he concluded with the fearful denunciation (v. 51–53), in which he represented his accusers and judges as the true sons of the murderers of the prophets; held up their betrayal and murder of the Just One, as the climax of their ingratitude and iniquity; and threw back upon themselves the charge of impiety.
But by this discourse he, at the same time, precluded all possibility of his own acquittal. Nor was it his object at all to save his life, but solely to vindicate the truth. The members of the council gnashed their teeth with rage; but Stephen was transported in the Spirit to heaven and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of the almighty God, ready to protect and receive him—the glorified Son of Man, who, from the throne of his majesty, puts to shame all the machinations of his enemies. The fanatics would hear nothing more. They thrust him out of the city and stoned him without a formal sentence or a hearing before the governor, and therefore in riot; for the Romans had deprived the Sanhedrin of the power of life and death. The witnesses, who, according to the custom of the Jews, cast the first stones at the criminal, in testimony of their firm conviction of his guilt, laid their burdensome over garments at the feet of the young man, Saul, who seems thus to have taken a particularly zealous part in this execution of a pretended blasphemer, and to have regarded it as an act well-pleasing to God. Stephen committed his soul to the Lord Jesus, as the dying Lord had committed his to his Father (Luke 23:46). Then, kneeling down, he prayed, like his Master on the cross (Luke 23:34), now that the rage of his enemies was directed upon his person, that the Lord would not lay this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Worthy was this man, whose last moments reflected the image of the dying Redeemer, to lead the glorious host of martyrs, whose blood was henceforth to fertilize the soil of the church. The idea, for which he died, the free, evangelical conception of Christianity as opposed to the stiffness of Judaism, died not with him but was perpetuated in one of his most bitter persecutors, the Apostle of the Gentiles. But even his death contributed to the outward extension of the church. It was the signal for a general persecution and the dispersion of all the Christians, except the apostles, who felt it their duty to face the danger boldly and stay in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1, 14). Thus were the sparks of the gospel blown by the stormy wind into various parts of Palestine, and even to Phoenicia, Syria, and Cyprus (8:1, 4. 11:19, 20). The exemption of the apostles themselves from this persecution must be attributed either to a special divine interposition or to the fact, that the war was directed first and mainly against the Hellenistic portion of the church.
By Philip Schaff