At the very beginning of the Christian church, before it was ever called “Christian” or often called “church,” it was a large group of new believers in Jesus gathered in Jerusalem, figuring things out as they went along. They were learning how to be disciples of a Lord who, having ascended into heaven, could no longer be literally followed from place to dusty place. Jesus’ original disciples from the Galilee ministry were now the official apostles of the dangerous Jerusalem work. Having followed well, they could now lead. And the Holy Spirit was Lord and giver of life, moving through their preaching and testimony with effective power.
When they needed help with the administration of the community of believers, they commissioned deacons: “men of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). One of those deacons, the most outstanding one described in the book of Acts, was Stephen. No empty vessel, this Stephen: Luke tells us that he was also “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5) and “full of grace and power” (6:8). He did great wonders among the people and had a persuasive testimony.
We don’t have to guess what his sermons were like, because we have one of them in full: Acts chapter seven reports his final sermon, a great jeremiad that ranges across the whole field of God’s history with his people. Stephen had been hauled in on trumped-up charges of blaspheming the temple, and he apparently decided to give the people what they wanted: His speech climaxed in an assertion of the ineffectiveness of sacrifices and the fatuity of thinking of the temple as a place where God could be confined.
Duly provoked, the mob encircled him: “when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him” (8:55). It is at this moment that Stephen had a vision unlike any other New Testament vision short of John’s Apocalypse. The narrator gives us precious little description and no details, but he reports what Stephen saw, and what he said:
But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
What did Stephen see? At this last moment of his life, he was given a clear sight of ultimate spiritual truth: Jesus Christ, recognizably himself and fully human, exalted to the position of power and glory at the side of God. What all believers know to be true, Stephen saw to be true.