This five-part series explores how the early Church separated from the Jerusalem temple, where the first Christians often met (Luke 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:20-21). Part 3 is about Stephen’s rejection and execution.
The rejection of the religious leaders
At his trial, Stephen lambasted the religious leaders: “‘You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!’” (Acts 7:51 NIV). Stephen accused them of betraying and murdering their Messiah.
The Sanhedrin’s rejection of Stephen’s teaching was merely characteristic of their rebellion against all the prophetic messages God had sent them in the past. Jesus had prophesied,
50 “Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world,
51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.”
–Luke 11:50-51 NIV
Ultimately, they refused the One to whom the prophets pointed. In the same way they condemned Stephen, they had executed God’s one true Messenger—the Christ, the Son of God.
Stephen accused them of the utmost hypocrisy: receiving what they considered to be the word of God, but refusing to obey what it said (7:53).
This climax of Stephen’s diatribe was ill received.
The stoning of Stephen
54 When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.
55 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.
56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
–Acts 7:54–56 NIV
The focus of Stephen’s teaching had been that God is not confined to buildings. He had quoted Isaiah 66:1: “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.’” (Acts 7:49a NIV).
The moment he finished speaking, Stephen was overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit and, looking up, beheld what he’d been teaching about: He saw the throne of God and Christ standing at God’s right hand.
Stephen had preached that God’s place was in heaven; the Holy Spirit confirmed the word and unveiled the Lord in His heavenly glory.
7:57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,
58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
60 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.
8:1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. …
–Acts 7:57–60; 8:1a NIV
In essence, Stephen proclaimed that worshiping at the temple and observing the ceremonial laws associated with temple worship were no longer necessary for Jews who had received Christ (Heb. 9:8-14 NIV).
As God revealed this to the early Church, the divine plan for them began to unfold. Yet there was a price for progress; Stephen gave his life for the word of the Lord.
In their sin, the people who stoned Stephen rejected his message and refused to accept what their Scriptures already stated—that God could not be contained in human-made structures. God was building a new house to dwell in.
We’ll learn more about this house next time.