Death of Stephen
STEPHEN was very active in the cause of God
and declared his faith boldly. "Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is
called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of
Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom
and the spirit by which he spake." These students of the great rabbis had felt
confident that in a public discussion they could obtain a complete victory over Stephen,
because of his supposed ignorance. But he not only spoke with the power of the Holy Ghost,
but it was plain to all the vast assembly that he was also a student of the prophecies and
learned in all matters of the law. He ably defended the truths he advocated, and utterly
defeated his opponents.
The priests and rulers who
witnessed the wonderful manifestation of the power that attended the ministration of
Stephen were filled with bitter hatred. Instead of yielding to the weight of evidence he
presented, they determined to silence his voice by putting him to death.
They therefore seized Stephen
and brought him before the Sanhedrin council for trial.
Learned Jews from the
surrounding countries were summoned for the purpose of refuting the arguments
accused. Saul, who had distinguished himself as a zealous opponent of the doctrine of
Christ, and a persecutor of all who believed on Him, was also present. This learned man
took a leading part against Stephen. He brought the weight of eloquence and the logic of
the rabbis to bear upon the case, and convince the people that Stephen was preaching
delusive and dangerous doctrines.
But Saul met in Stephen one
as highly educated as himself, and one who had a full understanding of the purpose of God
in the spreading of the gospel to other nations. He believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac,
and Jacob, and was fully established in regard to the privileges of the Jews; but his
faith was broad, and he knew the time had come when the true believers should worship not
alone in temples made with hands; but, throughout the world, men might worship God in
Spirit and in truth. The veil had dropped from the eyes of Stephen, and he discerned to
the end of that which was abolished by the death of Christ.
The priests and rulers
prevailed nothing against his clear, calm wisdom, though they were vehement in their
opposition. They determined to make an example of Stephen and, while they thus satisfied
their revengeful hatred, prevent others, through fear, from adopting his belief. Charges
were preferred against him in a most imposing manner. False witnesses were hired to
testify that they had heard him speak blasphemous words against the temple and the law.
Said they, "For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this
place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us."
As Stephen stood face to face
with his judges, to answer to the crime of blasphemy, a holy radiance shone upon his
countenance. "And all that sat in the
council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his
face as it had been the face of an angel." Many who beheld the lighted countenance of
Stephen trembled and veiled their faces, but stubborn unbelief and prejudice never
Stephen was questioned as to
the truth of the charges against him, and took up his defense in a clear, thrilling voice
that rang through the council hall. He proceeded to rehearse the history of the chosen
people of God in words that held the assembly spellbound. He showed a thorough knowledge
of the Jewish economy, and the spiritual interpretation of it now made manifest through
Christ. He began with Abraham and traced down through history from generation to
generation, going through all the national records of Israel to Solomon, taking up the
most impressive points to vindicate his cause.
He made plain his own loyalty
to God and to the Jewish faith, while he showed that the law in which they trusted for
salvation had not been able to preserve Israel from idolatry. He connected Jesus Christ
with all the Jewish history. He referred to the building of the temple by Solomon, and to
the words of both Solomon and Isaiah: "Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not in temples
made with hands." "Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool: what house
will ye build Me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of My rest? Hath not my hand made
all these things?" The place of God's highest worship was in heaven.
When Stephen had reached this
point, there was a tumult among the people. The prisoner read his fate in the countenances
before him. He perceived the resistance that met his words, which were spoken at the
dictation of the Holy Ghost. He knew that he was giving his last testimony. Few who read
this address of Stephen properly appreciate it. The occasion, the time and place, should
be borne in mind to make his words convey their full significance.
When he connected Jesus
Christ with the prophecies and spoke of the temple as he did, the priest, affecting to be
horror stricken, rent his robe. This act was to Stephen a signal that his voice would soon
be silenced forever. Although he was just in the midst of his sermon, he abruptly
concluded it by suddenly breaking away from the chain of history, and, turning upon his
infuriated judges, said, "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do
always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have
not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of
the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the
law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it."
At this priests and rulers
were beside themselves with anger. They were more like wild beasts of prey than like human
beings. They rushed upon Stephen, gnashing their teeth. But he was not intimidated; he had
expected this. His face was calm, and shone with an angelic light. The infuriated priests
and the excited mob had no terrors for him. "But he, being full of the Holy Ghost,
looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the
right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing
on the right hand of God."
The scene about him faded
from his vision; the
gates of heaven were ajar, and Stephen, looking in, saw the glory of
the courts of God, and Christ, as if just risen from His throne, standing ready to sustain
His servant, who was about to suffer martyrdom for His name. When Stephen proclaimed the
glorious scene opened before him, it was more than his persecutors could endure. They
stopped their ears, that they might not hear his words, and, uttering loud cries, ran
furiously upon him with one accord. "And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and
saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice,
Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep."
Amid the agonies of this most
cruel death the faithful martyr, like his divine Master, prayed for his murderers. The
witnesses who had accused Stephen were required to cast the first stones. These persons
laid down their clothes at the feet of Saul, who had taken an active part in the
disputation and had consented to the prisoner's death.
The martyrdom of Stephen made
a deep impression upon all who witnessed it. It was a sore trial to the church, but
resulted in the conversion of Saul. The faith, constancy, and glorification of the martyr
could not be effaced from his memory. The signet of God upon his face, his words, that
reached to the very soul of all who heard them, except those who were hardened by
resisting the light, remained in the memory of the beholders, and testified to the truth
of that which he had proclaimed.
There had been no legal sentence passed upon Stephen, but
the Roman authorities were bribed by large sums of money to make no investigation of the
case. Saul seemed to be imbued with a frenzied zeal at the scene of Stephen's trial and
death. He seemed
to be angered at his own secret convictions that Stephen was honored of
God at the very period when he was dishonored of men.
He continued to persecute the
church of God, hunting them down, seizing them in their houses, and delivering them up to
the priests and rulers for imprisonment and death. His zeal in carrying forward the
persecution was a terror to the Christians in Jerusalem. The Roman authorities made no
special effort to stay the cruel work, and secretly aided the Jews in order to conciliate
them and secure their favor.
The learned Saul was a mighty
instrument in the hands of Satan to carry out his rebellion against the Son of God; but a
mightier than Satan had selected Saul to take the place of the martyred Stephen, and to
labor and suffer for His name. Saul was a man of much esteem among the Jews, for both his
learning and his zeal in persecuting the believers. He was not a member of the Sanhedrin
council until after the death of Stephen, when he was elected to that body in
consideration of the part he had acted on that occasion.
Copyright © 1974
The Ellen G. White Estate, Inc.
All Rights Reserved