55Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ 57but they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. The witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.
Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.
For someone named after the first Christian martyr this passage has a personal significance, but it is far deeper than just the familiarity with the name. Stephen had welcomed the gift of the Holy Spirit, embracing it to the extent that he was “filled” by that Spirit, and so could see and do things which we humans cannot do without God’s help. The description is of Stephen being able to see into heaven. We are necessarily left with no explanation of how this occurred, or what else he was able to see, because how each individual responds to the presence of the Holy Spirit, and what we can “see” will depend on our personal relationship with God. It’s not like being able to see the contents of a box. This is the spiritual world which too few of us ever experience until our deaths, and which some of us even deny exists. What was described here as “the glory of God” is something which is beyond words. It is a mystery, and we should resist the temptation to try to explain it, or describe it in words which will only limit its meaning. In keeping with Christ’s own teaching, Stephen “sees” Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Some commentators over the years have distinguished a Jesus sitting at the right hand of God in judgement, from a Jesus standing at the right hand of God as advocate, just as a judge sits during a court case but the legal teams stand when declaring their cases.
Stephen, so empowered by the Holy Spirit, is willing to stand before a crowd of Jews, whom he has cajoled for their lack of adherence to the message from God, and declare that he can see into heaven and see “the Son of Man” standing with God. If someone were to proclaim that on a street corner in our local area, or in a major city of a principally Christian country, there would be cries of being delusional. Worse, for Stephen, was the fact that his claims were interpreted as blasphemous, because they were aimed squarely at the religious establishment and its failure to honour God’s word, and deserving of being stoned to death. In some parts of the world today that gruesome and inhumane treatment is still used. Even over the last few years there have been many reports of beheadings by religious zealots trying to impose an Islamic state using fear to achieve their aims. How did we ever allow ourselves to descend to such depths in treating our fellow humans? Satan rubs his hands with glee when he sees such appalling behaviour.
There is a saying that “there are none so blind as those who will not see.” In Australia in the 21st century we are unlikely to be killed for making public proclamations such as this one by Stephen. We are far more likely to be ignored, so such actions would be ineffective in getting the message to the people. In 1st century Palestine, however, religious fervour was common, and providing you didn’t leave yourself open to charges of blasphemy you could express yourself. You might still be considered a bit of a nut-case, but unless you worked up the crowds to challenge the authorities of the day, religious or political, you were pretty safe. Here, though, Stephen overstepped the mark, according to those around him. Judgement was made without reference to any checking, and punishment followed immediately. There was no chance of asking for a new hearing or getting supporting character witnesses, and no chance of organising legal aid.
If you were not aware of other things happening in scripture you could easily dismiss the next sentence as just a passing comment about the name of the person who looked after the coats of those doing the stoning, but this is no casual person. Saul was the name used by the apostle Paul before his conversion on the road to Damascus. This is Saul at his worst, persecuting Christians and ensuring that they met an untimely and unpleasant death. I wonder what Paul would have thought about his involvement in the death of Stephen after his own encounter with Christ.
On the cross at Calvary Jesus had cried out “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Here Stephen cries “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” As if to prove his embodiment with Christ, Stephen hands his spirit to his leader, his saviour, and the one whom he had seen standing at the right hand of God, but he wasn’t finished. Before Jesus died He had said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Stephen mirrors that with “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” In both cases responsibility for forgiveness is handed to a higher authority, and there is no call for retribution. Is the responsibility handed over because the humanity of the victim, in each case, prevents them from forgiving, even though they know that has to be done?
What does this martyrdom of Stephen challenge us to do? Are we willing to stand up for what we believe, and to declare what we can “see” in the spiritual world around us? Would we be willing to put our lives on the line for the sake of our faith? Faced with imminent death at the hands of others would we be willing to ask that they be forgiven, or would we be more likely to ask that they rot in hell? Paul was there, and was complicit in the murder of Stephen, yet turned into one of the major Christian evangelists of all time. What do we do to help those who have done wrong to mend their ways and turn to Christ? I ask myself all these questions, and sometimes the answers aren’t the most endearing.
As a former member of Rostrum I took a vow that I would never remain silent when the situation called for me to speak up. Living up to my namesake can be a challenge, and there have been times when I have suffered for speaking up against ill-treatment, but if we don’t do that then we slide further back towards the inhumane treatment of the past, instead of dealing with the presence of evil in our world today.