"Cilicia" Is this the synagogue attended by Saul of Tarsus, with Saul himself as the chief instigator of the opposition to the Christians?
Jesus did, of course, say such things, and Stephen was no doubt repeating them, but the Jews were both misunderstanding the meaning and, of course, more deeply, so alienated from the true theology of the Scripture that they could not appreciate how much this new teaching was the fulfillment of the old — both in promise (all the nations of the earth be blessed) and judgment (the curses of the covenant). The Sanhedrin welcomed such charges because if pious Jews heard that the new sect was convicted of blasphemy and discrediting the temple — despite the fact that it was continuing to make the worship of the temple central to its life — they would be less likely to consider the Christians with approval.
Whatever that meant — and who among them had ever seen an angel! — it made a tremendous impression on folk, perhaps especially on Paul who was probably Luke’s source of information regarding Stephen’s appearance and its impression on others.
This speech is in no way calculated to win Stephen friends in the Sanhedrin. It is proclamation to them. His sermon takes the form of an overview of Israel’s history from Abraham to Solomon.
The first section, vv. 2-16: Abraham through Joseph. Note the emphases as we read: 1) faith in God; communion with God sealed with circumcision, without the land and without a temple.
A problem. Jacob, according to Gen. 49:29-32, was buried at Hebron not at Shechem in the burial cave purchased by Abraham from Ephron the Hittite (Gen. 23). Joseph was buried in Shechem in the plot purchased by Jacob from the sons of Hamor (Gen. 33:19; Josh. 24:32).
No easy solution. No evidence of textual corruption. The idea that Stephen was mistaken and the Scripture infallibly records his mistake is difficult in view of the facts that 1) Stephen was "full of the Holy Spirit" (v. 55); 2) such an error would have called for comment as a means of discrediting him; and 3) Luke does not seem at all sensitive to the problem. One suggestion is that "Abraham" here means "descendant of Abraham" as, e.g. in 1 Kgs. 12:16 David = Rehoboam. In any case, Stephen wants to mention Shechem, the sacred place of the hated Samaritans. That, not in Jerusalem or in the temple court is where Joseph is buried!
The second section: vv. 17-43. Here we have Moses mistreated by the Israelites, his authority rejected by Israel; the presence of God manifested in Midian; the law given in the desert rejected by Israel.
The third section: vv. 44-50. Israel had only a tabernacle when first in the land; though David was a man after God’s own heart he died without a temple; Solomon built the temple but the Scripture clearly rejects any notion that it ‘holds God’ or that it can be a charm (Jeremiah 7).
Vv. 50-53 Conclusion. As the history so the present: you reject God’s messengers, you worship things made with hands and are blind to the power of God; by rejecting the Messiah you have brought its culmination Israel’s long history of unbelief.
Read the remainder.
Stephen’s defense was cleverly constructed. His point is not clear until near the end. His content is the Scripture, with which the Sanhedrin is ostensibly in agreement, but this would only infuriate them the more when it became clear that he was identifying them with Israel’s long history of unbelief. When he unmasks his purpose at the end, they lose control.
In the midst of the tumult Stephen saw Christ at the Right Hand. This would have been salt in the wounds of the Sanhedrin which had heard Christ himself say something similar of himself (Mark 14:62).
The High Priest at his trial said to him: "Tell us plainly! Are you the Christ?" "I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Almighty and coming with the clouds of heaven." On the strength of that statement they had condemned him for blasphemy — now here is Stephen saying that he saw Christ at the right hand!
Now, we have a great example of what is going to be experienced in the world whenever the truth and grace of God go forth with power. This noble and good man, a powerful man — a miracle worker (6:8)– who can forgive his enemies while they are murdering him, who has done nothing more than speak the truth, is hated, screamed down, dragged out of the city and stoned to death, and all who participated in that enormous evil were sure they were serving God.
Here Luke is telling us what the true state of affairs will be for the church and the gospel — going out among bitter enemies. Men are by nature haters of God and often the most religious are the most extreme in their hatred. Nothing less than this understanding of man is sufficient to explain human history.
And it is no different today. Listen to G.B. Shaw on Stephen. Young people will know Shaw as the English playwright whose play "Pygmalian" became the musical "My Fair Lady." This is taken from Shaw’s play Androcles and the Lion [London, 1928]. He summarizes the contents of Acts 7 in this way.
"A quite intolerable young speaker named Stephen delivered an oration to the council, in which he first inflicted on them a tedious sketch of the history of Israel, with which they were presumably as well acquainted as he, and then reviled them in the most insulting terms as ‘stiffnecked and uncircumcized.’ Finally, after boring and annoying them to the utmost bearable extremity, he looked up and declared that he saw the heavens open, and Christ standing on the right hand of God. This was too much: they threw him out of the city and stoned him to death. It was a severe way of suppressing a tactless and conceited bore; but it was pardonable and human in comparison to the slaughter of poor Ananias and Sapphira." [Cited in Bruce, NICNT, p. 164n.]
One scholar points out that, whatever else you might say of Shaw’s assessment of this history, his suggestion that the Sanhedrin would have found a sketch of the history of Israel boring or tedious betrays the fact that he knew next to nothing about their customs and interests.
It is also worth pointing out that the situation, spiritually considered, has not changed one whit since the Jews were grafted out and the Gentiles in to the olive tree. A very large number of the Christians who have been murdered for their faith through the ages have been murdered by other so-called "Christians," with Roman Catholics and Orthodox chief among the executioners.
The life and death struggle of Christianity and the unbelieving world has begun in earnest and the first of what will become a great host of martyrs is enrolled in the hall of honor. True Christianity and unbelief can exist compatibly only so long as Christians keep quiet about the truth. For unbelief is hostile to that truth in its very nature.
But, then, with that brilliant anticipation of things to come in the last sentence of the Stephen history, when things seem to be so bleak, the power of unbelief so strong, we are reminded with wonderful power, that God’s grace and God’s power are great enough to overcome all the gospel’s enemies:
"And Saul was there, giving approval to his death."
God himself will determine whether any of us is called to lay down his or her life for the sake of the Name, or, even, if any of us will be cause to pay a great price for that same Name. It is for us, meantime, to wish, to hope, to pray, and to work that there might be that same devotion, that same unafraid and unembarrassed speaking and working for Christ, that same refusal to reckon with possible consequences [the same grace and love toward cruel enemies] that we find here in Stephen, the exemplar of all Christian martyrs and so the exemplar of every Christian life, which is to be a daily death to the world, to the Devil, and to ourselves for Christ’s sake. We are all to be Stephen. That is the main point! And we will be if our daily sacrifice of that which he gave up so willingly — his reputation with unbelievers, his comfort, security, and hopes of a easy life — we are also giving up, in our own ways, but really, every day.