Acts 7: Stephen’s Martyrdom

 Chapter Overview:  Acts 7 recounts the martyrdom of Stephen, the very first Christian martyr.  The opening of the chapter finds him before the Jewish council ably refuting the charges of blasphemy made against him.  At the same time, the chapter also finds Stephen dramatically prosecuting his accusers, inciting them to stone him to death.  The chapter closes with Stephen praying very much the same way which Jesus did when dying on the cross–praying that God would receive his spirit and praying for his enemies.  What the world saw in Christ they would see again in Christ’s martyrs.  And it is in the furnace of persecution that the world truly sees the love of God in Christ.

Instructional Objectives

  1. Tell how Stephen begins his defense of himself before the Jewish council.
     
  2. Explain how Stephen was able to use Moses in his argument to the Jewish council.
     
  3. State the indictment Stephen raised against the Jewish council, and what their reaction to Stephen was.
     
  4. Relate the last events that closed with the death of Stephen.
     
  5. State the very last words Stephen spoke.

 Acts 7 Chapter Outline

   I.  Stephen’s Message (7:1-53)

        Stephen’s Answer to the Charges Made Against Him
        Stephen’s Countercharges Against the Jews

  II.  Stephen’s Martyrdom (7:54-60)

         His Murder
         His Honor
         His Prayer

 Acts 7 Learning Vocabulary

construe:  to cause a particular understanding of something

covenant:  a formal agreement

culminate:  to reach the last and final point

gnashing:  biting and grinding of the teeth

hiatus:  a break or pause in the process of something

indictment:  a formal charge of a crime

impute:  to apply to one’s account

martyrdom:  the act of dying for one’s beliefs

replete:  full and complete

reproach:  something worthy of criticism

subjugation:  to forcibly put down or under

zenith:  highest point

 == Stephen’s Martyrdom – Acts 7 ==
 Action Application: “Do not charge them with this sin.”

 I. Stephen’s Message (7:1-53)

The circumstance of Stephen’s message finds him before the Jewish council having to answer the charges made against him in Acts 6.  These charges were basically two, the first being blasphemy against the temple, and the second being blasphemy against the Law, or more particularly against the customs given to the people by Moses.  The former was concerned with a place, the latter with a person.  As he stood before the Jewish council to answer the these charges, Stephen’s face had the appearance of an angel.

Stephen’s Answer to the Charges Made Against Him (7:1-52).   At the outset of his answer, Stephen simply recounts the history of God’s people, and in doing so shows the charges made against him to be baseless.  Moreover, as he recounts Israel’s history, Stephen exposes the ongoing problem the nation had with accepting God’s Word–a problem which had culminated in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and persecution of His followers.

 Using Abraham (7:1-8)

Stephen’s defense before the Jewish council began with Abraham, the one whom the Jews regarded as the father of their nation.  At the time of Abraham there was no temple in which to worship and there were no Mosaic customs to follow either.  Right standing before God, then, was neither dependent on a place nor a person.  It was solely dependent on faith in God, and more particularly faith in the Word of God.  Genesis 15:6 says of Abraham, “And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.”  Considering the fact that Abraham had just inquired of God about an heir, it is apparent that his faith was more than believing in God.  It was also believing in what God said about the Heir to come.  That heir, we know, to be Jesus Christ.  Just as Abraham looked forward to the coming of God’s Son, we today look back in time when God’s Son came.

Stephen also makes mention of the covenant of circumcision which God gave to Abraham.  Also referred to as the Abrahamic Covenant, the covenant of circumcision, draws attention to the sign of the covenant (circumcision) which came after God declared Abraham righteous.  Had it come before, Abraham’s right standing before God might be construed to be established on the sacred ritual of circumcision, but this was not the case.  The sign of the covenant (circumcision) is given two chapter later in Genesis 17.  The New Testament ritual of baptism must viewed the same way.  It does not impute righteousness, only faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ does that. 

 Using Joseph (7:9-16)

After Stephen’s remarks about Abraham, he speaks to the Jewish council about Joseph, high-lighting those things about Joseph which correspond to Jesus Christ.  All the terrible things Joseph’s brothers did to him–their open hostility, their conspiring to murder him, their selling him off as a slave, their lies to their father–all were motivated out envy.  Their envy stemmed from the favor their father gave him, and made more so by the fact that Joseph exposed their sins (Genesis 37:2), and by the fact that he revealed to them that he would reign over them one day (Genesis 37:5-10).

As it was with the patriarchs of Israel, so also it was with Jesus Christ.  The fathers of the nation in Christ’s First Advent behaved no differently than the patriarchs in Joseph’s day.  As Jacob’s sons had envied their brother, Joseph, God’s people also envied Jesus.  This detail did not go unnoticed by Pilate, “For he knew that for envy they had delivered him” (Matthew 27:18).  The conflict between Joseph and his brothers was prophetic of Jewish nation’s rejection and murder of their own Messiah.  Those before whom Stephen stood were the instigators behind the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

 Using Moses and the Prophets (7:17-37)

Stephen continues his defense and expands his prosecution of the Jewish leaders by his comments about Moses, the one through whom God gave the Law.  Stephen draws a number of important parallels between Moses and Jesus Christ along with ancient Israel and with the Israel in the days of the Roman empire.  Some of these are implied and others expressed.

  • Israel was then being subjugated by Roman authority much the same way it had been in Egypt in Moses’ day.  Coincidentally, several centuries had separated God’s people from the time that they had heard a revelation of God.  There is a hiatus between Joseph and Moses, and another between Malachi and Matthew.
     
  • Israel had just recently rejected Jesus Christ as her King in much the same way Moses had been rejected as Israel’s ruler and judge.  “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” was the harsh objection of an Israelite whom Moses had attempted to stop from killing his neighbor.
     
  • God had certified Jesus as the Christ, the Jewish Messiah, through all manner of signs, wonders, and miracles.  God had done the same with Moses a millennia and a half before.  For Israel to know God’s message and to know through whom it came, supernatural acts of God accompanied the message He was giving His people.
     
  • Israel was told explicitly that another Prophet would come to His people, like Moses, and they must listen to Him or be destroyed (Deuteronomy 18:18).  Jesus Christ was that Prophet.  How could the Jews miss this!  All within the space of three and half years, Jesus had manifested many great miracles.  Indeed, the miracles of all the other prophet of God combined cannot compare with what Jesus had done.  Those before whom Stephen stood had witnessed these miracles and knew them to be of God (John 3:1-2).

 Using the Jewish Temple (7:38-50)

As Stephen continues his prosecution of the Jewish leaders, he makes reference to the sanctuary of God that the Jews took great pleasure in. Jesus had already pointed out to the Jewish leaders that they had made His Father’s house a den of thieves (Matthew 21:13).  Here, Stephen reminds the Jews  that God does not dwell in a temple made with man’s hands.  His statement, of course, had to be offensive.  The Jews had turned from worshiping God to worshiping the manmade temple in which He was supposed to dwell.  It was this perverted spirit of devotion that Stephen stood before the Jewish leaders in the first place.  Recall, Stephen was being charged with blaspheming the temple (Acts 6:13).

Stephen’s Makes Countercharges Against the Jews (7:51-53).  Scholars sense in the flow of words in this part of the text that there must have been an uproar over what Stephen had just said.  Once there was somewhat of a lull in the chaos, Stephen then pounced upon his accusers with the most bitting countercharges.

 Stephen Characterizes his Accusers

Stephen describes his accusers as “stiff-necked” and “uncircumcised of heart and ears.”  By stiff-necked, he meant that they were like a stubborn ox that would not submit to the yoke.  By uncircumcised of heart, he compares them to the heathen who were given over to sin.  And by uncircumcised of ears, he meant that they were purposefully unwilling to hear God’s message to them.

 Stephen Charges his Accusers

Stephen first charges them with always resisting the Holy Spirit.  The history of the Jews is replete with persecutions of God’s prophets even to the point of killing them.  The zenith of their rebellious spirit was the crucifying of the Just One, their very own Messiah.

Stephen then charges them with hypocrisy.  The Jews had made so much about the law of Moses yet they were unable to keep it.  Being unable to keep the law made them like the common man, nothing more than guilty sinners.  Thus, it was not Stephen who stood there as charged with sin.  Rather, it was the accusers themselves.

 II.  Stephen’s Martyrdom (7:54-60)

His murder.   So enraged were the Jewish leaders at the words of Stephen that they put their fingers in their ears and rushed upon him, gnashing him with their teeth.  They then ushered him away outside the city and began to stone him to death.

Stephen would go down in Church history as the first Christian martyr but certainly not the last.  On the heels of Stephen’s martyrdom came the first wave of persecutions against Christians.  In Acts 8, we are informed that believers not only suffered for their faith in Jerusalem, but in sur-rounding regions also.  Heading up the campaign was a young man named Saul who had held the coats of those stoning Stephen to death.  His zeal against Christ became notorious, leading him to imprison women as well as men, and causing even some of them to be killed.

His honor.   Whom hell hates heaven honors.  As he was being stoned, Stephen witnessed the glory of God in heaven, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God the Father.  Any and all who sacrifice their lives for Christ’s sake are honored by Him.  Jesus said:

Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets (Luke 6:22-23).

His prayer.  With his very last breath, Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.”  These words are similar to Christ’s words on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they do.”  Herein lies the difference between Christianity and all other religions, that being forgiveness.

Observant to Stephen’s dying wish and death was one called Saul.  Though he did not dirty his hands with the stones cast at Stephen, he had bloodied his hands by assenting to Stephen’s death.  And though he might put his hands over his ears as Stephen preached, he could not escape the conviction that came upon his heart.  It is not just how we live that persuades others of the gospel, it is also how we die that does so.  As Scripture shows, the martyr’s prayer does not go unanswered.  In time, Saul becomes Paul.

Acts 7 Study Activities

Acts 7 Chapter Questions

  1. What are two great expectations God gave Abraham that Stephen mentions in Acts 7? (1-4, 5-6)
     
  2. What is the answer to the question asked of Moses in verse 27? (23-35)
     
  3. Who is the Prophet of whom Moses spoke? (37)
     
  4. From Stephen’s remarks in Acts 7, how had the nation’s “fathers” received Moses? (39-40)
     
  5. How did Stephen characterize the Jewish leaders of his day? (51-53)
     
  6. How did the Jews respond to Stephen’s words in Acts 7? (54)
     
  7. What did Stephen say he saw which prompted the mob to stop their ears? (56-57)
     
  8. What did the mob do to Stephen? (58-59)
     
  9. At whose feet did the mob lay down their coats? (58)
     
  10. What were Stephen’s last words? (59-60)

  
Acts 7 Reflecting on Principle Points

After becoming familiar with the main theme of the chapter through reading of the passage and notes, identify a “principle point” from the lists below to discuss in the activities that follow.

 “Stephen” – Acts 7

Key Verse: Acts 7 (Stephen)

Given what I know of Stephen in Acts 7, what insight or rule of life can I use to help me in my walk with God?

  • To walk with God means, sometimes, to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  
  • To walk with God means to stand up for Christ, and sometimes it means to be stoned to death for Him.  
  • To walk with God is to follow Him home.

Given what I know of Stephen in Acts 7 and Acts 8:1-2, what insight or rule of life can I use to help me with my work with God’s people?

  • The devout always lament the loss of the faithful.  
  • Others were emboldened to suffer for Christ by Stephen’s martyrdom.  
  • “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Tertullian).

Given what I know of Stephen in Acts 7, what insight or rule of life can I use to help me in my witness in the world?

  • The martyr’s passion is his prayer: “Lord, do not charge them with this sin!”
  • It matters how we die, sometimes, as much as how we live. 
  • Wherever one finds a “Stephen” being stoned not far from him will be a “Saul” looking on.

 How is the principle point reflected in the chapter?

Begin with writing the principle point, then identify words, phrases, and ideas from the chapter that help express the point.  Use these to compose a paragraph of several sentences that develop the central idea of the principle point.  This paragraph must only deal with the central idea as found in the chapter.  

 How can you apply this principle point to your life?

While thinking about the principle point, what attitudes or behaviors toward God, ourselves, or others ought to become part of your life?  Use words, phrases, and ideas from the chapter to illustrate and express how the principle point is applied on a personal level.

                                                                                                                                                    
 Acts 7 Self-Check

Multiple Choice

  1. Who had made Moses a judge over Israel?  (A) God, (B) Pharaoh, (C) the people
     
  2. The Prophet of whom Moses spoke was (A) Jesus, (B) Aaron, (C) King David.
     
  3. To whom does Stephen compare Moses’ reception by his people?  (A) to David’s reception by Israel, (B) to Jesus’ reception by the Jews, (C) neither of these
     
  4. Stephen characterized the Jewish leaders of his day as (A) willfully ignorant, (B) always resistant to the Holy Spirit, (C) wicked as Sodom and Gomorrah.
     
  5. What did Stephen say that prompted the Jews to stop their ears? (A) Jesus had spoken to them from heaven.  (B) The Father had spoken to them from heaven.  (C) Stephen said he saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God in heaven.
     
  6. What did the Jews ultimately do to Stephen at the close of Acts 7?  (A) They slew him with a sword.  (B) They hanged him from a tree.  (C) They stoned him to death.
     
  7. At whose feet did the Jews lay their garments before slaying Stephen?  (A) Saul, (B) the high priest, (C) neither of these
     
  8. Stephen’s very last words before dying were (A) Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. (B) Lord, do not charge them with this sin. (C) Even so come, Lord Jesus.