Opening The Old Testament
A Horrific Tale Indeed: Reflections on Acts 7:55-60
I can easily see what Luke is about in his telling of this story. Stephen is redoing what Jesus has done already in his passion in the gospel. He works signs and wonders among the people (Acts 6:8); he disputes those who challenge him (6:9); he is arrested (6:12); he is brought to trial before the Sanhedrin (6:12-15); he is taken outside of the city for execution (7:58); there is a division of clothing (7:58), though not his own as it was with Jesus; he prays that his spirit may be received (7:59); he asks forgiveness for his murderers (7:60); he is buried by pious people (8:2). The major difference between the passion and death of Jesus and that of Stephen is of course that Jesus is silent in the face of his accusers while Stephen offers his long and angry sermonic diatribe against those who kill him. To me, that fact makes his call for forgiveness of them rather hollow; they are killers, he claims, because they have always been killers. Can forgiveness genuinely be expected for such unrepentant reprobates?
I can see no way to soft-pedal the dread and shock of this story. When read in isolation from the longer story of Acts, it quite literally sickens me. This is true not only because of the brutality of stoning which is quite repulsive on its own, but also because of the terror of the sermon of Stephen, laden as it is with intemperance and cruelty. What is a preacher to do?
The tiny light in the story appears in vs 58, though it hardly is light at this point in the tale. "The witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul." This first mention of the great missionary apostle whom we will later know as Paul forces us to take seriously what happens to this particular man as the narrative unfolds. In 8:1 we are told that this Saul "approved of their killing of him," with the possible implication that Saul himself may have had a hand in instigating the entire event. Of course, in chapter 9 this Saul will have his life turned upside down by a visit from the murdered Jesus himself, and as a result of that visitation will become the apostle to the gentiles, opening the gospel message to many "even to the ends of the earth."
And it will be this Paul who will give to the world his anguished concern for his Jewish brothers and sisters who have refused to accept that this same Jesus is in fact their Messiah. In Romans 9-11 Paul will struggle with that refusal with genuine pain. Unlike the rancor and bitterness of Peter and Stephen, the apostle Paul will pray that his Jewish friends will see those wonderful ways of the new Christians and will feel deeply their desire to join in. For Paul eventually all Israel will find its way into the arms of Christ Jesus (Rom 11:33-36).
I find no joy in Luke's story of the stoning of Stephen, but his introduction of Saul/Paul into the story, and his later focus on Paul's passionate desire to open the gospel up to those well beyond the bounds of Judaism, offer me hope that the narrow way that the gospel was first uttered by Peter and Stephen was finally not the hallmark of the rich gospel of Jesus the Christ. Thanks then be to God for Paul, who offered this gift to all. May we do the same in our own proclamation today.
Author's Note: I offer one more announcement of the cruise I will be joining, and on which I will be lecturing about the book of Job, leaving the USA on Sept 3 and returning Sept 14. We will cruise the Baltic and visit 6 of the world's great capitals. Go to eo.travel.com for full details.
My novel, King Saul, is now available from Amazon.com. I hope you will enjoy reading it!
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.