The In-Between Years - Part 42

Series: The In-Between Years

July 11, 2021
Brad Shockley

Episode Notes

The In-Between Years — Part 42

Last week we finally finished up the story of Stephen, the proto-deacon who preached a risen Jesus so effectively he ended up accused of blasphemy before the Sanhedrin, the powerful council of Jewish elders who held his fate in their hands.

Instead of defending himself against the charges, he preached a message. In his message he retold the story of the Israelites — the story of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and the Tabernacle — through the lens of Jesus.

He ended with bold words of condemnation, words the council desperately needed to hear but did not heed. Let’s go back and look at what happened in more detail and see what we can glean from this…

54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.  Acts 7:54–60 (ESV)

Stephen’s pointed words “enraged” the council. The Greek word enraged here is rare in the NT. It comes from a Greek root word meaning to be sawn in two. If you’re sharp, you’ll recognize we have been here before.

In Acts 5, Peter and the apostles had been miraculously freed from jail and went about speaking all the words of this life to the people. That got them arrested again and brought before this very council.

Let’s revisit that (Acts 5:27)… 

27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” 33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.  Acts 5:27–33 (ESV)

These are almost identical situations. They both involve persecution so fierce someone is in danger of dying. In Acts 5 though, a council member named Gamaliel called off the hounds, so Peter and company were let go. But in Acts 7, Stephen, our bold, Jesus-loving disciple isn’t so fortunate. He becomes the church’s first martyr, the first believer to die for his faith. 

The English word martyr comes from the Greek word meaning witness, perhaps because the ultimate expression of our witness to Christ is the giving of our lives (he gave his life for us after all). That sounds strange and foreign to us modern, Western Christians who cannot recall anyone we know or know of who lost their life for Jesus. We cry “Persecution!” when prayer is taken out schools or people can’t say Merry Christmas anymore. But what happened to Stephen was just the beginning of what would be more the norm than not for Christians leading up even to the present.

Christians in the early church especially, for two hundred years or so following Stephen’s death, knew nothing but intense oppression. The ones who died were called martyrs and the ones who survived were called confessors (they confessed Christ, refusing to recant their faith). We’ll talk about this a bit more as we move into chapter 8. The persecution beginning with Stephen’s martyrdom plays a huge role in the life and witness of the church.

Back to these almost identical encounters.

I think it’s fascinating and convicting to note that Stephen saw in his vision what Peter proclaimed and Jesus preached all before those same council members.

Stephen before the council…

56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”  Acts 7:56 (ESV)

Peter before the council…

31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.  Acts 5:31 (ESV)

Jesus before the council (Luke 22:66)…

66 When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes. And they led him away to their council, and they said, 67 “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe, 68 and if I ask you, you will not answer. 69 But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” 70 So they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” And he said to them, “You say that I am.” 71 Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.”  Luke 22:66–71 (ESV)

When Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man here, the council immediately asked him if he thought he was the Son of God. It’s complicated, but this almost certainly has to do with a vision of the prophet Daniel where one like the Son of Man came before the Ancient of Days and was given dominion over all things…

13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.  Daniel 7:1314 (ESV)

Those on the council knew the Scripture by heart, so they also knew the Son of Man was a title for the divine. Jesus’ favorite title for himself was “the Son of Man.”

So back to what Peter proclaimed and Jesus preached about being at the right hand of God. Did you note a difference between those and what Stephen saw? Jesus is seated in Peter’s message and Jesus’ revelation but standing in Stephen’s vision.

You know I gotta ask why? What is the significance of that?

Some scholars say “Not a thing.”

Others see it as Jesus standing, ready to receive Stephen into Paradise.

And yet others see it as a link to our Daniel vision. One commentator writes…

The view with the most far-reaching implications, however, is that Stephen’s vision links up with the original Son of Man vision in Dan 7:13–14, where the Son of Man is depicted as standing before the Ancient of Days. The primary role of the Danielic Son of Man was that of judgment, and the New Testament consistently depicts Christ in this role of eschatological judge (cf. Matt 25:31–46). The standing position may thus depict the exalted Christ in his role of judge. If so, Stephen’s vision not only confirmed his testimony, but it showed Christ rising to render judgment on his accusers.They, not he, were the guilty parties. In Dan 7:14 the Son of Man was given dominion over “all peoples, nations, and men of every language.” If this is a further implication of Stephen’s Son of Man vision, it ties in well with his understanding of God as not being bound to one nation or people. It is a vision of the boundless reign of Christ…[1]

This explains, I believe, why the council were so enraged, so offended to the point of crazed bloodlust. They had heard Jesus refer to himself as the Son of Man with their own ears. They knew, if true, it meant he was no mere man but was divine and in fact chosen by God to bring judgment. Stephen, in describing his vision, proclaims Jesus as the Son of God, the only one worthy to share the throne of YAHWEH and render such judgment. Those very men had rejected him and arranged for his crucifixion. They were guilty! That’s enough to ruminate on right there but…

There’s more to draw from Stephen’s vision.

We tend to think of visions as being more a dream than reality. But in the Bible, visions are “Witnessing something supernatural that is not visible to the naked eye.”[2] What Stephen saw wasn’t a dream it was real. It also wasn’t some portal opening to a far away reality, nor was it a day trip from heaven God the Father and Son took. It was a peeling back of the membrane separating a dimension existing in the same time and space and reality as our own we just can’t see it.What happened with the prophet Elisha and his servant demonstrates this. Elisha was so powerful a prophet he was able to discern what Israel’s enemies were doing and warn the king. He did this so many times to Israel’s enemy, Syria, its king decided to do something about it. In 2 Kings 6:15…

15 When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” 16 He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17 Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.  2 Kings 6:15–17 (ESV)

My favorite NT scholar helped me to see all this. Listen to what he says… 

[Stephen’s vision] doesn’t mean, by the way, that he could see, far off up in the sky, a small door through which a distant place called ‘heaven’ might just about be visible. Visions like this are more like what happens when you’ve been standing on a mountain in thick cloud, hardly able to see the person walking six feet ahead of you, and suddenly a great wind sweeps away the cloud and you can see not only your companions, not only the crags and peaks all around, but far away, down in the valley, the streams and trees and villages in the afternoon sun. All those things had been there all the time, but you can only see them when the mist lifts. That’s what it seems to have been like for Elisha and his servant when the Lord opened their eyes and they discovered themselves surrounded by horses and chariots of fire (2 Kings 6:17). That is what it was like, I believe, with Stephen. There was the heavenly court, suddenly superimposed upon the earthly one. Instead of the high priest and his fellow judges, there was the scene such as we find in Daniel 7, with the Ancient of Days, the God of glory himself, sitting in judgment, and with the son of man, not (as in Daniel) ‘coming’ towards him to be seated, but standing before him to act as advocate in the court. The human judges might be condemning Stephen to death, but the heavenly court was finding in his favour.[3]

Everyday all around us God is present and at work ushering in his kingdom, present and real in the same time and space — the same reality — we live in, veiled behind a thin membrane. This is why we say the kingdom of God is both here and coming at the same time.

One day that membrane will break and heaven and earth will come together once again. 

This comforts and convicts me.

Conclusion: As we wrap this up I want you to see one last thing. You know how Stephen, after coming to Christ, saw all the OT and its stories through the lens of Jesus? Consider what happens when we look at Stephen through that same lens…[4]

Both Jesus and Stephen possessed uncanny wisdom…

10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.  Acts 6:10 (ESV)

54 and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?  Matthew 13:54 (ESV)

Both had false witnesses brought against them…

11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”  Acts 6:11 (ESV)

59 Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death,  Matthew 26:59 (ESV) 

Both were accused of blasphemy… 

13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law,  Acts 6:13 (ESV)

65 Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy.  Matthew 26:65 (ESV)

Both prayed for God to forgive their murderers…

60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.  Acts 7:60 (ESV)

34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.  Luke 23:34 (ESV)

Both commended their spirits to God…

59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Acts 7:59 (ESV)

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.  Luke 23:46 (ESV)

We all talk about wanting to be like Jesus, but Stephen was the real deal. He lived like Jesus and he died like Jesus. By the way, that was probably the most distinguishing characteristic of the early church. Many Christians died for their faith as martyrs, but the way they died — in trust and confidence — stunned a lost world and eventually led to the overtaking of the very empire who persecuted them.

Stephen discovered in the end that God truly does keep his promises, like the promise of…

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Romans 10:13 (ESV)

He entered into the presence of that day God not because of how good he was but because of how good God is. He had called on the name of the Lord. His name represents his reputation, his character. His name is the name above all names. His name is the only one powerful enough to deal with our sin problem and overcome death.

[1] Polhill, J. B. (1992). Acts (Vol. 26, p. 208). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[2] Barry, J. D. (2016). Vision. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[3] Wright, T. (2008). Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (pp. 121–122). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

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