Stephen Bears Witness
Under the guidance of the Spirit, Stephen gave eloquent and effective testimony to the leaders of Israel prior to his death. The church experienced conflicts between its Greek and Aramaic-speaking members. The apostles instructed the community to select seven men “full of the Spirit and wisdom” to take charge of the matter. One of the seven men was Stephen, and Acts notes especially that he was “full of faith and the Spirit.”
Prior to his ascension, Jesus instructed the fledgling church to tarry until they received the Spirit. Thereafter, they became his “witnesses, both in Jerusalem and Judea, and in Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.”
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The Greek term rendered “witnesses” in English is martus. And not coincidentally, this is the word from which the English nouns ‘martyr’ and ‘martyrdom’ are derived.
In the account, Stephen is confronted by leaders of the local synagogue. They are “not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he speaks.” Therefore, they suborn perjury from certain witnesses who claim he is slandering the Temple and the law of Moses. And for this, the synagogue authorities haul him before the Sanhedrin for interrogation.
In response to the charges, Stephen recounts the history of how God summoned Abraham out of Mesopotamia, delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage, brought the nation to Sinai, the sins committed by the Israelites, and the design given by Yahweh for the Tabernacle.
In the wilderness, the Israelites compelled Aaron to erect a “golden calf” to which they offered sacrifices and worship – “And they rejoiced in the works of their own hands.” From that incident, the term “made-with-hands” became a euphemism for idolatry in the Hebrew Bible – (Isaiah 2:8-9, 44:9-20).
Despite her punishment for the offense, Israel continued in idolatry even after the construction of the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple building in Jerusalem. This national sin festered until Israel was exiled to Babylon.
And in Stephen’s day, many Jews harbored an idolatrous attitude toward the Temple, pointing to it as evidence of God’s favor and His election of the Jewish people.
TRUTH ABOUT THE TEMPLE
But according to Stephen, the “Most-High does not dwell in houses made-with-hands,” a deliberate dig at his opponents and their veneration of the Temple.
By employing the term “made-with-hands,” he insinuates their continuing involvement in idolatry. And there is irony in his words. While the Almighty does not dwell in temples “made-with-hands,” His Spirit certainly does dwell in Stephen, as his eloquence and wisdom demonstrate.
He concludes his defense by charging the representatives of Israel with “always resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your fathers did.” Despite having received the law, including its instructions for constructing and administering the Tabernacle, they persecuted the prophets, and most recently, committed the worst of all offenses by murdering God’s designated Messiah.
The Temple authorities do not respond well to Stephen’s words – “When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart and gnashed on him with their teeth.”
Remarkably, Stephen, “being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up steadfastly into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.” After his outburst, his opponents stone him to death, making him the first martyr for Jesus - (Acts 7:54-60).
FULL OF THE SPIRIT
Consistently in this story, Stephen is described as “full of the Holy Spirit,” and it is the Spirit that gives him the wisdom to answer his accusers with boldness and words they can neither “gainsay nor resist,” as Jesus promised – (Mark 13:11, Luke 21:15).
Stephen’s witness is a manifestation of the promise of Joel’s prophecy. With the outpouring of the Spirit, “My servants and handmaidens will prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heaven above.”
And that is what Stephen does under the inspiration of the Spirit when he speaks prophetic words as a testimony to the Jewish leaders. And his vision of Jesus “sitting at the right hand of God” is just such a “wonder in the heaven above.”
And his witness before the Jewish leaders is an answer to the earlier prayer of the church in reaction to opposition from the priestly authorities:
- “Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness” – (Acts 4:29).
Thus, in the book of Acts, and in fulfillment of Scripture, it is the Spirit that guides and empowers the church to execute its mission of bearing “witness” to the “uttermost parts of the earth,” beginning in Jerusalem.
And under the Spirit’s direction, even the judicial murder of Stephen becomes the perfect opportunity to testify before the Jewish nation. It is no defeat for the church. If anything, his martyrdom is an example for other disciples and a demonstration of how the Spirit works through the assembly to bring the gospel to even the unworthiest of men.