Learning from Stephen’s bold witness before the Sanhedrin
Based on Acts 6:8–8:3
1-3. (a) Stephen faces what fearsome situation, yet how does he respond to it? (b) What questions will we consider?
STEPHEN faces the court. In an imposing hall, likely near the temple in Jerusalem, 71 men are arranged in a large semicircle. This court, the Sanhedrin, sits today to judge Stephen. The judges are powerful, influential men, most of whom have little regard for this disciple of Jesus. In fact, the man who convened the court is High Priest Caiaphas, who was presiding when the Sanhedrin condemned Jesus Christ to death some months earlier. Is Stephen frightened?
2 There is something remarkable about Stephen’s countenance at this moment. The judges gaze at him and see that his face is “as an angel’s face.” (Acts 6:15) Angels bear messages from Jehovah God and thus have reason to be fearless, serene, and peaceful. So it is with Stephen—even those hate-filled judges can see that. How can he be so calm?
3 Christians today can learn much from the answer to that question. We need to know, too, just what brought Stephen to this climactic moment. How had he defended his faith before? And in what ways can we imitate him?
“They Stirred Up the People” (Acts 6:8-15)
4, 5. (a) Why was Stephen a precious asset to the congregation? (b) In what way was Stephen “full of graciousness and power”?
4 We have already learned that Stephen was a precious asset to the fledgling Christian congregation. In the preceding chapter of this book, we saw that he was among those seven humble men who were willing to be of assistance to the apostles when called upon to render aid. His humility is more remarkable when we consider the gifts with which this man was blessed. At Acts 6:8, we read that he was enabled to perform “great portents and signs,” as some of the apostles did. We are also told that he was “full of graciousness and power.” What did that mean?
5 Stephen evidently had a kindly, gentle, winning way with people. He spoke in such a manner as to persuade many of his hearers, convincing them of the sincerity of his heart and the wholesomeness of the truths he discussed. He was full of power because Jehovah’s spirit was at work in him, for he humbly submitted to its lead. Rather than getting puffed up over his own gifts and abilities, he directed all praise to Jehovah and showed loving concern for the people he addressed. Little wonder, then, that his opposers found him a force to be reckoned with!
6-8. (a) Stephen’s opposers leveled what twofold charge against him, and why? (b) Why may Stephen’s example prove useful to Christians today?
6 Various men rose up to dispute with Stephen, but “they could not hold their own against the wisdom and the spirit with which he was speaking.”* Frustrated, they “secretly induced” men to bring accusations against this innocent follower of Christ. They also “stirred up the people,” the older men, and the scribes, so that Stephen was forcibly taken before the Sanhedrin. (Acts 6:9-12) The opposers leveled this twofold charge against him: He was blaspheming both God and Moses. In what ways?
7 The false accusers said that Stephen blasphemed God in that he spoke against “this holy place”—the temple in Jerusalem. (Acts 6:13) He blasphemed Moses, they charged, in that he spoke against the Mosaic Law, changing customs that Moses had handed down. This was a very serious charge, for the Jews at that time put great emphasis on the temple, the details of the Mosaic Law, and the many oral traditions that they had added to that Law. Thus, the charge meant that Stephen was a dangerous man, deserving of death!
8 Sadly, it is not unusual for religious people to use such tactics in order to bring trouble on servants of God. To this day, religious opposers at times stir up secular leaders to persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses. How should we respond when faced with twisted or false accusations? We can learn much from Stephen.
Boldly Witnessing About “the God of Glory” (Acts 7:1-53)
9, 10. Critics have made what claim about Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin, and what do we need to keep in mind?
9 As mentioned at the outset, Stephen’s face was serene, angelic, as he heard the charges against him. Now Caiaphas turned to him and said: “Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1) It was Stephen’s turn to speak. And speak he did!
10 Some critics have attacked Stephen’s speech, claiming that for all its length, it did not even answer the charge against him. In truth, though, Stephen set a sterling example for us of how to “make a defense” of the good news. (1 Pet. 3:15) Keep in mind that Stephen was charged with blaspheming God by denigrating the temple and with blaspheming Moses by speaking against the Law. Stephen’s reply is a summary of three phases of the history of Israel, with certain points carefully emphasized. Let us consider these three phases of history one at a time.
11, 12. (a) How did Stephen make effective use of Abraham’s example? (b) Why was Joseph relevant to Stephen’s speech?
11 The era of the patriarchs. (Acts 7:1-16) Stephen began by talking about Abraham, whom the Jews respected for his faith. While starting on this important common ground, Stephen emphasized that Jehovah, “the God of glory,” first revealed himself to Abraham in Mesopotamia. (Acts 7:2) In fact, that man was an alien resident in the Promised Land. Abraham had neither a temple nor the Mosaic Law. How could anyone insist that faithfulness to God must always depend on such arrangements?
12 Abraham’s descendant Joseph was also highly esteemed by Stephen’s audience, but Stephen reminded them that Joseph’s own brothers, the fathers of the tribes of Israel, persecuted that righteous man and sold him into slavery. Yet, he became God’s instrument for saving Israel from famine. Stephen no doubt saw the clear similarities between Joseph and Jesus Christ, but he held back that comparison in order to keep his audience with him as long as possible.
13. How did the discussion about Moses answer the charges against Stephen, and what theme did this help to develop?
13 The time of Moses. (Acts 7:17-43) Stephen said much about Moses—wisely so, since many members of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees, who rejected all Bible books other than those written by Moses. Remember, too, the charge that Stephen had blasphemed Moses. Stephen’s words answered that charge directly, for he showed that he had the greatest respect for Moses and for the Law. (Acts 7:38) He noted that Moses too was faced with rejection by those whom he endeavored to save. They rejected him when he was 40 years old. Over 40 years later, they challenged his leadership on a number of occasions.* Stephen thus steadily developed a key theme: God’s people repeatedly rejected those whom Jehovah had appointed to lead them.
14. The use of Moses’ example supported what points in Stephen’s speech?
14 Stephen reminded his audience that Moses had foretold that a prophet like Moses would arise from Israel. Who would that be, and how would he be received? Stephen saved the answers for his conclusion. He made another key point: Moses had learned that any ground can be made holy, as in the case of the ground at the burning bush, where Jehovah had spoken to him. So, can worship of Jehovah be limited or confined to a single building, such as the temple in Jerusalem? Let us see.
15, 16. (a) Why was the tabernacle important to the argument Stephen was developing? (b) How did Stephen use Solomon’s temple in his discussion?
15 The tabernacle and the temple. (Acts 7:44-50) Stephen reminded the court that before there was any temple in Jerusalem, God had Moses construct a tabernacle—a movable, tentlike structure for worship. Who would dare to argue that the tabernacle was inferior to the temple, since Moses himself had worshipped there?
16 Later, when Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, he was inspired to convey a vital lesson in his prayer. As Stephen put it, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands.” (Acts 7:48; 2 Chron. 6:18) Jehovah may make use of a temple to further his purposes, but he is not confined to it. Why, then, should his worshippers feel that pure worship depends on a building made by human hands? Stephen brought this argument to a powerful conclusion by quoting the book of Isaiah: “The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What sort of house will you build for me? Jehovah says. Or what is the place for my resting? My hand made all these things, did it not?”—Acts 7:49, 50; Isa. 66:1, 2.
17. How had Stephen’s speech (a) addressed the attitudes of his hearers and (b) responded to the charges against him?
17 As you review Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin up to this point, would you not agree that he skillfully addressed the attitudes of his accusers? He showed that Jehovah’s purpose is progressive and dynamic, not static and tradition-bound. Those who were mired in reverence for that lovely building in Jerusalem and for the customs and traditions that had grown up around the Mosaic Law had missed the whole purpose behind the Law and the temple! Indirectly, Stephen’s speech raised the vital question: Do you not honor the Law and the temple best by obeying Jehovah? Really, Stephen’s words provided an excellent defense of his own actions, for he had obeyed Jehovah as best he could.
18. In what ways should we try to imitate Stephen?
18 What can we learn from Stephen’s speech? He was thoroughly familiar with the Scriptures. Likewise, we need to be serious students of God’s Word if we are to handle “the word of the truth aright.” (2 Tim. 2:15) We can also learn about graciousness and tact from Stephen. His audience could hardly have been more hostile! Yet, for as long as possible, he maintained common ground with them by dwelling on things that those men held in high regard. He also addressed them with respect, calling the older men “fathers.” (Acts 7:2) We too need to present the truths of God’s Word with “a mild temper and deep respect.”—1 Pet. 3:15.
19. How did Stephen courageously deliver Jehovah’s judgment message to the Sanhedrin?
19 However, we do not hold back from sharing the truths of God’s Word for fear of offending people; nor do we soften Jehovah’s judgment messages. Stephen is a case in point. He could no doubt see that all the evidence that he had laid before the Sanhedrin had little effect on those hardhearted judges. So, moved by holy spirit, he concluded his talk by fearlessly showing them that they were just like their forefathers who had rejected Joseph, Moses, and all the prophets. (Acts 7:51-53) In fact, these judges of the Sanhedrin had murdered the Messiah, whose very coming Moses and all the prophets had foretold. Really, they had transgressed the Mosaic Law in the worst possible way!
“Lord Jesus, Receive My Spirit” (Acts 7:54–8:3)
20, 21. How did the Sanhedrin react to Stephen’s words, and how did Jehovah strengthen him?
20 The undeniable truth of Stephen’s words filled those judges with rage. Losing any semblance of dignity, they gnashed their teeth at Stephen. That faithful man must have seen that he would receive no mercy, any more than had his Master, Jesus.
21 Stephen needed courage to face what lay ahead, and he no doubt received much encouragement from the vision that Jehovah then kindly granted him. Stephen saw God’s glory, and he saw Jesus standing at His Father’s right hand! As Stephen described the vision, his judges put their hands over their ears. Why? Earlier, Jesus had told that same court that he was the Messiah and that he would soon be at his Father’s right hand. (Mark 14:62) Stephen’s vision proved that Jesus spoke the truth. That Sanhedrin had, in fact, betrayed and murdered the Messiah! With one accord, they rushed to have Stephen stoned to death.*
22, 23. Stephen’s death was like that of his Master in what ways, and how can Christians today be as confident as Stephen was?
22 Stephen died in much the same way his Master had died, with a heart at peace, full of trust in Jehovah and forgiveness for his killers. He said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” perhaps because he could still see in vision the Son of man with His Father. No doubt, Stephen knew Jesus’ encouraging words: “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) Finally, Stephen prayed directly to God in a loud voice: “Jehovah, do not charge this sin against them.” After saying this, he fell asleep in death.—Acts 7:59, 60.
23 Stephen thus became the first martyr on record among Christ’s followers. (See the box “In What Sense a ‘Martyr’?”) Sadly, though, he would hardly be the last. Right down to our day, some faithful servants of Jehovah have been put to death by religious fanatics, political zealots, and other vicious opposers. Still, we have reason to be just as confident as Stephen was. Jesus is reigning as King now, wielding the marvelous power his Father has granted him. Nothing will prevent him from resurrecting his faithful followers.—John 5:28, 29.
24. How did Saul contribute to the martyrdom of Stephen, and what were some long-term effects of that faithful man’s death?
24 Observing all of this was a young man named Saul. He approved of Stephen’s murder, even watching over the garments of those casting the stones. Shortly thereafter, he spearheaded a wave of vicious persecution. But the death of Stephen would cast a long shadow. His example would only strengthen other Christians to remain faithful and achieve a similar victory. Furthermore, Saul—in later years most often called Paul—would come to look back on his role in Stephen’s death with profound regret. (Acts 22:20) He had helped to put Stephen to death, but he would later come to realize: “I was a blasphemer and a persecutor and an insolent man.” (1 Tim. 1:13) Clearly, Paul never forgot Stephen and the powerful speech he gave that day. In fact, some of Paul’s speeches and writings developed themes touched on in Stephen’s speech. (Acts 7:48; 17:24; Heb. 9:24) In time, Paul fully learned to follow the example of faith and courage set by Stephen, a man “full of graciousness and power.” The question is, Will we?
Some of these opposers belonged to the “Synagogue of the Freedmen.” They may once have been captured by the Romans and later freed, or perhaps they were freed slaves who had become Jewish proselytes. Some were from Cilicia, as was Saul of Tarsus. The account does not reveal whether Saul was among those Cilicians who were unable to hold their own against Stephen.
Stephen’s speech contains information we can find nowhere else in the Bible, such as facts about Moses’ Egyptian education, his age when he first fled Egypt, and the length of his sojourn in Midian.
It is doubtful that the Sanhedrin had the authority under Roman law to order an execution. (John 18:31) At any rate, Stephen’s death seems to have been a murder carried out by an enraged mob, rather than a judicial act.